Deep in the farm country of Monroe County, Ill., Emma Buck's maternal great-grandparents, Christian and Christina Henke, settled a 70-acre farm and log cabin in 1849. The German immigrants had traveled by boat from East Friesland to New Orleans and settled in western Illinois, about 35 miles down river from St. Louis, in 1841. The land was just trees and countryside when they moved to the area, and as generations passed, Emma and her sisters were born and grew up working on the German-style farm with their father, Fred, until he died in 1966. The Bucks resisted change, and the farm and the Bucks' way of life remained virtually untouched while the surrounding world adopted new ways and technology.
A few things did change - but not much. In 1957, Emma's younger brother, Albert, had the house wired for electricity - against Emma's wishes. But the family stayed true to their ways, and until her death in June 2004, Emma still used an outhouse, carried water from a well and sharpened her father's handmade tools with a foot-operated grinding wheel once a week. She lived the way she had been taught until the very end. The farm also has a blacksmith's shop, a smokehouse, butchering shed, threshing barn and a rare outdoor baking oven. In fact, the farm is a sort of living picture frozen in time, and in 1998 the farm was named one of the state's 10 most endangered sites by the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois.
Emma's farm 'is a very rare case of having everything as close as possible to the way it was originally, and it's very well-maintained,' David Blanchette, a spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch newspaper in June 2004. Plans are in the works to prepare the farm for future visitors and permanent preservation.
It was under these circumstances that I met Emma a few years before her passing, on a roundabout excursion pertaining to my hobby of 18th-century American history research. Looking for the story behind a statue of George Rogers Clark at the Fort Massac State Park in Metropolis, Ill., I eventually asked Darrell, the assistant ranger, about the statue, and in the course of talking he invited me and my friend Bob Gill to attend a luncheon at an old farm up the road, which turned out to be Emma's place. Emma had no living relatives, and until she was 95 she was living alone and keeping warm with a wood stove and cutting the firewood herself!
We turned into the driveway, and the first thing I saw was a 7 HP Economy covered with dust, but sitting just inside an old barn. I went over to the engine to see if it freely turned. The flywheels turned easily, but the exhaust lever appeared to be stuck pretty tight. Annie Rieken, a close friend of Emma's and director of the Heritage Foundation of Monroe County, had invited a bunch of people to the luncheon to gain support for the old farm, and we were some of the first people to arrive to the luncheon. I hunted up a short piece of chain and tied the flywheels so no one would turn it over and break the lever.
I searched for Annie and told her not to allow anyone to turn the engine over until we could make sure everything was working freely.
'Oh, do you know something about that old engine?' Annie asked. I said I had some knowledge of them. 'Could you possibly get it running? It hasn't been started for 38 years,' she told me. I told her Bob and I would return for the engine when the weather was a little better.
Bob and I came back in May 2003, and within two hours we had the Economy running. It had so much compression it took both of us to turn it over. Annie brought Emma out from the house, and she was all smiles and said, 'That sounds just like it did when Dad ran it.'
In August 2003, Gary Bahre and I decided we would invite Emma to the American Thresherman's Assn. Summer show at Pinckneyville, Ill., that month. Annie discussed it with Emma, and she thought Emma would like to go to the horse pull on Friday evening. Emma's family had never used anything but horses to farm with, the exception being the Economy engine to run the 'haxle' cutters and the buzz saw to cut firewood.
At the Pinckneyville show, the horse teams had already been doing some practice pulls before Emma got there. As soon as we got her seated on the track just in front of the grandstand, she exclaimed, 'Boy! This sure does smell like back on the farm!'
I've been back to Emma's farm for the past three years for her birthday party and to run the Economy engine for the guests that attend. Bob and I were there in April 2004 for the party. We were going to set up Emma's old buzz saw and demonstrate it, but the weather didn't cooperate so we went back in May and sawed a few samples for Emma.
No one knows for sure of Emma's age because she never had a birth certificate, but she would have been either 100 or 101 this year. A week after we demonstrated the firewood sawing, she died and is now buried on the farm in a pinewood box as she had wanted. I don't know the status of the farm now, but I hear it's going to be restored as a historical marker. Bob and I may go back next spring and do a demonstration if we are asked to do so.
Contact engine enthusiast Don Wiley at: 7840 State Route 4, Sparta, IL 62286.