Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
The Rock River Country
An inventory of the region’s resources
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
For other reports in this series, click here
The story of humans' relation to the Rock River country is laid out in the town of Grand Detour, within the few hundred square yards where John Deere used to live and work. Deere was a Vermont blacksmith who arrived at the new Rock River town in 1836. His farming neighbors found that the silty soils that had developed under Illinois' prairies and marshes—what today's scientists call Mollisols—are as sticky as putty. Plowing them meant having to stop often to clean the iron blades of the machines by hand.
A fortune awaited a person able to invent a better way to plow, and in 1837 Deere set about to earn it. Using a piece of fine Sheffield steel salvaged from a discarded saw blade, he fashioned a "self-polishing" or "self-scouring" plow. That product became the foundation for one of the biggest farm implement manufacturers in the world.
Deere's restored house is a part of a National Park Service National Historic Landmark. At first glance the site seems to celebrate the triumph of Industry over Nature. But on the grounds of the birthplace of the prairie-killing plow is a nearly two-acre prairie. It was planted to remind visitors of the challenges faced by pioneer farmers—and of the natural beauty that is lost when civilization replaces wilderness.
The Deere shop and its little prairie may be as relevant to the future of the Rock River country as to its past. The lesson they teach is that Nature can be brought back to thrive, even in landscapes from which it has been banished.
Varied Places, Varied Life
The Rock River enters Illinois south of Beloit and eventually joins the Mississippi River at Rock Island, 163 stream miles to the southwest. Between the southern fringes of metropolitan Rockford and the town of Sterling, the river rolls atop gravel substrate interspersed with sand, glacial rubble, and silt. Along these 70 miles, 18 streams and creeks feed the Rock, whose watersheds cover nearly 1,000 square miles in parts of eight counties.
As used here, the term "Rock River Country" encompasses these 18 watersheds (most of which lie within Ogle and Lee counties). This region has been identified as one of 30 in Illinois especially endowed with biologic resources as determined by state scientists and other experts.
The Rock River country is like much of agricultural Illinois—rolling, rural, prosperous—except for the rocks. Bedrock of two types has been pushed close to the surface here. The exposed rock forms canyons, bluff faces, and ravines. Where it has been crumbled by weather it creates unusual soils. The result is settings for life as different from the familiar Illinois creek or field as a cat is from a catfish.
If its geology makes the Rock River country unlike most of Illinois, its climate makes it very much like a lot of other states. Like the rest of Illinois, the Rock River country lies at the crossroads of continental climate zones. The area sees Canadian winters and Gulf of Mexico summers, and it lies in the zone of transition between the nation's humid Eastern forests and its dryish Western plains. The territories within which all living things make their homes— what scientists call their natural ranges—are largely determined by climate, so where climates overlap, the ranges of plants and animals overlap too.
• The western hognose snakes that have been sighted near Lowden-Miller State Forest and near Castle Rock State Park dwell at the easternmost extent of their natural range.
• The white pines along Pine Creek west of the town of Oregon survive at the extreme southern limit of their natural range, as do other woody plants found there, such as the yellow birch and the hairy woodrush.
• The Rock River country lies at the northern extreme of the breeding range of many southern birds— the summer tanager and Kentucky warbler are two—and is about as far south as northern species such as the Canada and mourning warbler are normally found.
In all, the Rock River country boasts 18 distinct "natural communities." These are habitats of particular properties and the plants and animals are adapted (in some cases, uniquely) to them. Among these communities are acid seeps, fens, and sandy south-facing slopes that are, in effect, mini-deserts; wooded uplands and floodplains, and soils derived from loam, limestone and sandstone; rivers and marsh, and grasslands of several types, including prairies that grow atop eroded glacial rubble or on forested slopes exposed to the sun.
The more varied the habitats that exist in a place, the more varied are the creatures that can thrive there. The rich panoply of life in the Rock River country includes 198 species of vertebrates (or animals with backbones) including 122 species of breeding native birds, 13 amphibian and 33 reptile species, 39 species of native mammal, and 78 of native freshwater fish. Thirty-three species of native mussel are found here, and 10 of native crustacean. In all, about 950 plant taxa or botanical types have been found in an area that includes most of the Rock River country; one valley in Castle Rock State Park harbors 27 different species of fern alone.
Several of the area's streams have been rated as highly valued aquatic resources by state scientists using complex criteria of water and habitat quality. Typical of these is the main stem of the Kishwaukee, a tree-lined, clear-running stream with riffles, runs, and pools that is especially rich in mussel species.
