FOOSLAND — If you’re not a “Foos” from Foosland, or related to one, then you’ve likely never been through the smallest incorporated town in Champaign County.
“No one just drives through Foosland, because it’s not on the way to anywhere,” said Connie Aldrich, who became a “Foos” by longevity rather than birth. “I didn’t grow up here, but I’m a Foos in my mind.”
After moving to this tiny town of 99 in th
e northwest corner of the cou
nty in the early 1970s, Aldrich knows as well as the natives that Foosland is off the beaten path.
A railroad runs through it, a creek nearby it.
But three local highways — Illinois 47, Illinois 54 and U.S. 136 — take local traffic on the way to anywhere through other small towns, like Gibson City and Fisher, all missing Foosland by a handful of miles.
Oddly, the highways form a triangle around this quiet, four-block-by-four-block burg that covers less than half a square mile and doesn’t even have a water tower signaling its location. Its 40 households rely on well water.
“I like it because it’s peaceful and nobody bothers you,” said Dale Aldrich, Connie’s husband, a native Fooslander, current village trustee and former mayor, who’s called this home for all of his 70-plus years.
Occasionally, someone will wander from a main highway into Foosland. They’re either lost or curious, the locals joke.
In a town where everyone knows everyone, at least by name and by vehicle, it doesn’t take long for a visitor to get noticed. But Fooslanders are not recluses, assures Larry “Butch” Johnson, who grew up there in the ’50s and ’60s, along with Dale Aldrich.
“Everybody’s friendly, and everybody’s welcoming in Foosland,” Johnson said.
In their generation, Foosland’s population was closer to 150 and had a decent number of businesses, including the general store and gas station, banks and a car dealer.
It incorporated in 1959 to capture tax revenue and upgrade the town’s streets.
But even then, the town’s more thriving horse-and-buggy days — with closer to 300 residents and a dozen local businesses — were already in the past.
“This was a thriving community way back,” Dale Aldrich said.
In his youth, McKinney Motors actually drew out-of-towners from all over the U.S. to Foosland, because it was a Willys Jeep dealer and the place to get parts for various models.
In that era, Johnson said, kids in Foosland “made their own fun,” walking everywhere, playing in mud, drinking from the garden hose and entertaining themselves, depending on the season — baseball, fishing and creek swimming in summer and basketball in the gym and skating and hockey on the frozen creek in winter with sticks made from hedge trees.
“What you have to do to envision Foosland is envision a Norman Rockwell” painting, Johnson said of growing up in the small town in his era, a time when he and his friends had “40 mothers in town” keeping them in line.
The 72-year-old appreciated that when he joined the Marines after high school and went off to Vietnam, where mail was “very important.”
“I was very fortunate, because I had several mothers who wrote me,” Johnson said, his voice breaking with emotion. “You can take the kid out of Foosland, but you can’t take Foosland out of the kid.”
William Foos was here
In the mid-1800s, the Foosland area was undeveloped swampy prairie until a successful Ohio farmer and banker named William Foos bought about 3,500 acres in northwestern Champaign County from Civil War veterans, who reportedly received it for their service.
He drained the land through 15 miles of open ditch and several thousand dollars of tile drains, the story goes, and launched a large tenant farming operation overseen by a local superintendent.
In 1880, according to a biography, Foos sold 200 head of cattle at 5 cents with an average weight of 1,747 pounds and cultivated 1,500 acres in addition to meadows and pastures for livestock, putting up over 500 tons of hay. His land was “known in that vicinity as the model farm.”
But Foos never became a “Foos.”
He, and later his son, managed their large tenant farming operation from Ohio, visiting Foosland occasionally to check in with the superintendent who ran Foos Estates, as it was known.
Still, Foos is entirely responsible for the town’s existence: Around 1870, Chicago-Paducah railroad officials approached him about acquiring right of way for a line that later became the Wabash Railroad.
During negotiations, Foos brokered a railroad station on his property, and began laying out Foosland, established in 1874.
The train station came 11 years later.
There’s not a train station left, but about five trains still roll through town every day. And today’s village park is the same piece of land Foos donated and dedicated as a park more than a century ago, said Dale Aldrich, who explained that over time the Foos Estates land has slowly exchanged hands. The last chunk still held by family descendants sold only recently.
In “Dinner at Noon, Supper at Night,” a book about growing up on a Foosland farm in the ’20s and ’30s, native “Foos” Verla Bullard wrote that the town owed its prosperity to “its rich black loam soil.”
‘Benches of wisdom’
The area still boasts that fertile land dominated by farming, but rural life has changed a lot since the ’50s and ’60s, when Johnson and Dale Aldrich remember farmers gathering every morning at the downtown grain elevator office or dressing up in their white shirts and overalls to come into town on Saturday nights to stock up at the general store and visit.
In her book, Bullard recalled “benches of wisdom” in front of the general store, where farmers and townspeople gathered to discuss about any topic.
“Men, who normally occupied the benches, do not gossip — they visit!” she wrote.
“The farmers made Foosland,” said Johnson, giving them credit for supporting businesses as well as the town’s main church — its only congregation for decades — with their membership and donations to Foosland United Methodist.
“Foosland’s always been a pretty religious town,” Johnson said, reminiscing with Dale Aldrich about the church bell ringing every Sunday.
And without a school in town, the Methodist church was the center of the community, said Connie Aldrich.
Foosland High closed in 1947 when the Gibson City school district was formed, and 20 years later, the grade school followed. Today, Foosland kids are bused to Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley schools.
