Boy farmer 'held things together'

This Vermilion County Plat Book, circa 1940s, shows Isaac Atwood’s 320-acre farm in Pilot Township.

When Isaac Atwood was 10 years old, his father Albert answered Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms in the Civil War in 1862. That is when Isaac went to work on the Atwood farm located on top of the California Ridge in Vermilion County.

“Tom Snider said in his letter to me that you are working like a man and that you was a good boy to your business,” his father Alfred wrote him from near Nashville, Tennessee, on Nov. 12. In an earlier letter, Isaac had been instructed to “take care of the cows and hogs and help Sam take care of Peg.” Sam was his 6-year-old brother.

Isaac’s father also wanted to know how many “shocks of corn is cut” and “how your wheat looks.”

The boy farmer on the Ridge was taking care of the horses and other livestock and harvesting his corn crop. He was assisted by family and neighbors, but Isaac and his mother Diadama were operating the farm.

There was a labor shortage because many of the men from Pilot Township had volunteered to fight in the war that threatened to split the Union. More than 50 men from sparsely settled Pilot Township had marched off with Capt. Levin Vinson’s Company I, 125th Volunteer Illinois Infantry. Isaac’s father had been one of them.

“Keep the harness well-greased” for the horses, Alfred advised his son. He also inquired as to how the hogs and cattle were doing and “how much molasses” do you have. Isaac’s teenage sister Mary also was assisting with the work. As the war continued, Isaac became more proficient working with his mother and sister on the farm on the Ridge.

Alfred speculated the war would end by February 1863, and he would be home. But the war would last for years, and it wasn’t a bloodless conflict as many had predicted it would be when the South formed the Confederacy. A number of the men fighting under the captain they called Levi would not return from the war.

In June 1863, Isaac was 11 years old and found he was short on equipment to plow corn. His father informed him he could not remember where the equipment was, but instructed Isaac to “Do the best you can and keep things together the best you can, I think I will get to come home this summer.” His father noted he did not know what happened to the singletree that was used to attach the horse to the plow.

Alfred didn’t come home that summer, nor the one following. When he did come home in 1865, he died a few weeks later, another casualty of the Civil War. Following his father’s death, Isaac continued to operate the farm with his mother and sister. He was 13 years old when his father died. The farm was expanded and eventually encompassed more than 300 acres. It became well-known for raising prime livestock.

In 1872, Isaac married Rachel Johnson (also spelled Rachael) and the couple continued to operate the farm with his mother Diadama. The one-time boy farmer became fondly known as “Uncle Ike” to friends and family. That same year his sister, Mary, who had also assisted in operating the farm, married George Johnson.

Isaac spent 66 years on the farm on the Ridge before he retired to a home in Danville in 1918. He lived at 1105 N. Logan and became well-known for his flower garden there. When he died in 1947 at age 95, the plat book recorded he still owned a 320-acre farm on the Ridge.

Today, Oakwood Unit District 76 Middle School on Newtown Road occupies a corner of the farm Isaac once owned. The place where a boy farmer “kept the harnesses well-greased” and held things together while his father was off to war.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.

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