Ann Ihrke and her daughter-in-law, Cindy, were portrayed in a series of mass-mailings to Ford County residents ahead of the Nov. 6 election as wanting to "take Ford County in the wrong direction." However, the two women who live east of Roberts hope that residents of Ford County — including the area they now represent as newly elected members of the county board — can see them for who they really are. While they do have strong views about wind farms and feel that stricter regulations need to be put in place to limit wind turbines’ potentially problematic effects, they stressed that they just want to protect the county and its people. "I think we were kind of demonized," Cindy Ihrke said. "I heard rumors that people were saying we were just going to get up and scream and yell, but I think the biggest thing for people to understand is that we are willing to listen. We may not agree 100 percent, but we are willing to listen and do what we can to work to a way to agree to something." So who really are Ann and Cindy Ihrke? Ford County Record Editor Will Brumleve sat down with them at Ann Ihrke’s home last Friday to get the scoop ...
RURAL ROBERTS — Through a window in the kitchen of Ann and George Ihrke’s 19th century home, one can find a breathtaking view of the sprawling grassland that brought the couple from the south Chicago suburbs to rural Ford County almost half a century ago.
In 1970 — not long after Ann, amidst a career in speech pathology, and her husband, a veterinarian, were married — they teamed up with four other suburban residents to buy the 320 acres of land about 2 1/2 miles east of Roberts. They intended to turn the land — which had been used as a cattle farm — into a hunting preserve.
Over time, the land was groomed, with native grasses and evergreens planted in place of corn fields.
And over time, the land became a destination for residents of the suburbs, as well as area towns, for hunting pen-raised pheasants, quail, mallards and Hungarian and chukar partridges.
What is known as the Green Acres Sportsman’s Club had just five members when it began. It now has 102.
Of course, among them are Ann and George Ihrke, along with the other nine people from the south suburbs who now co-own the grounds together.
"Our three boys grew up here," Ann Ihrke said. "We’d come every weekend and shoot bows and arrows, and we’d fish; we’d shoot. It was our place for recreation."
Back then, when their children were still in their youth, Ann and George Ihrke would take an old camper with them so their kids could take naps whenever needed during their hunting excursions. They would sometimes stay at an old farmhouse on the hunting grounds, too.
Ann and George Ihrke bought the land when Dan, their middle child, was only about 16 months old. Twenty-seven years later, Dan and his wife, Cindy, began managing the club and began living and raising their family in the old farmhouse there.
"When they came in (and started managing the club), it really took off, because they really put their hearts and souls into making it a better place," Ann Ihrke said.
Ann and George Ihrke bought land abutting the hunting grounds in 2004, moving in to an old two-story house on the property three years later.
They initially planned to use the house as a place to stay when they would come from the suburbs to hunt at Green Acres on weekends. At that time, Ann was retired but was still busy taking care of her ailing father, Jack, in the Chicago area, and her husband was still working as a veterinarian. However, Ann and George soon fell in love with the place and decided to start living there full time in 2007 following George’s retirement.
The home dates back to the 19th century. Ann Ihrke said she was told the house was originally built for use as a hotel, as a railroad was to be built just across the road, Ann Ihrke said. The railroad spanning from St. Louis to Chicago ended up being built elsewhere, however — either in Roberts to the west or Buckley to the east — so the hotel never came to fruition, Ann Ihrke said.
"Those were the horse-and-buggy days, so for people to come four or five miles from the railroad to here, it wasn’t going to happen," Ann Ihrke said.
So the home has been used as just that — a home — ever since.
Only about three families had lived in it over the decades. In that time frame, it had fallen into poor shape.
"When we first came here, the house was really pretty bad," Ann Ihrke said. "Our friend, a lawyer, he came down to do the closing (of the property sale) for us, and when we walked him through the house, he said, ‘Oh, my god! You should just take a match to it.’"
Ann and George Ihrke, though, had other ideas.
"There’s something nice about this house," Ann Ihrke said.
Ann and George Ihrke have been there ever since, completing renovations to the home and adding outbuildings to the property. They use their land to train their many hunting dogs for competitions, with their English pointers regularly winning championships across the nation in horseback field trialing contests.
The change of pace from suburban life to living in rural America has been a welcome one for the couple, who celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary on Sept. 3.
"We love living here," Ann Ihrke said.
Ann Ihrke said her husband loves to mow the nearby fields at Green Acres and spend his days outdoors.
"He likes farming," Ann Ihrke said. "He grew up in Minnesota, and when he was quite young they were still farming with horses. So he loves farming."
Ann Ihrke had lived in the south Chicago suburbs for her entire life before moving to Ford County. The first of two children of Jack and Joan Ihrke, she grew up in Oak Park.
"It was a very nice place but a very ‘city’ place," she said. "Whenever we’d go anywhere in the country, I’d just always felt so good when I was out in the country area."
After graduating in 1964 with a degree in speech pathology from the University of Illinois, Ann Ihrke embarked on a career in what was then known as "speech correction," working at hospitals, schools and rehabilitation facilities in the suburbs. She retired in 2000 when her father became ill.
