John D. Waters and Highland Farms

J.D. Waters mansion, with cupola and meteorite in front, undated (Shelley Mitchell Boehnlein)

John D. Waters built a livestock empire in eastern Sangamon County. He also built a mansion south of Dawson that was known for, among other things, the large meteorite that adorned the front yard.

“He was one of the best known and most influential livestock men in the county and made a success in feeding cattle for the market,” the Illinois State Journal reported when Waters died. “He also was a widely known auctioneer and conducted many large sales until recent years.”

Waters (1852-1926) was born in Sangamon County to pioneer parents originally from Virginia. He began his stock-raising career on rented land, but began buying property in the Dawson area while still a young man.

“During his close application to business, entirely depending on farming and livestock, he was able to accumulate several thousand acres of Sangamon county’s best land,” the Journal obituary said.

Waters was an evangelist for shorthorn cattle. He usually had several hundred pastured on his farm, and Waters-raised animals were regular prize winners at major stock shows.

Waters’ preference for shorthorns was an economic decision, certainly, but it was more than that as well. He explained in an article he wrote for the Journal in 1918:

When it comes to the block and considered from the butcher’s standpoint, they will dress more pounds of higher priced cuts of meat than any other breed. Considered either from the butcher’s or the producer’s standpoint, they have no equal. …

Shorthorns as a breed are undoubtedly the best producers of beef, milk and butter. They have such docile and kind dispositions. They are the most attractive, with their long, silky coats of hair and fine colors – red, white and roan.

In his later years, Waters seems to have concentrated on his auctioneering career. A newspaper advertisement in 1906 (which called him “Col. J.D. Waters” – the military rank was honorary, a typical touch for many auctioneers) said Waters had 40 years experience in raising stock and 15 years as an auctioneer.

That “renders him the opportunity of being as good a judge of all kinds of property as any other man of his age in Central Illinois,” the ad said. “Perfect satisfaction guaranteed to both buyer and seller.”

Waters’ farm (most of the property he bought was contiguous) was known as Highland Farms. That’s explained by the fact that, while the land was typical central Illinois flatland, the Waters’ majestic brick home, built in the mid to late 1800s, was on a slight rise. The meteorite on the front lawn was one that had fallen on Waters’ farmland.

Highland Farms was south of Dawson on the west side of County Highway 16 (also known as Buffalo Hart Road or Dawson Road).

At John D. Waters’ death, the farm was split among his four children: Nellie Wilms (??-1960), Eva Morgan (1876-1966), Lorinne Waters (1891-1967), and Homer Waters (1884-1959). Lorinne and Homer continued to live in the home their father built.

Lorinne, the last family resident of the mansion, moved in 1963 to a senior citizen home. When she sought tenants for the home, she hoped to find renters who would be good stewards of the house, a breadwinner who had some prestige to his job, and children that were well mannered and well behaved. So for the first time in the history of Highland Farms, the Waters name gave way to those of Sanford and Joyce Mitchell and their six children (Sanford Mitchell was a manager at the Springfield Sears Roebuck & Co. store). The Mitchells moved in on New Years Day, 1964.

Sanford and Joyce Mitchell and family, 1963; in birth order, children are Sandra, Sanford Jr., Stephanie, Shelley, Stephen and Stacey (Courtesy (Shelley Mitchell Boehnlein)

The Mitchells lived at Highland Farms for less than two years. In 2022, however, Shelley Mitchell Boehnlein found a photo of the home. It inspired her to write some memories of Highland Farms for SangamonLink.

“It was like stepping into a portal and once again walking through the house,” she wrote. “I remember the rent was $65 a month, but heat costs were another story.”

With lights on in almost every room, some area residents commented that the house looked like a huge hotel, or a house lit up like Christmas, she wrote.

With six children, it certainly was understandable. Ms. Waters only needed to use the lights as necessary for one person.

The inside of the home had a fireplace in every room. When you entered through the front door, before you was a beautiful mahogany winding staircase that went up to the third floor, where one could access the cupola. To the right was the formal parlor, and straight ahead and to the right was the family den. There was a dining room and a sitting room, and a kitchen. Five bedrooms upstairs. The maid’s bedroom had a staircase to the kitchen. In the early ‘60s, bathrooms were added on to the house, both upstairs and main floor.

Sanford Mitchell and daughter Sandra (Taverna) at her wedding reception, held at Highland Farms in 1964 (Shelley Mitchell Boehnlein)

Highland Farms boasted a variety of outbuildings – a chicken coop, two barns, a smokehouse, and an attached milk house with an old-fashioned water pump next to it. (A well was dug when the Mitchells moved in.) The roof was tin with a lightning rod and a weathervane.

The original roof cupola had been removed by the time the Mitchells moved in. However, the cupola platform remained, Boehnlein wrote, and sometimes the older kids would climb up and watch the farmers working the field.

The Waters mansion reportedly was destroyed by fire sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, a century or more after it was built. Exact dates for both the home’s construction and destruction are unknown.

In September of 1965, Sanford Mitchell was promoted and transferred to the Sears store in Lansing, Mich. Shelley Mitchell Boehnlein concludes:

It was a sad day when we left Dawson/Mechanicsburg/Buffalo and “our” home for but a moment in time.  We can only thank Lorinne Waters for choosing us to be its inhabitants at least for almost two years.

But more importantly, the real privilege was living in the Dawson, Buffalo, and Mechanicsburg communities and experiencing the warmth of small-town living. … It was a privilege attending small-town festivals and ice cream socials, seeing farmer helping farmer, neighbors being neighbors.  Altogether, that is what we left behind.

John D. Waters deserves to have his legacy recognized. Mr. Waters’ farm was not small (almost 2,000 acres), nor were his contributions to the cattle community and Sangamon County. The Highland farmhouse he built is no longer, but my memories of it are, and so are the communities of Mechanicburg, Dawson, and Buffalo.”

Hat tip: SangamonLink thanks Shelley Mitchell Boehnlein, who brought Highland Farms and John D. Waters to our attention and then contributed to this entry.

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