If you ask Dan Fishel what he likes about Brimfield, the mayor has plenty to say. Just don’t call him when he’s rooting on the Brimfield High Lady Indians.
The quiet little community of Brimfield, population 771, isn’t so quiet when a high school basketball championship is on the line. Indeed, the girls got a proper send-off from the local fire department, which escorted them out of town, sirens blaring, as they left to put a proper cap on their dream season.
“That’s standard,” said longtime resident Carroll Carroll, who also serves as president of the Brimfield Area Historical Society. “The town is very friendly. You feel like you have a lot of neighbors here.”
Holly Johnson, Brimfield’s clerk for the past 22 years, concurred. Looking up from her work at the compact village hall, she laughed about life in a small town. “It’s a blessing and a curse. Everyone knows each other’s business but when you’re in need, there’s always someone to help you.”
Fishel, mayor for the last 14 years, also enjoys that local camaraderie but recognizes the challenges a small community must deal with in the 21st century. “We’ve lost a little population in the last 10 years but we have opportunities for growth,” he said, referring to the possibility of new housing subdivisions on the village’s eastern border.
Brimfield lies 18 miles west of Peoria, 25 miles east of Galesburg, making it a two-way commute community along nearby I-74, but it’s not always necessary to leave town for work, notes Fishel.
“Kress Manufacturing, our largest employer, has done a tremendous job over the years. The village definitely benefits from the workers they bring in,” he said.
The Brimfield School District ranks as the second largest employer, Hines Brothers Trucking the third. The local educational system is “a great asset for the community,” said the mayor. “The high school is just short of being brand new.”
As for Kress Corporation, a family-owned company located in Brimfield since 1965, business is booming. Rita Kress, owner and president, oversees the firm with 180 employees that makes heavy equipment for steel mills and 240-ton coal haulers. Indeed, the company professes to be the world’s leading manufacturer of specialty transport carriers, often built to order.
Marketing Manager Nathan Kress, 44, is the son of Rita and founder Ted Kress, who died in 2003, and the grandson of Ralph Kress, a former Caterpillar engineer who was inducted into the National Mining Hall of Fame and is known as “the father of the off-highway truck.”
He said current work orders could allow company employment to swell to 220. “Right now, second shift isn’t staffed the way we’d like it,” Nathan Kress said.
The biggest challenges the firm must confront are finding workers with the skills the company needs and “supply chain challenges that everyone is facing these days,” he said.
Still, being in a place like Brimfield has its advantages.
“This is a good location,” Kress said. “The town’s been very supportive and we have plenty of room to expand.”
Meanwhile, “with good access to Peoria, we attract workers from Caterpillar and Komatsu but we also pull people from the country, such as from the Kewanee-Galva area,” he said. “Being a mile from the interstate is also good for shipping product.”
The downtown has a modest business district complete with pharmacy, bank and a new dentist’s office. “We lost our grocery three years ago but there’s a Dollar Store now,” said Cheryl Harlow, director of the Brimfield Public Library, which is more than a reading room for the community.
“We’ve had to pivot. It’s not just about books anymore,” she said, pointing out an array of online services. The library also has helped area youth compete in robotic contests and is maintaining an oral history project, she said. “We lost so many people during COVID that it made me want to do this.”
History is important in Brimfield. Philander Chase, who started the Zion Protestant Episcopal Church in town in 1845, also founded Jubilee College, one of the pioneering educational institutions in the state of Illinois. The college closed in 1862 after Chase died but you can still tour the refurbished buildings on the grounds of Jubilee College State Park, 3,200 acres of woods and prairie located between Brimfield and Kickapoo, just off U.S. Route 150.
Next door to the village hall and across the street from the library is the L.L. Guyer Log House, a two-story building built in 1837 that served as a general store and meeting place shortly after the town was founded. Restoration efforts, led by the historical society, are underway but the house is already a focal point during the village’s Christmas Walk and annual Old Settlers Days weekend (Aug. 12-14), now sponsored by the Brimfield Men’s Club, a force for change in the town. The event harkens back to the early 20th century, when it brought big crowds and political dignitaries to Brimfield.
“A History of Brimfield 1836-1936” by Henrietta Memler is among the books you can find at the Brimfield library. Along with documenting the town’s big fire of 1886, Memler made a prediction for the future: “In these days of increasing leisure, the time will come when people will feel it is a privilege rather than a hardship to live in a community away from the noise and constant activity of the city.”
Some locals would suggest that time has already come.
Steve Tarter is a Peoria Magazine contributor who was born in England, raised in Boston, moved to Peoria to attend Bradley University and decided to stay. He has spent a career in journalism and public relations.