On a recent weekend I joined a small crew of volunteers planting a heritage garden near the 1835 Miller-Ellwood log cabin across the Kishwaukee River from the Russell Woods Forest Preserve.
For those not familiar with the pioneer log cabin or connected South Branch Prairie wetland preserve, it is a quarter of a mile south of Route 72 on Pleasant Hill Road between Genoa and Kingston. I believe it is destined to become one of northern Illinois’ historic tourist attractions, once the work of restoring the log cabin is complete and permanent bathrooms and a picnic area are constructed.
This project became a reality when Terry Hannan, superintendent of the DeKalb County Forest Preserve District, working in conjunction with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, initially acquired about 60 acres of land from the Hoppe sisters (Marilyn Hoppe and Nancy Hoppe Nitzberg) west of the Kishwaukee, ground which had been farmed for a century or more.
Al Roloff, natural resources manager for the forest preserve district, explained that they wanted to return this native prairie wetland to its original “pre-settlement” condition, before settlers moved here and cleared the land to begin farming. After they rid the property of invasive plant species and remnants of crops, they began seeding native vegetation in 2011. Their efforts have resulted in an expansive area of prairie and wetlands you would have seen in the early 1800s and before.
“The density and diversity of the plantings is amazing,” Roloff said. “The marsh, sedge meadow and wet prairie mixes include bulrushes and sedges, as well as wetland grasses and forbs, with a prairie buffer that includes more than 100 different species.”
Added to that is an authentic two-story log cabin that was found inside the walls of a farmhouse being demolished five years ago down the road on the Ellwood-Towle farm being operated by the Rex Nelson family. The logs were carefully preserved, numbered and stored in a barn until a log house restoration expert, Tim Kilby, came up from St. Louis to oversee the restoration. It is nearly complete, with a few windows and doors yet to be reconstructed and wood flooring laid. Then it will be furnished with period household belongings so schoolchildren can visit and learn what life was like in the days of “Little House on the Prairie,” a classic TV series now shown in reruns on the Hallmark Channel.
What an exciting way to learn local history, seeing and handling artifacts and belongings that pioneer families like the Millers and Ellwoods used as they struggled to eke out an existence in the fledgling Prairie State by plowing and planting crops and gardens to support themselves.
My involvement began with the revival of the Ney Grange chapter in the area, primarily for the purpose of helping with the log cabin project and serving as docent for Hannan once it has been completed. Under the direction of Dan Kenney and the DeKalb County Community Gardens group, an initial garden plot was created between the cabin and wetlands preserve last year. This spring we planted heritage seeds and plants again, anticipating a bounteous crop in the fall.
I enjoyed planting some heritage green beans, saved for generations and passed down by Roger Watson’s ancestors. Other heritage plantings include Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, yellow Parma onions, leeks, Swiss chard, Brandywine and Roma tomatoes, melons, acorn squash and a patch of herbs.
If you don’t want to wait for the cabin and wetlands preserve to officially open next year, then drive to the gate off Pleasant Hill Road and park, walk past the corn crib to see the cabin, then go east 300 yards on the mowed trail through the wooded area to reach an overlook for the wetlands and prairie. You can also hike there from Russell Woods on that same trail. It is worth the trek.
• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL. 60115. His column appears every other Tuesday.