The forests of the Rock River country provide habitat for animals of all kinds. No part of Illinois is home to more breeding pairs of forest birds (85) than the Castle Rock State Park/Lowden-Miller State Forest complex between Dixon and Oregon. Many of these are warblers, including one of the state's largest populations of cerulean warblers, which return each spring from Colombia and Bolivia to the George B. Fell Nature Preserve in Castle Rock State Park. Floodplain forests are home to Acadian flycatchers and American redstarts. Bats feed in these insect-rich areas too, while beaver, mink, and muskrat frequent the open water.
Rare habitats usually harbor plants and animals that, having adapted to them, become rare as well. State agencies maintain lists of "special status" plant and animal species. These are species thought to be in danger of disappearing from the state or which are threatened with endangerment. (Federal agencies list species at risk of disappearing nationally.) In all, 56 state-listed species of various kinds are found in the Rock River country. So are six species that are either listed by federal experts as endangered or threatened, or are being considered for listing.
Habitat for Humans
The dominant animal species in the Rock River country is Homo sapiens. Limited archeological evidence suggests that the Rock River country has been occupied constantly from the arrival of Stone Age peoples, perhaps 10,500 years ago, to the arrival of European explorers in the 1600s.
The most recent of its human migrants were the Euro-American settlers who shaped today's Rock River country. Farmland was the riches most of these prospectors were searching for, and while the nearby town of Rockford became a manufacturing city, most of the area remains farm country. Today less than two percent of the land in Lee, Ogle, and the southern parts of Winnebago counties is devoted to urban use. Proportionately only about half as many people live in urban places compared to Illinois as a whole, and most of the local "urban" human habitat consists of villages and small towns.
As is typical of other Illinois farming areas, the population has grown much more slowly in the modern era than has that of the state as a whole. Ogle County has grown 67 percent since 1870 and Lee only 27 percent, while Illinois grew 350 percent in that time.
Economy About 90 percent of the land in Lee and Ogle counties is farmed. Most of the surface soils are clay-loam soils formed on old glacial lake sediments, broken-down bedrock, or alluvium left behind by floods.
Corn and soybeans grow well on most of these soils, although the large expanses of hard-to-plow sloping terrain mean that more local acreage is devoted to small grains and pasture than is true of the state as a whole. Commercial canneries have created a local market for such agricultural exotica as sweet corn, pumpkin, and peas. Lee, Ogle, and Winnebago counties also are among the top ten producers of livestock in the state; their farmers are major growers of livestock feed such as oats and hay.
As late as the 1870s, industry in the area was still mostly devoted to processing products of the soil, such as grains and trees, into products of the market, such as oatmeal and furniture. Once railroads connected local manufacturers to a wider world, the manufacturing economy no longer depended on local raw materials or local customers. The roster of today's half-dozen biggest employers in the area includes makers of high-tech aviation and industrial milling equipment and chewing gum. The presence on the list of medical, educational, and government institutions confirms the recent shift toward a more service-oriented economy.
Only a few local resource-based industries survive, apart from farming. Local beds of dolomite have been mined since the 19th century to feed a cement plant in Dixon. The sand and gravel deposits left behind by melting glaciers are mined extensively, mainly for ingredients for concrete used by area builders. Eight such pits were operating in Ogle County and vicinity in 1995.
Crushed limestone and dolomite are essential to many kinds of construction, including roads. Such stone lies conveniently close to the surface in the Rock River country, where twenty-five quarries operate. Demand on these resources from distant customers is likely to grow as similar quarries in the nearby Chicago area are worked out or built upon.
The local St. Peter sandstone is a third valuable mineral resource. Made of very pure, fine-grained particles of quartz, these rocks are a rich source of the silica (the crystalline compound of quartz) used to make glass. The sand also is used in polishes and abrasives, in filtration systems, to make moldings, and is an ingredient in paints, plasters, pottery, porcelain, and tile. No state mines more industrial sand, or earns more for it, than Illinois.
Outdoor recreation Outdoor recreation has long been part of the economy of the Rock River country, but it is only in recent years that it has grown into a (modest) industry. At the turn of the century, the region's isolation was very much a part of its appeal to an elite of artists and millionaires seeking escape from the city. Today the Rock River country's central location in the northern third of the state—less than 90 minutes by interstate from Chicago, the Quad Cities, Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, and Rockford—puts it at the intersection of the natural ranges of millions of tourists. The traffic in visitors is enough to sustain a varied private enterprise in campgrounds, tours, bed-and-breakfast inns, museums, and gift shops.
Since 1981 an average of 31,000 camper-days per year have been spent in the three-county area that includes most of the Rock River country; at state parks equipped with class A camp facilities, campers averaged 5.6 days per visit.