In the last four decades, farms outside town have consolidated, businesses have closed and young people have left for the military, college or jobs.
The population has slipped — from 172 in 1970 to 132 in ’90, and in the last decade, dipped below the century mark, from 101 to 99, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
More recently, the town lost its grain elevator business, its polling place and its fire department. The latter consolidated with Fisher, where Fooslanders now vote, too.
The U.S. post office — present since the decade Foosland was established — is still hanging on, but is open only two hours a day.
“It will go eventually, but hopefully not for a while,” Dale Aldrich said. “When we lost our (grade) school, that hurt us. We’ll lose all of our identity if we lose our post office.”
In 2008, the Methodist church held its last service. The building was put up for auction, purchased for its stained-glass windows and demolished.
In her book, Bullard described the windows as “massive, beautiful beyond description” and the most outstanding feature about the building.
The 398-pound, 27-inch church bell was relocated to Mount Hope Cemetery northeast of town, the site of the original Methodist congregation.
And the Foosland fire station was also sold, converted into a residence, leaving the village board without a meeting place.
Five mayors in 60 years
With a little money and a lot of volunteer labor, the town’s rock-floor pole shed was converted into the current community center and board meeting room. That’s where current Mayor Doug Walker was sworn into office in May — just the fifth mayor in 60 years.
In a town of 99, it doesn’t take many votes to win.
Walker said there were 32 registered voters in the April election and of the 17 who went to the polls, he garnered 100 percent of the vote.
“The budget was very minimal,” he joked about financing his campaign. “No signs or billboards.”
But he said he did make more of an effort than usual to wave at people in town, pull over and talk with them or visit with residents at the post office, especially those who may not know him as well.
“It’s just letting people know who you are,” said Walker, which is partly why he and his family moved to the tiny town 14 years ago.
“It’s a very relaxed atmosphere. The kids can bike around town, and everybody knows everybody,” he said. “You know whose kids belong where when they’re biking around.”
And crime, he said, is non-existent.
But the trade-off is that everyone needs to pitch in, because local government officials are basically volunteers, too, who are typically recruited into service.
Walker said a previous mayor asked him to run for the village board six years ago.
Being mayor is more a “labor of love,” Walker said.
It’s hardly a lucrative, power-wielding position with no village employees, no village services and very little revenue.
Foosland gets a tiny share of state gas tax ($2,500-$3,000 a year) and sales tax revenue (about $20,000 a year), according to Connie Aldrich, the village treasurer who was asked to run for village board by a previous mayor, Paul Verkler, in 1987.
She was appointed treasurer shortly after that, and except for a two-year hiatus, she’s held that role ever since.
Like a lot of small towns, money is the village’s biggest challenge, said Dale Aldrich.
When something needs to be done, Debra Field said, Fooslanders pitch in. Like when strong winds sent power poles and trees on nearly every property tumbling a week ago.
That Sunday, neighbors were helping neighbors all over town, she said, and calling on friends and relatives from out of town, especially those with chain saws.
“Chain saws were running everywhere,” said Lynn Meece, a longtime resident and village trustee, whose husband, Harold, is a native.
Walker said it made for a working Father’s Day, but the community came together.
“We all pitched in,” he said. “It makes everything go a lot easier.”
Much of the debris was piled on the Meece property, where residents are allowed to put material that’s disposed of regularly. The next day, another resident, Dave
Adamson, was pitching in — on his tractor, pushing the pile together.
Said Field: “That’s just how everybody is in this town.”
‘A pretty cool town’
Four years ago, Blake and Jamie Propst were renting in Champaign-Urbana.
Compared to most areas of Champaign County, Jamie said they found a very affordable house, especially for its size, across from Foosland’s park.
With a 7-year-old daughter — and a baby on the way — Jamie Propst said she and her husband don’t mind their commute to work in C-U and wanted their kids to attend GCMS schools.
A stay-at-home mom whom the Propsts have become friends with gets her daughter off the bus and keeps her until they get off work, and the Aldriches are their “friendly backyard neighbors,” Propst said.
An affordable house near a friend already living in Foosland also attracted Brian and Debra Field to town 17 years ago, when they moved their family from Fort Myers, Fla., and transferred to local jobs with their trucking company.
A Kentucky native accustomed to a rolling, tree-filled landscape, Debra Field remembers her reaction to the flat, tree-barren farmland.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, what did he do to me? It’s nothing but cornfields,’” she said, adding that it was a big change from Fort Myers, especially having to drive several miles to get gas or groceries. “But I wouldn’t have changed it.”
Brian Field said he had to adjust to how everyone you pass on the road “throws up their hand,” whether they know you or not.
“Which took some getting used to,” he said.
Seventeen years later, the Fields are like native Fooslanders — involved with the village board and community activities and loving small-town life, where they know most of their neighbors.
The Fields and their now-grown children have also been integral in helping the community revive a scaled-down version of Foosland Days, a festival popular in the 1980s.
“It’s quiet. People keep to themselves,” Debra said.
Despite the peace and quiet, there’s no anonymity in a town of 99.
Connie Aldrich said it’s typical for current, and former residents who are visiting, to take “the drive” around town to see what’s going on, if anything has changed or if anyone’s outside visiting.
“We do and most do ... just a quick check on the village and neighbors,” she said.
Lynn Meece said it’s a nice little town where no one bothers anyone and you can kick back and relax.
“I don’t know how much we sit on the front porch and watch the world go by,” she said.
But Jamie Propst said she gets a recurring question now from out-of-towners.
What is Foosland?
“It’s a town,” she said she tells them. “It’s actually a pretty cool town.”