All about prairie conservation efforts in Central Illinois

Feb 14, 2009

Two Trails Rantoul Proposal

The document deals with two nearby sites. The first is a potential five-mile rail trail with prairie preservation potential. The second deals with a gravel nine-acre pit regrowth succession prairie. The intent is to acquire both sites for prairie preservation purposes.

This document is for planning purposes. It is long but detailed. Our next move will be to simplify this document for more functional public use.

Two Trails

From the archive: To Save or Demolish

This is one of the many articles contributed by the Prairie Monk for publication in the WEFT Revue. It appears on this blog as part of an ongoing project to archive Monk's writings and make them more accessible to the community.

To Save or Demolish: That is the Question

It revolves round every preservation effort

Recently a News-Gazette antiquer’s column by Bob Swisher, Jan. 1, 2005, raised that very question.

To Save: Swisher gave accolades to the Greek Revival Cottage in Urbana, which is now the Urbana Park District Headquarters, as an example of a valuable preservation and functional re-use building.

Or Demolish: Swisher gives a counterpart thumbs down to the Pepsin Factory in Monticello as an example of a building that should be demolished and replaced with a mall that is the local desire.

Let’s look at these two sites.

The Greek Revival Cottage

Historically the Greek Revival Cottage was the “Little Dome House” which was across from Uni-High on Springfield Ave. It had been skidded across the snow from Urbana to be relocated as a rental house when the owner became affluent enough to build a bigger and better house. The cottage was originally located somewhere in the vicinity of Broadway in Urbana, where there are similar cottages.

The cottage had a Greek revival porch and dado that indicated that its owner had a reasonable degree of architectural sophistication when he came here in the early 1870s. The owner came from Urbana in Champaign County, Ohio, as did many other local settlers. The train-shipped cottage was located in the hinterlands between Urbana and Champaign on a rise overlooking a swampy Boneyard Creek. It faced Bloomington Road, which was the main drag to Bloomington in its day. Later the road would be renamed Springfield Ave. Around the turn of the century the “cottage” was surrounded by three story houses and the cottage became known as the “Little Dome House” after the family who lived there for many years and because it was obviously smaller than its street mates.

By the 1980s, the cottage was known as the “Saw Sharpener’s House” in reference to the occupation of the owner. The Saw Sharpener died, and the building was bought by the University for a parking lot. The University did not want the building and agreed to hand it over to the Champaign County Historical Museum. The Urbana Park District offered it a home at Leal Park.

With the support of many, including Education II (an Urbana Alternative School), the Champaign County Historical Museum, the Urbana Park District, the Preservation and Conservation Association and others, and to the amazement of others, the house was trundled down Springfield Ave. on aircraft bogies, per courtesy of house mover Gensil and his family, with tugs and jacks and chains. The building was then moved up Wright Street to University and east past Carle Hospital to Leal Park (which was once a Busey Family Cemetery that was closed in 1906).

A basement had been dug to provide for interpretive programs and the storage of historic artifacts. The cottage was moved gently across the excavation site on a trestle of ties and lowered into place on a previously constructed basement wall.

A few bones were dug up during the process of basement construction, and that was of concern, because there are two native Indians buried in that cemetery and it is a federal offense to exhume such graves. An archeological dig was organized by Tom Riley and students of the U of I Archeology Department, and it was revealed that the bones came from a body that was formally shrouded and Caucasian. The bones were archived with the university.

Bob Swisher, in his writings, went on to say that twenty-five years ago he was the only board member of PACA (Preservation and Conservation Association) to have voted against the relocation and functional re-use proposal.

In retrospect, he is not proud of his vote. He now feels that the $85,000 in real and in-kind services that PACA, put into the project was well spent and in fact a wise decision.

The Pepsin Factory

On the other hand, Swisher considers the Pepsin Factory in Monticello a lost cause. It is time to move on. The building has holes in the roof, it is in poor condition, and besides, the real estate space is needed for a shopping center.

Editorially, I have to say that the above point of view is a popular assessment of the Pepsin Factory situation. Others tend to disagree. The building has viability even if run down.

For those who aren’t familiar with the factory, the Pepsin Factory was the font of an outstanding local Monticello enterprise. A Dr. Caldwell formulated a hugely successful laxative that included the use of the enzyme pepsin, which aids in the breakdown of polypeptide chains in food and therefore can be a useful purgative. Dr. Caldwell produced his “Syrup of Pepsin” in a storefront on the Monticello Square. He extracted the pepsin, from boiled up senna leaves, with the aid of an apple cider press and added a little alcohol, sugar and a few other ingredients. The result was an elixir that was superior to other period treatments such as bicarbonate of soda and mustard, which were both harsh. The Syrup sold so well that Dr. Caldwell’s entrepreneurial friends asked to produce the product commercially. Dr. Caldwell agreed. He didn’t want to be involved in the business but he was willing to allow the use of his name.

