See that purple ball in the middle of the photo? It’s on the edge of a corn field and is really a beautiful little plant. But, then, most weeds are. It’s a thistle and is one of many varieties in the United States. Thistles are considered a problem plant and can be difficult to control. In fact, they were so rampant in Illinois in the early 1900s that many counties–including Cook–created a post in their township governments for Thistle Commissioner.
It was the job of the commissioner to make sure the farmers and landowners kept their thistles and other “noxious weeds” under control. When one farmer let the situation get out of hand, the weeds could wreak havoc on neighboring farms. Thus, the Thistle Commissioner would tour the township’s roads, take note of large infestations and notify the offending landowner. If they failed to comply, a crew would be hired to take care of the problem and the bill would be handed over to the landowner. Obviously, it would be in the farmer’s best interest to stay on top of the situation and keep his fields clean.
According to Schaumburg Township Officials 1850 to Present, compiled by L.S. Valentine, the first mention of a Thistle Commissioner for Schaumburg Township was in 1915 when Fred Springinsguth took on the job. By 1924, August Geistfeld had the job and was being paid $5 a day to make sure the fields, pastures and roadsides were tidy. Others followed in their footsteps over the years.
Walter Fraas, who lived in the south side of the Township served in the 1940s and, according to his son, Donald, took the job very seriously. Below is a letter he would send out to offending landowners.
The task of actually controlling the thistles often fell to the farmer’s children and they did NOT like the job. In her oral history on the library’s Local History Digital Archive, Esther Mensching spoke of how her father would send them out to the field, clad in leather gloves, and they would pull the plants by hand. The thick, impermeable gloves prevented them from being stuck by the thistle’s spines.
It was necessary to do the job before the plants flowered and after a rain when pulling the taproot was easier. As the thistles were yanked, they were thrown on the field. The children moved through the fields, row by row, from 8:00 to noon, taking an hour or so for lunch and then returning until 4:30 when it was time to come back in for the milking. This was not a job for the faint of heart!
The Thiemanns spoke in their oral history about each person taking 2-4 rows in the corn and oat fields and tackling the thistles with a hoe. The intent was to get to the thistles by the time the corn was 3-4 feet high and the oats were around a foot high. They, too, disliked the hot, sweaty, boring job. Their job, however, didn’t end with the fields because they would also use a scythe to cut down the thistles and all other weeds in the fence rows.
In yet another oral history, Mary Lou (Link) Reynolds, daughter of Adolph and Estelle Link, talked about how her father lost his job as a commercial artist in Chicago during the Depression. Through a friend, he obtained free housing on Minna Redeker’s farm (now Spring Valley) in exchange for keeping the thistles under control on the property. It was obviously a win/win situation for both landlord and tenant at a difficult time, but it is also clear that thistles were a difficult issue for the farmers of Schaumburg Township.
Due to continuing infestations, the office of Thistle Commissioner remained in effect until the early 1970s. Around 1972 Cook County eliminated the position and turned the job’s responsibility over to the Highway Department. By that time development in the township was beginning to overtake the farm fields that were left and the job became obsolete. Thistles, though, are still considered “noxious weeds” and if you come across any in your yard, just take your leather gloves or hoe to them. It’s a lesson learned from yesterday’s farmers!
Local History Librarian
Schaumburg Township District Library