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Forestry for fun and profit. Well, fun.

Illinois Times

June 16, 1983

Trying to grown anything in Illinois other than corn or soybeans has been a challenge for a long time. The secret to growing trees—of which Illinois once had a great many more—is to try to grow them like row crops. Or so said the experts I quoted in this piece.

The sentiment is hardly original, but it remains apt: I think that I shall never see/A soybean lovely as a tree. But I confess that I seldom paused to consider trees—Illinois trees anyway—in their manifold economic aspects. It is an error I hope not to make again.


The cause of my education was the most recent issue of Illinois Research, the quarterly published by the University of Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station. (Your dentist doesn't get it? Have him write Agricultural Publications Office, 123 Mumford Hall, 130 W. Gregory, Urbana, 61801.) Gary Rolfe, head of the university's forestry department, notes therein that while Illinois ranks in the top ten U.S. states in wood use, it languishes in the bottom five in wood production. Of the 14 million acres of woods which graced the state 150 years ago, all but four million have been cleared, leaving only about 11 percent of the state forested. The national average, I was surprised to learn, is 30 percent.


However, as is pointed out by George Weaver (who is Rolfe's counterpart at Southern Illinois University), "Illinois forests are minor only on a relative scale. In absolute terms they represent a major resource." For example, some three million acres of Illinois are being farmed that reasonable men and women would agree probably shouldn't be. These acres include steeply sloping land (whose soil is eroding at ruinous rates) and floodable bottomland. If these acres were planted in trees, the state would realize reduced soil erosion, improved flood control, and expanded wildlife habitat—lots of what Weaver described insufficiently as "potentially significant benefits."


Alas, goodness seldom pays in this world. Allan Mickelson, a forester with the state Department of Conservation, writes that a typical hardwood "crop" sold for lumber may net its owner $10 per acre per year, and only after waiting fifty years for it to mature. This will never do. Concludes Rolfe and his colleague Robert Herendeen, "Limitations on forestry in Illinois are primarily economic rather than political or biological."


It was not the first time I had heard that plaint. A few years ago I spent a pleasant afternoon in the company of Mr. A. C. Hart of Arenzville, Cass County. Much of Cass County is sand country, part of that belt of sand left behind by a younger, more vigorous Illinois River. The soil is more fit for melons than corn, unless one waters it. The soil tends to wander away with the wind too, which is a big reason why Cass and Mason counties, its neighbor to the north, have been the site of experimental tree plantings for erosion control since the 1930s.


One of the planters was A. C. Hart. The trees chosen for the job were pines—imports, since conifers are not really native to Illinois. (Less than one percent of the state's trees are conifers.) "Too far north for the short leaf or the loblolly," explained Hart as we bumped along a township road, "and too far south for the white, the red, and the Scotch." Pines adopted Cass County with few complaints. "They loved the sand. They need an acid soil."


"If someone asked me whether they should go into forestry to make money, I'd tell them no," Hart said without bitterness. "We used to pay people $5 a day. Now you have to pay them the minimum wage, and at the minimum wage it's hard to find people who'll work hard." Trees remain part of the local economy, however. Hart first marketed Christmas trees in the '30s, when one of his men took a truckload into Beardstown. "He was a good peddler. We made $47 that year. If we had to do it over again we'd pay more attention to Christmas trees. You can use rapid rotation, it's seasonal work, and the demand's good." Other people have paid attention to CHristmas trees; one sees side yards all over Cass County planted in rows of Douglas firs, most of which are shipped to be sold in St. Louis or Peoria. As for Hart's own holdings, he says simply, "You have to take part of your pay in aesthetics and erosion control."


Well, maybe a little money too. As Hart himself proved, trees grown for firewood or pulpwood can be harvested on a ten-to-twenty-year rotation instead of the thirty to fifty required to produce hardwood for lumber. (Christmas trees seldom take longer than twelve.) Most promising of all (especially for marginal lands) are short-rotation species like the autumn olive which can be harvested every three to seven years and used as paper pulp, for energy (burned directly or digested into methane), even chemical feedstock. It's all a matter of choosing the right mix of trees,  technology, market, and merchandising.


One of Illinois's tree whizzes is Lester Arnold. He recently explained in a newsletter from the state's Department of Energy and Natural Resources that foresters have been telling private landowners for years to cull poorer hardwoods from their stands to allow the more vigorous growth of survivors, which can then eventually be sold as veneer or saw logs. Culled hardwoods make first-class firewood, but the economics were never compelling enough to make harvesting it worthwhile. To fix that, Arnold has developed machines to package cut wood, drawn up plans to burn wood chips from local sawmills to dry the firewood cheaply (allowing more rapid marketing), and has formed a not-for-profit firewood wholesalers organization to handle marketing. Such economies, Arnold predicts, will make possible the delivery by truck of southern Illinois firewood up and down the state—a market worth as much as a million bucks a year.


That ain't all. One of the ag experiment station's projects is a test of integrated forestry and farming, dubbed agroforestry. Rows of trees (pines, pecans, poplars—it depends on the intended end use) are planted in widely spaced rows. Conventional grain crops are raised between the rows for several years until the trees grow tall enough to shade the grain rows. (In the meantime, of course, the landowner has realized the profits from the grain sales, plus erosion control and windbreak protection.) In later years the land around and beneath the trees can be grazed by livestock, whose trampling, happily, prevents the sprouting of nuisance seedlings in the stand. Conclude researchers, "Agroforestry may one day be reasonably competitive with some of the [crop] systems that now require large amounts of fossil fuel," at least on poorer soils.


It is ironic, though not unexpected, that at a time when the state is looking for ways to increase the size of Illinois forests, Washington is trying to reduce them. In March, the USDA proposed to study the possible sale of more than a quarter—roughly 70,000 acres—of the Shawnee National Forest. Observers on both sides of the issue seem to agree that the economics of land being what they are, most of that land would be cleared for farming or grazing were it to revert to private hands. Complaints were heard from several quarters, including Cass County. There, Virginia's Bruce Armstrong warned in letters to editors that private owners "would cut down every tree that would produce a 4 x 4 board and bulldoze the rest. Just take a look around in central and northern Illinois."


We have, thank you, and are sobered by what we see, rather what we don't see anymore. Mighty oaks from tiny acorns still grow, but not without a tax break. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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