At first glance, the area around Anthony Rudis’s 614-acre farm outside Monee, Illinois, seems closer to my hometown in Michigan than it does to Chronicles’ hometown of Rockford, Illinois. (As the crow flies, the distance between Monee and Spring Lake is almost the same as the distance between Monee and Rockford.) Having traveled the 290/294 loop through the overbuilt Chicago suburbs to arrive here only makes the contrast between these two Illinois locations all the greater. Twenty miles south of Chicago proper, this section of rural Will County seems like the land that time forgot.
The gently rolling landscape alternates between woods and farmland, and wildlife—especially deer, geese, even a hawk—is surprisingly abundant on this cold, gray, early February day. A small stream runs under the bridge where the road narrows to one lane from (barely) two. The road that we’re on is paved, but it shows signs of benign neglect. Other roads in the area are still dirt and gravel.
What strikes me immediately about the landscape, though, and brings to mind the thoughts of my hometown in Michigan, is not simply its rural quality—after all, outside of Rockford, Winnebago County is still largely rural—but its humane nature. Houses dot the landscape, spread far apart by city standards but relatively close together for a section of the Midwest that remains not simply rural but agricultural. There are fence-rows here, and treelines, and buffer zones of unplowed land along the banks of the creek—features of the agricultural landscape that have all but vanished since the days when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz urged farmers to plow “fencerow to fencerow.” Just as importantly, as the space between houses indicates, the individual parcels of land are rather small, not the several-square-mile corn-and-soybean agribusiness tracts found in most agricultural areas of the Midwest today. At just under one square mile, Rudis Farm is one of the larger parcels.
Chris Check and I have made the long trek down to Monee because the fate of Rockford and that of this area—quite specifically, that of Rudis Farm—appear, at least for the foreseeable future, to be inextricably linked.
The Northwest Chicagoland International Airport at Rockford—previously known as (among other names) the Chicago/Rockford International Airport, the Greater Rockford Airport, and, in a simpler day and age, just the Rockford Airport—has been struggling for years to establish a viable passenger service. (The increasingly expansive name changes are simply a symptom of the problem—referring to anything in Rockford as part of “Chicagoland” is always a sign of desperation, though usually it’s found, not among businesses or government agencies, but among those residents of Rockford who have no desire to live in our city on its own terms but want to pretend, absurdly, to be upscale Chicagoans—or, better yet, Chicago suburbanites, which is like aspiring to be a soccer mom without the van, or the children.) Despite the continued plans for expansion of the Southeast Rockfordland International Airport at Chicago (commonly known as “O’Hare”), which sits along I-90 in Chicago’s northwest suburbs on the way to Rockford, it is clear that, at some point, O’Hare will physically become all that it can be, while the travel “needs” of those in Greater Northwest ChicagoRockfordland, on the other hand, can (and, barring a catastrophe that sends the price of fossil fuel through the roof, probably will) continue to grow indefinitely. Who will pick up the slack?
The members of the Greater Rockford Airport Authority (the organization is a few name changes behind the airport) would like the answer to be Rockford, and, for a change, most Rockfordians (myself included) agree with the sentiments of a local governing body. While the Rockford airport survives on its strength as a commercial destination (the airport is a United Parcel Service hub), travelers for business and pleasure cannot rely on it to meet their needs. Currently, United and two minor airlines offer a limited selection of flights—United flies to Denver; Allegiant Air, to Las Vegas and Orlando; and Apple Vacations, to Cancun. (A Chicago-based company, Festival Airlines, plans to offer flights to seasonal tourist destinations, and Hooters Air, which briefly spread its wings here, has interrupted its service.)
Many people from the Rockford area who fly out of O’Hare (and, to a lesser extent, Milwaukee) would welcome regular passenger service to a good selection of major hubs. The lack of such service means that travel alone drains millions of dollars out of our local economy every year. The airport is physically capable of handling national and international flights, but the primary problem has been the relatively close proximity of O’Hare, which makes the business model for a national airline a bit sketchy. As O’Hare bumps up against the limits of its capacity, however, that business model will change.
What, though, does any of this have to do with 614 acres outside of Monee?
For over a decade now, politicians on both sides of the aisle, joined only by their desire for political influence, their love of campaign contributions, and—persistent rumors have it—their investments in that instrument well beloved of Illinois politicians, the blind trust, have proposed the construction of an airport east of Monee (known as the South Suburban Airport at Peotone, or simply the Peotone Airport, after the nearest town of any size) as the solution to the limits of O’Hare expansion. The current leader of the charge is Jesse Jackson, Jr., Democrat from the Second Congressional District of Illinois—which, oddly, does not encompass the proposed airport (though it does sit on Chicago’s South Side).
Opposition to the Peotone Airport is high in Rockford, because most people recognize that this is essentially a zero-sum game—any development at Peotone will mean, at the very least, the postponing of the Rockford Airport’s aspirations. Opposition to the airport in eastern Will County, however, runs even higher. Over the past decade, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) has acquired, in a piecemeal fashion, about 2,000 acres for the airport, whose initial footprint would cover 4,200 acres. Many of the remaining landowners, however, have no intention of selling, and so the proponents of the project have repeatedly raised the specter of eminent domain. And, in the post-Kelo era, when the justification for eminent domain has shifted from public use to public benefit (particularly economic), a commercial airport trumps farmland any day—especially farmland that, as Mr. Rudis points out, has been heavily depleted, despite better agricultural practices than those on agribusiness “farms.”
And right in the middle of the controversy sits Rudis Farm.
