The War Against Trees
Humans and nature conspire to make Illinois treeless
See Illinois (unpublished)
Another selection from my never-published guide to the history and culture of Illinois. Illinois is officially the Prairie State, and indeed it had a great deal of prairie in it when Euro-American settlers first came upon it. But forest still covered some 40 percent of the state (13.8 million acres, or nearly 90 Chicagos). Nature had kept trees from moving into the grasslands, but Euro-Americans quickly set about removing trees from the forested lands too.
More recently, the enemy is development. Every sizable Illinois town has controversies like the one in Springfield I commented upon in 2012 in The Twenty-acre Wood. To learn about Chicago's urban forestry program, see Green Streets.
Eastern Illinois was where the mid-continent’s grassy sea broke against North America’s eastern forest. Here, the great cliff of trees gave way to open sky. Nearly 60 percent of Illinois’s land at that time was covered by prairie of one kind or another. But in the Grand Prairie the grasses did not merely rule, they dominated. Government Land Office surveyors around 1820 found that prairie covered about 90 percent of McLean County and 91 percent of Will and Grundy counties. In Champaign County the figure was 94 percent and in Ford County 96 percent, making the last the barest county in presettlement Illinois.
Ecologists have been arguing for decades about how prairie plants came to dominate such a large area in Illinois compared to, say, Indiana. The debate is taken up by John Madson in his fine history, Where the Sky Began. In that book Madson explains that the great conflict that rocked Illinoi before native Americans vs settlers, before Chicago vs Downstate, was trees vs grass. Writes Madson, the Grand Prairie was the battlefield in what he called the “grimmest conflict ever joined by two major plant groups in North America.”
It is known how prairie plants can colonize a patch of ground left bare by flood or fire. The process is not unlike the process by which Euro-Americans colonized the prairie. A few hardly pioneer species, adapted to exploit inhospitable ecological niches, move in first. The presence of the colonizers changes the place, making made it more clement for a second wave of less hardy settlers; it accomplishes this by breaking the resistance of soil to roots, cooling the surface with their leaves, and attracting pollinating insects with their flowers.
However, even the hardiest grasses and forbs needed help in their eternal scrimmage with trees for space, nutrients, light, and water. They got it from fire. The flatness of most of Illinois's prairie landscapes offered little obstruction to wind-pushed wildfires. Tree seedlings that stood in their path are scorched while prairie plants, whose growth nodes lie safe just below the surface, not only survive but are invigorated by the recycling of dead plant matter into fertilizing ash.
Lightning started many of these fires. So did Native Americans, to stampede game or the clear the surface for easier travel or to kill off woody plants that competed with the (mainly) annual plants that supplied the seeds and tubers upon which these advanced hunter-gatherers relied. Many of the plants that humans nurtured, both as farmers and as gatherers, are quick to exploit disturbed areas. Burning was an easy way to see that the landscape stayed disturbed, to the benefit of both annual plants and plant-gatherers.
Ecologists largely agree that such human-set fires sped the forest’s withdrawal from the region’s uplands. By some estimates Illinois was half trees at the start of the Indian occupation, and that the additional increment of prairie—perhaps ten percent—that Euro-Americans measured at the start of theirs was owed to Indian manipulation of the environment. This is not as dramatic a reordering of the landscape as the one undertaken by white people, but it is significant, and it gives lie to Indians’ reputation as passive players in the ongoing ecological drama of the Midwest.
But even fire did not, alone, create the prairies. Repeated burning produces not woods, but a certain kind of woods—scrubby oaks, mainly. The near-perfect absence of even these stalwart hardwoods on so much of the Grand Prairie’s uplands can only be explained by climate, specifically drought. About 11,000 years ago this part of Illinois is thought to have been dominated by deciduous forest. Drought-tolerant grasses began to take over during a substantially drier period that began about 8,500 years ago. Stress from periodic lack of water is why large trees outside Illinois’s floodplains today tend to be short-lived for their kinds. Droughts were, in terms of their ecological effects, a protracted form of fire.
Once beaten back from the Grand Prairie’s exposed uplands, trees found it hard to regain lost ground. Madson notes that a tree seedling unlucky enough to sprout in a stand of mature prairie plants will receive a scant one percent of the sunlight falling on it because of the shadowing grasses, that its roots will have to contend with thick grass sod. The stems of some species such as prairie dock in a mature prairie are three to four inches thick; a chunk of sod the size of a washtub will be crammed with up to 13 miles of rootlets and root hairs.
