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Now that ain't hay! Farmer thrives amid suburban sprawl
By Mike Spellman

Harold Bergman, 94, of Hoffman Estates, waits on a customer who wants to buy hay at his barn.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Harold Bergman, 94, looks over his 38 acres of farmland, which has been in his family for decades. He now uses it to grow hay and straw for local horse farms and Arlington Park.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Harold Bergman, 94, operates the heavy machinery to harvest the hay crop on his property as a worker scoops up the bales and stacks them on the wagon.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Harold Bergman, 94, of Hoffman Estates puts up the closed sign on the outside of his house, notifying customers to come back at another time to buy straw or hay, as he heads off to church.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/22/2010 12:00 AM | Updated: 9/22/2010 7:21 AM

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A few miles to his south sits one of the busiest shopping malls in the suburbs. A couple of blocks to his east, the hustle and bustle of Harper College shows the new school year is underway.

But pull into his short driveway off Algonquin Road in Hoffman Estates and up to Harold Bergman's barn and it's like being transported back in time. A tranquil, simpler time.

Rectangular blocks of hay are stacked floor to ceiling in the old structure. The main door frames a view of the 38-acre field that produced that harvest.

"This is about all I've got room for," says Bergman, at age 94 the oldest farmer in Cook County, surveying his harvest and overseeing customers as they pull up to load their pickup trucks with bales of hay. "I got this idea about 30 years ago. The fact that there are horses that need hay - it seemed like a good idea. This has worked out pretty good."

Has it ever.

One of the few hay farmers in an area heavily populated with horses, he finds business is usually pretty good. A lot of that business comes from trainers at Arlington Park looking to replenish their supply. A quick call to Bergman, and it's mission accomplished.

Dressed in a pith helmet and sharp as can be, Bergman is always there to help.

"Arlington is racing and if there's anybody that wants to stock up on hay, well you've got to tend the store," he said. "Any daylight hours."

He's been keeping those hours for most of his 94 years. Helping his family run what was then a sprawling dairy farm for most of his first 50 years will do that to a fellow.

"When you spend the early part of your life milking dairy cows, you start early in the morning and somehow you just don't get over it," he said. "You wake up, that's all. You don't need an alarm clock."

Just the sun.

"I wait for it to get light," he said. "There's nothing going on in the dark."

But once that yellow orb hits the horizon, it's go time for Bergman, who, until recently, not only operated the tractors but helped lift and store the hay. Now he relies on volunteers to do most of the heavy lifting.

"For a long time my wife and I did it alone," said Bergman, whose younger brother Bernie, 92, is a part-time dispatcher at a trucking company in Palatine. "Then the heart started to give out a little." And then when Elsie passed away, "suddenly it lost its glamour."

But still he perseveres.

And while the world around him travels at breakneck speed, his life remains on the same steady cadence as he makes his way to and from his home on the same lot, a home that was built in 1852.

"My grandfather built the house," he said with a gleam in his eye. "I was born in that house, so I've lived here all my life." It's where he raised his children, Stephen and Georgia.

Bergman briefly got away from farm life when he went into teaching high school agriculture classes in Chili, Ind.

But a call from his ailing father changed everything.

"Back to where I started," he said with a laugh. "But this is what I like to do."

Just how much longer he'll do it is very much up in the air.

"My son and nephews think I've farmed enough and they want to sell the place," Bergman said. "They have that big sign on the corner. But there are no buyers now. They got the idea just a little too late, that's all."

But if one day soon the farm is gone and the land developed, don't expect Bergman to get melancholy about it.

"Oh no," he said. "That's progress. Change what you can, and what you can't, accept."

Either way, Bergman is quite content with the life he's lived.

"Sure," he said with a smile. "I did the best I can."