The five state-owned recreation sites in the Rock River country—Castle Rock, Franklin Creek, White Pines Forest, and Lowden Memorial state parks and the Lowden-Miller State Forest—attracted nearly one million people in 1994. More than eight of every ten visitors came from outside the area. What they spent in 1995, plus what state government agencies spent running and maintaining the sites, generated an estimated $9.2 million in economic output and created 240 jobs in Lee and Ogle counties.
Area boaters have 39 points of access along the Rock River, 11 of which are equipped with public boat ramps. The opportunities for waterbased recreation on the river probably explain why one in 18 residents in the three counties that make up most of the Rock River country owns a registered recreational boat.
The streams of the Rock River country support 80 freshwater species of fish (native and introduced). Several are prized by sportsmen; the Rock is the premier walleye stream in the state's interior and also is the most consistent producer of catfish in the northern part of the state. The Rock attracts fishermen from outside the area, but local anglers in 1992 also purchased a disproportionate number of state fishing licenses.
The forests and fields of the Rock River country harbor abundant game animals as well. The white-tailed deer is by far the favorite quarry; hunters in the Rock River country spend nearly as many days in the field in search of deer as they spend for pheasant, squirrel and rabbit combined. The annual reward for this effort in recent years has been nearly 5,000 deer, 35,000 squirrels, and 18,000 rabbits. The number of hunters varies from year to year, usually because of the weather.
Human Effects on the Land: Land Use
Homo sapiens do not merely occupy ecological niches, they create them. Precisely how much the ecosystems of the Rock River country have been changed since settlement is hard to say because no accurate and comprehensive descriptions of its presettlement condition exist. Most early visitors saw the local landscape with the eyes of poets rather than scientists, and they seldom described with exactitude the flora and fauna they encountered. Abraham Lincoln recalled that as a 23-year-old militia captain he had survived not only the Black Hawk War but "many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes" of the Rock River country; unfortunately for today's ecological historians, Lincoln neglected to identify his attackers by species.
The permanent homesteads preferred by Euro-Americans made more demands on the land than did the Native Americans' seasonal camps. The new year-around farmers not only hunted woods for game, nuts, and fruits, they logged them for firewood and lumber to build houses, barns, outbuildings, and fences. Through their draft animals, farmers converted prairie grasses into energy to pull plows. Watercourses not only were fished but were tapped for energy to push the mills that ground grain and sawed timber; for example, water power helped Grand Detour evolve from a French trading center into a local manufactory that produced wagons, lumber, cradles, and flour.
It was not only their machines that made the Euro-American tenancy different from that of the Native Americans. The newcomers brought different ideas about resources too—in particular the concept of the market economy. The French trade in furs from roughly 1740 until 1830 excited such efficient harvesting by various Native American suppliers that the more valuable animals were hunted into extinction in Illinois.
Some evidence of change survives in the earth itself. Cut-through stream banks in the area reveal that modern soils—those formed after the retreat of the Wisconsinan glacier 10,000 years ago—were buried beneath lighter soils eroded from hillsides and uplands cleared for farms by Euro-Americans. Surface soils also offer clues to what used to grow on them. Soils that evolve beneath prairies differ from those that evolve beneath forests, for example. These differences suggest that 35 percent of the land in the presettlement Rock River country was covered in prairie and 65 percent in forests of varying density.
The area's land forms and soils remain, save for a few eroded areas, but the living face of the the Rock River country has been redrawn in 160 years. Today 61 percent of the land in the area grows crops (including orchards). Grasslands of other sorts—mostly pastures, old fields, grassy rights-of-way, and reclaimed strip mines—occupy 23 percent of the region's land area, proportionately more than in the state as a whole. Only about nine percent of the land area of the Rock River country remains in forest (eight percent is upland forest and 1 percent is bottomland forest covering swamps and floodplains). Buildings and roads take up six percent of the region's land, and slightly less than two percent is open water and wetlands. (Figures total more than 100 percent due to rounding.)
In the 1970s, surveyors of the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory found 33 natural ecosystems that remained substantially in their presettlement state and were of sufficient quality as to give them statewide significance. The sites cover a bit more than 6,000 acres in all, or less than one percent of the Rock River country. For example, of the more than 400,000 acres of wooded land that are thought to have blanketed the Rock River country at the time of settlement, about 114 acres of mature high quality natural forest is left.
Pollution is probably the most familiar of the effects that humans have on complicated natural systems. However, other changes— land clearing, fire suppression, fragmentation of habitat, and physical alteration of streams—also can transform the ways that ecosystems work. For example:
Clearing More than 50,000 forested acres stand today in the area, but these woods seldom function as presettlement forests did.
