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Barry Schrader


I currently write a column each Tuesday for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. The column will also appear on this website each week and be added to the archives.

The Articles started December 2007.


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Era ends for DeKalb Ag’s Roberts family

By Barry Schrader.................................October 13, 2009

If you were to pick the three most influential men in DeKalb County in the 19th Century they would undoubtedly be Glidden, Ellwood and Haish. Then in the 20th Century the three names that come to mind would probably be Tom Roberts, Sr., Tom, Jr. and Charlie Roberts.
That family founded the DeKalb Ag and continued to be a major influence in the county’s fortunes even after “The Ag” was sold to Monsanto. The last of the three men Tom Roberts, Jr. died in September and memorial services were held for him Saturday.
They have variously been called visionary, inventive, philanthropic and unpretentious.
E.E. “Al” Golden who knew them all well offered this: “DeKalb County with the spirit of creative leaders produced the Marsh Harvester, barbed wire, pure milk, the first Farm Bureau and hybridization of seed corn…..The greatest agricultural achievement of the first half of the 20th Century was the development of hybrid corn.” He added, “It was through the genius of Tom Roberts, Sr. and later his son Tom, Jr. and a son-in-law Charlie Roberts (who happened to have the same last name) that the family became visionaries—for they had the idea of expanding into genetic improvement of crops, poultry and swine. Technically their goals were broad for they worked toward the ideals of an improved life for farmers and made farming a respected profession.”
In reading the book “The Story of the DeKalb Ag” by Tom, Jr. one realizes the impact that family and their closest associates over the years had worldwide and brought untold millions the benefits of hybridization. When writing this I cannot overlook the major contributions of the late Charlie Gunn who was the man who made DeKalb hybrid seedcorn the most successful for its time.
Tom Roberts, Sr. got his start in life on a Waterman farm owned by his father Humphrey Roberts whose land is where the Waterman depot and Waterman State Bank stand today.

Charlie Roberts file photo, undated

Tom Roberts, Jr. stands in front of his father’s portrait in this 1972 photo.

The father founded the bank in 1891 and it is now the only remaining locally-owned banking institution in the county.
The founders of Waterman, named after a railroad magnate Daniel B. Waterman, might better have chosen the name Roberts for their village, but that is all past history now. Tom became the DeKalb County Farm Adviser for 10 years until he fathered the DeKalb County Agricultural Association, “The Ag” to its employees and most of the rest of the county’s population.
One cannot extol the virtues of the Roberts family without mentioning the creation of the DeKalb County Community Foundation. It was Charlie Roberts and his wife Mary (sister to Tom, Jr.) who gave $3 million to start the foundation but made sure it was named “DeKalb County” not the Roberts Foundation. Jerry Smith the recently-retired executive director of the Foundation said: “There is no greater testament to Charlie and Mary than their desire to see their philanthropy grow with the inception of the DeKalb County Community Foundation. It has truly allowed folks throughout the county to give back to the communities where they have lived, worked and raised their families. The foundation will be a lasting legacy of the Roberts family, for sure.”
I could go on detailing many more gifts of land and money, but maybe you should just read the DeKalb Ag book and get a better feel for the magnitude of their accomplishments. It will make you think of them every time you see that famous Winged Ear of corn on fence lines, caps, T-shirts and memorabilia in so many places around the country.
By the way, there will be an exhibit of DeKalb Ag history at the Nehring Gallery in downtown DeKalb starting in February. I am wondering when there will be a museum built to showcase the history of the Ag like there are for the Barbed Wire barons.

POSTSCRIPT: Just a heads-up for the teams planning on competing in the Spelling Bee at St. Mary’s in Sycamore on October 15 sponsored by the Daily Chronicle and the Altrusas. The Oak Crest competitors are going to be tough to beat. The team is full of retired schoolteachers and one old former Chronicle editor who never uses Spellcheck on his computer. See you there, spellers!

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115