There are many important people, organizations and inventions that have their roots in the great State of Illinois. Surprisingly, quite a few of them began in Dekalb County, a heavily agricultural area about 60 miles west of Chicago.
The most famous invention in DeKalb County history is barbed wire. DeKalb is now called the “Barb City,” and the high school’s nickname is the “Barbs.” Much of what DeKalb County has become is because of Joseph Glidden, Isaac Ellwood and Jacob Haish, the three barbed wire barons.
Glidden and Haish battled in court for two years over their similar barbed wire patents, before Glidden’s version was declared the winner. The two would reach a financial settlement out of court, however, that allowed both of them to become very wealthy through the production of barbed wire.
To say that barbed wire has had an impact on this country and the world, both for agriculture and in warfare is a huge understatement.
Almost equally significant, but much less known, was the invention of aerosol spray paint by Edward Seymour in Sycamore, Illinois in 1949. Seymour, a paint salesman, came up with the idea as a way to apply his new aluminum paint to radiators.
Today, Seymour of Sycamore still produces millions of cans of aerosol spray paint, for use on cars, roads and athletic fields, among other applications. You could say that spray paint is to Sycamore as barbed wire is to DeKalb, except that the Sycamore High School mascot is not a giant can of spray paint.
In 1912, representatives from the DeKalb County Farmers’ Institute, the DeKalb County Bankers’ Association and the DeKalb County Newspapermen’s Association met in DeKalb to organize into what became the DeKalb County Soil Improvement Association. Key leaders in the group came from Genoa, DeKalb and Sycamore. They hired William Eckhardt, a professor and soil scientist at the University of Illinois, to be their farm adviser. Eckhardt recommended rotating crops and the use of manure, and minerals such as limestone and phosphate, to improve soil quality.
Henry Parke was the first secretary-treasurer of the new farmers association. Parke earned a Master’s Degree in Marine Biology from the University of Michigan and taught for two years, before returning to DeKalb County to run his 400-acre family farm. He would become known as the “Founding Father of Farm Bureau,” according to the DeKalb County Farm Bureau website.
Hybrid Seed Corn
Thomas Roberts, the man who would succeed Eckhardt as the farm advisor for what was then called the DeKalb County Agricultural Association in the 1920s, came up with the iconic flying ear of corn logo that would represent the DeKalb Genetics Corporation. The logo symbolized how the extra income from hybrid seed corn would lift farmers’ mortgages and ultimately carry them through the Great Depression.
While hybrid seed corn was not invented in DeKalb County, the DeKalb County Agricultural Association, through the work of Tom Roberts and Charlie Gunn, began cross-breeding corn to improve corn yield and disease resistance, and became the world-wide leader in hybrid seed corn.
United States Transcontinental Highways
With the invention of automobiles came the need for better roads. In 1912, Indianapolis Speedway founder, Carl G. Fisher, proposed a “coast-to-coast rock highway” to be called the Lincoln Highway. The Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental hard-surfaced roadway in the United States.
When dedicated in 1913, the highway was a mostly gravel road connecting New York City to San Francisco. The first paved concrete “seedling mile” of the Lincoln Highway was built in 1914 in Malta, IL in order to demonstrate the superiority of the new road technology. An historical marker on the North side of Route 38 in Malta, in front of Kishwaukee College, marks the location of the seedling mile. A section of the original seedling mile is preserved at the Malta Cemetery entrance.
During World War II, the DeKalb Municipal Airport was used as a testing site for military drones. About 200 of the TDR-1 drones were secretly built at the Wurlitzer plant in DeKalb. The drones, which carried 200-pound bombs, were then deployed to the South Pacific and used against Japanese targets.
In effect, these bomb-carrying drones were the first guided missiles used in combat.
Cindy Crawford’s Modeling Career
Born in DeKalb, Illinois, Cindy Crawford got her first modeling job while she was a student at DeKalb High School. When she was 16 years old, local photographer, Roger Legel, took a photo of Crawford in her boyfriend’s back yard. The photo got the aspiring nuclear physicist on the cover of DeKalb Nite Weekly.
Upon Legel’s urging, Crawford went to Chicago and signed with Elite Model Management. Despite graduating as her class valedictorian and earning an academic scholarship to study chemical engineering at Northwestern University, Crawford dropped out of college after one semester to focus on her modeling career. As they say, the rest is history.
The Harlem Globetrotters
Despite their name, the Harlem Globetrotters originated on the South Side of Chicago. Their first ever road basketball game, however, took place on January 27, 1927 in Hinckley, Illinois.
The Globetrotters returned to Hinckley in 2016 and performed at Hinckley-Big Rock High School to commemorate that event and tip off their 90th year of entertainment.
It’s fitting that a college town like DeKalb would be associated with a cheap, late-night staple food. Larry Finn, Owner of Pizza Villa in DeKalb, claimed to have been one of the original inventors of beer nuggets in the mid-1980’s.
The popular party food made from deep fried pizza dough was actually first advertised as a menu item about a year earlier at Sgt. Peppers and J.P. Hannagan’s, two now-defunct DeKalb restaurants. Lukulo’s also served a popular beer nugget-like item called “dough nuggets.”
While all but one of those restaurants have gone, beer nuggets live on at Pizza Villa and are also available at Rosati’s.