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Heavy equipment remove the Osage orange hedgerows in the 1950s. Osage orange is a woody shrub once planted in hedgerows that lined fields and pastures across McLean County.

BLOOMINGTON — It is next to impossible to capture in the mind’s eye the Central Illinois countryside prior to the mechanization and industrialization of the Corn Belt that began in the years after World War II.

Most farms were once more than sterile cash grain operations. Diversification was the rule rather than the exception, both in regards to field crops and livestock and poultry. Farmsteads once contained a multitude of utilitarian outbuildings and structures, including dairy and cattle barns, corn cribs, chicken and hog houses, woodsheds, windmills, smokehouses and many others, as well as orchards and vegetable gardens for both the household and local market.

One of the truly exceptional features of this long-gone diversified landscape was Osage orange, a woody shrub once planted in hedgerows that lined fields and pastures for hundreds of miles in McLean County alone. With 1-inch thorns and interlocking branches, the “horse high, bull strong and hog tight” hedge helped wood-starved 19th century prairie farmers fence in (or sometimes fence out) livestock in an era before barbed wire.

This living barricade crisscrossed the Corn Belt countryside, accentuating field boundaries with a softened geometric aesthetic all but unknown today. Hedges also provided habitat for wildlife, especially nesting sites for mourning doves and various songbirds, while untrimmed rows served as windbreaks or shelterbelts, offering at the same time an excellent source of heavy, hard and rot-resistant fence posts. Many readers will be familiar with the distinctive, aromatic and sticky fruit of Osage orange — green-yellow balls as large as six inches in diameter commonly known as “hedge apples.”

Wire fencing made hedgerows expendable in the eyes of many area farmers, who coveted the “lost” acreage on which it grew for income-generating grain. The drawbacks of Osage orange included its wide-spreading root system that soaked up enough moisture and soil nutrients to reduce the yield of adjacent row crops. It also was labor intensive, requiring troublesome trimmings twice a year by farmers and hired hands.

Beginning in the late 1920s and early 1930s, farmers began tearing out Osage orange, though in an era before the ubiquity of diesel power on the American farm such work was easier said than done. Hulking steam-powered tractors, often fueled by the dense wood of the Osage orange itself, proved capable of ripping out hedges at a slow but methodical pace. 

The effort to eradicate Osage orange began in earnest in the 1940s with diesel-powered tractors and bulldozers, and today most of what remains are unkempt hedge rows appearing as little more than tangled tree lines.

The end of World War II certainly spurred renewed interest in tearing out hedgerows to boost arable acreage. Bloomington veteran Roy Monical, for example, purchased a 93-horsepower diesel Caterpillar tractor from government war surplus and found plenty of work “dozing out” hedge. In late November 1946, he was found at the Joe M. Friedrich farm near Randolph, tearing out 700 rods (or more than 3,800 yards) of Osage orange. “His big power unit clears hedge at a speed of a half mile daily,” reported The Pantagraph.

By the early 1950s, agricultural experts such those at the University of Illinois were recommending winter time spraying of 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (or 2,4,5-T for short) to kill “troublesome brush plants” such as willow, blackberry, wild cherry and, of course, Osage orange. No longer used on Midwest farms due to its toxicity, 2,4,5-T was a major ingredient in the controversial Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange.

In late winter 1954, bulldozer operator Bob Knuppel of Mackinaw was busy uprooting trees at the Wilbur Toepke farm, located about seven miles west of Bloomington. Knuppel “grubbed out” a long row of Osage orange, though one stretch was left standing to serve as a windbreak. Although this work added several acres of cropland to the Toepke farm, there were other benefits as well. “He can now drive a tractor across the field without making numerous detours,” noted The Pantagraph. “This will speed field work.”

Later that summer, on August 25, Wilbur Toepke hosted The Pantagraph’s annual Soil Day program. In preparation for the event, Roy Vinson of Rowe Construction Co. was out on the Toepke farm preparing the ground with a 22-ton diesel crawler tractor. The Pantagraph made much of the fact that bulldozers were becoming an important tool on the modern Corn Belt farm, accomplishing tasks ranging from shaping soil erosion terraces to digging out stock ponds.

“Mr. Vinson recalled how mile after mile of Osage orange hedge was rooted out by the big bulldozers 10 to 20 years ago,” noted The Pantagraph. “There’s still quite a demand to ‘doze’ hedge. Perhaps the last of it’ll disappear some day. But usually someone wants to keep a little of it around for old time sake and to serve as shade.”

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