Someone to Know: Dennis Buck

Some may say you can’t live in the past, but that’s the essence of Dennis Buck’s job as heritage interpreter at Kline Creek Farm, an 1890s living history farm in West Chicago. Buck delights in finding fun and creative ways for visitors to travel back in time to experience Midwestern farm life, from harvesting ice to shucking corn. On a typical day, you can find Buck dressed in 1890s period attire as he helps with farm chores or planning the farm’s next big event.

What are some of your responsibilities as a heritage interpreter at Kline Creek Farm?
My job is to interpret social and cultural history during the 1890s and includes family life, social and political activity, domestic activity and farming. We have specialists who focus on domestic and farming activity, so my job is to help provide some context to daily life at the end of the 19th century, and to maintain an interpretive framework to balance those stories. Because we are a working farm, most days I’m in an 1890s costume and smell of farm animals and sweat. The “sweet spot” of my job is where seasonal farm work meets public participation. At that intersection are many of our large programs and events.

Part of my job is to research, plan, coordinate and execute some of these large programs and events. I oversee “Corn Harvest,” “Country Fair,” “Ice Harvest” and “A Day at the Farm,” as well as some seasonal and holiday programming like “Christmas on the Farm,” “Memorial Day Remembered,” and “The Glorious Fourth.”   

I also organize, coordinate and often lead tours and private programs for school groups and youth and adult groups. For our daily drop-in visitors, I work with staff to build a calendar filled with opportunities for year-round interactions and encounters — between visitors and the farm, staff and other visitors. I oversee the orchard and the wagon shed and coordinate two teams of volunteers who help me meet our guests and inform them in entertaining ways that reinforce the farm’s interpretive goals. As much as possible, we try to engage visitors’ minds through their senses. It’s the difference between telling someone how farmers used to hand-pick corn or showing them how corn was hand-picked in the 1890s to letting them experience the work themselves. 

What is your favorite activity to do in the preserves?
One of my favorite programs at Kline Creek Farm is our “Ice Harvest” because it’s something unique that we offer the public that they can get almost nowhere else. There are very few places in the country where the public can participate in every aspect of this activity that was a necessary part of life in the days before mechanical refrigeration. But more importantly, it’s really fun! The program is distinctive and involves using special tools and visitors have a great time. It gives people something to do during the long, dark winter. It also allows us to talk about the environment, social history, technology, foodways and farming. Basically, it ties together our entire interpretive program in one neat bundle. It also connects people to the seasonal nature and rhythms of farming. It also shows bond between farming and nature and highlights the close relationship between farmers and the weather and environment. Harvesting ice also demonstrates the planning involved in farming. More often than not, farming tasks are tied to preparing for future needs. We harvest ice in January to be able to cool milk in July, just as we put up hay in July in order to feed the animals in January.

Why do you enjoy working for the Forest Preserve District?
The District’s vision to foster “a community in which all citizens share a connection with nature and an appreciation for cultural history” resonates with me as the type of society I want. We can build connections between people at a really fundamental level and bring people together in powerful and lasting ways, and I’m proud to be part of making that vision a reality every day. 

What do you like to do for fun in your time away from work?
My time away from work is spent with my family. We enjoy a variety of outdoor activities, including camping, stargazing, biking, fishing, hiking and swimming. We are also very fortunate to live in a neighborhood where people sit on their porches well into the evening, almost anything is a good excuse for a party, and you can tell where the kids are playing by the pile of bikes and scooters in front. I like to cook, play the occasional game of cards, and the rare “dinner-and-movie” is always fun.

What inspires you in nature? Why do you like to share that with others?
What inspires me in nature is trying to understand my place in it. I love being where I am obviously just a small part of the larger environment, like an awe-inspiring mountain vista or snorkeling on a reef bursting with life. But I try to be mindful that my work, like my yard, is nature shaped by my presence. One of the most complicated themes in human history is what we tell ourselves about our place in the world. On the local level, one of the recent expressions of this has involved food – where it comes from, how it is produced, what effects the process is having on us and our environment. Eating is a very personal — sometimes even private — issue, and people have very strong feelings about their food, as they should. But they are often very ambiguous about what role they play in the process. Getting people to think openly about their food can be a challenge, but I can’t think of many issues more important than helping people understand what they are eating. 

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