Located just about six miles southwest of Bloomington, Illinois, the small town of Shirley got its start in 1854 as a farm and railroad settlement. However, it would be years before an “official” town was laid out.
The first pioneers of the area were brothers Isaac and Absalom Funk, who came to the region in 1824, amassed a huge cattle ranch of 25,000 acres, and established Funk’s Grove just about four miles to the south. Isaac Funk, along with his attorney and friend, Abraham Lincoln, were responsible for bringing the Chicago & Alton Railroad through the region, sidetracking it from its planned route through Peoria.
LaFayette Funk, son of Isaac Funk, cattle man, co-founder and boss of the Chicago Union Stockyards, and Illinois State Senator, built a home for his wife in Shirley in 1863.
It was state of the art at the time of its construction, containing both hot and cold running water, and over the years was updated to include the first-ever electric kitchen island and a lighted tennis court. Called the Prairie Home today, the mansion has been preserved and is open for tours, featuring 13 rooms of original furnishings, as well as memorabilia and antiques collected by several generations of the Funk family.
Another early pioneer was a man named John M. Foster who came to the area from New Hampshire. He and others soon built homes near the the switch of the Chicago & Alton Railroad. In 1866 Foster laid out a townsite. Consisting of just ten small blocks, Foster’s home, a store, and the railroad station were located on the south side of the railroad tracks. A warehouse and mill were situated on the north side. Later, a hotel was built in the small town as well as a Methodist and Christian Church. By 1895, there were about 20 homes in the town.
Unincorporated today, Shirley boasts a population of about 375 people. While visiting this historic community, be sure to visit the Funk Prairie Home at 10875 Prairie Home Lane. Next to the mansion is the Funk Gem and Mineral Museum, which houses a large display of rare gems, minerals, fossils, petrified wood and lapidary art in Illinois. Collected by Lafayette Funk II, the grandson of the Senator who built the mansion, he amassed the unusual collection for years before his death at the age of 95 in 1992. The museum bills itself as the largest one-man mineral collection in the world. It also features Native American artifacts collected from the Funk farmstead, interprets the Funk Brothers Seed Company, and other items collected by the Funk Family.
Just about four miles on down the road, you will come to Funk’s Grove, home of Maple Sirup.
Also getting its start by the Funk family, the grove was first settled by brothers Isaac and Absalom Funk, who came to the region from Kentucky in 1824. Choosing the location for its water supply, fertile soil, and timber, they were soon joined by Robert and Dorothy Funk Stubblefield who followed from Ohio. Though the Funks may not be household names in Illinois history, they were a very influential family. Isaac Funk soon amassed some 25,000 acres of land and was the first to start cattle-feeding operations in the Midwest. He and his brother Absalom built the meat-packing house in Chicago – then known as Fort Dearborn.
None other than Abraham Lincoln served as the family attorney and he and Isaac Funk were largely responsible for bringing the Chicago & Alton Railroad through the region, sidetracking it from its planned route through Peoria. he would also serve as an Illinois State Representative and Senator, and was one of the founders of the Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. Isaac and his wife Cassandra, would have ten children, all of which would have important leadership roles in government, banks, universities, and private ventures.
Isaac’s son, LaFayette would play a major role in the cattle business, was the co-founder and boss of the Chicago Union Stockyards, and an Illinois State Senator. In 1863, he built a home for his wife, Elizabeth, in nearby Shirley, Illinois. The couple were known to have harbored escaped slave on their farm during the Civil War. The home still stands in Shirley today and is open for tours.
LaFayette’s son, DeLoss would create a power plant for the homestead in 1905 and would later wire all the Funk farms for telephone service. Another of LaFayette’s sons, Eugene, along with 11 other Funk family members, founded Funk Bros Seeds in Bloomington in 1901. It still operates today under the name of Ciba Seeds.
The family was also responsible for bringing the first modern soybean crushing plant to the Midwest, the development of hybrid corn, and other improvements to the region.