When she and her husband were married in 1966, they moved to Mokena, near Joliet, and continued to live there for 41 years until moving to rural Roberts.
In the 1990s, their son Dan met his future wife, the former Cindy Fremel, in Mokena. The two had never known each other previously, despite attending the same high school in Mokena. Dan was one year older than her.
After graduating from high school in 1991, Cindy started working as a cosmetologist for a woman who ran a salon in Mokena and happened to also be a neighbor of the Ihrke family.
"I still to this day don’t know if she did this on purpose or not — I think she did — but one day she said, ‘My neighbors’ son needs a haircut; he’s home from college; I’m busy tonight; can you take him?’" Cindy recalled. "And I said, ‘Oh, sure,’ because I was working anyway that night.
"I guess he liked (the haircut)," Cindy said with a laugh, "because he came back and then we started dating."
Seven months later, they were married. Both avid rock-climbers, Dan and Cindy tied the knot in California, visiting state parks and going rock-climbing along the way.
After they returned home to Mokena, Cindy continued to work as a hairdresser while her new husband was waiting tables. Although Dan had a degree in biology from Winona State University in Minnesota and had obtained employment at a lab that does animal testing, he decided he did not like that occupation and decided to quit his job, so he was temporarily working as a waiter while trying to determine his new career of choice.
"He said, ‘I can’t work inside all the time; I have to be outside,’" Cindy Ihrke recalled. "He did not like that whole ‘every day you do the same thing in a building’ (job). He wanted to be outdoors."
Soon thereafter, he would get his wish.
It was in the summer of 1997 when Ann and George Ihrke offered their son and their new daughter-in-law the opportunity to be the managers of the Green Acres Sportsman’s Club. Ann and George had been unhappy with the hunting club’s management, so they turned to them for help.
"We were sitting around the table, and (George Ihrke) came home and was angry because the fields weren’t planted, and the tractor was broke down and stuck in the field out there," Cindy Ihrke recalled.
"And the windows in the house (on the Green Acres property) were broken out, and the curtains were just flapping out of the place," Ann Ihrke added. "It was terrible."
"So we said, ‘Well, we’ll come down and help get things going,’" Cindy Ihrke recalled. "But it was supposed to only be temporary. We said, ‘We’ll come down and take over until you can find someone."
Cindy and Dan, however, "fell in love with it almost instantly," and they did not want to leave, Cindy Ihrke said.
Cindy Ihrke was pregnant with her first child — Triston — at the time. She and her husband had to put in a lot of work to get the grounds back up to par, but "we really liked it" despite the hard work, she said.
"(Dan) loved being outside every day," she added. "And then, as we got things put back together and running smoothly, he started training dogs, and he fell in love with it."
Training dogs was not something Dan Ihrke had a choice about at first, as it was one of the many services offered at Green Acres. Fortunately, with his parents having been avid hunters and dog trainers, he already had "some background" in the field, his wife said.
"So he knew the basics, and he was getting these dogs to do just basic hunting," Cindy Ihrke said, "but then he started getting into the more advanced work and really enjoyed it."
Today, training dogs for hunting is one of Dan Ihrke’s main duties at Green Acres, which has expanded its dog-training program as Dan has mastered the craft.
Also helping with the operation at Green Acres are Dan and Cindy Ihrke’s three kids — Triston, 20; Sage, 18; and Liah, 11. They not only help keep up the dog kennels there, they also help with the release of birds that are to be hunted by the sportsman’s club’s members.
The peacefulness of the rural landscape around their homes in central Ford County is something that Cindy and Dan Ihrke and Ann and George Ihrke love and cherish. They never plan to leave.
However, they are now faced with the possibility of wind turbines — perhaps as tall as 600 feet — being built nearby. They are concerned the skyscraping machines will ruin their scenic landscape, hurt business at their hunting preserve, limit what they can do on their own land, and present a threat to their health, safety and welfare, among other concerns.
For the past several years, Cindy and Ann Ihrke have been engaged in a back-and-forth battle with wind-farm developers, as well as county officials, over the county’s rules guiding the construction of wind farms.
And that fight is no where near over, as the county board continues to negotiate changes to its ordinance regulating wind farms.
But now, Cindy Ihrke, 45, and Ann Ihrke, 76, have an official say on what happens. On Monday night, the two women were sworn in to four-year terms representing District 2 on the county board.
While serving on the board, they will continue to push for greater setbacks — the minimum distance between a turbine and a home or property line — and they will continue to fight to keep turbines’ heights limited to the existing 500 feet, rather than the 600-foot limit proposed.
And they will continue to hear the concerns of landowners just like them — those who do not want to have turbines towering over their properties.
"I hope that we have an ordinance that protects the citizens," Cindy Ihrke said. "If wind turbines can still be built here, then great, as long as the people who are going to be impacted all agree to live with the nuisances that we know can happen from them. ... So I am hopeful that we are going to come to a good compromise for a strong ordinance."