Very shortly the business partners moved into a nearby Piatt family cottage near the Square, which was eventually expanded to a factory that employed 250 people. There was a railroad spur, and the product was being shipped around the world. During that time, the Pepsin factory contributed greatly to the wealth and well-being of Monticello.

As is often the case with this type of enterprise, there is an active first and second generation of entrepreneurs, but by the third generation the interested parties have either gotten more sophisticated and moved on or lost some of their steam. In time, the factory was sold to a multinational, the Bayer Drug Company, and they added several additional pharmaceutical manufacturing lines. The factory continued to contribute to the community.

By the mid 1980s the factory was becoming obsolete, possibly because batch processing (where the raw products were lifted to the top of the four story factory and processed down) may have been converting to continuous processing technologies.

In any case the products were farmed out to other factories, and the building was donated to Developmental Services in Champaign. The factory was too far from Developmental Services clients, so the factory was sold to a restaurant equipment company, which occupied most of the building for the next fifteen years.

Heartland Pathways, a prairie preservation group, attempted to use the building as a prairie preservation and restoration site, but the building was too wet and cold and cumbersome for such an operation. Heartland Pathways did use the building for the storage of its prairie preservation field equipment. By default, Heartland Pathways also became building stewards for ten years. So Heartland Pathways has a closer acquaintance with the building than most anyone in Monticello, except those who worked there, and that was a long time ago.

Eventually the City purchased the building with a view to tearing it down and replacing it with a mall. Not much consideration was given to preservation and functional re-use or its relationship to Monticello’s history. There were some attempts but they largely did not involve well-known factory and historic re-use specialists.

The City of Monticello acquired the building in April 2004 and almost immediately voted to demolish it.

The State Historical Preservation Agency was asked to provide support money for mitigation (the removal of lead and asbestos) and demolition. The State was compliant but said “Wait. We are provided money by the Federal Government to help with such sites, but with the proviso that we, the State, must be convinced that this is not a valuable ‘greyfield’ or ‘historic site’ that should be preserved.”

“Greyfields,” for the uninitiated, is a term applied to old factories and large buildings that often have historical and functional re-use potential which is often beyond the finances and planning potential of the communities where they are located. Greyfields are sometimes confused with “Brownfields,” which are environmentally hazardous sites. The Pepsin Factory is partly both, but significantly a greyfield.

Greyfields are mostly conceptualized and financed by state, federal and private agencies because they are mostly beyond the scope of small communities that have other more pressing and pragmatic needs and interests. That is why State and Federal Governments have been mandated to see that such buildings are not removed before they have been adequately assessed for their historic and functional re-use potential.

State and Federal agencies also have a commitment to greyfield communities to ensure that the public has had an adequate chance to consider preservation.

It takes money and research energy to develop a plan for the preservation of a greyfield, to explain that plan to the public, and to suggest possible financing. In this situation the state and federal authorities have given historic preservation agencies the plebiscite and support money to encourage historic preservation and functional re-use. This is the will of the elected government bodies, and the money is provided for that purpose, although that is not always understood.

But for the state and federal authorities to do something significant, they must have at least sense a nominal complicity and interest at the community level, and that is not always forthcoming.

In all this preservation debate it must be realized that the state and federal input being criticized can be avoided if the community chooses to use its own tax base to remove its buildings. In the case of the Pepsin Factory the State was asked for support. One problem is that the community often does not have the finance to mitigate chemicals and remove a huge building.

The State responded positively but it also enumerated the provisos.

The first question was “Have you held adequate public hearings?” The answer was “No”, so a public hearing was held, but the hearing was very simplistic and not one that was designed to encourage community preservation interests. It was mostly a case of ”take the sucker down” with no real time for preservationists to present a reasoned case.

Secondly, the State made site visits and gathered local information. The State then took the necessary time to make its assessments, which were more oriented to site preservation than the City of Monticello wanted to entertain.

The state is well aware that there are comparable greyfields in the US and around the world that have been successfully preserved, and that it is their mandated responsibility to research particular sites, in respect of what is known about successful greyfields elsewhere and how these experiences might apply to the Pepsin site.

The State is also aware that the demolition of a large factory like the Pepsin Factory and the building of its replacement can expend a huge amount of energy, which is in short supply and a controversial issue at this time. That question may not be a preservation mandate, but it is certainly a political issue.

The State has requested the retention of the early Piatt family house as a central feature of the factory, and the preservation of a 1919 building that is in reasonably restorable condition. It has also requested a two-year moratorium on demolition while other alternatives are investigated.

