6.7 Miles and 2.5 Million Years Ago at Midewin

According to an app on my my iPhone, I took 18,594 steps today at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, totaling 6.7 miles. In truth, I went much farther than that. As I strolled through recovering prairie lands, I traveled back in time–through 1945 and the arsenal era, through the pioneer farmer era of the 1800s, all the way back to the time of the last glacier and beyond.

South Patrol Road Prairie in a snowless mid-February

In spite of the unseasonable, 70 degree temperature, the prairie doesn’t look like much in mid-February. It’s understandable how most people driving along historic Route 66, which runs through the middle of Midewin, are likely to perceive nothing more than dead weeds.

Oh, but before the prairie wakes is a perfect time to dive deeper into the history of Midewin. The dry, matted grasses make it easier to climb the steep slopes of munitions bunkers. This provides a bird’s eye view of the Joliet arsenal era. During the 1940s, hundreds of bunkers on the west side of Midewin harbored massive amounts of TNT and its component chemicals, while even more bunkers on the east side of Midewin held the end products–bullets and bombs that were shipped overseas in support of Allied troops fighting the Good War.

Before trees and shrubs leaf out, the remains of various pioneer homesteads are easier to spy. They lie tucked within overgrown copses–originally planted, no doubt, to provide the earliest settlers some protection from the prairie sun and winds. When the government forced the farmers to sell their land in order to build the arsenal, all the farm structures were either moved or razed, leaving nothing but their limestone foundation bones–memorial relicts, really, of those who first busted the prairie sod as far back as the 1830s.

Amid yet other leafless copses lie mounds of other kinds of stones. These are reflective of the pioneer settler era as well as the Pleistocene Epoch. In the process of plowing up the prairie, pioneer farmers found they also needed to clear their fields of massive granite boulders. Known as glacial erratics, these boulders were left behind by the mile-thick glaciers that last blanketed northeastern Illinois about 14,000 years ago.

As it turns out, placing your hand on a sun-warmed rock from so long ago pales in comparison to hearing the clarion call of a sandhill crane, which speaks to Midewin’s even more distant past as well as its future.

Sorry for the lousy pic–the crane came upon me so quickly and close that I couldn’t get focused fast enough.

The oldest sandhill crane fossil dates back 2.5 million years ago. Once threatened with extinction due to hunting and habitat loss, sandhill cranes continue to make a comeback. Over the past few years, as more and more of Midewin has been restored, flocks of sandhills–or sandies–have been regular visitors to Midewin, stopping over on their migration from Florida to Wisconsin and the upper midwest.

During this time,there has been a pair or two of sandhills that hangs around Midewin throughout the breeding season. No one yet has found a nest, but expectations are that it’s just a matter of time before this largest and most ancient of North American birds raises young again amid the “dead weeds,” better known as hundreds of species of native prairie grasses and flowers, at Midewin.

South Patrol Road Prairie in high summer herbage.

Spring is Sprung

It seemed like forever since I’d been out to Midewin. How thrilling it was to be back among so many good friends, themselves absent (or slumbering or merely unseen) for so long.

May apples, wake robin and toothwort
May apples, wake robin and toothwort

Where to begin? Let’s start with spring ephemerals since, as their name implies, they are with us but a very short time. Each spring, I make a beeline to Prairie Creek Woods, a remnant oak woodland alongside its namesake creek. The more restoration, the more woodland wildflowers. Spring beauties, smooth yellow violets, common phlox, wake robin and May apples to name a few.


But there is a secret place in the woods, beside the creek, to which I return like a faithful lover. Waiting for me there is a cloistered stand of bluebells. Just for me. And every year, I return their love by searching among the blossoms for sprigs of garlic mustard and yank them out, to ensure the bluebells do not become overrun  with this highly invasive weed; to ensure that bluebells return healthy each and every spring.

Rattlesnake master emergent in South Patrol Road Prairie
Rattlesnake master emergent in South Patrol Road Prairie

To ensure that the recovering prairie returns each and every spring, the US Forest Service’s Hot Shot Team conducts controlled burns. This year was a record setter for the number of acres cleared by fire, returning vital nutrients to the soil. Man, I do loves me some reemergent prairie vegetation following a burn. Nothing makes me so happy as to spy intensely spring green shoots rising up out of the rich, blackened soils.

Everything is protected at Midewin, including the archaeological elements
Everything is protected at Midewin, including the archaeological elements

The cleansing nature of fire reveals, too, some hidden secrets. Cleared of vegetation, the foundations of old farm buildings, shards of pottery and glass, homestead walls comprised of glacial erratics cleared from the surrounding fields, are stark reminders of Midewin’s agricultural past, when pioneer farmers first cleared the land of its prairie vegetation.

And, of course, the birds. My lovely birds. Blue-winged teals and hooded mergansers. Kildeers and snipes. White-throated sparrows and the first palm warbler of the season. Blue-grey gnat catchers and red-headed woodpeckers. Forty species in all. Apologies for the lack of bird pictures – sometimes I need to leave the camera at home and just relish them through the binocs. But I did manage to snap a cellphone pic of the sandhill crane.

It’s no accident, of course, that the name of my blog is A Midewin Almanac, an homage to Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. And for me the sight and sound of that crane crystalizes that connection. It calls instantly to mind a passage from his Marshland Elegy: “When we hear [the crane’s] call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our unatamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men. Their annual return is the ticking of the geological clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun.”

Midewin is – for cranes, for all prairie plants and creatures, for me – a safe harbor. A sanctuary in every sense of the word. It is, in short, home.I loves me some fire



Prairie Pioneers

110814 tombstone 1

Turns out that compass plants and prairie dock are not the only skyscrapers at Midewin. There are towering headstones in more than half a dozen pioneer cemeteries – reminders of the men, women and children who busted the very prairie being restored today.

