Treasuring history

Fermilab Director
Pier Oddone

Last Saturday I attended the Pre-Fermilab Tenant Picnic, more familiarly referred to as the Farmer’s Picnic. For many years now, this event has brought together the families that farmed the land around Fermilab for generations before the lab was established. As with many events at Fermilab, former and current lab employees volunteer their time to organize the picnic. Some of the employees are related to the farm families, and all treasure the opportunity to share good food and, more importantly, stories about the land and the times before the laboratory was established. Over the years employees of the laboratory who also grew up on the farms before the lab was established have attended the picnics. They provide historical continuity and narratives of how the landscape has changed—and also not changed—under Fermilab’s stewardship.

Clearly, if Fermilab were not here today, the 6,800 acres of our laboratory would look like the suburban development and shopping malls that surround the laboratory, and would in no way be distinguished from the rest of suburbia. Today, however, Fermilab is something of an oasis from the suburban surroundings, and visitors and neighbors enjoy the site as a public park. The site has a large restored prairie, significant land leased to agriculture, lakes stocked with fish and diverse forests.

At the time Fermilab was established in the late 1960s, our site was countryside, populated by 56 farms. To create the Fermilab site, 56 families were displaced from their homesteads. Many of the farms and barns have since been maintained, and the families that came on Saturday, sometimes bringing multiple generations with them, could visit their ancestral homes. Some of the farms were relocated to the Village and are today used as part of users’ housing facilities. Many of the barns are still in place and used for a variety of purposes, from housing the bison to a venue for square dancing and many other events in Kuhn barn.

Before I started attending these Farmer’s Picnics and enjoying the great potlucks, I imagined that the families would feel some resentment that they were displaced from their land. To my surprise, the feeling is exactly the opposite: They love Fermilab and the efforts that the laboratory has made to curate the land and its buildings. I imagine they realize that without Fermilab, there would be nothing to show their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren.

If you are interested in reading the history of these 56 farms, obtain a copy of the publication “Remembrance of Things Past” from Fermilab archivist Valerie Higgins or at the welcome desk in the Wilson Hall atrium. You can also visit the Fermilab History and Archives Project Web page.

Fermilab employees and neighbors turn out for this year’s Farmer’s Picnic at Kuhn Barn.