The delay does not sit well with the City of Monticello, nor with Bob Swisher and salvage interests. There is at least some tangible finance in the scrap.

But Monticello also gets, and stands to get, quite a lot of its income from tourism, and that potential income has to be balanced against the immediate advantages of salvage or demolition. Other communities have done well with greyfields and have developed an enviable tourist trade. Tourism does not do well in a sterile environment. There have to be features of interest, and the Pepsin factory is one.

Such projects need a regional, state and federal complicity, with financing as a major issue. But for the State to engage in meaningful preservation discussions, it must also have the complicity and understanding and enthusiastic interest of the local communities involved, and that may well go beyond the jurisdiction of one community. The growth and evolution of that complicity is what makes a greyfield work, and it takes time.

Swisher berates the State for delaying. He also criticizes the preservationists who want to see the building functionally reused as a monument to the industry that brought Monticello much of its wealth around the turn of the century, and as a part of the living history success story.

He is critical of one commercial attempt made by Jeff Miller to contract development of the site. He is also critical of attempts to envision state and federal funding, which would not come quickly or easily.

Now Swisher holds preservationists responsible for the demise of another historic building, the recently retired Piatt County jail, which came up for demolition discussion recently. In this case the County Board “did not want the specter of another old building standing round empty while preservationists worked to save it”! As a result, and over the objections of a small group of preservationists and genuine community interests, the County Board voted unanimously to demolish the jail. At once the building was vacated for a new jail.

Non-preservationists often find it expedient to get rid of preservation “problems” before the problems elicit too many questions. To that end the Board decided to use its own tax money to demolish the building. In this way it avoided the State Historic Agency and its historic assessment, even though the Piatt County goal was a historic site of note, and one of the two oldest jails still in use in the State till recently. The key was to use County money and not be dependent on the State or Federal support money that comes with preservation strings.

Now, ipso facto, the Pepsin factory preservationists are being held responsible for the quick demise of a jail that many people thought was an attractive historic site and a potential tourist feature with ambiance and stories.

What Swisher doesn’t seem to realize is that the same “ugly duckling” preservationists who are the subject of his Pepsin Factory diatribe are the same “ugly ducklings” that faced the same anti Greek Revival Cottage preservationists that he now applauds some twenty-five years later.

Perhaps if the Pepsin Factory is preserved there will be a similar turnaround and accolade, in a future antique column, with a thank-you to the preservationists, including the State, who see historic and commercial value in the Pepsin factory.

In this difficult milieu, the State and Federal authorities who attempt to save greyfield sites should be congratulated, because these sites give character to the country and act as a tourist attraction for the region.

The Pepsin story is typical of turn-of-the-twentieth-century entrepreneurship. The story should be told, but the story loses its impact if the key building is removed. Other countries do a lot to preserve the dignity of their built landscapes, and we should do likewise.

Greyfields are successful. They can provide space for art colonies, community activities, penthouse apartments and in-house historical interpretation.

What can you do?

To the individual reader who wants to know how to help, I would say: Be aware of the old buildings that you like, and develop an understanding of them. Then, some time before the wrecking ball appears, be prepared to speak on their behalf and make suggestions as to how they might be functionally reused. It is happening in communities like downtown Champaign all the time, with smaller buildings especially, and it utilizes a lot of creative construction, horse sense, and imagination.

The Enterprise Building on the corner of Walnut and Main recently got Champaign City Tax Increment Financing support, as have many other buildings in the City. We are not divested of being able to save old buildings and converting to interesting human businesses and habitats. On the other hand, we recently lost the Burnham Hospital after years and years of abortive attempts to functionally re-use the buildings. Sometimes it is a matter of brownfield concerns such as asbestos and lead, but sometimes those hazards can be capped and handled effectively. It is the greyfields that are the biggest challenge, and there, to a large extent, we are dependent on state and federal assessment and support.

Dave Monk

—The WEFT Revue, Vol. 14 Issue 1: Jan.-Feb. 2005, p.6.

From the archive: Drama on the Prairie

This is one of the many articles contributed by the Prairie Monk for publication in the WEFT Revue.  It appears on this blog as part of an ongoing project to archive Monk's writings and make them more accessible to the community.

An observant visitor to our nearby urban prairie noted ants climbing an evening primrose plant. They were headed for the flower head of the plant where there was a lot of aphid action. The small, plump, almost transparent green insects, with their discarded exoskeletons and sugary exudates, are easy to recognize. The seed head was obviously having a difficult time as a result of the aphid infestation. The meristematic, or rapidly growing parts of the plants, such as the young seed pods, are the most attractive to the aphids. These young seed pods were not filling out in the same healthy manner as the lower pods that had escaped the aphid onslaught. Aphids have sucking mouth parts that remove nutritional sap from the plant and spread disease.

