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With a sweltering sun high overhead and the air thick and stifling, David and Jane Patton cup their hands over their eyes and look out over the vast prairie. In the distance, perhaps 5 miles away—it is difficult to tell—is a timbered area. The couple and their children, along with two cows, four horses, chickens, and turkeys, aim their wagons at the prairie grove. This timbered area around the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River in northeastern Champaign and southeastern Ford County, known as Sugar Grove, is where they will build their log cabin.

“In the summertime, it was all grass and flowers, and you could see as far as the strength of your eyes would let you see. The tall grass, when the wind blew, was like the waves of the sea and beautiful to behold,” Jane Patton would write years later. The first Patton home in 1854 “was a lonely little place a little farther out on the prairie than our neighbors were at that time, for the people that were here wanted to live close to the timber,” she added.

Within a 50-year span, from about 1850 to 1900, the tallgrass prairie of Illinois all but disappeared. And so did the prairie groves. Today, less than 1% of the original prairie remains. The wooded areas have not been as affected, but they have taken a substantial hit: Illinois had an estimated 13.8 million acres of timbered land when pioneers first arrived; it now has 4.9 million, for a loss of about 9 million acres.

Wooded Areas Attracted Settlers

The wooded areas drew those first settlers; and the first communities—other than those located on large rivers or Lake Michigan—were at the edge of the timber. There are many examples. A few include Urbana, founded at the edge of Big Grove; Rantoul, located at the edge of Mink Grove; Bloomington, created at the edge of Blooming Grove; and Mahomet, originally known as Middletown, situated in the midst of the Sangamon Timber. Other groves lent their names to all those “Grove” towns, such as Villa Grove, Elk Grove, Downers Grove, Franklin Grove, Deer Grove, and Long Grove.

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“A lot of these historic groves just aren’t there anymore. You’re left with the name and that’s it. You go to a place like Table Grove and you look around and say, ‘I don’t see any grove left,’” said James Ellis, a biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey and president of the local environmental group, Grand Prairie Friends/Prairie Grove Volunteers. The groves were like beacons, and settlers could see them for miles as they traversed the prairie. The first roads in the Grand Prairie, a huge sea of grasses and flowers that covered much of northern and central Illinois, connected timbered area to timbered area.

“Prairie groves were landmarks and they were named as such,” said Bob Reber, co-managing editor of The Illinois Stewardmagazine at the University of Illinois and the steward of Ten Mile Grove near Paxton. “The Ottawa Travel Road went from grove to grove. Ten Mile Grove gets its name because it was 10 miles from Trickel Grove” in the southeastern part of Ford County. The groves were like a string of emeralds on a necklace—but separated by wide expanses of open prairie instead of jeweler’s wire.

“The prairie groves were like little islands. Most of central Illinois was prairie, and most of Champaign County was prairie. Vermilion County was more timbered. The prairie was not a very hospitable place. It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. There were swarms of mosquitoes and biting flies in the summer. There was no shade. The Indians wouldn’t live there,” said Dannel McCollum, historian and author of Essays on the Historical Geography of Champaign County: From the Distant Past to 2005. “It cost more to plow the prairie than it did to buy it,” the former Champaign mayor added. “People avoided the prairie. They headed to the timbered areas. The timber provided a basic resource—people needed wood for housing and fuel, for tools and fencing.”

Prairies, prairie groves, and the timbered areas along streams and rivers developed after Illinois entered a warm, dry period after a mammoth ice sheet covering the Grand Prairie region melted about 15,000 years ago. Prairie groves were predominantly made up of oak trees, while bottomlands and wet areas included hackberry, sycamore, cottonwood, and other species. The most common shrub of the prairie landscape was the American hazel, which has declined even more than the oak–hickory woods in the absence of fire.

Groves varied considerably in size. In Champaign County, Lynn Grove and Lost Grove were among the smallest, both fewer than 200 acres. Big Grove, on the other hand, was an estimated 6,400 acres. The Salt Fork Timber and Sangamon Timber were probably even larger.

Fire Creates a Landscape

Fire was the major force in shaping the landscape—it kept trees out of the prairie (and also made the prairie healthier) and shaped the prairie groves and timbered areas.

“Prairie groves were located on the leeward side of watercourses, which served as natural firebreaks,” said John Taft, a botanist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.