Even so, nature has lots of time. “If discovery of the New world had been delayed until 3000 A.D.,” wrote Madson about the effects of the most recent pro-tree climate change, “some future Marquette might have found Illinois to be solid oak-hickory forest” instead of the elm-ash forest they did find. The re-treeing of the Grand Prairie will not be so comprehensive as that,
Illinois’s climate in recent centuries entered a cooler, wetter phase that again favors trees. So do humans, if unknowingly. Fires no longer burn across whole townships as in old, and fields on marginal soils that have proven uneconomical to farm are being allowed to revert to forest. Even when they can take root, however, an “invasion” of a tallgrass prairie by trees thus is an unhurried affair. Oak trees move no farther each year than squirrels carry their seeds. According to one calculation, slow-growing oaks moved east 1,000 feet a year during one recent repopulation of the mid-continent, taking five millennia to move from the Mississippi valley to the Atlantic. It seems inevitable that there will be more trees in the Prairie State in the year 3000 than there are today.
In the early 1800s, the want of timber slowed settlement of the open grasslands of Illinois. Farm animals roamed at will in early Illinois, so it was crops that were put behind protective fences. The problem was that fencing a field took a lot of wood. Wood rails were expensive to buy; took as much as $300 worth to enclose a forty-acre field around 1840. Cheap barbed wire would not be available until the mid-1870s, more than a generation after central Illinois’s first farms opened up.
Many alternatives to wood were tried but only one went into general use, thanks to a central Illinois man. For a professor of Greek, Jonathan Baldwin Turner of Illinois College had a practical turn of mind. An early scientific farmer, Turner pondered the problem, and concluded that rather than dead trees, the answer to the fencing problem was live bushes in the form of hedges. Turner experimented with “living fences” in the form of hedges of shrubs that might provide an alternative to scarce wooden fencing in the Grand Prairie. He settled on the osage orange as best suited to the Illinois prairie. (The osage orange got its name because of the pebbled surface of its softball-sized fruit.) The plant, native to Oklahoma, usually grows 30 to 40 feet high. It is fast-growing; a single row of trees planted a foot apart would yield a hedge dense enough to make a usable fence in four years.
However, only in a treeless territory would the “hedge apple” be considered an improvement on rail fencing. To provide one mile of fence took 17,000 plants, costing as much as $42,000. The hedges also required annual trimming, and their voracious growth so depleted the soil that forty feet on each side of a hedge was left unfit for crops.
An inefficient and costly fence was better than no fence at all, and by the 1870s hedges were used in more than half of Illinois’s counties. They were especially common in parts of the Grand Prairie of east central Illinois such as Kankakee County. Enough of those hedges were still growing in the 1930s that the 1939 Federal Writer’s Project’s guide to Illinois could state about the local farm country, “Nothing separates field from field or farm from farm but the straight line of a fence or a hedgerow of osage orange . . . .”
The hedge mania in Illinois lasted until barbed wire provided an alternative. Alas, the hedge rows have since succumbed to the logic of mechanical efficiency. As farms are merged, there is need for fewer boundary markers between fields, and hedges only impede the shuttling to and fro of tractors and combines. As the wood is very resistant to rotting, many an osage orange hedge was chopped up and used for fence posts, thus performing its last service to the owner.
Farmers may not miss the living fences but many other inhabitants of the prairie do. A good hedge was, famously, “hog tight” but the plants offered no impediment to birds and other wild creatures that used them as safe corridors across a landscape that had been rendered otherwise inhospitable. Critters weren’t the only ones who miss the hedges. Barbed wire might have proved to be a superior fence in every other way but one can’t burn barbed wire under a burgoo kettle; burgoo-makers over in Franklin in Morgan County wouldn’t use any other wood to heat their kettles.
In the grove
What trees there were, were clustered along stream and river bottoms, ravines, and floodplains where they were protected from fire and drought. Trees also sprouted, anomalously, in open uplands, in the territory conquered by grasses, in the form of groves. Seeing one from a distance, one is put in mind of a herd of bison, huddled together against a blizzard. Which they were, in a way—a blizzard of fire.