The ants were present because they utilize sugary substances exuded by anal circi that project from the abdomen of the aphid. The ants can encourage the production of these sugary materials by stroking the anal circi. Some of the sugary material spills onto the surrounding leaves to create a recognizably shiny, sticky surface that has a reflectance very different from that on uninfected parts of the plant. The ants gather their booty and head home, down the main stem of the plant.

At the same time one has to wonder about the presence of certain wasps and lady bugs. The lady bugs at least have the intent of eating the aphids. Other insects,  just like humans,  have an addiction to the sugary materials.

Why would this small drama on the prairie be of interest? It is but one of a million such interactions that are common to any ecosystem. In the first place it is a matter of curiosity, and we should all be curious. So ten "brownie points" to the observer who noted the line of ants moving up and down the stem of the plant. We also should know what is happening around us in case what we observe has an impact on the understanding of the prairies we care about. Then there is the added concern as to what these creatures might do in the commercial world of agriculture or gardening, if given the chance. Should we indeed be avoiding growing this plant?

Let us establish a few facts about the plants and creatures involved.

Firstly, the evening primrose is a prairie plant, but is also a little on the weedy side. We don't encourage it a lot. We don't discourage it either, but it is easy to see why a farmer might not want it near to a commercial crop.

Interestingly the plant is a nocturnal bloomer, pollinated by a sphinx moth,  so when I give flashlight tours of the urban prairie at night, it is often blooming. The dry seeds of the evening primrose are also very attractive to the seed-eating birds like goldfinches, which,  in season,  visit our prairie. We have another favorite use for the primrose which has to do with its capacity to grow quickly. If we plant a prairie, which we know will take a long time to reach maturity and which may be subject to possible mowing and herbiciding pressures, we will sometimes plant a perimeter of evening primrose to create a recognizable natural barrier to delineate the site.

On the farmer's side, the presence of weedy patches of primrose are a target for elimination, for the farmer knows that aphids can infest this plant and possibly transmit diseases to crops. That is not an unfounded assumption; this insect can not only do damage to a single plant but it can also increase and disperse quickly. In the first place, the aphid is tremendously fecund. Its populations can seemingly appear overnight. This is helped by the fact that aphids can reproduce at least some generations without sexual interaction. Worst of all, as far as the dispersal of disease is concerned, there are winged generations that can fly to other places. The farmer's talent is to eliminate the plant and/or apply insecticides at the right moment so that population increase and dispersion can be reduced. It should be remembered that the challenge is exacerbated by large crops of weeds that are encouraged by soft and fertile farm soils, and on the prairie we don't have that situation.

Another interesting thing about aphids is that they leave detritus on the leaf. The aphid does not reproduce through an egg larva pupa adult life cycle, but rather through a series of instars, or stages—each of which is a facsimile of the last instar (only a little larger and more sophisticated)—until the adult instar is reached. This leaves exoskeletons, which have been exfoliated by growing instars that are detectable on the leaf surface.

Should we keep our evening primroses? I think so, because the primrose has a niche and a role to play; it has a place in our native ecosystem. The strength we have is that of biodiversity, so that when a disease attacks a prairie, the overall prairie is not devastated—just a small part of it. The farmland monoculture of a single plant crop is,  on the other hand,  very vulnerable to an invasion that can take the whole crop out or reduce its yield. Biodiversity is also important for farming if we are to take advantage of crop rotations and other agricultural practices that encourage a range of crops, rather than specialization.

Come visit our prairie sometime and watch its creatures grow.  

—The WEFT Revue, Vol. 10 Issue 5: Sept.-Oct. 2002, p.6.

From the archive: Vernacular art resurgence helps environment

This is one of the many articles contributed by the Prairie Monk for publication in the WEFT Revue.  It appears on this blog as part of an ongoing project to archive Monk's writings and make them more accessible to the community.

Site forlorn

Some years ago, I visited a rural site near Hollandale, Wisconsin, where there was a welter of crumbling sculptural art.  Tears welled in my eyes as I photographed the remnants. I also felt a synergy for the people who were trying to save the site and restore it. Recently I returned to the site and was overjoyed to find it restored through the efforts of many people and agencies, including the Kohler Foundation, which provided a large share of the funding.

There are many sites like this across the country where the art of the "wee folk, little folk" is crumbling. We need to restore these monuments to the spirit and philosophy of the citizens who created them as a shared experience, "the good times with the bad". These sites leave a record and a focus for our contemplation and wonder.