• The bottomland forests persist largely as strips of woods along streamsides so narrow they can easily be invaded by alien plant species that thrive in ecologically disturbed places, such as money wort and garlic mustard, an aggressive biennial herb.
• The understory of much of the area's upland forest has been changed by grazing, which (among other effects) spurs the spread of thorny plant invaders like Missouri gooseberry and multiflora rose.
• Prairie of all kinds grew on an estimated 35 percent of the land before settlement. About 48 acres of presettlement prairie remain—a bit more than two one-hundredths of one percent of the original.
• The moist black-soil prairies that dominated the eastern fringes of the Rock River country prior to extensive European settlement were perfectly suited to agriculture, and virtually none remains in its presettlement state.
• Most prairies survive on hard-to-farm substrates such as sand, gravel, or dolomite.
Drainage Soil surveys suggest that presettlement wetlands covered eight percent of Ogle County alone, or roughly 38,000 acres. Today, 1.2 percent of the entire Rock River country, or a little more than 8,000 acres, is wetlands. (The total includes floodplain forest.)
• One resident recalled that in the 1830s ponds along Kilbuck Creek were "fairly black with ducks and geese." Essentially none of the marsh and prairie potholes that dotted the moist black-soil prairies of this part of the Rock River country remains.
• An estimated 80 to 89 percent of the wetland habitat in Ogle County— probably mostly wettish prairie and sedge meadow—was destroyed following settlement. Many sloughs and marshes that dotted the Kishwaukee River watershed were drained. Wetlands that were not drained are silted up or choked by reed canary grass, an aggressive exotic.
• Floodplain forests were felled more completely in the Rock River country than in Illinois as a whole. About 60 acres of high-quality floodplain forest are found here today.
Stream alteration Dams and levees were built along the Rock River to protect low-lying farms from floods, interrupting natural flooding cycles that replenished the soils of adjacent land.
Early visitors to the Rock River country described the Rock as a swift-flowing river with a "wild rush of waters." Euro-Americans found that its relatively steep fall recommended it as a source of industrial energy. By the 1930s, eight low-head hydroelectric dams had been built on the Rock to back up water into pools and convert the energy of falling water into electricity. Most are long closed, although small hydropower plants still operate on the Rock at Dixon and at Sterling.
These channel dams built across the Rock River for hydroelectric plants created pools of deeper water behind them, turning the river into a series of lakes. Pooling raises water temperature, slows current, fragments habitat, and isolates fish populations. Since mussels migrate only as larvae carried by host animals such as fish, the inability of fish to move easily up and down today's river may hamper mussels from repopulating parts of the river that suffer localized population crashes.
Fire suppression Everywhere in Illinois, naturally occurring fires in woods and fields (usually ignited by lightning) have been suppressed to protect fields and buildings. Suppression of wildfires has meant that more shrub and tree seedlings survive in the forest, making the understory inhospitable to many native species that do not grow well in shade—one reason why diversity of plant species in most surviving upland forests is low.
Habitat fragmentation Roads, fields, and houses divide once-large tracts of forest, wetland, or prairie into habitat "islands." Large mammals (the badger) and wide-ranging insects and birds (the broad-winged hawk, the pileated woodpecker) no longer can find quality habitats in amounts large enough to supply sufficient food, to protect them from predators, or to accommodate genetically varied breeding populations.
Larger tracts of forest offer certain birds protection from competitors and predators that frequent the forest edge, such as the cowbirds that parasitize native songbird nests. Predation of nests of forest-dwellers—such as the wood thrush—by open-country predators such as raccoons and opossums also happens less often in unfragmented forests. The Castle Rock State Park/Lowden-Miller State Forest complex is home to so many breeding pairs of forest birds mainly because of its relatively large size (4,225 acres) and compact form.
Ecosystems altered by humans are not entirely inhospitable to other forms of life. Pine plantations, such as those in the Lowden-Miller State Forest, harbor the only known nesting population of black-throated green warblers in Illinois. Forest clear-cuts create early successional habitat preferred by such birds as the white-eyed vireo or the yellow-breasted chat. Adaptable bird species such as savannah sparrow and bobolink frequent farm fields; mammals from the least shrew to the badger likewise have proved particularly adaptable to the agrarian countryside, being at home in such ersatz grasslands as right-of-way buffers and small-grain fields.
