What better way to celebrate receiving an award for my biography of George Fell than to visit Carpenter Park — one of more than 400 Illinois Nature Preserves for which he provided permanent protection.
But first things first. Receiving an Outstanding Achievement Award for scholarly publications from the Illinois State Historical Society was an exceptional honor — especially since the awards ceremony was held in Representatives Hall in the Old State Capitol. To stand where Lincoln stood when he delivered the “House divided against itself” speech, offering a few words about my own effort to chronicle a small but important sliver of our state’s history — well, that’s a moment I’m going to remember for a long time.
Afterward, my wife and I took advantage of the perfect spring weather and spent the afternoon in the only dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve in all of Sangamon County.
Carpenter Park is located along the Sangamon River, about 15 minutes from the Old State Capitol. It is owned and managed by the Springfield Park District, which acquired the site way back in 1922. Prior to that, it was owned by the Carpenter family, who used the river to power a sawmill and a flour mill. Prior to that — because no Springfield, IL history story is worth its salt unless it includes a tie to the 16th President — a young Abraham Lincoln canoed down the Sangamon River, past the modern-day Carpenter Park, on his way to establish his own homestead at New Salem. Prior to that, the Pottawatomie gave the river its name, Sain-guee-mon, meaning “where there is plenty to eat.”
Today, Carpenter Park is a popular place. Small wonder. Any one of the several trails quickly leads you through an exceptionally rich and varied landscape — from upland forest down to floodplain forest along the river, with seeps and intermittent streams, and scenic sandstone outcrops.
The forest floor was filled with spring ephemerals, including phlox, trillium and buttercup and may apples, to name a few. (The Park District might do well to engage a few Scout troops to pull up invasive garlic mustard, which is threatening to overrun some areas.)
Even more impressive was the number of birds we saw. Carpenter Park is home to at least 82 bird species. We didn’t see quite that many, but it was a joy to spy several red-head woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, many different kinds of warblers, and a rose-breasted grosbeak.
Heroes comes in all different shapes and sizes. Abraham Lincoln was a hero of epic proportions for many things, including keeping the country from being divided. George Fell was a hero in his own right, keeping the the last remnants of our ecological heritage — the prairies, woodlands and wetlands of the Prairie State — from being destroyed.