Prevailing winds in Illinois are from the west and southwest. Prairie Groves and other large timbered areas were located mostly on the east and north sides of rivers, streams, sloughs, and other water features (which were numerous in east-central Illinois before the land was drained; the prairies here tended to be wet and marshy).

Frequent fires—which occurred naturally from lightning strikes and were purposely set by Native Americans as a hunting aid—kept trees from invading the prairie. Fire also kept trees such as sugar maple and basswood in check in the timbered areas. Bur oak, the iconic tree of the prairie, is well-adapted to fire because of its thick, corklike bark. White oak, another common tree of the prairie, is also resistant to fire. “You had this mosaic of fire frequencies that allowed the oaks to get established and then get large enough to survive,” Taft said.

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Because oaks need lots of light and an open canopy for seedlings to survive, prairie groves were probably not thick, dense woodlands. Savannas, a more open version of the prairie grove, with fewer trees dotting the prairie, was another common feature of the landscape in Illinois.

The Groves Make Way for Farmland

As settlers built cabins and homes at the edge of prairie groves and timbered areas, they carved out little sections for crops. More trees came down as parts of the groves were turned into pasture.

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“Early settlers girdled the trees and farmed around the stumps. And then they tried to burn the stumps. But there wasn’t a significant movement to clear the timber until the railroads came through in the 1850s,” McCollum said. With an economic incentive and easy transportation to faraway markets, settlers quickly plowed the prairie under. The massive oaks in the groves were cut down to make way for pastures, orchards, and farmland. Only trees along inaccessible river and stream corridors, along with a few partial groves, survived the onslaught.

Today, the Urbana Park District’s Busey Woods (59 acres), along with Brownfield Woods (65 acres) and Trelease Woods (71 acres), both owned by the University of Illinois, are the only sizeable tracts that remain of Big Grove. Prairie groves through-out the state suffered a similar fate.

It is a trend that has continued. “Even in my lifetime, at least 18 wooded areas have disappeared in my community,” said Reber. “These were wooded tracts that were anywhere from 10 to 30 acres. The bulk of them disappeared from 1955 to 1980. It’s sad. We never had a whole lot of trees in Ford County to begin with.”

Restoration Is a Long-Term Project

Even the surviving tracts look nothing like they did 200 years ago. Without fire at regular intervals, trees like sugar maple—along with invasive plants like the European buckthorn, multiflora rose, and bush honeysuckle—soon take over. Sugar maple is now the dominant tree species in surviving timber like Brownfield Woods. Oaks are not shade tolerant and are eventually crowded out of the groves and regenerate only on the edges and in the openings.

“Some prairie groves are sort of like the story of grandfather’s axe,” Taft said. “The head falls off and you replace the head. The handle breaks and you replace the handle—but you still consider it grandfather’s axe. In Illinois, so many changes have taken place. The hydrology has changed. The groundcover has changed. 

“We still have big bur oaks, some more than 300 years old, but to call some remnants prairie groves is like grandfather’s axe. It’s a major challenge to bring back a prairie grove to what it once was. You have to try removing the weedy species to help encourage the remaining native ground-layer species that are characteristic of the habitat. And you need burning over a long period,” he added.  According to Taft, there are some intensive efforts to restore and reconstruct prairie groves in the Chicago area. Closer to home, The Nature Conservancy made a heroic effort to restore Sibley Grove near Sibley in the 1990s with some success. Other restoration efforts have taken place at Baber Woods in Edgar County and Funk’s Grove in McLean County.

The biggest challenge when it comes to restoring or reconstructing a prairie grove is that the project will take more than one lifetime. But some believe it is a goal worth pursuing. Most surviving prairie grove and savanna remnants are in such bad shape that when the big oak trees topple over from old age or disease, there will be no seedlings to replace them. And when the tall, gnarly oaks disappear, the landscape loses some of its majesty. “Prairie groves are an asset to the community,” Reber said. “Aesthetically, they sure add a lot.”

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Still, putting acorns in the ground and waiting for them to sprout into tall trees is not for the impatient. “Bringing back prairie groves means waiting for 250, 300 years,” the time it takes for a bur oak to reach the peak of its growth, McCollum said. “Talk about a long-term project.” 

Kirby Pringle is a freelance writer who specializes in nature and environmental stories. This article is adapted from a feature story that appeared in The News-Gazette on July 27, 2008. Photos by Robert J. Reber unless noted otherwise.