It has been six generations since early settlers came to this country. Those settlers often started out as people with very different experiences from the ones they would later use in their new country. These people had to adapt to their new environment, and they succeeded. Their families are now established and affluent. In the process of growing, however, many relatively recent arrivals left a record of their encounter with the world at large. One of the more popular forms of expression was, and still is, the frontyard or backyard sculptural garden, which was often well laced with a sense of humor,  spirituality and a loyalty to both their past and present countries. Some people just wanted to say "thank you" for the opportunity they have had in this country. The sculptural artifacts they created, unfortunately, are all too often falling into a state of disrepair to the point where they are considered decrepit and removed. 

Public interest

There is a growing awareness about vernacular art amongst current generations that is almost demanding that these sites be saved. This interest is verified by the number of people who are studying their geneology, extended families and community's development history. The search is on, using a variety of aids ranging from traditional newspaper searches and interviews to computer network searches.

The time is ripe to save some our unique sculptural environments. This especially applies to limestone features, such as funereal art (on tombstones) vulnerable to the ravages of acid rain. It is encouraging that many people are thinking more positively about the preservation of  important sites that can easily be lost to development.

Preservation techniques

In order to preserve the vernacular we must first be aware of our local vernacular resources then we have to be prepared to spend time documenting them and increasing public awareness. To achieve these goals we have to attend and call meetings and even create public interest groups. That can be a pain, but the effort can be rewarding. It is important to realize that one public presentation,can engender a changed point of view, especially if the message falls on sympathetic ears. All too often the established tack is the traditional alternative, which is just one form of "progress", but let me assure you:  new thoughts are often more welcome than most citizens believe. 

Movers and shakers also have to develop partnerships that often have to include many agencies and interests. They also have to realize that many vernacular sites require the advice and involvement of experts. This is because most restorations call for a lot of sympathetic imagination in order to draw out the intended spirit of the site. Photographs and interviews will help. "Clean-up" campaigns usually do not, especially if more materials are lost.

The economic importance of small scale tourism

From the point of view of funding, preservationists also need to stress that the preservation and interpretation of cultural artifacts can be a source of local income. One cannot easily estimate the value of a restored pioneer cemetery over a thousand-year period, but when the grave of the donor of the county seat lies crumbling and the truss bridges and historic buildings are gone, the prospective tourist may move on to another town and with that decision goes the money that would have been spent on attendance fees, gas, food, lodgings and other opportunities.  Tourism to local sites is up, and people, including locals, enjoy visiting. Even computer specialists want to come to a region that cares about its history and its culture.

State and federal support

State and federal programs such as "Main Street", "Conservation 2000" and "Build Illinois" are aimed at natural and cultural preservation. We should take advantage of these programs which encourage a broad-based participation and continuing commitment. These programs may not provide a lot of funding, but they often do provide advice, and that is very helpful.

Site restored

The "Grandview" site near Hollandale, Wisconsin that I revisited is a typical vernacular restoration. The restoration is not perfect, and it never can be, but the spirit of the site has been captured.

The vernacular artist

Let me say a few words about vernacular artists in general and something about what we might expect of restorations like the one at the Hollandale.

Vernacular artists are untrained in art but they are often perceptive in the way they interpret the world around them. That world may be expansive, or it can be ever so small.  The dimension can even be confined to a barn where one man, for example, worked for a major part of his life twisting wire and dealing with the concept that wire allows electrical vibes to flow and that his sculpting could play a role in spiritual and bodily well health. Other vernacular artists may create interesting fencelines or roadside grottos. Many make political statements but the manner in which they make their statement, as in upper case lettering run together line after line, defines them as an artist.

Most vernacular artists have a point to make, not the least of which might be to simply to say "thank you" for the privilege of being able to come to this country and succeed. Others may have a liquor prohibition message or a spiritual statement to make. In order to extend their message it is also almost axiomatic that these artists will locate their creations where the public can see them. There is a concrete jungle of animals and people at Phillips, Wisconsin, for example,  where the artist, Fred Smith, built a tavern nearby so that people would have access to his 200 sculptured animals and people. His outdoor gallery is also located on a state highway, so one can predictably observe cars driving by, then coming to a halt and backing up.

Site history

At the "Grandview" Hollandale site, Nick Engelbert created a front-yard sculpture garden that fronts onto a highway. The locals often refer to it as the "funny farm", but that doesn't do justice to the site.  Nick's works ranged from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Paul Bunyan, to a patriotic eagle insignia, to memories of his European past. A Viking steering his vessel,  for example,  relates to the time when Nick worked in Scandinavia. A crenelated castle is representative of his familiarity with the Hapsburg dynasty. A political "team", comprised of a hilarious donkey and an equally ridiculous elephant, are hitched together and driven by Uncle Sam trying to keep the pair together. A label reads "Who would want to work with a team like this?" Nick's wife Katherine planted formal gardens around the statues, but she also sewed her seeds of mission by planting a garden which, when in full bloom, would spell out the word "Peace". The fences are orate, and the house is adorned with decorative stucco. The materials are mostly stone, glass, concrete and found objects.