Nonetheless, human ecosystems are almost always less biologically diverse than natural ones. For example, seeded strip mines can provide suitable food and cover for bird species typical of grasslands such as the horned larks, but they cannot match the overall biologic complexity of native prairie. Prairies and savannas converted into farm fields function as grasslands in much the same way. (Wheat, oats, hay, and corn are all grass plants.) However, as prairies, natural grasslands probably sustained a couple of hundred plant species; as 20 cropland and pasture, they may be home to no more than a half-dozen.
Pollution The plentiful deposits of sand and gravels along area streams trap and hold water in quantity, making them excellent aquifers, or natural underground water storage facilities. Also, the St. Peter Sandstone that underlies the area is moderately to very porous; wells drilled more than 500 feet into these rocks supply water to local towns such as Sterling, Dixon, and Rochelle. Total groundwater withdrawals in the three counties that make up most of the Rock River country are substantial.
Groundwater in the area is of generally good quality for most needs, although chemically "hard" due to calcium and magnesium dissolved from the rock through which it seeps. In general, contaminants in the area's groundwater are well below the safe limits set by the federal government, thanks in part to the clays, silts, and rock that cover deep-lying aquifers; these filter many contaminants from water as it seeps down through them. However, levels of certain toxic chemicals such as nitrates—a residue of septic fields and farm fertilizers— are elevated in some local aquifers.
In the 1970s, stretches of the Rock River upstream from the Rock River country were subject to then-commonplace contamination from industrial wastes such as heavy metals (mainly from direct discharge from factories in the Rockford area and from Kent Creek) and from inadequately treated municipal sewage. The Rock River's water quality also is compromised by phosphorous from municipal sewage and farm fertilizers, as are some other local streams and some groundwater supplies. However, pollution from factories and sewage plants is much reduced. Scientists in 1994 saw a decreasing trend in nitrate nitrogen levels in lakes in the larger Rock River basin as well, probably due in part to reduced use of septic tanks in lakefront communities. As a result, surface water quality in the Rock River country today is generally good compared to the recent past.
Some erosion is unavoidable in an area so heavily farmed as the Rock River country. The presettlement Rock River ran clear. (The name originally referred to the rocks lying at the bottom of as well as those standing beside the river, both being clearly visible to early travelers.) By the turn of the century the river was turbid with silt for most of the year as a result of soil eroding from fields on its flanks.
Carried eventually into local streams, silt from eroded fields buries fish nest sites and makes it hard for animals that hunt by sight to feed. Erosion also carries pesticides and fertilizers attached to soil particles from yards and fields. Finally, siltation aggravates flooding by reducing the capacity of a stream bed to carry away water. Soil movement from erosion varies enormously depending on how much land is farmed, and how it is farmed. By the Depression in the 1930s, severe erosion in the form of gullying was widespread in parts of the Rock River country. The same thing happened again in the 1970s. Today only about 25 percent of the soils within the Rock River country are classed as even "moderately eroded." Water-quality monitors report decreasing concentrations of suspended sediments entering the Rock River since 1981.
Recent soil loss reductions may be a result of changes in precipitation in the watershed, but may also reflect the adoption of soil-saving tillage techniques by local farmers. However, if erodible land taken out of row-crop production since the late 1970s in response to U.S. government conservation incentives is put back into production, soil losses may climb again.
New Values, New Value
The first great change wrought in the living landscape of Rock River country by humans occurred 150 years ago when much of the land was cleared and drained by Euro-American farmers. A second, less dramatic, change began in the 1920s, when mixed grain and livestock farming began to be replaced by industrialized row-crop agriculture.
A third major shift—urbanization—bids to reshape both natural and human communities in the Rock River country again. In such once-agricultural regions of Illinois as the DuPage and Fox river valleys, subdivisions, malls, and office parks have already largely replaced farms as the dominant features in the landscape. The same economic and social forces are pressing on the Rock River region.
In yesterday's rural Illinois, most people lived where they worked, whether it was a small town or an isolated farmstead. Today fewer residents of the Rock River country live and work in the same place. This has increased the need for travel. Even though the area's population has been static, vehicle-miles traveled since the mid-1980s by drivers in the three counties that make up most of the Rock River country has increased at annual rates well above those for Illinois as a whole—3.82 percent compared to 1.95 percent.
Commuting is becoming a part of life in the Rock River country. In Ogle County, the number of people working outside the county has increased in recent years. (According to the 1990 U.S. census, nearly 1,800 people in Ogle County traveled an hour or more to work.) In 1993 the share of Ogle County's net household income brought home by commuters had risen to 22 percent.