Groves graced all parts of the Illinois prairies. The town of Bourbonnais in Kankakee County occupies what was once a grove by that name. Long Grove, a long strip of timber perhaps three-fourths of a mile wide, ran along the southern edge of its namesake township in Macon County. In Champaign County the leafy landmarks included Bouse Grove, Lynn Grove, the Big Grove about four miles northeast of Urbana, and, in the northern section of the county, Buck Grove, so named for its abundance of deer. (The edges of prairie groves were perfect deer habitat, offering both shelter and forage to these animals.) In the southeast corner of the county was the timber known to the pioneers as Lost Grove, whose name is said to have been given to it from the finding there of the body of an early traveler who supposedly lost his course during a severe storm and perished within the grove.
Prairie groves decorated the landscape especially prettily in McLean County, if we can believe pioneer accounts. Scattered groves of timber—mostly white and burr oak, hickory, sugar maple, and elm—covered perhaps one-eighth of the local landscape. The result put many observers in mind of a park. Blooming Grove was the largest at 6,280 acres. (Its northern boundary is now Grove Street in Bloomington.) Other large groves were Stout's Grove (11,200 acres) and Randolph's Grove (6,240 acres); smaller ones included Dry Grove (1,680 acres), Twin Grove (1,840), and Funk's Grove (2,700).
Settlers found hardwood groves to be a handy source of firewood and shelter as well as forage for livestock. The groves also were pantries for local people. Paul Mowrer, who grew up in Bloomington, remembered “nutting time” each fall when his family drove
Out to the fabulous grove where fat-jowled squirrels,
Running from oak to hickory, butternut, walnut,
The groves also were a trove of sugar. Maple syrup was, with molasses, the common sweetener on the frontier. Funk’s Grove's mature sugar maples (a tree must be 40 years old to be tapped) made it a center of “sirup”-making. That spelling is preferred by some dictionaries, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and by the founder of the firm that opened the first commercial sirup camp at Funks Grove in 1891. Still made by Funks, the syrup produced at Funks Grove today is sold in the shop which connects to the sap house.
The groves were among the first places occupied by farmers from the East and South who had not mastered the arts of living on open ground. Many trees were sawn into lumber; the handsome Woodford County courthouse in Metamora, built in 1844–46 from timber (much of it black walnut) felled nearby, is one of the few survivors of many buildings so constructed.
If grasses waged guerilla war against trees for control of the Illinois landscape, humans sometimes resorted to blitzkrieg. In doing so they won battles across the state, but at such cost that it hard to say if they really won. The great Indian metropolis at Cakhokia succumbed to unknown reasons, but among the plausible factors was their denuding of the forested bluffs around the site for fires and stockades; that exposed soils to erosion which filled local creeks, aggravating flooding of their fields.
Euro-Americans were hardly more sophisticated when it came to stewarding their trees. Kaskaskia on the Mississippi in Randolph County, briefly the Illinois state capital, once was home to 7,000 people. Aggressive felling of bottomland trees to fuel the boilers of Mississippi River steamboats left river banks unstable; eroded sol filled the river channel, which left little room for flood waters, and the city was overrun by a swollen Mississippi and today is all but deserted.
Most of the trees in the great prairie groves were burned too, but as trash rather than fuel. So diligent was the clearing that Blooming and Randolph groves no longer exist and only a fraction of the Stout's, Dry, and Twin groves remain. Funk's Grove is the only grove that survives close to its 1856 size, although it has been sliced up by roads; in the early 1920s, the new “hard road” (Route 66) cut through it, and its successor, I-55, slices through an outlying part of the grove on the east.
[The following account of the deforestation around Galena is taken from The Alchemy of Galena, Nature of Illinois, Fall 1988.] Even if steamboating hadn't died, Galena's future as a river port would have been doubtful. The villain wasn't the steam locomotive but the ax.
In 1820, Jo Daviess County was nearly all trees. (Only a handful of spots in all of Illinois had so much of their land in forest.) Wood was the petroleum of the early 19th century. Steamboat boilers were fired with wood. So were the lead smelters; in fact, Galena's lead boom in fact depended as much on plentiful local supplies of wood as it depended on plentiful lead ore. So many trees were being felled that the early superintendent of the lead district ordered the best trees reserved for smelting.
