Hometown USA: An Illinois Farm Town Grows Into Suburbia
Dave Kestel is a corn and soybean farmer just south of New Lenox, Illinois. Between harvest season and spring planting, he climbs mountains all over the world – for fun.
Kestel has been farming for many of his 55 years – as he calls it, “living his dream” – and has seen the rich Illinois farmland slowly dwindle in the area east of Joliet and 40 miles southwest of Chicago.
“We’re just so close to Chicago that people want to get out of Chicago,” he says of the population explosion across the area. “I don’t blame ’em, cause I don’t even like going up there. Yeah, it’s changed.”
As a third-generation farmer on this centennial farm, Kestel is a rare farmer in an area that was covered in crops and cattle for the better part of 150 years.
“I still love what I do,” he says. “Always will. I feel like the good Lord has blessed me every day and is letting me live my dream. That’s all I ever wanted to do was be a farmer and, by God, he’s letting me do that. So that’s pretty cool.”
Sitting at the nexus of U.S. Route 30, Interstates 80 and 55, and a railroad line directly into Chicago, New Lenox has always been a “suburb to a suburb” of Chicago. It was an easy commute to the steel mills and cattle yards in Joliet over the last century. In the last 40 years, it has exploded as a bedroom suburb for commuters running the two Metra railroad lines several times a day into Chicago.
I grew up in New Lenox from 1960 until I left for college in Iowa in 1978. As a kid, I used to bicycle up and down Cedar Road (the main north-south road through town), and the population sign read 3,497 residents. Today, it has more than 29,000 residents in the village. So much for the small farm town.
It has grown from a town with a single public community high school serving four similar small towns, to three large suburban high schools in the entire district (which still includes those towns), and one Catholic high school.
I have been back to New Lenox a few times each year since graduating from Lincoln-Way High School in 1978. In my trips back to see family, I have seen snapshots of the town’s growth, steadily gobbling up farmland around town, replaced with newer retail shops, an updated four-lane road through town, and choc-a-block subdivisions with homes that now start at $300,000 to $600,000 apiece.
Kestel has seen the changes in town and on the farm. “Well, we have all the conveniences right at our fingertips now, but I don’t like it. It’s not the way it was. It’s not the way I was brought up,” he says. He has to keep an eye on his equipment now that residential developments have pushed all the farming land to the south of town.
“People aren’t as trustworthy,” he says. “You’ve got to keep things locked up. I never used to lock the shed – now I lock the shed all the time. I always lock the tractor and combine when I leave them in the field, always run them away from the road.”
“Boring” City USA
New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann is proud to have the city’s name on a 2014 list of the “Most Boring Places in Illinois.” At the top of the list, in fact.
“When I first saw that, I thought it put us down in a kind of offensive way,” says Baldermann. “And then I read what their criteria was, you know, if you want active partying, nightlife on Fridays and Saturdays, New Lenox is the worst place in Illinois to be. I thought, good, I’m OK with that. Not that there’s anything wrong with going out and having a nightlife and partying, but go do it somewhere else. And then come home to New Lenox.”
To Baldermann, it recognizes the Village of New Lenox as a place where family life is important, where activities revolve around schools and parks, and where the nightlife is found in other suburbs – along with the crime and negatives that sometimes come with being a more exciting city.
Baldermann, who moved to New Lenox in 1994, sees the future of the village as anything but boring. He sees potential in the 40 square miles that could be built out. It continues to grow because families want the small-town life with access to modern retail and fast-food restaurants, and they want to be able to commute to work in Chicago or other suburbs.
The Land of Lincoln
New Lenox was settled by pioneers around 1830, and it was primarily farmland until 1900. Over the next 20 years, it transitioned to more urban, along with the advent of the automobile, and the train lines had already been built. There was a trolley line, as well, so people had several ways to get out of town.
According to Dave Rubner, a local historian and expert on the area’s railroads, “By 1920 or 1925, there were people living here who worked somewhere else, instead of working on the farms, I guess you could say.” In fact, the area has a very long history with railroads, being an artery to east-west commerce, and an integral artery into Chicago. In fact, Rubner, says, the city has had five different railroads coursing through this little hamlet.
The first, the Rock Island, had a grain elevator built in 1852 in the center of New Lenox. “That’s when farmers were able to switch over to cash crops, a little before the Civil War,” Rubner said. “Before that it was subsistence living, raise enough crops to feed your cattle, maybe sell some cattle, and just get by.” With an elevator and railroad nearby, farmers could expand and cultivate more land.
Other railroads – the Michigan Central Railroad, the Wabash, the EJ&E – came through. There was even a trolley line.
“The last line that came through was the Interurban Line, an electric trolley line, or interurban. It ran from Joliet to Chicago Heights,” according to Rubner. “It came right down the street here. It was created during the ‘interurban rage’ in those days and it was poorly built, poorly financed. It didn’t last longer than 22 years, and they pulled up the rails, and it was killed by the automobile,” he continued. “And then the railroads also kind of killed it, too. But it must have been interesting times when you had automobiles that were just coming into being, mixed with buggies being pulled by a horse and buggy, and then a trolley – all on the street at the same time.”
