A Sesquicentennial Farm

Johnson family reunion photo
Johnson family reunion at Oak Leaf Farm in 1904. Matriarch Eleanor Madden Johnson is seated in the middle row at the far right, wearing a bonnet. 

As of February 2015, the Illinois Department of Agriculture has certified seven sesquicentennial farms in Madison County. In order to qualify, a farm must remain in the ownership of the same family for 150 years. James Henry Johnson established one of these farms in Foster Township, northeast of Alton, in 1850.

James Henry Johnson was born in 1810 in Virginia to an enslaved woman and spent his early childhood in slavery. According to family lore, Johnson became a harness maker in Kentucky. He also worked in the lead mines of Missouri. He and his wife Eleanor (née Madden) started Oak Leaf Farm with an initial purchase of eighty acres. By the time of his death in 1863, Johnson had accumulated 200 acres of contiguous land worth $2,500. He had $1,218.20 in personal property, including $354 in livestock, a $2 grindstone, and a table and library valued at $8.

In the nineteenth century, people used grindstones to sharpen their metal tools. The grindstone shown here belonged to Edwin Diller Young circa 1875. The grindstone listed in James Johnson’s 1863 probate documents was probably very similar. MCHS object 1983-002-0002.

In addition to farming, James founded and pastored Baptist churches in the Alton area. He served as a delegate representing Madison County at the 1856 Illinois State Convention of Colored Citizens. He worked for the State Repeal Association, which sought the repeal of the Illinois Black Laws restricting the rights of African Americans in the state.

Oak Leaf Farm grew and shrank over the years. Four generations of Johnsons grew corn, soybeans, wheat, milo, alfalfa, raspberries, and sugarcane for making molasses. They raised cattle, hogs, sheep, chickens, turkeys, geese, and ducks. The current owner, 79-year-old Lloyd E. Johnson, sold most of his farm equipment in 2006. There are no farmers among the next generation of Johnsons.

photo of Johnson farmers
Cyrus L. Johnson and his sons Alvin, Lloyd, and William working the family farm in 1956. Photograph courtesy of Charlotte Johnson.


  • Bassett, Kathie. “Heartland Heritage: Johnson Family’s Farm is History in Making.” Home Style Magazine, 4, no. 2 (Fall 2010).
  • Illinois Historic Farms: Honoring Our Enduring Heritage. Morley: Acclaim Press, 2015. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
  • James H. Johnson probate documents. Accessed September 5, 2018. https://www.ancestry.com/ (subscription required).
  • Johnson, Lloyd. “Lloyd Johnson.” Interview by Michael Maniscalco. Audio-Video Barn, Illinois State Museum, April 10, 2008. Accessed August 24, 2018. http://avbarn.museum.state.il.us/BioID/10
  • Parish, Norm. “A Legacy on the Land.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 29, 2003.
  • Proceedings of the State Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Illinois, Held in the City of Alton, Nov. 13th, 14th and 15th, 1856. Chicago: Hays & Thompson, printers, 1856. Accessed September 6, 2018. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=_pwTAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&pg=GBS.PP5