Shelbyville Daily Union

Special Sections

May 26, 2011

Donnel Farm Sees 6th Generation, New Forms of Agribusiness

SHELBYVILLE, IL. — The sixth generation of a prominent Westervelt family is now living in the home built by their great-great-great grandfather.

Erin Donnel Chambers, her husband John, and their two children, Meredith, 3, and Isaac, 6, live in the home built by William Louis Donnel in 1874. The family farm is included in the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s list of sesquicentennial farms.

Donnel came to Shelby County by covered wagon from Tennessee in the late 1840s, building a log cabin on the land and later the two-story house when the log cabin became too small.

Today, the land not only supports the common corn and soybeans crops, but also a vineyard. William’s great grandson Louis Donnel grows grapes for his agribusiness, Willow Ridge Vineyard and Winery.

William purchased land from both the federal and state government between 1840 and 1850 totaling 240 acres. Later generations purchased more land until 400 acres were in the Donnel name.

Louis has the parchments that were written and signed by U.S. Presidents Martin Van Buren (40 acres in 1840), James Polk, (40 acres in 1848), and Zachary Taylor (80 acres in 1850). Two other parchments bear the name of then Illinois Governor Augustus French - one in 1847 and one in 1848, each for 40 acres at $50 per parcel.

William’s son Charles became owner of the land in the early 1900s. He also ran the grain elevator in Westervelt .

“He made money during the Depression,” said Louis. “The grain elevator was full and when the price of corn went up, he made money.”

He was active in the community and donated land for the Christian Church to be built on. Charles was also on the school board and it is rumored that he put a $1 bill in each graduate’s diploma.

Charles’ son Lester was one of four brothers born in the home, but the one to remain on the homestead his entire life except when he served in World War II. His brothers were given other land in the area. After Lester’s death in 2007, Woodrow is the only surviving brother.

Lester farmed all his life, witnessing many changes in not only machinery, but also farming philosophy.

“Grandpa (Lester) had one of the first John Deere self-propelled combines. A John Deere representative took a picture of him on it. That picture is used on the wine bottles in the winery,” said Erin Chambers, Lester’s granddaughter.

When Louis presented the idea of a vineyard to his father, Lester did not discourage him.

“He was in favor of it. Dad’s always been supportive of me,” Louis said. “The pasture ground was idle and I was looking at a different option for it. I was going to sell the grapes to Dennis Vahling for his winery. But the hobby just evolved. It is the fastest growing industry in Illinois.”

With Lester’s death, the family home stood unoccupied for a couple of years. Louis lives within a quarter mile of the home with his wife Tina. Louis’ sisters Dorothy Dilley and Connie Scott also made their own homes away from the family farm.

Erin and John Chambers found the opportunity to return to Shelby County after living in the northern part of the state and chose to live in the family home.

“I was happy to have her in the family home. It was meant to be lived in,” Louis said. “Dad took a lot of pride in the home.”

Erin and John are remodeling the home with an effort of bringing back the original architecture of the home’s interior.

“When this house was built in 1874, it was built right and solid. I feel like we’re caretakers of the house and property,” John said. “There’s a lot of pressure to renovate the family house and do it right.”

“Grandpa (Lester) was born and died in this house. My dad grew up in this house. I spent a ton of time here as a child,” Erin said.

The Chambers are using their five acres for their own agribusiness – organic farming.

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