Long before Midwestern corn growers ever heard of Funk’s G Hybrid seed corn, farmers in central Illinois knew the offspring of imported European draft horses as simply “Funk’s Colts.” Members of the innovative and influential Illinois Funk family imported and bred so many Percheron horses between 1870 and 1900 that for all practical purposes, they renamed a breed.
When Isaac Funk moved from Ohio to central Illinois in 1824, less than half of the state was settled. It was only six years after Illinois statehood and barely 50 years after the American Revolution. Herds of buffalo still grazed the prairie grasses and Native Americans with their hunting and farming lifestyles were gradually being pushed out to make way for white settlers.
The flat and fertile land of central Illinois must have impressed Isaac Funk. Over the next 40 years, he acquired 25,000 acres near what is now Bloomington. Much of that acreage was swampy and too wet to cultivate, but with the help of eight sons and one daughter, Funk worked to establish thriving livestock operations. Little by little, the land was drained and put to the plow.
Upon Isaac Funk’s death in 1865, his nine children divided and continued to farm their father’s 40 square miles of farmland. Nearly all of them continued the horse and cattle breeding enterprises they had learned from their father. The decades that followed the U. S. Civil War were a heyday for importers of European draft horses, and the children of Isaac Funk figured prominently in that trade. One of the first documented trips abroad by two of Isaac Funk’s sons–LaFayette and Jordan–to buy livestock for their Illinois farms took place shortly after their father’s death. The trip coincided with what would soon become a national obsession.
Literally thousands of draft horse stallions were imported into the United States from Europe during the 1870s and 1880s, and most of those came from France or Great Britain. As American importers scoured Europe for the best drafters to ship across the Atlantic, they discovered the outstanding grey and black horses found in a small province called Le Perche. France had, and still does have, several breeds of draft horses, but it wasn’t long before the Norman-Percheron topped the list for American importers.
At about the same time, breeders on both sides of the Atlantic began keeping studbooks and herdbooks, thereby laying the foundation for the idea of documenting “registered” and “purebred” livestock. Draining more and more of Isaac Funk’s land and bringing it under cultivation required many draft horses. Most of the Funk children raised Percherons both for their own use, and for profit. Family records indicate that seven of Isaac’s children each produced between 40 and 100 Percheron colts for sale annually in the 1870s and 1880s. Their cash crop of draft horse colts was sometimes shipped far from Illinois and became known to horse dealers and buyers alike as “Funk’s Colts.” No other description was necessary for a buyer to know exactly what he was purchasing.
Percheron registry records show that during the decade of the 1880s alone, an estimated 5,000 stallions and more than 2,500 mares were exported from France to the United States, with most of those horses originating in Le Perche. The thirst in the United States for imported horses seemed insatiable, and the glory days of importing European horses continued until a financial panic hit in 1893, when the trade abruptly stopped. Horse breeding in America even slowed to practically nothing for the five years between 1893 and 1898, with much of the seed stock from earlier years used up by that time. When importations of European draft horses resumed at the end of the financial crisis, the trade was again brisk. Records indicate less than 1,000 head were imported annually from 1898 until after 1900, but in 1906, 13,000 stallions and 200 mares were brought from Europe to the U. S. That boom continued until the outbreak of WW I.
Even though horse import numbers never again reached the zenith seen in the years before 1914, the horses that made the Funk name synonymous with Percheron power were becoming an ever more important part of what could only be described as a farming empire. By 1901, when Isaac Funk’s grandson, Eugene B. Funk, formed the Funk Seed Company with his cousins, uncles and his father, the extended Funk farming enterprise had already been using hundreds of Funk-bred draft horses on their farms to produce the improved varieties of oats, rye, barley, wheat and open-pollinated corn seed which he sold. When sales of the first Funk’s Hybrid Corn began in 1916, even more acreage was needed to produce the seed for a product which would revolutionize corn growing. Each increase in seed corn production meant more of Isaac Funk’s farmland put to the plow, which in turn, called for more teams of horses to work the land. The huge scale on which Funk’s Colts had been produced for several decades was more than a convenient coincidence.