Like all Illinois counties within driving distance of major urban centers, Ogle and Lee have experienced demand for new houses by commuters. Many of the new residents are disenchanted big-city residents, others are fleeing once-bucolic suburbs elsewhere in northern Illinois where open space and open roads have been lost. Today the Rock River country lies within the "commutershed" not only of Rockford but of Chicago's outer suburbs. New subdivisions near the Nachusa Grasslands in Lee County, for example—a tract that was itself slated for subdivision into five-acre "estate" lots before its purchase by The Nature Conservancy—are less than a hour's commute from Aurora along 1-88.
Just as affluence, mobility, and congestion in nearby counties tend to swell demand for new housing in the Rock River country, changes in farming are expanding the potential supply. The further expansion of urban-style development in the Rock River countryside will probably cause a number of problems familiar from other places in Illinois.
• Building a house close enough to enjoy "nature" risks destroying it in several ways. Building access roads fragments forests, for example, and household pets prey on ground-nesting birds.
• Unless catastrophic soil erosion has occurred, farming takes only a temporary toll on land and water under even indifferent management. Urbanization usually results in a permanent loss of ecological capacity.
• Fallow and unplowable land, woodlots, and fields left unplanted as part of government "set-aside" schemes constitute a de facto private park and preserve system. Traditionally, friends, family, and neighbors of the owners can (with permission) enter this land to hunt, gather firewood, collect wild asparagus or mushrooms; and to fish, run dogs, and so on. But while farmers usually put up fences to keep their animals in, homeowners are more likely to build fences to keep their neighbors out, converting the rural commons into exclusive residential preserves.
• Complaints about the noise and smells of farm operations rise as houses crowd fields. Vandalism and traffic conflicts on rural roads also increase. As farming becomes less viable, the sale of farms for redevelopment tends to accelerate.
These changes present new challenges to traditional ways of managing resources, both public and private. The future Rock River country will have to be able to sustain a wider diversity of human life, from prairie enthusiasts and sportsmen to corn farmers, commuters, and developers. The future economy of the Rock River country will likely depend increasingly not only on resources that can be cut down or dug up but resources that can be "consumed" in place—roadside scenery, fishable and boatable waters, residential building sites with views.
While land remains the basis of value—and values—in today's Rock River country, land will be valued for different things than in the past. Instead of its fertility, the scenic beauty, history, and openness will draw the next generation of settlers to the area. And just as the agricultural community of the previous generation had to learn to husband topsoil lest farming be hurt, so planners and developers will have to learn to husband such resources as beauty, open space, and natural habitat that are essential to "harvests" of tourism and residential development. Thus a complex natural landscape, simplified once, will have to be made complex again. ●
Sidebar: A Land of Towers, Valleys, and Ravines
One historian in 1877 wrote that the bluffs around the Rock River town of Oregon were so stained—the result of naturally occurring iron oxides—that they were "useless, except for scenery." Scenery is hardly useless today. Mass tourism and new home development both depend on pretty views the way that the car industry depends on steel.
St. Peter sandstone is a formation of marine rock laid down as a sandy beach when this part of Illinois was the shore of a vast inland sea between 440 and 490 million years ago. It lies invisibly beneath most of Illinois, but is exposed in the upland areas of Ogle, northwest Lee, and southern Winnebago counties. For a rock, St. Peter Sandstone is very fragile, and millennia of patient work by weather dissected it into a system of valleys, ravines, and cliffs.
Rocks give the Rock River country a character so unlike the rest of interior Illinois that people are always obliged to remark how it reminds them of someplace else. In the 1920s, one admirer dubbed the Rock River country the "Hudson of the West" because of its natural beauty. Some wealthy Chicagoans imagined it as the Rhone or the Rhine valley and thought a French Provincial mansion, even a mock medieval castle, would be the perfect house for such a setting.
The knobs and towers of rock brought out the poet in local residents, who gave them such names as Castle Rock and Indian Pulpit. Visitors also found "poetry and romance" (quoting Jens Jensen) in the area's cliffs and ravines, perhaps because here, unlike elsewhere, things remain hidden. More than one early traveler likened the cliffs to the ruined walls of old castles.
The most famous of the seekers after Beauty were members of the Eagle's Nest, a turn-of-the-century artists colony outside Oregon on land owned by University of Chicago business manager and attorney Wallace Heckman. Founded in 1898 when the area already was a popular summer resort, the Eagle's Nest attracted artists from Chicago, such as Hamlin Garland, Harriet Monroe, novelist Henry B. Fuller, and sculptor Lorado Taft. There, in what one contemporary called Eagle's Nest's "mysterious ravines," Taft and his fellows found themselves, in the words of one historian, "at a distance from Chicago far greater than its miles." ●
Sidebar: Half a Continent
Half the continent is folded up inside the Rock River country. A botanist in 1860 found the vegetation nestled in its sandstone cliffs to be "so entirely similar to that of some parts of Massachusetts, and so entirely unlike that of the prairies ten miles above, as to excite astonishment."