One of the biggest problems with repairing vernacular sculpture, is that the amateur artist does not usually realize the importance of a properly engineered framework, or armature, and one of the first tasks of the restoration specialist is to replace, or even create, such frames.

Engelbert Kolodnick was born in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1881. He was a young man filled with curiosity. He had a wanderlust. He worked his way around Europe, Latin America and the United States. He was an engineer but he worked at many trades. He met his wife, Katherine, in Chicago. They moved to Hollandale where Katherine had relatives. He became a cheese maker and milk vendor. By this time he had changed his name to Nick Engelbert, and four children were on the way. Katherine helped maintain the family by selling farm equipment. She would walk many miles, stay overnight with her clients, and was a citizen of note in her own right. Nick and Katherine bought 20 acres of farmland on the crest of a scenic hill to provide an interesting environment for their growing family. They sported a family band and entertained. The couple did much to encourage their children, and this is born out in the subsequently  successful nature of their children's lives.

Not as a first priority, but as an interest, Nick began to sculpt and embellish the house. Many of his pieces were in a continual state of flux as Nick modified them. That is why his pieces are difficult to restore because someone has to decide which image was the last intended.

Nick and Katherine died in the early nineteen sixties. The “farm” sold, and the sculpture garden fell into disrepair. In his later years, Nick's children encouraged him to paint the story of his life, and the outcome was exciting. The paintings are primitive in style, but they have a poignancy and sense of humor that is perceptive. Some dealt humorously with his conflict with cancer and his visits to the doctor. The paintings have been donated, by the family, to the site and they are on exhibition in the family house, which is now a visitors’ center. 

Site use

I was by myself when I arrived at the restoration late one afternoon, but I was not alone, for there was a mother and a handful of children visiting. They had come from a town some distance away, at the suggestion her son, who had been there on a school visit. He wanted his mother and friends to see the site.  The farmhouse was closed but I was able to provide some details and I am sure the family will be back. One never knows, but such a visit can sometimes leave an indelible impression that turns up at other times in other places. In the Midwest that has happened with grottos, for example:  A major religious grotto, based on Lourdes, France, was built by a Father Dobberstein in West Bend, Iowa, and this grotto has been the inspiration for many other grottos dotted round the Midwest.

Community commitment

For my part I was excited to see that the 20-acre site that looks over rolling dairying country had been acquired and restored. I took 72 pictures of the objects so that I can tell the story I want to tell to you and others. Later I spent a morning reading the displays and was pleased with the efforts of those who have tried to piece together the Engelbert story from limited remnants and family photographs.

Importantly the site has been handed over to the local community which has been involved in the restoration from the start. Now the community, under the guidance of. The Pecatonica Foundation, will take the site into the future. One of their first efforts, I think, should be a book so that people can take away a piece of the Engelbrert experience with them.

Teaching support

Now I want to tell you how I got to visit the site in the first place, because it says something about the support services that are needed to encourage such a restoration. I was helping team teach a School of the Art Institute of Chicago "Artist in the Landscape" summer field course, which grew out of a combined Parkland College "Reading the Landscape" field course I was teaching, a School of the Art Institute "Cultural Architecture" field course Jim Zanzi was teaching,  and a State of Wisconsin Arts Council touring "Folk Art Exhibit," curated and promoted by Lisa Stone. The three of us would bounce off of each other and our students, who brought their own particular forms of energy and creativity. Sometimes we would include visitors and supporters of further outreach and many of whom are involved in the establishment of an "Intuitive" Museum and Association. It was Lisa Stone who took us to the site, and she and Jim Zanzi have a had a lot to do, both directly and indirectly, with the site's restoration.

The intent of the "Artist and the Landscape" course and courses like it is to introduce students to some of the rich natural and cultural heritage which often belies the so-called "flat and uninteresting" rural midwest landscape. What we expected of the student artist in return was that they first understand the situation we were introducing and then interpret that landscape in their own particular way.  Immediate feed-back was not required, although some people came up with excellent projects. We were mainly looking for an experience that would remain viable for many years and be handed down to future generations. To understand the oddfellows, one must pay attention to their history. To interpret them is a different thing. We need more such activities because they are an important venue for the discovery, interpretation and preservation of vernacular sites.

