Reflections on Walnut Grove Farm and the Scenic Drive

Peter J. Gorham

Walnut Grove Farm, located 1/2 mile northeast of Knoxville, Illinois, has been a pivotal stop along the annual historic Knox County Scenic Drive for 30 years. The Drive takes place on October 7 & 8, 14 & 15 this year, at the height of spectacular Fall colors. Many people call it the Spoon River Drive, which technically takes place simultaneously in Fulton County. But, essentially, they are the same- “sister drives” which invite everyone to get out and enjoy our rural heritage.

The Spoon River Anthology written by Edgar Lee Masters in 1916 was a famous book of poems about a fictional town along the Spoon River (actually, Lewistown), where Masters himself lived. Each poem (242 of them!) is about a character who lived in this typical rural town, who died and is speaking from the grave about life in Spoon River, creating a beautiful picture of rural life back then. Carl Sandburg wrote this about the Spoon River Anthology: “The people whose faces look out from the pages of the book are the people of life itself, each trait of them as plain or as mysterious as in the old home valley where the writer came from.” To read the book is to be transported back in time.

To visit Walnut Grove Farm also transports the visitor back in time, to the halcyon days we all must believe in: when people were totally self-sufficient, when news was only local, when each little town across this great prairie of America was the only reality anyone knew and understood and each farm was an individual family village of security, protection, education, values, and culture.

One can imagine the Walnut Grove Farm in the Spoon River Anthology, typifying 1800’s rural America. It was originally homesteaded in 1835 and became a cattle-farming empire. Since 1987, when the farm was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, its historical significance and restoration process of the main barn has given it national recognition. It was featured in the National Smithsonian Traveling Barn Exhibit, on the cover of Successful Farming Magazine, in The American Barn, in calendars, articles and most recently in a PBS documentary “Barns: An Illinois Story”.

The main barn at Walnut Grove Farm is breathtaking in size.  It is over 5,000 square feet and 35 feet tall. The roof is one of the recent renovations and is part of a fund raising effort during the Scenic Drive Festival. Many activities occur within the barn each year on the Drive: live acoustic music by regional favorites, fantastic art by local artists, locally grown and produced foods, and this year even a poetry reading! Outside the barn watch timber framing, open kettle stew-making, take a horse drawn carriage ride, pick a pumpkin, pet a pig, do kid art, and shop for more art.

There are magnificent trees surrounding the equally magnificent original 3 story Victorian farm house. There are beautiful yards and an old guesthouse. There are fruit trees and flower gardens and basil patches and, of course, there is the walnut grove, where many wedding vows have been officially exchanged among the tall walnut trees. One truly has the sense of being safely isolated from the world’s ongoing troubles and sheltered within the peaceful and protective arms of Walnut Grove Farm.

So, go on the Knox County Scenic Drive this year. Visit Walnut Grove Farm, northeast of Knoxville, the first two weekends in October. The Farm is truly spellbinding.

And do one more thing: read The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.


Peter J. Gorham is a Galesburg native who is an author of several books including his latest: Someone Else’s Voice. Artist Bob Moberg will read during “Coffee with Bob and Pete” at the Walnut Grove Farm Barn Gallery.