Litchfield Farm Impresses Local Historians

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Members of the Montgomery County Historical Society toured a Litchfield farm Sunday that is an Illinois Department of Agriculture Centennial Farm, was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, and has twice been listed on the Landmarks Illinois 10 most endangered sites.

The Manske-Niemann farm sits on Route 66 just south of Litchfield, and is recognized to be one of the most intact examples of a 19th and early-20th century working farm in the state.

The tour was led by Ophelia Niemann, by and large the sole caretaker of the farm that has been in her family for 160 years.

"I do all the work myself, except for major repairs like a roof and such," Miss Niemann said.

Day-to-day upkeep is no small task. There are 25 structures on the farm, most built in the 1800s.

The farm was first settled by Michael Manske, a Prussian immigrant and patriarch of the family.

The centerpiece to the farmstead is the impressive white, two-story brick 1850 Italianate residence that squarely greets those who travel up the lane.

On the south side of the house is the original iron fence.

"I still have receipts and papers on it," Miss Niemann said.

Members of the historical society marveled at the excellent condition of the century and a half old structures, many painted red with white slats and most sitting on elevated blocks or pilings.

Mostly though, they marveled at the caretaker who has kept them just so, a small, thin woman with a suntanned face that testifies to the hours of work her homestead daily requires.

Her tour began at the house and worked clockwise.

A two-level grain storage building has an earthen ramp up to the bottom floor. The smoke house is brick, and according to the owner, has been on the insurance policy since 1863.

The buggy shed is a square structure, and the machine shed is elongated and small by today's standards. After 150 years of settling, it has earned the right to lean a bit.

A small red building with a wood-shingled roof and a later poured floor was once the goose house.

"I thought you said 'hooch house,'" one of the tour-takers admitted with a chuckle.

Niemann cautioned to approach the goose house from the south side "or you might get stung."

She keeps bees in several bee houses in a grove of trees just north of the goose house.

On the way to one of two corn cribs, both on opposite sides of the property, the tour strolled by a persimmon tree and Miss Niemann passed on some farm wisdom about how the seed pattern in the fruit forecasts winter.

She pointed out the site of the saw mill, now gone, but likely used in construction of many of the other structures.

The barn on the north side, one of the biggest structures on the farm, is where the work horses were once housed.

Next on the tour came two twin chicken houses, still earning their keep. Between them is a smallish, albeit two story, green residence, called the "High House."

It had originally been built in a different location farther north and was where Manske's son had lived. The peculiar two-story house is also a two-room house with one room on each floor.

Between the main house and the High House is what had been a house but was converted to a machine shop. The white building used to house a couple of Ford Model Ts, a coupe and a sedan.

Circling around to the east side, visitors passed the cow barn and cow lean-to, both still used, a hog shed and hog huts, feed shed, a barn that now houses a horse and his feed, and the second corn bin.

Nearly every building had working lightning rods on the roof, and each was wired.

"You'll notice that all the power lines are under ground," the owner pointed out. "That was done in the 1940s."

A wind mill, gasoline pump, and five wells scatter about the farmstead, too.

Members of the historical society, impressed by the painstaking care taken of the property, were also concerned about its future.

It was placed on the Landmarks Illinois 10 most endangered sites in 2001 and again in 2010, just this past spring.

"It's in a trust," Niemann said near the end of the tour, "and I hope it will be in the same condition 100 years from now as it is today."

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