LaFayette Funk was one of Isaac Funk’s sons and the father of Eugene B. Funk. In 1863 and 1864, LaFayette built a grand farm home as a wedding present for his new wife. After taking the reins of a share of his father’s expanse of farmland, LaFayette furthered the Funk name. He soon became recognized as a breeder of excellent horses and cattle, and that impressive farm home which he built almost single-handedly–known as the Funk Prairie Home–became synonymous with progressive agriculture for more than half a century. LaFayette Funk was one of the founders of the Chicago Union Stock Yards. He played an important part in founding the agriculture college at the University of Illinois and he was instrumental in the creation of the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. LaFayette also served on the Illinois State Board of Agriculture for nearly 30 years and was an Illinois State Senator. At a time when extension services tied to land grant institutions were very new, LaFayette and his son, Eugene, brought large numbers of farmers at their own expense from throughout the Midwest to the Funk Prairie Home Farm in order to share the latest technologies and farming methods.
The Funk Prairie Home is today maintained as a museum and is open to the public. The restored horse barn there is billed as the oldest and largest horse barn in McLean County, Illinois. Museum records indicate that draft horses were worked in greater numbers and for a longer time in McLean County, Illinois, than at any other place in the United States. Bill Case is the resident historian for the Funk Prairie Home Museum. According to Case, the investors who started Funk Seed Company with LaFayette Funk’s son, Eugene, included 14 members of the extended Funk family.
“All of those investors in Funk Seed Company had already been producing improved strains of open-pollinated corn and other farm grains for a long time before the company was formed in 1901,” Case said. “Even after the hybrid corn had been introduced, until they were sure people would catch on to growing hybrid corn, they continued to produce lots of open-pollinated corn.” He added that the increased acreages devoted to seed production for the Funk Seed Company corresponded to ever-greater numbers of draft horses needed. It is clear, Case said, that the success of Funk Seed Company, and later, the Funk's G Hybrid brand, was directly tied to the massive production and use of quality draft horses on a scale that can be difficult to comprehend.
Eugene Funk was proud to embrace new technologies, and museum records indicate he bought the first Caterpillar tractor sold for use on a farm. As tractors became more and more common on the Funk farming enterprise, the workload lessened only slightly for the resident draft horses, however. Bill Case puts the transition from horses to tractors at Funk's into perspective.
“In the 1930s tractors were coming into use more and more,” he said, “but that wonderful new machinery was often quite limited. For example, during wet conditions, teams of horses were the only things that could be counted on to get a crop planted. It still took lots of horses to grow and harvest the crops. Then when the extended Funk family didn’t have enough land to expand the way they wanted to, they brought in ‘associate growers.’ In the tough economic times of the 1930s and even into the mid-1940s, there were many farmers who could not afford a tractor.”
Museum records do not document when the vast numbers of Funk's Colts that once wore harnesses on central Illinois farms were completely phased out. It is presumed that by the decade of the 1940s many, if not most, of the draft horses were gone. Funk Seed Company was sold to Ciba-Geigy in 1974, and in 1993, Ciba-Geigy dropped the Funk name. In an arguably fitting move, the Funk Prairie Home Museum recently added to its collection of farm memorabilia. A team of black Percheron geldings now lives at the farmstead and does occasional duty in harness pulling a farm wagon for classes of school children who visit the museum each year.
A good way to learn about the Funk family and their colorful history is to visit the Funk Prairie Home Museum located near Shirley, Illinois. A separate building on the farmstead houses the Funk Gem and Mineral Museum, displaying rare stones which LaFayette Funk Jr., collected while building seed plants around the world for his father’s seed company. A collection of Native American artifacts is also featured. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., from March through December. Reservations are required. The telephone number is 309-827-6792.