Note to readers: Barry Schraders DeKalb
County Life column will appear every other Tuesday.
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
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
Volunteers from DeKalb County Community Gardens and Ney
Grange, (from left) Ben Rathke and son David, Dan Kenney, Kay
Shelton, Heath Johnson, Nathan Dettman, and Vernon Carey are
gathered behind the Pioneer Heritage Garden they recently had
planted near the 1835 Miller-Ellwood Log Cabin.
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
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
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 Watsons 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 dont 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.