WEFT vernacular

I often wonder if WEFT could not sport its own particular form of a vernacular art program on Market Street. I am indeed thinking that we could have our own walking tour recorded on mini-disc which could be loaned-out to interested people. We could even have a living history event at WEFT-FEST which could include Mr. Eisner emerging from his grocery warehouse across the street to deliver groceries with a donkey and a wagon. At the same time Mr. Sullivan might be encouraged to emerge from his garage opposite Mike and Molly's in an early Chevrolet. Actually I think I just saw Mr. McKinley get off one of his interurban cars at the end of the street. No telling what the Klemic brothers of East Central Illinois Mafioso fame (who occupied the WEFT building) would say about all this! You thought you didn't have any vernacular history? You go by it every day!

The Prairie Monk

Anyway, listen to the Prairie Monk and Bill Saylor from 11 am to noon on Sundays and we will prod your environmental thoughts and actions.

—The WEFT Revue, Vol. 8 Issue 4: June-July 2000, p.1 & 6.

From the archive: Mission of the Prairie Monk: Awareness

This is one of the many articles contributed by the Prairie Monk for publication in the WEFT Revue.  It appears on this blog as part of an ongoing project to archive Monk's writings and make them more accessible to the community.

The aim of the Prairie Monk program is to create awareness about the world around us. This includes letting people know what is happening environmentally. We also want to provide people the opportunity to interact with each other in a manner that we hope will encourage listeners to enjoy and serve their natural and cultural landscape.

One of the ways by which we try to educate is by relating some of our own environmental experiences, excitements and disappointments, whether they pertain to planning and design or vernacular art. 

Often we will deal with a single topic at some depth. To that end we encourage guests to contribute often very special information.  At other times it seems more appropriate for us to announce activities and report on current events. At other times we will suggest action strategies and alternatives that we believe have merit. Sometimes we will combine several formats in an attempt to elucidate ecological relationships. We like to encourage involvement in a manner that is appropriate to the person's individuality.

Some of our topics are recurrent because they are on-going activities, such as prairie preservation or corridor development. Other topics deal with one-time events or features that we feel have biological or cultural significance.

Some of our radio discussions are inspired by call-ins that provide us with new insights, and we very much appreciate that style of program participation.

One paradigm that interests us a lot is the mechanism by which the public can be encouraged to contribute environmental projects. The evolving concept of "partnerships" which involve many people and agencies in a joint approach to project resolution is a case in point.  There are many such partnerships operating very effectively at the federal, state and local levels and they are bringing together agencies which in prior times have been rather more competitive than cooperative.

Typical of our program is a report on our experiences as we travel through the landscape on our way to meetings. We like to include travel observations when we discuss the meetings.

I recently attended a meeting of the Illinois River Coordinating Council at Momence, and I thought I would comment on that event to give readers unfamiliar with our program a feeling for our rather laid-back style. We tend to talk just as we would as if you were talking to us in person.

Not unusually, the Illinois River Council meeting became more than the meeting itself.

Firstly, the outward trip involved the growing season and the current cultivation practices that have changed dramatically over the last twenty years. In this time span "minimal till" policies have almost completely superseded deep fall plowing. This has reduced erosion considerably and it is encouraging to note that this degree of reform can occur.

The Illinois River Council Meeting, chaired by the Lieutenant Governor Corrine Wood, mainly focused on the Kankakee River basin and the integrated plan for its management. The Kankakee River has long been a topic of scientific and public concern because the upper reaches of the River drain a large basin that has a lot of sandy sediments. These sediments tend to erode and migrate, especially when they are disturbed. A lot of research has been directed to this watershed, and that was discussed. But the most interesting aspect of the meeting for me was how well the Kankakee River Basin Watershed Partnership is working as a mechanism for bringing people and agencies together to focus on a particular problem. 

"Partnerships" involving many community agencies have been working well, and the Kankakee River Partnership is a fine example.  Perhaps we have reached that level of sophistication where we can cooperate rather than compete (for funds especially). In East Central Illinois we are especially interested in using the "partnership" approach in the acquisition and development of rail bed greenways and trails so we look at the Kankakee partnership as a prototype.

After the meeting we were taken on a boat excursion that also served as a mixer where friends and relatives meet and exchange notes, and I like that opportunity.

The trip home started with an assessment of Old Town Muncie and the viability of its business district. Not too exciting, but not dead by any means, and many buildings remain intact. From there I made a historic stop at St. Anne, which is one of two Kankakee County towns that were settled by French Canadians. 

My next stop was a biological one. It was at the sand dunes that delineate the limits of the Kankakee River flood plain. Here there are swells and swales that are quite easy to discern. The region is sandy and the vegetation very specific for the Kankakee River.  On the knoll where I stopped I could see the dry area plants pushing their way up through the sand. Nearby was a mega hog farm which was taking advantage of the well drained soils but endangering the plants.

