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Historical Feature

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First impressions are almost inevitably lasting ones. Whether meeting a prospective client for a business proposal, tasting a new, exotic food type for culinary exploration or simply visiting a town for the first time to assess its value as a place to visit or even stay, whatever a person’s instinctive response, that sentiment rarely washes away easily. Similarly, an early settlement and its inhabitants will often have a lasting effect on the direction of the area for many years to come. As much as George Washington shaped the way Americans would forever perceive the office of the president and Davy Crockett came to represent what Americans expected of its pioneers, the McGovney-Yunker Farm and its inhabitants helped indicate the way Mokena would eventually evolve. Though not necessarily guided by a Davy Crockett, Mokena and the Farm had their own related pioneers, and continue to benefit from what each has contributed.

Stories of the McGovneys reach as far back as 1780. Sometime around then, James and Nancy McGovney wed. Incidentally, Nancy McGovney, and Crockett, in fact hailed from the same family as Davy Crockett. Perhaps that spirit of exploration passed on through Nancy and onto her son John, the man who early on moved west from his parents’ Pennsylvania home and became the very first permanent resident of Frankfort Township, which included modern-day Mokena. John McGovney and his wife, Nancy, had eight children together, and though several of them held significance for the area, Elijah began a farm years ago that still exists in Mokena. The McGovney-Yunker Farm remained a privately owned farm until it was sold in 1996 to the Mokena Park District, where it has been a community treasure ever since.

Now, centuries later, the 115-acre farm comfortably enjoys a position on the National Register of Historic Places as the Yunker Farm. However, attaining that respected status for Yunker Farm definitely did not come easily and required a different kind of pioneer. Mokena would eventually find someone up to the task of making Yunker Farm’s significance more widely known from within its own ranks, but not from a dutiful citizen whose family had inhabited the area for generations nearly matching those of the farm. Instead, Yunker Farm found its champion in a young resident of Mokena who had only known the Village for a few years.

“It was one of the last farms here in Mokena, so it was important for me to save it,” said Jennifer Medema, the woman most singularly responsible for Yunker Farm obtaining a spot on the National Register. Despite a lack of personal history with the Village, Medema felt compelled to officially designate Yunker Farm as a noteworthy one.

“For me, it all started out when I was a new resident here and I was taking a class at Harrington Institute on historic preservation,” said Medema, her tone growing in excitement as she vividly recalls the experience. “We had to write a paper about a property that we thought could be worthy of being listed on the Register.” Any town has its share of significant areas, and Mokena had a few that caught Medema’s attention initially. When she had gone to the library to research topics, she had first meant to investigate the original St. Mary’s Church, a building she still considers worth looking into for the Registry. At the time, though, Yunker Farm seemed to hold even more potential for her project, and Medema went straight after it.

Nonetheless, acquiring all the necessary materials to have a site placed onto the National Register of Historic Places takes an extensive amount of effort, no matter how much initiative already displayed. Medema would have to find the minutiae of Yunker Farm’s history. For example, she had to learn each of the successive owners for the site and what each person did with it during their respective tenures on the farm. She also had to develop an extensive knowledge of the farm’s many buildings, including information about the style of construction and what materials went into creating each. Fortunately for Medema, some of the investigation about the buildings and their construction had already been accomplished. “The Park District did actually have an architect’s firm come in and do a lot of that work,” commented Medema. “So I had a document to go by to get a lot of that information.”

After four years of laboring over Yunker Farm’s intricacies, Medema had finally amassed enough information to have a genuinely valid opportunity to move the farm onto the National Register. She compiled her information about the buildings, various photographs from all manner of angles in and out of the different barnyards and other buildings, and presented all of the details to Springfield through a slideshow on March 17, 2005. The board ultimately proved amenable to the proposition, and by May, Medema received word that her work culminated in Yunker Farm making it to the National Register. “I knew it could happen,” said Medema, “and it needed to be done.”

Consequently, Yunker Farm has developed into a place beyond farming for the sake of subsistence and even into a recreational area for the entire village. The farm currently boasts an exceptional disc golf course for the enjoyment of those looking for a little unorthodox sporting. A recreational building also supports community usage to keep citizens looking for more traditional exploits contented. Many of the buildings on the farm have experienced renovations such as repainting and even restructuring to ensure that the cherished site remains a staple for years to come and continues to host classic Mokena events like the Farm and Barn Fest and the Food and Wine Festival.

Early sentiments about a place often remain for quite a time, so Mokena is fortunate to have had a pioneering past to define it as a desirable and enjoyable village. That spirit of exploration and appreciation remains with Mokena, evidenced in the continued reverence for its old tenants like Yunker Farm, and also in its ability to inspire new residents like Jennifer Medema. With its place solidified in history, Yunker Farm, and Mokena around it, will now surely inspire residents and visitors alike for many years to come.

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