Documentary, exhibit about Elgin area's milk-making past, prairie-restoring future to debut June 24

  • Courtesy of Dairies to Prairies

By Dave Gathman
Daily Herald correspondent
Updated 6/21/2018 6:33 AM

After two years in the making, the Elgin History Museum documentary and traveling exhibit "Dairies to Prairies" will have its grand premiere at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 24, at Gail Borden Public Library, 270 N. Grove Ave., Elgin.

"Perhaps we should be calling this 'Prairies to Dairies to Prairies,'" video director Phil Broxham said. The 90-minute video will explain how dairy farms replaced Kane County's prairie and forests in the 1800s; how numerous creameries and dairies opened in the Elgin area; how suburban sprawl began to squeeze farms out of existence; and how a modern-day "back to nature" movement is turning some of the former cornfields and pasturelands back into unmowed prairie.


Broxham is the owner of Elgin-based Grindstone Media Productions. He previously worked with the history museum to make documentaries about Elgin National Watch Co. ("The Circle of Time") and about the life of African-Americans in Elgin through the years ("Project 2-3-1").

"This is a national story that even the people of Elgin don't really know," said Daily Herald history columnist Jerry Turnquist, who co-produced the video with Museum President Bill Briska.

"This project connects new homeowners living in far west Elgin to the history of the land they live on, while remembering Elgin's great dairy heritage," said Museum Director Liz Marston.

Today only three dairy farms and one dairy operate in all of Kane County. But in 1877 farms in Elgin Township alone had 12,000 cows --more than the township had humans. From 1870-1920, an Elgin Board of Trade set the prices for butter across much of the United States. As late as the 1930s Elgin contained 30 dairies pasteurizing, bottling and delivering milk, cream and butter.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service

Marston said Broxham interviewed at least 25 people for the video. They included former dairy employees, former and present farmers, architect Charles Burnidge, memorabilia collectors and people involved in the land preservation and farm-to-table movements.

The filmmakers even traveled 200 miles to Fair Oaks Farm in Indiana, an ultramodern mega dairy farm with 36,000 cows.

Marston said that like "Project 2-3-1," the video will be joined by a traveling exhibit, designed by Karen Terhorst and produced by Fabric Images of Elgin.

The exhibit will remain at the library until July 18. Then it will be displayed at the Kane County Fair from July 19-22.

The video also will be shown at Serosun Farms in Hampshire Aug. 4, at Gray Willows Farm in Campton Township on Sept. 15 and at the Bartlett Public Library in September. Turnquist envisions school classes viewing the video.

Marston said DVD copies of "Dairies to Prairies" will be available for $15 through the history museum in about two weeks and can be pre-ordered during Sunday's premiere.


Marston said the museum raised $90,000 to pay for the documentary and exhibit, with $38,000 coming from a Kane County Riverboat Grant. The rest came from the local Palmer Foundation for arts and literature, the EFS Foundation, the Elgin Arts Cultural Commission and an array of private donors.

Asked what topic Broxham and the museum will take on for their next video project, Marston laughed and said, "We need a break. We still need to finish rehabilitating the Nancy Kimball cobblestone home, which we started at about the same time."

For information, to view a "sampler" of interviews or to donate to the project, see or visit the Facebook page "Dairies to Prairies."


Get articles sent to your inbox.

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.