In the cool deep ravines and protected sandstone cliff faces at the 686-acre George B. Fell Nature Preserve, plants such as the bunchberry, hairy woodrush, round-leaved shinleaf, and wild sarsaparilla plants survive. They are refugees from a community of boreal plants typical of the northern coniferous forest that covered northern Illinois 10–15,000 years ago.
To experience what Illinois was like then, one has to travel to the northern Great Lakes states; spruce trees were as common in Illinois forests as maples are today. Safe in their sandstone bunkers, these cool-loving plants survived a pronounced post-glacial hot and dry spell that lasted 3,300 years.
Where it lies exposed to weather, the sandstone that forms the cliffs in the Fell Nature Preserve has crumbled to sand. The resulting soils lie within a brisk hike from Castle Rock, yet the dry open woodlands they sustain are half a continent away from the park's canyons in ecological terms. Here may be found populations of the slender glass lizard, now rare in Illinois but widespread during a warmer, drier between-glacier interval about 5,000 to 8,000 years ago when conditions in Illinois were more like those of modern Oklahoma. ●
Sidebar: "One more way to make a living"
Farming has ceased to be a way of life for most of the people living in the Rock River country and become merely one more way to make a living. Only two percent of the area workforce is engaged in farming. This reflects the continuing trend toward larger but fewer farms. Between 1982 and 1992 the number of farms in the area (and thus the number of farmers) continued its historic decline, dropping 19 percent.
Overall, farming accounted for one percent of earnings in 1993 in the three-county area that includes most of the Rock River country—a drop of 57 percent since 1969. Farm earnings are modest compared not only to manufacturing but to the expanding local government and services economies. In heavily agricultural Lee and Ogle counties, farming's share of earnings is higher. However, even in these rural parts of the Rock River country, total farm income has declined over time.
While farmland still makes up a much larger share of the property tax base in Lee County than it does statewide (35 percent), this is a smaller percentage than in the past. (Farms make up a smaller percentage of the tax base in Ogle County because of the presence there of a nuclear electric generating plant.) As a result, farmland's relative contribution to the local government tax base is shrinking.
Farms contribute a declining percentage of even farmers' incomes. In 1974, 80 percent of the farm operators in Lee and Ogle counties stated that their primary occupation was farming; by 1992 about two-thirds did. Many farmers subsidize their farm earnings with money earned elsewhere; in 1992, more than half of the farm operators in those counties worked off the farm in some capacity. ●
Sidebar: A Living Choir
By the standards of the 19th century wilderness preservation movement, what made a place worth protecting was scenery. And scenery meant mountains, open water, and trees. Inevitably, the Rock River country—which boasted not only open water and trees but the closest things to mountains in the Illinois interior— was among the first places in Illinois that people wanted to save.
In 1921 the influential Friends of Our Native Landscape included the Rock River country between Dixon and Oregon among 20 places in Illinois deserving to be made state parks. The area included the "White Pine Woods," a grove of native white pines that occupied an estimated 500 acres along the south boundary of the old Chicago-Iowa Indian trail.
Growing in a canyon carved by Pine Creek out of dolomite rock, the tallest of the trees measured 90 feet in height. Mrs. Elia Pettie, literary critic of the Chicago Tribune and member of the Art Colony at Eagle's Nest Camp, offered a rationale for their preservation in their own voice, in a poem that read in part: Above your acres of corn and grain/We stand, a living choir/To put life's prose into rhyme again
In 1903 local residents, led by the Oregon (Illinois) Woman's Council, began lobbying the General Assembly to set aside for public use the area that now includes the White Pines Forest State Park. The idea of large public nature parks was still a novelty, but the Illinois General Assembly approved the measure; however, the then-governor vetoed it, citing costs. The tract was not acquired until 1927—at a cost more than double the original estimate. ●
Sidebar: Private Land, Public Purpose
Not surprisingly, in a region in which more than 98 percent of the land is privately owned, most of the precious remnants of the presettlement ecosystems of the Rock River country are not publicly owned. The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory in the 1970s found a bit more than 6,000 acres in the Rock River country to be of statewide significance because their ecological or geological resources made them a teaching or aesthetic resource. Nearly 5,000 acres of them—18 of 33 INAI sites— are wholly owned by private parties.