Farmers in the Galena area felled trees, too. Local agriculture expanded with population, so that the value of farm products produced in the area exceeded that of lead as early as 1850. The combined effects of smelting and farming on the forests were devastating. Old photos show whole hillsides so denuded that they were said to resemble goat pastures in Greece.
The hillsides above the Galena, thus exposed, eroded badly. Even in 1839, local steamboat captains were warning that the Galena River that connected the town to the nearby Mississippi was silting up. The stream had to be dredged that year and again in 1856, as it had become more mud than water in summer. More dredging, even eventual construction of a lock and dam downstream, could not restore the Galena River as a dependable navigable stream.
A river which didn't have room for a steamboat didn't have room for flood waters either. Flooding was common. When the Market House was built in 1846 on the alluvial terrace between Commerce and Water streets, the entire block was filled in and raised by nine feet, although even that proved to be not enough. The worst flood, in 1937, reached higher, and damage to low-lying buildings was substantial. Restoration of the town's historic buildings could not begin in earnest, in fact, until 1951, when the present system of levees and flood gates was installed.
Putting down roots
As trees huddled in stream valleys against the elements, humans huddled among trees. Today, speeding across the Grand Prairie at 70 miles per hour results in tedium in travelers who, safe within their autos and never more than a few minutes from a town, cannot feel the unease of wagon-bound travelers adrift on the prairie. Only occasionally (usually during storms) does the modern Illinoisan feel that sense of dread exposure that came over travelers in a place where, as Peattie put it, there was “nothing over your head, nothing at your back.”
Once his animals and his family was sheltered, one of the first things that many a prairie farmer did, therefore, was to plant trees to protect his homestead against the winds and sun, as he might put up a barn to protect his livestock from wolves.
In town, trees served different purposes. In the raw landscape of a new town, trees were an emblem of civilization, and some towns planted them as they might buy books for the town library. Bloomingtonian Jesse Fell planted towns—he played a part in the development of Pontiac and Towanda and many other towns—and where he planted towns, he planted trees. He is said to have installed more than ten thousand in Normal alone, and Bloomington followed his example so avidly that it earned the nickname Evergreen City. Recalling his high school years, Carl Van Doren wrote that trees “make the streets of Urbana green tunnels in the summer.” Urbana has been a Tree City USA for more years—24—than any other of the 170 or so Illinois towns and cities to have earned that honor from the National Arbor Day Foundation as of 2000.
The wooded farmstead has become scarce; central heating gradually made the winter winds less fearsome, and many a wooded farmstead was put to the plow when the farm was consolidated with a neighbors’ land. As a result, the towns of the treeless prairies became (and remain) artificial groves, islands of wooded land in a denuded landscape.
Nature’s groves, alas, are scarcer than ever. Trees can still be found in their accustomed habitats—the slopes and ravines of moraines and along unplowable river bluffs, and bottomland forest along the region’s rivers and streams. The uplands are if anything more denuded of woody plants than they were when Euro-American settlers first saw them. Ford and Champaign are two of only seven Illinois counties where hunters spend more time chasing pheasants, a grasslands animal, rather than deer, a creature of the forest edge.
When Euro-Americans first explored it, the old Military Tract in western Illinois was one of the most heavily wooded parts of frontier Illinois. That these old woods were wonderful in their way seems beyond doubt. English emigrant Rebecca Burlend, who lived a few miles outside Pittsfield, was to record that "hundreds" of hummingbirds buzzed in her Pike County woods in the 1840s, where the bird noise was "one continuous gabble."
The region’s many wooded ravines were the sites of a frontier social ritual—the “log rolling.” The term is understood today mainly in its political context. (Lincoln was for decades nearly as well-known as a log roller as a log splitter, thanks to his role in the political bargaining in the legislature that got the new state capital put in Springfield—maneuvers historians now tend to dismiss.) A real log rolling remains as mysterious to today’s Illinoisan as the recipe for johnny cakes. In “The Lower Spoon River Valley,” the Isabel [township] Historians of Duncan Mills describe how local men would pile logs in steep-sided draws.
They would start by placing straw or dry leaves and dead branches in the draw, then rolling small dry logs on. The larger logs would then be rolled on and placed in such a position that when the fire burned the dry logs, the others would roll in, and in that way, keep feeding the fire without aid from the men . . . Toward evening, they would light the fires, and by the time they had eaten their supper, the fires would be going full blast and . . . the young folks would start the music and games which would last until far into the night.