In a way, farmers and restorationists are not so different. We use the same fundamental tools and practices to raise certain plants. Over the past years as a volunteer at Midewin I have collected seed, separated it from the chaff, sowed it in fields and planted it in trays for raising in a greenhouse. I’ve watered tender seedlings and eliminated various kinds of “weeds” that would inhibit the growth of the “good” plants.

110731 iron bridge prairie 2

Where we part ways, of course, is farmers largely desire monocultures of a particular crop, such as corn, wheat or soybeans. Restorationists cultivate diversity. In fields once owned and farmed for generations by the Morgan family – whose patriarch is memorialized in the naming of a local road – now thrive more than 200 species of native plants in the Iron Bridge Prairie.

But the farmers of Midewin and the entire Midwest helped feed the world. What does prairie feed?

110814 pioneer tour

Some might say that prairie feeds the soul. Certainly, there’s an emerging field of ecopsychology that says that nature is fundamental to our emotional and psychological well being. But when I take a tour of Midewin’s pioneer homesteads and cemeteries – as I do today with Lorin Schab, president of the Midewin Heritage Alliance – I can’t help but wonder what the pioneer farmers who now fertilize the soil of Midewin with their remains might have had to say on the subject.

110814 prairie plant 2

Certainly, the Morgans and Hoffmans and Jacksons and Reeds and Klinglers were intent upon feeding their families and making a buck. But even as they began to tame the land, did they save a little patch of prairie for its bouquet of summer blossoms? Did they look up from their work from time to time to listen to the burbling calls of bobolinks or upland sandpipers? Did they relish falling asleep to the sleigh bell-like choruses of spring peepers?

110814 tombstone 2

Perhaps. Perhaps that’s what provided them a moment of joy as they went about the backbreaking work of draining the boggy land and busting the prairie sod. And perhaps, if you happen to believe in such things, beneath their prairie markers, within the secret places of their mouldering hearts, they, too, joy to witness the prairie, the upland sandpipers and the spring peepers returning and flourishing on the land.

Prairie Speculators

david hunterOne of the many joys of Midewin is walking in the footsteps of those who came before. Like David Hunter. Like most of the original landowners in the lands that comprise Midewin, he was a speculator from Chicago. Unlike most of his fellow speculators, he not only held on to his original land purchase for a longer time, he actually expanded his holdings. Even as he re-entered the army and eventually pre-empted President Lincoln in freeing the slaves.

With the help of Lorin Schab, executive director of the Midewin Heritage Alliance, I’ve identified the succession of landowners on select parcels at Midewin, from the mid-1830’s through 1940 when all of the landowners were compelled to sell their land to the federal government to establish the largest and most sophisticated arsenal in the world.

110716 vervain

Much of South Patrol Road Prairie – the largest and oldest restoration area at Midewin – was owned originally by David Hunter. A graduate of West Point, Colonel Hunter first arrived in Chicago in 1824. Posted at Fort Dearborn, he met and became engaged to Maria Kinzie, daughter of John Kinzie, one of the pioneer settlement’s most wealthy and respected businessmen. After several postings elsewhere throughout the Midwest, Hunter resigned his commission, returned to Chicago, married his fiancée, and went into business with his brother-in-law.

On the heels of investing in the building of the most luxurious hotel in Chicago – the Lake House Hotel – in 1836 Hunter joined fellow speculators in gobbling up land all along the proposed route of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. Hunter began with 320 acres in Section 14 of Wilmington Township. Soon thereafter, he acquired the balance of the section, bringing his total acreage to 640.

A year later, the national economy collapsed, largely due to rampant land speculation. (Sound familiar?) Hunter held onto his Wilmington land for a while longer – likely leasing it for cattle pasturage since Will County then was an up an coming dairy region – but sought to secure his future by returning to the army.

Following nearly 20 uneventful years in the paymaster corps, in 1860 he wrote to a presidential candidate by the name of A. Lincoln, warning him of potential threats against his life. In return for his concern, Hunter was among those who accompanied president-elect Lincoln on his two-week train ride to be inaugurated in Washington.

david hunter 2Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Hunter was awarded command of a brigade of New York Volunteers. According to some military historians, the lack of troops – underpinned by his punishing approach to war and his abolitionist leanings – led to his issuing a military general order freeing the slaves in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina; an order that was promptly rescinded by President Lincoln.

Following the war, Hunter accompanied the body of Lincoln back to Springfield, where the slain president would rest following his assassination by John Wilkes Booth. Thereafter, Hunter was appointed to head up the military court to try the remaining conspirators, resulting in four being hanged and four being sent to prison.

General Hunter never set foot in Illinois again. When he died at the age of 83 in 1886, his 640 acres of Wilmington pastureland had been broken up. Maybe it was John Bovee who first planted the hedgerows to keep his cattle out of the fields owned by R. R. Clark. Maybe it was Edward Collins or his son James Collins, who added yet more hedgerows. Or John P. Kelly. Or Frank Shields. Or R.C. Maley.

110207 cottonwoods 1

What we do know is that the cottonwood trees that grew up along those hedgerows began growing once the army took control of the property. We know this by counting the rings in those trees that were cut down this past winter. Many of the larger trees have around 70 rings, which dates them to early 1940 – the year the arsenal was established.

Removing the hedgerow trees and all of their brushy undergrowth is part of the on-going effort to open up the landscape and return it to the way it looked when Hunter first paid $1.25 an acre to own a piece of it.

110731 sprp