DeKALB – The beginning of local agricultural innovation began in the 1920s at one secret spot on Nelson Road in DeKalb.
On Monday, the once-secret site became more obvious to passerby as it was designated with a state historical marker.
The marker, on Nelson Road off Route 38 near a DeKalb city wellhouse, shows the site of the first hybrid corn breeding plot in northern Illinois. The experimental plot was created in 1925 by Tom Roberts, manager of the DeKalb Agricultural Association, and plant breeder Charlie Gunn to test the hybrid corn. The marker notes the DeKalb County’s decades of agricultural innovation, from its fame as the birthplace of barbed wire to the well-known DeKalb flying ear of corn logo.
The dedication was the culmination of months of work for members of the DeKalb Area Agricultural Heritage Association. The group worked to document for the Illinois State Historical Society that the site was worth commemorating. They also had to work to find the actual location of the plot. County historian Sue Breese said their research into the history of the experimental plot led to some surprising discoveries.
“We knew [the plot] was out here, but we thought it was on the opposite side of the road,” Breese said. “Through researching Gunn’s notes, we found that it was here.”
The plot was difficult to find because it was originally a secret, Breese said. The plot was originally garden sized, about half an acre, according to an old oral history interview with Gunn, said Donna Langford, DeKalb Area Agricultural Heritage Association curator .
Roberts and Gunn tested their hybrid corn for a few years before disclosing the program to their board of directors in 1928. They found the hybrid out yielded the open-pollinated variety by 35 percent.
Larry Mix, president of the DeKalb Area Agricultural Heritage Association board, said it was a feat that forever changed the area.
“In hindsight, we know what a great idea hybrid corn is,” Mix said. “At the time, there was no assurance it would work.”
DeKalb Mayor John Rey spoke during the dedication ceremony for a historical marker Monday as both a city official and someone who worked in DeKalb agriculture. He said he knew both Roberts and Gunn from his time working with the company. Rey began working for the DeKalb Agricultural Association in 1964 before retiring from Monsanto in 2001.
“Both men were gentlemen, unassuming, innovative entrepreneurs,” Rey said. “The goal of the business was to raise farmers’ productivity. Experiments in this field helped transform agriculture and the economy of the city of DeKalb, the state of Illinois, the nation and the world. DeKalb brand is recognized worldwide today.”
Breese was pleased the marker was approved and will stand there for years to come.
“I am proud that this could be brought to light,” Breese said. “It’s such a good way to highlight the DeKalb area.”