Moving on I headed south to Donovan, where there is a short line railroad I admire. The Kankakee, Beverville and Southern RR has seven antique diesel engines with which to service about fifty small elevators that would otherwise have to truck their grain by road at a comparatively much greater environmental cost. This group is doing well delivering to larger yards where unit car trains (125 cars) are assembled. Coincidentally the K B &S railroad rights-of-way are also prairie preservation sites. I do applaud this group, not only for their industry, but because they make us realize that it is possible to do what they have done and in the process help preserve railroading, railroading history and biology.

The men at the railroad helped me locate an old truss bridge on Sugar Creek near Milford. They told me the bridge was relocated from the Columbian exhibition of 1903.  The bridge and an adjacent cemetery and church are well worth visiting.

As I came past Cisna Park, I stopped to thank a farmer, Chesty Cluver, and his wife who recently gave us the chance to salvage barn wood. With the help of PACA (the Preservation and Conservation Association), this wood was sold and is now siding a workshop of quite some note. We applaud the fact the Cluvers didn't just burn the structure down. Earlier in the day, I saw a barn that was being torn down without the benefit of salvage.

I returned to Urbana via Route 150, which runs adjacent to the abandoned ConRail bed we are working to save as a greenway and trail, with railbanking as an option. I felt that my attendance at the Illinois River Coordinating Council meeting and my later stops gave me a boost to continue our conservation efforts.  It is this feeling that we would like to transmit to you, by way of our radio program.

Listen to David Monk and Bill Saylor at 11am on Sundays. 

—The WEFT Revue, Vol. 8 Issue 3: May-June 2000, p.6.

From the Archive: Retaining the dignity of the Embarras River

This is one of the many articles contributed by the Prairie Monk for publication in the WEFT Revue.  It appears on this blog as part of an ongoing project to archive Monk's writings and make them more accessible to the community.

The Embarras River rises in a geological saddle created by the Champaign Moraine to the north, the Pesotum Moraine to the west and the Yankee Ridge Moraine to the east. (These moraines were left by slowly melting glaciers that dropped their rock and rubble load over 10,000 years ago. The resultant gravel ridges are the dominant features of our undulating prairie landscape.)

The headwaters of the Embarras reach back to Mattis Park in the west and to Meadowbrook Park in the east. The river is also contained by, and augmented by runoff from, the Pesotum Moraine, which is west of Savoy.

The headwater streams coalesce in the vicinity of the university farms. The growing river then meanders gently south, sandwiched between the continuing Yankee Ridge and Pesotum moraines.

The Embarras was probably a series of swamps before it was drained by early settlers. Even so, it is a relatively natural river, and its tributaries have fortunately remained relatively free of the channelization (ditching) that often accompanies development. This is partly due to the river's location south of town and the occupancy of large tracts of the watershed by the University of Illinois and park districts, but it is also due to many people, including farmers, who have battled to keep this river natural. By comparison, its counterpart to the west, the Kaskaskia, is practically a straight-line channelized drain.

You are encouraged to think about this river and how its dignity can be retained. This is especially so as the U of I moves into a period of replanning for the south farms. In keeping with growing concerns for nature conservation, the U of I is giving generous consideration to retaining the natural state of the river while augmenting its greenway character with trails and quiet recreational areas. The park districts have already indicated their interest by developing trails and natural areas. Consider familiarizing yourself with the upper reaches of the Embarras so you can contribute your understanding to the preservation and utilization of this significant feature of our local landscape heritage.

The Embarras can be accessed at Fox Drive, Mattis Park and Windsor Road, Champaign; the Arbor Meadows, Winfield Village, Lake Park and South First Street, Savoy; Meadowbrook Park and South Race Street, Urbana; and (visually) at all east/west county section roads that cross the stream as it heads south.

Ode to a swollen creek

Racing water

swirling loudly,

over log jams

causing damming.

Water flowing

over spillways

hoping for

an otter's play.

Freezing spray

for lacy touches,

humps of ice

for sculptured structure.

A place for dogs

to find new treasures

belly high in

icy water.

Water slowing,

rapids dying,

bubbles bursting

ripples smoothing.

Down-stream water

quietly resting

where, in summer,

boatmen stride.

Trees and bushes


in the fading light

of evening.

Banks retreating

into darkness,

wardens of another day.

Cooling air and

fond farewells.

Twigs are breaking


Sounds of water

quickly fade.

We will come

another day

to listen to

your minstrel play.

— The WEFT Revue, Volume 7, Issue 2: March-April 1999, p.7.