Where Have All the Cows Gone?

The Dairies to Prairies project is a documentary and traveling exhibit project from the Elgin History Museum and Grindstone Productions. Set to premiere at the Sandwich Public Library on Monday, May 6, Dairies to Prairies tells an environmental history of Kane County and the surrounding areas through the change in land use. At one time, the area had over 140 dairies, dairy farms, and creameries. Now there are only 3 dairies in Kane County and the land is a planned mix of preserved open space with restored prairies and homes. The project connects new homeowners living the area to the history of the land, while remembering Northern Illinois’ great dairy heritage.

The project should really be called Prairies to Dairies to Prairies, because before European settlement in the 1830s Illinois had millions of acres of undisturbed prairie. A large and varied diversity of plants, animals, and insects kept the environment in balance. When the dairy industry started in the 1850s, the land was still open space, but agricultural with the prairie plowed under for row crops and pasture. In 2018, there is less than 1% of prairie left in Illinois creating an environmental problem in terms of biodiversity and natural stability.

Dairy was Northern Illinois’s first great wealth with successful individuals in dairy farming, cheese factories, creameries, the condensing plants, butter companies, dairy equipment manufacturing, the Elgin Board of Trade, and raising dairy cattle. The remnants of the dairy industry include the grand Victorian homes built for the “Big Butter and Egg” men in Elgin, such as John Newman and the Alfred Church; and the butter sticks you bring home from the store in the “Elgin” style.

The exhibit and film will explore different aspects of dairies and prairies. The exhibit emphasizes Northern Illinois’ reputation for pure and healthy milk in an era where bad milk could infect people with tuberculosis or typhoid. Gail Borden insisted on farmers following the Dairy Ten Commandments, which emphasized clean milk cans, strainers, cows, and barns. The film will feature the Farm to Table movement with local produce, efficient modern dairies, and the trend towards certified raw milk.

Both the film and the exhibit highlight the efforts of Kane County and the Forest Preserve District to plan and manage a balance of growth, progress, and open space.

The exhibit gives a basic understanding of a changing landscape through graphic use of maps and population charts combined with personal stories. The impact of viewing the film and seeing the exhibit produces a dynamic educational experience.


Dairies to Prairies : Special Traveling Exhibit

Experience at the Sandwich Public Library District!

Exhibit | May 6th – June 12th

Documentary Showings | May 10th & June 7th | 2:00pm