SoybeansA marker commemorating the first soybeans ever planted in Illinois was placed at the Louis and Clark Community College in Alton, Illinois nearly 167 years after John Lee of Alton helped them take root.

However, Lee did not receive this crop by ordinary means. Illinois’ long history with soybeans begins 500 miles off the coast of Japan in 1950, after a shipwrecked Junk stranded 17 Japanese sailors at sea.

The group was transported to San Francisco after the North American freighter Auckland rescued them from the wreck. Among the survivors was Joseph Heco, pictured left, who later became the first Japanese person to be naturalized as a United States citizen. A chest of goods he and his shipmates brought from the wreck contained the very first soybeans that Illinois would see.

At the time, Alton resident Dr. Benjamin Franklin Edwards was residing in San Francisco. Like many others during this time, Edwards was drawn to California by the gold rush.

While Edwards was waiting to take on provisions for his return journey to Alton, the Japanese sailors gifted him their “Japanese Peas,” or soybeans, as we know them as today. Upon his return, Edwards gave the soybeans to John Lee to plant in his garden, thus making Illinois history.

In 2018, the U.S. Agriculture Department reported Illinois’ soybean production totaled 688 million bushels.

The marker was formally revealed on August 23, 2019, at 2 p.m.