After the second World War. More access to roads and rail allowed New Lenox to become a bedroom community to nearby Joliet and Chicago. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were still farms cutting across all parts of town. “It really wasn’t until the ’80s and ’90s when subdivisions started to fill in around town,” Rubner said, “and the population continued to grow, and the farms continued to disappear.”
Before the Rock Island went bankrupt in 1980, I bought my first train ticket at the old train depot – a fixture in the center of town – and rode my first passenger train to Joliet, just a few miles away. It was an awe-inspiring ride for me.
Amid all of the railroad bankruptcies in the 1980s was born the Metra – the commuter service that stockpiled commuters into Chicago, much like the stockyards used to herd loads of cattle into and out of Joliet decades earlier.
Lori Lindberg is the director of the New Lenox Historical Society. Lindberg moved there in 1968 – when there were only 1,800 people in the village. She is a real-estate professional, and a proud founding member of the society. She speaks with reverence, and some nostalgia, for what the town was, how the small community has changed and adapted. “I love the group. Love the effort, love the cause,” she says amid binders of newspaper clippings and old photographs that document the history of New Lenox, which was incorporated in 1946 and is centered on Lincoln Highway, or U.S. Route 30.
The society has been hard at work in 2018. After the old train depot was scheduled to be demolished for a newer one more accommodating to today’s passengers, the society stepped in to find a donor. The depot has now been moved, several miles up Cedar Road, to become a historical destination in nearby Homer Township. The society is proud to remind the new residents of this once-small town of its longtime slogan, “Home of Proud Americans.”
For Lindberg, it’s always been about the closeness of the neighbors. “New Lenox was a community that was really home, family, church, and school,” she says. “It’s why the school plays were so popular. The moms would come out with their sewing machines and make the costumes, and the artist people would build the sets, and the dads would do the carpentry work. It was the community, and so you did the school with your kids, you did church with your kids, you did a lot of stuff with your kids all the time.”
The evolution from a small town to a suburb is not bad, or even unique to New Lenox, Lindberg says. “I think it’s happened in a lot of places, to a lot of communities. But there is a core group of New Lenox folks – and I’m one of them – who love the old days of this town just because everybody was supportive of everybody.”
The Lincoln-Way Area
Most communities are so embedded with their schools that their identities are recognized as much by the school name and mascot as for the businesses in town or the local history. Lincoln-Way High School is one such school district.
Because it was created in 1954 as High School District 210 that included four similar towns – New Lenox, Manhattan, Mokena, and Frankfort – as the towns grew, so did the high school. (Today it also includes students from Tinley Park and Frankfort Square.) All four original towns had their own elementary school systems, but all of them fed into Lincoln-Way High School, which at the time was located on three sides by farmland on Route 30. The combined school fostered friendships across four towns; it helped all four business communities to thrive. In one sense, it was one large town. Even today, it’s commonplace to hear people say they live in “the Lincoln-Way Area.”
It still tries to keep the small-town feel.
“The reason my parents came here was obviously for the community, the people, and the small-town atmosphere,” says Dr. Steve Provis, an alumnus and principal of Lincoln-Way Central, who grew up in New Lenox. “I mean, that was huge. That was a big part of my father saying, ‘We’re going to New Lenox.’ And then my mother’s response was, ‘Where are you taking me?’ Because it was wide open,” Provis says. “We try to keep that small-town atmosphere, even though the school has grown, we still want to keep that community.”
Opened in 1953, the original high school was “the farm school.” Surrounded by farmland, the original building is still there but has been added on to now include an entire campus – a behemoth building that includes a top-notch aquatic center, performing arts center, and a football field with artificial turf. It reflects the growth of New Lenox – and all of the towns feeding it.
The towns all grew to the point of needing not one new school, but three additional high schools:
- The original high school became Lincoln-Way Central.
- Lincoln-Way East opened in 1977 in Frankfort as a freshman-sophomore campus; they became two separate four-year schools in 2001.
- Lincoln-Way West was added in 2009 in adjacent Manhattan.
- Lincoln-Way North was added in 2008 in Frankfort.
All were built based on projections of solid growth in the entire area for years to come. However, the projections were wrong. The recession hit, and it turns out District 210 overbuilt. Population growth flattened out. The district, after shuffling boundaries for students to accommodate the growth, now had to shift where kids attended as the district closed the North High School in 2016.
Editor’s Note: Former Superintendent Lawrence Wyllie is facing trial for fraud in relation to his alleged misuse of funds during this time. After the District 210 school board voted to close Lincoln-Way North, Wyllie stepped down shortly thereafter. See the Joliet Herald News story here.
Has the small-town feel been lost because of this growth? Or because students now attend three local high schools?
