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Centennial History Series: Early Prairie Restoration in the Forest Preserves of Cook County

a prescribed burn at Crabtree Nature Center in 1974
A prescribed burn of Phantom Prairie at Crabtree Nature Center, March 1974.

During the summer months, beautiful prairies bloom all over the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Many of these natural communities thrive today because Preserves staff and volunteer stewards worked for decades to restore and maintain them.

Before the era of restoration, agriculture, urbanization and fire suppression were driving prairies to the brink of extinction in the Chicago region, seemingly irreversibly. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County first explored the possibility of restoring prairies in the early 1940s. Disrupted by World War II, those plans never came to fruition.

Yet the impulse to restore continued to resurface, and in the mid-1960s, two decades after the initial foray, Forest Preserve naturalists began restoring prairies at several nature centers. Through their work, they became pioneers in ecological restoration and set the stage for the blossoming of the field in the decades to come.

Seeds of Restoration in the 1940s

In 1940, with guidance from the Illinois Natural History Survey and ecologists at the University of Wisconsin, Forest Preserve District administrators adopted a plan to restore a prairie remnant at Dam No. 2 Woods in Mount Prospect. Theodore Sperry, an ecologist who was already directing a prairie restoration in Madison, Wisconsin, picked the forest preserve site. He proposed that the District engage the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—a Depression-era work relief program—to expand the prairie there. The plan called for planting sod and seeds collected from prairies growing in other forest preserves and along railroad tracks.

By early 1941, the CCC agreed to supply labor for the restoration. Roberts Mann, the Forest Preserve District’s then Superintendent of Maintenance and soon-to-be Superintendent of Conservation, played an instrumental role in the Dam No. 2 project. He wrote that the “restored prairie will create a landscape of rare beauty, typical of the virgin prairies so nearly extinct and so significant in the history of the great middle west.”[i]

In spite of Sperry’s concrete plan and the Forest Preserve staff’s growing interest in prairie restoration, the Dam No. 2 project would not be realized. As World War II began, the CCC and other work programs dissolved, and Forest Preserve personnel poised to assume leadership of the project went off to fight in the Pacific.

Studying Restoration after World War II

In the post-war years, an interest in prairies and restoration lingered in the Forest Preserve District. It found expression in the nature centers established by the new Department of Conservation, formed in 1945. Some of the Department’s first naturalists became luminaries in ecological restoration and the study of local flora and fauna. Floyd Swink, for instance, began working for the District as a naturalist at the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in Willow Springs in 1957. After Swink took a job with the Morton Arboretum in 1960, he wrote Plants of the Chicago Region, first published in 1969.[ii] That book remains a primary reference for restoration ecologists in Cook County.

Although based at the Morton Arboretum, Swink continued to teach Forest Preserve naturalists about prairies and their unique plants, and a community of colleagues grew under his mentorship. Chuck Westcott, who directed the Little Red Schoolhouse and later Crabtree Nature Center, knew Floyd Swink and Bob Betz (a professor at Northeastern Illinois) through birding circles. Swink and Betz also introduced Westcott to Ray Schulenberg, a horticulturalist at the Morton Arboretum.

On weekends between 1960 and 1965, Westcott, Betz, and Schulenberg explored remnant prairies in vacant lots, alongside railroad tracks, and in settler cemeteries all over the Chicago region. In later years, Westcott, Betz and Schulenberg, along with David Blenz, the director at Camp Sagawau in Lemont (now Sagawau Environmental Learning Center), consulted one another about each other’s prairie restoration projects.[iii]

Prairies Take Root at Nature Centers

Blenz, Westcott, and naturalists at the Little Red Schoolhouse began restoring prairies on nature center land by the mid-1960s. With forb (flowering plant) seed collected around Chicago, the Department of Conservation built a five-acre nursery for prairie species near McGinnis Slough in Palos.[iv] In 1964, the District naturalists listed some of the species they grew there: “cardinal flower, great blue lobelia, coreopsis, purple coneflower, blazing star and butterfly milkweed.”[v] In addition to the forb seed they collected, naturalists bought grass seed—such as big bluestem, little bluestem, switch grass, Indian grass, and side-oats grama—for their prairies from a dealer in Nebraska.[vi] (Today, seed is sourced only from nearby preserves.)

Using that seed, naturalists established prairies, by hand and with farm machinery, on land previously used for agriculture. At Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington Hills, naturalists planted Turkey Foot Prairie (20 acres) in 1965 and Phantom Prairie (60 acres) in 1969. For each one, they plowed the land and then used a drag harrow to loosen the soil before sowing seeds.[vii] They distributed grass seed with a Nisbett drill, and several days later, overseeded the land with forb species that their colleague Blenz had collected in southern Cook County.[viii] Crabtree Nature Center’s Turkey Foot Prairie preceded Bob Betz’s Fermilab prairie restoration (also created with farm machinery) by 10 years.[ix]

Beginning in 1965, Blenz established a relatively small prairie—six and a half acres in 1973—by hand.[x] During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Blenz carefully planted seeds and seedlings on a plot of land in ways that resembled Schulenberg’s meticulous prairie restoration at the Morton Arboretum.[xi] Blenz passed away in 1974, and a memorial stone at the Sagawau prairie commemorates his dedication to the site. By 1973, the Little Red Schoolhouse naturalists had also restored a 13-acre prairie. At Sand Ridge Nature Center, naturalists restored a six-acre prairie.[xii]

While practices have evolved since those early years, today the Forest Preserves of Cook County as a whole embraces ecological restoration, and the early nature center prairie restorations endure. This summer, we may all celebrate the efforts of groundbreaking naturalists by visiting the prairies that nature center staff members have maintained for the past half-century.

The Centennial History Series takes an in-depth look at various chapters throughout the Forest Preserves’ 100 years. Natalie Bump Vena is a JD/PhD candidate in Northwestern University’s School of Law and Department of Anthropology. She is writing her dissertation about the history of natural resources policy in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. She grew up on Chicago’s South Side and visited the Palos forest preserves most weekends with her family.

  • [i] Roberts Mann. Winter 1941. “Wildlife Conference Report.” Taproots 2 (1). Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series III, Box 31, Folder 471.
  • [ii] Williams Jordan. Winter 1987. “’Something We Were Always Looking For’: The Origins of the Chicago Prairie Movement.” Restoration and Management Notes 5 (2): 68.
  • [iii] Interview, July 29, 2013 (conducted by Natalie Bump Vena)
  • [iv] Naturalist Presentation at the Girl Scouts Service Seminar in Oak Park, IL (probably by John Leen), March 22, 1966. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series III, Box 9, Folder 136; Nature Bulletin No. 755, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, May 9, 1964.
  • [v]Nature Bulletin No. 755, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, May 9, 1964.
  • [vi] Interview with Chuck Westcott by John Elliott.
  • [vii] Interview, July 29, 2013 (conducted by Natalie Bump Vena).
  • [viii] Presentation at Crabtree Nature Center by Chuck Westcott. March 2, 2012.
  • [ix] Harold L. Nelson. Winter 1987. “Prairie Restoration in the Chicago Area.” Restoration & Management Notes5 (2): 60.
  • [x] Kathleen Troher. “Back to Nature.” Chicago Tribune. August 15, 1993.
  • [xi] Interview, July 29, 2013 (conducted by Natalie Bump Vena).
  • [xii] “Cook County Forest Preserve District Re-Introduces Native Illinois Prairie Grass, Flower Sites.” Press Release 1973. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series III, Box 29, Folder 425.