Tradition defined local farm pioneer

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011
— A strong, likeable man who became a voice for agriculture in Janesville is being mourned by city and rural folk alike.

Whilden “Bill” Hughes died Wednesday at age 80.

His son, Whilden “Randy” Hughes, said his father became a spokesman for farmers because of where the farm was located.

As the city grew, the farm in La Prairie Township and the city eventually shared a border, and complaints of city people about farm smells grew.

Bob Arndt, who grew up across the fence from Randy, said Bill Hughes became a goodwill ambassador, and his efforts over the years helped city people understand that farmers are and indispensable part of society.

“He dealt with that relationship with city people better than anybody I know,” Arndt said, adding that farming enjoys a much better reputation these days because of Hughes’ efforts.

Hughes was a big personality, making friends and influencing people wherever he went. He was involved with the Janesville Jaycees in his younger years, and that’s how he met Roger Axtell, an executive with Parker Pen, which moved here in 1956.

The Axtells and Hugheses became fast friends.

Axtell said Hughes loved practical jokes. Hughes once snuck into the Axtell residence, removed the light bulbs from the upstairs rooms and put tape on the bottoms of the bulbs before replacing them.

Axtell didn’t discover the trick until after he’d bought 10 new bulbs.

Another time, Bill removed the slats from the Axtells’ bed, which fell to the floor when the couple went to bed.

The Axtells were one of numerous families Hughes would visit in his pickup truck, delivering free vegetables from his garden.

Arndt recalled Bill and his own father as giants of his youth. Arndt and Randy grew up following in their fathers’ boot steps, learning much, Arndt said.

Even when the sons took over their family businesses, the older generation was a valuable resource, having survived the hard times to thrive in the good times, Arndt said.

That generation is largely gone now, and with them a treasure of knowledge and leadership, Arndt said.

“Their word was as good as any contact anywhere, anyplace, anyhow,” Arndt said. “They said what they meant, and they meant what they said, and I think it’s an admirable way to do business.”

Bill Hughes had a store of knowledge and passion for local history. His great-grandfather came with his family from Pennsylvania to farm in the Janesville area in 1848. A Whilden Hughes has been farming here ever since.

During a tour of his Mule Hill Farm in 2006, Bill Hughes told a Gazette reporter that his great-great grandfather bought the land from the first white family to settle in the area.

Hughes proudly talked about his family running an ice cream store on Beloit Avenue in the 1930s, where they showed free movies in the summertime.

He also told how his parents paid for his delivery at Mercy Hospital with dressed chickens.

And, he was proud that sand and gravel from the farm became the concrete in many a local building project, including at the General Motors plant.

Hughes worked hard but found time to get involved in many professional and civic organizations, including the Rock County 4-H Fair, where for years he announced the meat animal sale.

Hughes is survived by his wife, Pat, and three children.

“He was one of the nice guys in Janesville,” Axtell said.

Randy called him a wonderful, caring father who had a lot of patience.

“He was the greatest guy in the world,” said Pat Hughes, speaking through her son.

Bill Hughes leaves behind a legacy, including his first name. Randy was named Whilden Randall, the fifth in the line, and Randy has a son named Whilden, who goes by Willie.

There’s another Whilden in Janesville—Whilden Street—named after Bill’s father, who farmed for many years in an area of what is now the city’s northeast side.

Last updated: 5:21 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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