Cindy and Ann Ihrke began investigating the wind industry — and questioning the county’s rules applying to wind farms — in 2010. That year, they learned from Debbie Smith, former chairman of the county board, that a public hearing would be held for a special-use permit for a proposed wind farm near Paxton. The Ihrkes then attended the hearing and voiced their concerns.
"A lot of people voiced their concerns," Cindy Ihrke said about the four-hour hearing.
However, Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Bob Link of Gibson City said after the 5-0 vote that the decision to move forward on E.On Climate & Renewables’ 150-megawatt Pioneer Trail Wind Farm was "pretty cut and dry."
"I remember at the end of the hearing, I heard one of the (zoning board) members say, ‘Well, I don’t know what this testimony is all about, because I was told that if (the wind-farm developer) meets all the 13 points of their special-use, then we have to give this (permit) to them,’" Cindy Ihrke recalled. "And at that point, I said, ‘Oh, my gosh. That’s scary.’"
"Little did we know when we went to the hearing that it was already a done deal," Ann Ihrke added.
Cindy and Ann Ihrke then attended the next county board meeting, when the wind farm’s permit was to be voted on by the county board.
"The county board chairman interrupted me during public comment, so I actually had to file a complaint with the attorney general’s office and go through that whole learning process, as well," Cindy Ihrke recalled. "We realized there was a problem. ... We saw that the public was really pushed out of the process, and that was very, very disheartening and eye-opening to me, because I was brought up to think that ‘government represents the people’ and ‘government is there for you’ and is ‘looking out for you,’ but that was not the case."
Cindy and Ann Ihrke and a few other people later started Energize Illinois, a nonprofit group that they said was formed to help educate people about the energy industry in general, with wind energy being only a part of its focus. The group was in existence for about four or five years.
"It was a network of people who have tried to let other people know that ‘This isn’t exactly what you think it’s going to be. These people come in and tell you all these wonderful things, but it’s not true,’" Ann Ihrke said.
Cindy and Ann Ihrke continued to attend meetings of the county board and its various committees year after year. But not until residents of the Kempton area begin complaining about a wind farm near them did the board begin to take matters seriously and take measures to have the wind-farm rules revised.
It was not that long ago when county board meetings came and went with little discussion among the board’s members.
"A lot of time, you’d see a vote come up and there would be no discussion on anything. There would be no questions asked, and then we would ask questions and nobody would really know the answers," Cindy Ihrke said.
"Whatever came up, it would be ‘yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,’" Ann Ihrke said. "It was like nobody ever discussed anything. But to me, (discussion and debate is) an important part of any decision you’re making. Out of 12 people (on the county board), surely somebody has a question, right?"
The questions kept coming from Cindy and Ann Ihrke as they attended a series of meetings that were held over a one-year span to hash out new rules for wind farms.
"We went to almost every meeting — I think we missed one meeting — but at every meeting they’d say, ‘Well, nobody else seems to be concerned about this; you two seem to be the only two people in the whole county who care about this,’" Cindy Ihrke said. "That’s because nobody else came to the meetings at first. ... But we knew there were a lot of people (who felt the same way we did), because they’d tell us; they’d call us; they just wouldn’t come to a meeting."
A few months ago, the Ihrkes then paid for a full-page advertisement in the local newspaper, showing a map of the county and the sites planned for wind turbines. The map showed nearly the entire county covered with wind turbines.
"People looked at that map and said, ‘Oh, my gosh. They’re going to be all around me,’" Cindy Ihrke said.
The Ihrkes said they hope more people participate in local government. They said public participation is key to holding government accountable to the public.
"It’s their county; it’s where they live; and whatever happens here is going to affect them," Ann Ihrke said.
Since the wind-farm debate picked up in recent months, the Ihrkes said they feel the county board has come around to at least discussing the issues wind farms can create.
"It’s not just us," Cindy Ihrke said. "The fact that other citizens have stepped forward and have kind of woken up to what’s going on, I think that’s really helped to open the hearts and minds of the people on the board."
The Ihrkes are two of four new members of the 12-member county board, joining Debbie Smith of Paxton and Chuck Aubry of Gibson City as newcomers.
"I’m excited about what the new people, including Ann and I, can bring — the new ideas and the new thoughts that can be brought to the table to maybe help run things a little smoother," Cindy Ihrke said.
Cindy and Ann Ihrke said it seems some residents still misunderstand them. It may not have helped that five fliers were mass-mailed to residents of the county prior to the election, each containing messages about them that they say are not accurate.
"I think we were kind of demonized," Cindy Ihrke said. "I heard rumors that people were saying we were just going to get up and scream and yell, but I think the biggest thing for people to understand is that we are willing to listen. We may not agree 100 percent, but we are willing to listen and do what we can to work to a way to agree to something."
"And we want to do the right thing — the right thing for the county and the right thing for the people," Ann Ihrke added. "To me, that’s what government is supposed to do."