90 YEARS OF LAND PRESERVATION The forest preserve district of will county was created by referendum on Nov. 2, 1926, and has grown to more than 21,000 acres today

Ninety years ago, Calvin Coolidge was president, Prohibition was in force, Babe Ruth was slugging home runs for the Yankees and Will County was in transition.

While wolves still roamed free in some areas of the county in 1926, development was taking off and there was a movement afoot to build a “super-highway system” linking Will County with Cook County and beyond.

In Joliet, community leaders were working hard to raise funds to build the city’s first YMCA, and excitement was growing as the opening neared for the Rialto Square Theatre on Chicago Street. The glitzy showplace was set to open on May 24, 1926, and the Joliet Evening Herald-News had all of the festive details in its May 23, 1926, edition.

Photo via Joliet Evening Herald-News

While much of the news of the day centered on construction and development, another story in that May 23, 1926, edition of the paper announced a quest to create a countywide forest preserve district. This movement to save the county’s “timber tracts” was spearheaded by the Joliet Rotary, and it was led by Dr. W. Henry Wilson, chairman of the Rotary’s Forest Preserve Committee. Wilson, a nationally known pathologist who worked at Silver Cross Hospital, stressed the benefits of preserved open space.

“It is accessible to the public, for pleasure and recreation, and is beautifying to the county,” he told the Joliet Evening Herald-News.

He noted that the land will be preserved for “reforestation.” And he stressed that forest preserve land would remain in its natural state and would not become a “fancy park.”

Wilson also lamented the fact that nearly two-thirds of the state’s 6 million acres of forest land had already been stripped of its trees.

Rotary members said they feared the county’s open spaces would go the way of the buffalo without a forest preserve district. The group was successful in gathering the petition signatures required to get a forest preserve referendum on the November 2, 1926, ballot.

The referendum passed by almost a 2-to-1 margin – 16,611 people voted in favor and 8,774 voted against the measure.

By January 1930, the Board had acquired enough funds to purchase 143 acres in Homer Township that would become Messenger Woods Nature Preserve.

Photo by Tim Good

The District paid $125 an acre for the land. The second acquisition came in 1930 when the District paid $325 per acre for Hammel Woods in Shorewood.

During the next four decades, the District acquired only 1,300 acres. That changed in the 1970s when $6 million in general obligation bonds sparked a growth spurt. The District used the money to purchase around 2,000 acres of land along Hickory and Spring creeks to reduce flooding.

This growth trend continued in the 1980s and 1990s as more emphasis was placed on public use of preserve properties. Referendums approved by voters in 1999 and 2005 provided $165 million in revenue and pushed land acquisition and preserve development to a new level.

While the forest preserve moved to protect forests and precious wetlands found along the county’s many creeks and rivers, sites with notable history elements also were protected.

Purchased in 1931, McKinley Woods in Channahon is home to remnants of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, which was later used as a POW camp for a brief time during World War II.

Joliet Iron Works, acquired between 1991 and 1997, protects remnants of an iron manufacturing facility that operated in Joliet from the late 1800s to the early 1900s and gave Joliet its nickname of “City of Steel and Stone.”

Well over 75 percent of the foundations and ancillary structures on the site that were in operation still remain visible to the public.

The 37-acre Vermont Cemetery includes a 1-acre pioneer cemetery that features high quality prairie remnants that date back to pioneers days.

For decades prior to the District taking it over, the cemetery lay in neglect except for occasional cleanup.

In 1970, volunteers donated funds to construct a six-foot- high chain-link fence around the cemetery to stop trespass, vandalism, theft of gravestones, trampling and digging of plants. This original enclosure has since been replaced with wrought iron fencing.

It was dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve in 1999, which provides permanent protection for the natural resources at the preserves.

In the 90 years since its creation by referendum, the Forest Preserve District has grown from 143 acres in 1930 to almost 22,000 acres that are owned, leased or managed as of 2016. All of this preservation came at a time when the county’s population mushroomed from 110,732 in 1920 to around 700,000 residents today.

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Forest Preserve District's Growth Through the Years

A look at how the total acreage of protected land has increased since the District was first created.

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Efforts by Wilson, his Rotary colleagues and the voters of Will County have made a difference in the county’s quality of life for all species. They stepped in as development was ramping up in Will County and they provided a pathway to preservation.

“Because of the foresight of Dr. Wilson, his fellow Rotary members and the thousands of voters who approved the initial referendum, the lives of Will County residents have been greatly enriched and they will be for generations to come,” said Ralph Schultz, the District’s chief operating officer. “I hope that we can continue to enhance their vision as we seek to protect, restore and interpret nature and to make our great open spaces accessible and enjoyable for the residents of Will County.”

Additional photo credits: Monee Reservoir by Global Aerial; Dr. W. Henry Wilson courtesy of Sandra Rawlins; Joliet Iron Works courtesy of Melissa Rainford; Vermont Cemetery by Chad Merda.

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