State acquisition of resources of even exceptional quality is expensive and often politically controversial. Taking of land through eminent domain proved so unpopular that state agencies charged with the protection of wild places no longer seek to acquire new lands except by purchase from willing sellers. Public purchase by any means is expensive and there is usually more land worth saving than there is money to do it.
As a result, public entities with an interest In resource preservation—the State of Illinois (5,273 acres), universities (125 acres), and local forest preserve and park districts (3,732 acres)—own less than 1.5 percent of the land area of the Rock River country.
Fortunately, there is a tradition in the Rock River country of generous private donation of land for public use. Typical is the Franklin Creek Nature Preserve donated to the state by Mrs. Winifred Knox, whose ancestors settled it. Dedicated in 1970, these 96 acres of upland and ravine forests and bedrock outcroppings are today part of the larger (250 acres) Franklin Creek State Park. Pileated woodpeckers use it for breeding, its seeps and springs sustain skunk cabbage, wild black currant, and swamp rose.
More unusually, a Franklin Creek Preservation Area Committee formed in 1981 was the first citizens group in Illinois to improve stateowned land for park purposes. The committee has donated materials and labor to build roads, shelters, picnic tables, restrooms. The group has even reconstructed a grist mill that once stood on the creek. ●
Sidebar: Refurbishing Nature
Many of the changes that humans make to natural landscapes are reversible. Controlled burns can kill off tree seedlings sprouting in prairie sod the way that lightning fires used to; dismantling drainage structures can put the "wet" back into wetlands. Removing old channel dams from the Rock River would cause as many problems as it would solve. (It would strand riverside homes and businesses built next to the now-artificially high water line, for example.) However, it is possible to refurbish the dams to include shutes that both fish and canoeists can use to move up and down the river.
The amount of potentially restorable natural land in the Rock River country is sizable. For example, several dozen acres of restorable prairie persist within a golf course maintained by the Byron Forest Preserve District.
A good example of what restoration can achieve is the 1,020-acre Nachusa Grassland in the Franklin 16 Creek watershed in northern Lee County. At the time of its purchase by The Nature Conservancy of Illinois the Nachusa site was a mosaic of 11 different natural community types ranging from dry prairie and tallgrass prairie to oak savanna, sedge meadow, and streamside marsh, separated by farm fields.
In the mid-1980s, The Nature Conservancy began a largely volunteer effort to restore the somewhat tattered ecological remnants there. The ecological condition has been so improved that the State of Illinois has recently combined it with three other existing state-recognized high-quality natural areas on its natural areas inventory.
Biologists have already successfully introduced the gorgone checkerspot butterfly there from other prairies whose own survival is endangered. The Conservancy hopes also to eventually bring back to Nachusa the white-tailed jackrabbit, the prairie grouse—a bird that is almost extinct in Illinois—and the American bison. ●
Sidebar: "It is now yours"
When the weather is right, the Black Hawk Monument—a 48-foot-tall plaster and concrete statue that looks out from a bluff in the Lowden Memorial State Park—seems to rise like a ghost above the trees. The Sauk brave was defeated in a misjudged attempt to wrest the Rock River country away from the newcomers. When he was sent into exile in 1833, he made an eloquent farewell. "Rock River was a beautiful country," he is reported to have said. "I loved my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people. I fought for it. It is now yours."
Black Hawk—Ma-Ka-Tai-me-she-kia-kaik, or Black Sparrow Hawk in the language of his people—was born in Sauk village (on the site of today's city of Rock Island) in 1767. He and the Sauk were banished from the Rock River valley in 1831 under the terms of a dubious treaty signed in 1804. Abandoning their centuries-old plots, they went into exile in Iowa. Unable to feed themselves on what was still unbroken prairie, they spent a hungry winter. In 1832 they crossed back into Illinois on an expedition whose immediate purpose at least was merely to plant corn in a traditional camp near Prophetstown.
Black Hawk's band of 1,000—most of them women, children, and old men—alarmed white settlers. Militiamen and his braves fought a series of often ugly skirmishes that came to be known, somewhat grandly, as the Black Hawk War. His defeat marked the end to armed Indian resistance to Euro-American domination in the Great Lakes region.
Oddly for a man who once struck terror into the hearts of their forebears, Black Hawk has been adopted as a hero by later generations of his conquerors. Black Hawk's appeal probably is owed to the romance of his doomed return to his homeland. Most of today's Illinoisans who pause to ponder his story live in places other than the ones in which they were born. Many of them have also sought out the relatively uncluttered countryside of the Rock River country to escape an aggressive new culture—in this case, one that takes the form of malls and expressways and subdivisions rather than farmsteads. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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 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.
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.
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."
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 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” 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.
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
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Politics & government
Arts & culture