The area today known as DeKalb has a long, colorful history that began to unfold in the early 1800s. Settlers from the east coast were attracted to the area by the rich farmland and abundant natural resources. Agriculture was the primary economic activity. The area began to grow and develop with the arrival of the Chicago and North Western railroad in the mid-1800s. The area’s prime location brought easier shipping of local crops to larger markets such as Chicago. In 1873, local farmer Joseph Glidden developed barbed wire and began commercial mass production of his new invention designed to manage animals in large pastures. However, another entrepreneur later claimed to have invented barbed wire. After 18 years of legal wrangling, Glidden’s patent was declared the “winner,” thereby assuring DeKalb a place in history and the nickname “Barb City.” The DeKalb County Farm Bureau, the first organization of its kind, was established in 1912. In the 1930s, the DeKalb AgResearch Corporation marketed its first hybrid seed corn.
The founding of Northern Illinois State Normal School in 1895 permanently changed DeKalb’s landscape by adding education, cultural, and sporting events to complement and enhance the lifestyle of DeKalb residents and visitors. The 756-acre campus became known as Northern Illinois University (NIU) in 1957. Today, NIU is the second-largest university in the State of Illinois system, with 18,000 students and is the largest employer in DeKalb.
DeKalb has evolved from primarily an agri-business and manufacturing town, into a regional economic engine with its access to the I-88 and I-39 corridors. DeKalb has a history and culture of innovation. Whether you are looking for small town charm or a progressive area, DeKalb is a unique city that takes pride in its farming roots, embraces growth, and celebrates its diversity.
DeKalb is the cultural hub of the county. Art galleries, the Kishwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Municipal Band, live theater, dance, arena concerts, independent films, and championship sports are all in DeKalb’s back yard. DeKalb has 40 area parks, 3 major bike trails, the art deco Egyptian Theatre, and the historic Ellwood House Museum and Gurler House.
The Kishwaukee River flows northward through the city, offering recreational opportunities. The community has an outstanding school system. In 2013, DeKalb High School District 428 was ranked among the best in Illinois by U.S. News and World Report. The DeKalb Public Library has served the community for more than 100 years and will complete an extensive, $25.3M expansion project in August 2016.