Population of New Lenox
The game-day competitions are still fierce, Provis claims, even if students have friends from the other Lincoln-Way schools. “When we’re playing basketball on a Friday night, you know, the gym is packed and the student sections are there trying to outdo one another. But when the dust clears, I mean we’re still Lincoln-Way. Lincoln-Way is Lincoln-Way. And I tell the parents that.” According to Provis, the kids still connect. “That was one of my fears, because we talk about that small-town atmosphere. Growing up in New Lenox, I had friends in Frankfort and Mokena and Manhattan,” he recalls. “Now, our kids support one another. I’ve seen it through the band, through the musicals, through the football teams. They know one another and they support one another.”
Provis says the essence of the Lincoln-Way experience has not changed. “The one thing that’s great about this community that hasn’t changed, in my opinion, from 1970 until now, is the students are the same. I truly believe that we have solid families, core families that raise their kids with core values. The students, as soon as they come in the door here, we already have a solid base to work with and the teachers can teach, the students can learn,” Provis says.
Growing up there, Lincoln-Way High School was a central fixture in all four of the communities it served. Inside the walls, there was one name that resonated clearly: Jim Pitcairn.
Starting as an art teacher in 1963, Pitcairn grew into new roles as the head of discipline, then the dean of students. It’s no understatement to say that students lived in fear of Mr. Pitcairn, or “The Pit,” as we knew him by. I met Mr. Pitcairn for lunch this summer at Williamson’s, one of two favorite eating spots in New Lenox. To this day, even he admits, “My legend was discipline.”
He’s seen the area change a lot. “When I started teaching at Lincoln-Way High School, the seven-member board of education had four farmers on it,” Mr. Pitcairn says. “It was a farm community.” At its peak, the ag department had five teachers. Today there are three. The department has evolved, as well, from a practical, traditional agriculture education to one with broader appeal, featuring horticulture classes, welding instruction, and animal care.
Despite his role as the “hammer,” or “the enforcer,” Mr. Pitcairn defined that era of students during the ’60 and ’70s – when dress codes switched from formal shirts and pants to relaxed jeans; when hair styles went from crew cuts to extra-long hairstyles. As our discussion specifically identified classmates, friends, and family members, Mr. Pitcairn would interject, “Oh, he was a frequent flyer in my office.”
Provis, the current principal, experienced it firsthand. “Pit was, um, I respect him,” Provis says, sitting in his office. “He was the disciplinarian and I feared him, you know. But now, as an adult, I look back and say, boy, he had a tough job. He had a real tough job. And talk about a guy in the community, you know, he was a volunteer fireman. He volunteers at the hospital now – he’s always giving back.”
It turns out that Mr. Pitcairn has been much, much more than a disciplinarian. He served as deputy chief of the New Lenox Fire Department. He volunteered with the Lions, helped the city marshal support and build a new $400 million hospital lured from nearby Joliet, and he was named citizen of the year in 2001 by the Chamber of Commerce. His iron fist may have defined the Lincoln-Way High School culture and identity. Today, his civic volunteering has become the identity of New Lenox itself.
At a recent graduation anniversary of my 1978 high school class, many friends and classmates asked about Mr. Pitcairn. “Anyone hear from Mr. Pitcairn?” “How’s ‘Pit’ doing?” As Provis says, “Jim Pitcairn is Lincoln-Way.”
He relishes his life then – and now. “Life is great, it is,” Mr. Pitcairn says. “You know, I’ve never had a bad day since I left Lincoln-Way, and I see all those kids now as adults. My reputation was very firmly entrenched enough. I’ll be honest, and I’m not bragging, but when I got introduced at our last school day to speak, I got a standing ovation from the 120 on the staff.
“I have had an illustrious life.”
The old Rock Island Railroad depot has now moved from the town center to begin its new life north of town as a historical attraction. Even the historical society is moving to find more space for its growing archive.
There are improvements coming in town, from a new water treatment plant, to a possible retail center on the north side of town, and road expansions and improvements.
New Lenox still sits in the hub of access to highways, interstates, and railroad commuting lines. As historical society member Rubner says, “You can get out by car in all four compass directions pretty quick, and get out by rail, by commuter line, east or west, pretty quick.”
USDA Comparison of Agriculture in Will County, Illinois
|Number of Farms||1,382||882|
|Acres in Farms||364,072||234,249|
|Percent of Land Area||67.2%||43.7%|
|Average Size of Farm||263||266|
Mayor Baldermann sees it: “Twenty years from now, we’ll have 50,000-plus people living here. They’ll be up on the north side, to restaurants and hotels, and the hospital will continue to grow. But we’re primarily a residential community,” he says. “That’s what I see: people wanting to come out here to take advantage of the schools and to kind of get away from the hustle and bustle that you see up north.” New Lenox will continue to grow, from its 29,000 people in the village today. People want to live in smaller towns but have access to big-city amenities. They want good schools.
That’s not a boring city. That’s continuous growth that one day could fill the 40 square miles of a town that once – not 40 years ago – was just a farm town.