Mr. Rudis pulls off the road and up to the gate at the entrance of Rudis Farm. Surprisingly spry for a man of 95, he jumps out of the car, opens the gate, returns, and drives us in. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but I know it was not what I’ve just found. Off to our left and right, up to the treeline in each direction, stretches a meticulously landscaped lawn, dotted with sculptures. The extended driveway curves to the left, around the edge of the beautiful pond on which geese seem to be walking on water. (In reality, they are standing on sheer ice that is barely visible to the naked eye.)
While 104 acres of his land is still actively farmed, Mr. Rudis has turned most of the rest into a nature preserve, actively reforesting 440 acres and restoring 80 acres of native prairie over almost 40 years. It is the third-largest reforestation project in the state, and the results (even beyond the obvious trees) are noticeable. While Mr. Rudis had pointed out the mounds that run along the treelines on other properties we had passed (a sure sign of topsoil depletion on the fields between the trees), the reforestation of Rudis Farm has clearly begun to replenish the soil.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has recognized the value of Mr. Rudis’s work, and, for 20 years now, his land has been enrolled in a federal conservation program that provides him with subsidies to aid in his efforts at reforestation. But in a remarkable example of government working at cross-purposes with itself, the Illinois Department of Transportation has targeted Mr. Rudis’s land for the Peotone Airport. In the maps of both the initial boundaries of the airport and the final ones (spanning 24,000 acres), Rudis Farm sits almost dead center.
Roc Van Guilder, a spokesman for the consulting firm that IDOT has employed to acquire land for the airport, was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune in late 2003:
Van Guilder said there are no plans to save any of Rudis’ vast woods or native prairie grasses should the airport be built.
“Construction of a terminal facility will be on the bulk of his property,” Van Guilder said.
In fact, just as Rudis Farm sits in the center of the proposed airport, the terminal would be built on the ruins of the heart of Rudis Farm—the converted hay barn in which Mr. Rudis and his wife live. As the driveway curves back, we see the front of the house, decorated with elaborate woodwork both outside and, we discover as we enter the main door, in.
Chris and I wander around the living room, open to the rafters of the old barn, while Mr. Rudis goes into the living quarters in the addition on the back to find his wife. The former haylofts have been converted, on one side to a library, on the other to a bedroom and office. Stained-glass windows and a baptismal font were rescued by the Rudises, faithful Catholics, from Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral when it was “wreckovated” in the wake of Vatican II. A series of impressive bronzes surround the fireplace on the back wall. And everywhere is dark wooden scrollwork and carvings, following traditional Lithuanian patterns.
Mary Rudis, a survivor at 90 years old of cancer and intensive chemotherapy, is rightfully proud of this homage to the Lithuanian heritage that she and her husband share. Married 65 years, they have lived almost half of their married life in this house, which continues to serve as a haven for their children and grandchildren from the hassles of the modern world. Now, if Jesse Jackson, Jr., and IDOT have their way, this will all disappear—the house, the woodlands, the prairie, the wildlife, and, more important than all of that, any trace of the family that has worked so hard to restore this land and to create a legacy for themselves and others to enjoy.
And for what? “Just to satisfy the quirks of a few politicians,” Mr. Rudis tells us, but it is likely more than that. Congressman Jackson has famously claimed that he can guarantee private investment to get the airport off the ground, but, as Mr. Rudis points out, “How many of these politicians are economists who can say with certainty that an airport here will pay for itself?”
Is Congressman Jackson’s statement a spectacular gamble, or does he have inside knowledge? If the latter, does he stand to benefit financially, and not just politically, from the construction of the Peotone Airport? Why is he pushing this project so strongly, when the Gary/Chicago International Airport, which is closer to his congressional district (and, therefore, more likely to benefit his constituents), is not only ripe for expansion but received federal funds late this winter to start the process? The media that have covered the controversy—even those that, editorially, have been skeptical of the need for the airport—have been strangely reluctant to ask these questions. Is Jackson beyond reproach because of his pedigree, or is it simply not wise to examine the possible personal purposes of any politician in the Land of Lincoln?
The answers, unfortunately, will have to wait for another day, but time may be running out. Plat maps of the area show that IDOT is slowly surrounding Rudis Farm, and how often does a government agency spend this much money and effort over so many years only to abandon a foolish project?
Still, there is some cause for hope. While IDOT sent letters in late 2004 to 57 landowners and lessees whose property falls within the initial footprint of the proposed airport, threatening each of them with eminent-domain proceedings if they didn’t cooperate—in other words, if they didn’t offer to sell their property to IDOT at the price IDOT wishes to offer—the agency has not made good on its threat. One thing is clear: The airport cannot be built unless the state acquires Rudis Farm, and Anthony Rudis isn’t selling. And so, for now, IDOT is proceeding slowly:
Hanson Professional Services Inc. is the consulting firm hired by IDOT to lead property acquisition efforts, and officials there said they are leaving Rudis alone now because of his age.
“We won’t bother him until we absolutely need the property,” said Roc Van Guilder . . .
If they’re waiting for nature to take its course, they may have a very long wait. These Lithuanians are a tough lot—they outlived Soviet communism, after all—and Anthony Rudis is the kind of man who might stay alive just for the fight.
As Chris and I pull away from the gates of Rudis Farm and head west into the late afternoon sun, a final thought occurs to me, one that would be as incomprehensible to an Illinois bureaucrat as it would have been to a Soviet apparatchik. When Anthony and Mary Rudis have departed this vale of tears, they will continue to live on in the minds and hearts of their children and grandchildren. And I smile, knowing with the certainty of faith that their family will continue to fight the good fight.