Small towns across Illinois are having a rough go to keep their culture alive. For decades rural populations have been falling. Some subside into tiny crossroads communities. Others keep trying.
The Village of Sibley east of Lexington and north of Gibson City to the east of Bloomington-Normal is one of those with an unusual origin residents are preserving.
Sibley was originally 20,000 acres of land, owned by Michael Sullivant and later sold to Hiram Sibley. With this land, Sibley created a tenant farm system, with up to 146 farms and 134 households. At one time it may have been the largest farm in the country, said Marge Vetter of the Sibley Business and Historical Association.
Hiram Sibley founded the Western Union Telegraph Company.
“At the time, he created the houses and farms, he painted all the houses yellow, to commemorate his ownership of Western Union, and also everyone got a red barn. He supplied four horses and three milk cows on each farm. That's how it all started. And then he started building houses and seed barns, and churches and grocery stores and things in the Sibley area,” said Vetter.
Hiram Sibley also owned a seed distributing company in Rochester, New York, used to provide seed to his tenants. Vetter said Sibley was also friends with the Funk family, another early seed hybridizer and ag business giant.
“All farming was based on a 50/50 system. 50% income 50% expenses were all done by the farmer and the landlord. That included also when raising livestock, and also when it came to any improvements to the insides of the buildings. That was also handled 50/50. So when a farmer got ready to retire or quit, he is reimbursed his 50% share of what he put into the building,” said Vetter.
She said the tenants were treated well, and by the 1930s all tenants had running water and electricity. That's earlier than many rural areas had indoor plumbing and electric lights.
Vetter said the family distributed the land to various descendents of Hiram Sibley in the 1970s. Each farm received a number and the heirs drew numbers out of a hat.
The last descendent of Hiram Sibley, Tom Sibley, passed away in 2006, but Vetter said residents still remember him fondly. The town has also decreased in population, to about 300 residents. Vetter said this does not change the love for the town, as the Sibley Business and Historical Association is going strong.
In 2018, she said the village renovated its downtown including street lights and storefronts, all with private donations. Vetter said many contributions came from former residents who still feel fondly toward Sibley.
“We're proud of Sibley ... all the farm families tend to rally together,” said Vetter.
On the Fourth of July, Sibley will be hosting a fireworks celebration in the evening. On July 6, there will be a car show, historical tram tours around town, and various music concerts.
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