In western Illinois, the forests were sources of lumber, fence wood, and fireplace fodder, as they were everywhere in Illinois. Meat packers in the towns along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers needed wood too, as pork was packed in barrels with salt or brine, and white oak made the best staves. Later, trees were felled on the industrial scale for sale (first to steamboats, later to railroads) as boiler fuel. Modern farmers no longer needed a woodlot for fuel and fencing, and many other stands were felled to clear farmland in a part of the state where open land was scarce. Within a century, thousands of wooded acres had been cleared in western Illinois.
There still are lots of woods in western Illinois nonetheless. One third of Calhoun County is wooded, and the Illinois River bluffs around Peoria still boast more forest (slightly more than half by area) than most parts of Illinois. However, virtually nothing remains of the forest primeval that greeted the first Euro-American settlers. Nor is much of the forest that does remain of high ecological quality. Today’s woods are mostly made up not only of younger trees but different kinds of trees—elms and ash rather than the oaks and hickories that once dominated, along with many weedy species introduced by Euro-Americans.
Ecologists may sneer at western Illinois’s forests but deer do not. The same nearly happened with deer. White-tailed deer gathered so plentifully at spots along the presettlement Mississippi that they could be shot by hunters from canoes. As soon as the 1870s, however, an old settler of Pike County was obliged to lament in a speech, “The time will soon come when fish and game will be so scarce as to be within the reach of only the wealthy.” That dire prediction almost came true. By the early 20th century the white-tailed deer was so near extinction in Illinois, thanks to heavy hunting and the loss of forest, that in 1901 hunting was banned across the state.
The white-tail was re-introduced to Illinois in the 1930s, and now is common everywhere. The terrain and land cover in the southern reaches of western Illinois are especially clement for deer. Local outfitters—understandably biased—say that Pike County “may be the premier big-buck hunting area in the U.S.” Outfitting hunting parties has become a major local business that generates more than $12 million in a typical recent year.
Pike County, with neighboring Adams and Brown counties, makes up deer hunting's "Golden Triangle." In 2000 Pike led all Illinois counties in the numbers of animals killed, or “harvested” in the parlance of game managers, with firearms hunters bagging more than 3,900 animals. Adams was No. 2, with a harvest of more than 2,900, and in Brown the harvest was more than 1,600 deer, in spite of Brown being (at 307 square miles) one of the smallest counties in the state.
There remain majestic trees in Illinois. In the Byron Forest Preserve District’s new Bald Hill Prairie Preserve in Ogle County, is what is thought to be the biggest tree of any species in the state, an eastern cottonwood that is 28.5 feet in circumference, over nine feet in diameter, and 122 feet tall.
Unexpectedly in such a heavily urbanized area, Chicago and its suburbs are home to many grand old trees. In Midway Plaisance Park near University of Chicago's Billings Hospital stands a bur oak that is 250-plus years old. The "Champion" white oak in Pioneer Woods in suburban Willow Springs is around 300 years old. When a white oak at Morton Arborteum in DuPage County was taken down by a storm in the early 1980s, it was found that the tree dated back to 1682.
At the other end of the state, on the banks of the Wabash River in far southeastern Illinois, is the nearly 300-acre Beall (pronounced “bell”) Woods. Here is one of the largest relatively undisturbed remnants of the deciduous forest that once covered the eastern U.S. When the land was sold at auction to a timber man, the State of Illinois in 1965, in a rare use of eminent domain, bought it back and converted it into a state park and nature preserve.
Its state caretakers call Beall Woods the "University of Trees," for the variety of tree species found there—64 have been identified, and more may yet be discovered. Trees of the trees here are 120 feet tall and more than three feet in diameter, reminders of the ones that awed the first humans who visited the place. The biggest examples in Illinois of several species grow here, including the Shumard red oak, green ash, sugarberry, and sweet gum.
It is no surprise that many of them are found in a corner of the state untroubled by fires or plows or steam boilers. The Cache River wetlands in Pulaski County is home to state champion trees of eleven species, all native to Illinois. Among them is a bald cypress tree that is at least 1,000 years old, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources—the oldest tree, indeed the oldest living thing, in Illinois. ●