McLean County’s rich agricultural heritage has produced more than a few remarkable leaders, though it’s unlikely anyone climbed the Corn Belt’s socioeconomic ladder as successfully as Walter Meers.
He began toiling the Central Illinois soil as a hired hand in the 1910s, and by the time of his death in 1950, he was one of the more respected and wealthy farmers in all of McLean County.
His greatest triumph, though, might’ve been helping to raise a 100-bushel-per-acre corn crop on a test plot during the pitiless heat wave and drought of 1936. Working in tandem with Jim Holbert, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agronomist with close ties to Eugene Duncan Funk and Funk Bros. Seed Co., this experiment convinced many reluctant farmers to embrace the use of hybrid seed as indispensable to successful modern farming.
Meers was raised on a 157-acre farm in southeastern Kentucky, the third of 13 children. He somehow managed to attend two years at Russell Creek Academy in Campbellsville, Ky. (now Campbellsville University), before coming to the Prairie State in 1913.
He worked as a farmhand in Illinois, and then married Georgia Whitfield in late 1916. For some dozen years, the couple rented a 360-acre farm in DeWitt County, south of Clinton. “We couldn’t afford to go anywhere or spend any money, so the neighbors would get together and make ice cream and just visit,” Meers recalled of those days. “We learned to know the values of life.”
Meers’ reputation as a hardworking, ambitious tenant with an interest in scientific agriculture came to the attention of State Farm Insurance Co. founder George J. Mecherle, who owned his family farm east of Bloomington off Route 9. Mecherle brought in Meers to manage the 1,000-plus acre “Old Place” (as the Mecherle farm was known in the family) after the previous tenant was let go.
The likeminded Mecherle and Meers, both who considered themselves “scientific farmers without scientific educations,” were a match made in Corn Belt heaven. “I came here to this farm because I was looking for a good landlord,” Meers reflected in 1942. “I had learned that you can improve the land but you can seldom improve a landlord.”
As Mecherle’s farm manager, Meers had a dream job overseeing a large-scale corn and livestock operation dedicated to modern farming principles when it came to soil treatment, seed selection, crop management and animal husbandry. During his tenure as farm manager, he oversaw the feeding of upward of 400 to 450 steers and 2,500 hogs annually, as well as raising about 700 acres of corn and 200 acres of oats. The size and scale of the Mecherle farm meant that Meers also directed a full-time crew of four to five hired hands (see accompanying photo).
And with the healthy income as Mecherle’s farm manager, Meers had the financial wherewithal to acquire both land and livestock of his own. He purchased his first farm — 180 acres in all — in 1938, and by the time of his death he owned some 1,300 acres of prime Central Illinois crop and pastureland.
While Meers made a name for himself as Mecherle’s new go-getter manager, Funk Seeds researcher Jim Holbert shepherded the development of the company’s first commercially viable hybrid corn varieties (created by inbreeding corn and then crossing inbred lines — but that’s a story for another day!). By the 1930s, Holbert and other corn breeders had developed and made available a series of hybrids with characteristics ranging from sturdier stalks to improved resistance to insects.
Even so, hybrids faced skepticism from stubborn, hidebound farmers set in their ways, and the commercial prospects for such revolutionary seed lagged well behind the progress made at the Funk Farms federal research station outside of Shirley and elsewhere.
In 1935, Holbert and A.L. Lang, a University of Illinois agronomist, visited the Mecherle farm to inspect one of Holbert’s many hybrid corn testing plots scattered throughout Central Illinois. The story goes that G.J. Mecherle told his two visitors that nothing would give him more personal satisfaction than raising a 100-bushel corn crop, a feat he was never able to accomplish himself on the farm.
Holbert took up Mecherle’s challenge, and the following spring, five new hybrids from the experiment station were planted in a 10-acre test plot. All the while Meers and Holbert worked closely in the management of the small, carefully controlled field, consulting each other about details large and small, from the application of natural and commercial fertilizers to the particulars of cultivation.
The timing of this experiment couldn’t have been more auspicious, for the summer of 1936 proved to be one of the hottest and driest on record. For two straight weeks in July, the day’s high temperature topped 100, and there was no rain at all in July and the first half of August. The one-two punch of heat and drought decimated the area’s corn crop, and when fall came, the McLean County average yield was less than 25 bushels per acre.
At the Mecherle farm, it was a far different story. Astoundingly, the test plot averaged 101.3 bushels. Even the most risk-adverse farmers found it difficult to dismiss the fourfold improvement in yield.
The same test field yielded 123 and 103 bushels an acre in 1937 and 1938, respectively. For Meers, the consecutive 100-bushel crops were testament to the years of heavy manuring and the wise use of nitrogen-fixing cover crops on the Mecherle farm, as well as the liberal use of commercial fertilizers such as ammonia sulfate. “It proves either that it’s mighty good land or else that the livestock system and soil treatment has made it good,” Meers told The Pantagraph — though he was careful to add that Holbert’s hybrid seeds deserved “some credit!”
It was said that a succession of U.S. Department of Agriculture secretaries, including Henry Wallace and Clinton Anderson, leaned on Meers for advice. In June 1943, the president of the Quaker Oats Co. invited Meers to Chicago to meet with former U.S. President Herbert Hoover and discuss wartime farm policies, especially as they related to production rules.
In the late 1940s, Meers was featured in a Wall Street Journal series on “farming as a business.” At the time, he owned more than 1,000 acres and over a single year had fattened and sold 3,000 hogs and 580 steers worth $336,000 (or the equivalent of more than $3.4 million in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation).
Tragically, Meers was struck down at the height of his success and influence. On the morning of Aug, 15, 1950, he was instantly killed in an automobile accident about 2½ miles south of Chenoa. Meers, driving northbound on U.S. Route 66 in “extremely heavy” fog, attempted to pass a vehicle and smashed straight into a southbound truck. He was 58 years old.
“Central Illinois and the nation have lost a good neighbor, a good example, a wise counselor and an independent thinker,” reflected The Pantagraph the day after the fatal crash. “It is a great loss.”