MARION, Ill. — For a number of years, Williamson County has
been in transformation from a rural, agriculturally diverse area to one marked
by steel, concrete and asphalt.
While farming still is big business here, it now is
overshadowed by commercial and residential development. Longtime county Farm
Bureau manager Garry Jenkins has witnessed the changes through the years.
“Williamson County is pretty much an urban county now,” he
said. “Probably one of the biggest things we’re growing nowadays is
Marion’s location at the juncture of Interstate 57 and
Illinois Route 13 makes it a coveted commercial location. Farmland has been
swallowed up by “miniature urban sprawl” spreading westward from the county seat
here to nearby Herrin.
Between the two small cities lie a mall, regional airport,
numerous commercial outlets and even a baseball stadium — Rent One Park, home of
the Frontier League Southern Illinois Miners, a semi-pro team.
Marion’s Robert Butler, first elected in 1963, is the
longest-serving mayor in Illinois.
The county also is home to John A. Logan College at
Carterville, which has become one of the biggest community colleges in the
Despite the urbanization, Williamson County still has strong
agricultural ties, though not centered as much on typical corn and soybean
operations common throughout much of its neighboring counties to the north.
Those who do nothing but farm are a distinct minority.
“We have only about five or six full-time farmers in the
county,” Jenkins said. “There are some bigger farmers, but they’ve all got
outside jobs. On my board there are nine men, and they all have another job off
The county is home to some unusual agriculture-related
Among them is Timberline Fisheries, one of the largest
producers of crickets and red wigglers in the Midwest. Much of the product goes
to businesses feeding animals, including pet stores and zoos. The waste from the
crickets is used by farmers as a protein supplement.
There also are a few sizable beef and pork operations in the
county. Jenkins said there are no dairies, however. Horses are big in the
region. There is an equestrian center in Marion and a number of horse camps
throughout the county.
The Williamson County Fair is one of the oldest continuously
operated county fairs in Illinois and has a rich history. During the Civil War
the fairgrounds served as a resting place for soldiers.
While there is virtually no fruit production in the county
today as there is in neighboring Johnson and Jackson counties, one vineyard and
winery — Walker’s Bluff — has quickly become a major destination spot.
The winery is a complex of several buildings, with a general
store, tasting “cave” and large outdoor stage that has hosted national music
acts, including Sheryl Crow, Heart and the Charlie Daniels Band.
The county also is dotted with hunting clubs, as it is home
to the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge and nearby Crab Orchard Lake.