Thursday, November 02, 2006

Urbana's Big Grove Oaks

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

When we think about the landscape of central Illinois prior to European settlement we tend to think “prairie:" tall grasses and wild flowers adapted to life in unevenly drained soil subject to burning on a fairly regular basis.

And prairie is most of the story. But it is not the whole story.

Groves of trees intruded on the prairie here and there, especially on the eastern edges of rivers and streams, which created natural breaks to prairie fires driven by winds from the west.

Such groves were dominated by fire-resistant species of oak, and interspersed with hickory, ash, walnut, sugar maple and linden trees as well.

Prairie groves were quite hospitable to humans compared to the prairie itself, offering game, shelter, and respite from some of the discomforts of life in the open. They were preferred sites for Native American villages, and the first places to be settled by Americans of European descent coming from the east.

One of the largest of these timbered areas in our region was called by settlers of the early nineteenth century the Big Grove.

As it was mapped in the original survey of the area in 1821, the Big Grove covered about 10 square miles. Its western edge roughly paralleled the Saline Branch, the stream that drops into Urbana from the north and runs through Busey Woods and Crystal Lake Park before turning east toward St. Joseph. Along its southern edge the Big Grove extended to about where Urbana’s Main Street runs today.

If you’re familiar with Urbana and the locales just north and east of the City, you know there’s no forest left that would merit the name, “Big Grove,” most of the wood from those trees having gone into houses, fences, farm implements and fires long ago.

But here’s the cool thing. Some trees that began life in the Big Grove still stand in Urbana today.

You can touch them. Heck, you can hug them. They’re the kind of trees that elicit that response from people.

Near the corner of East Main and Maple Streets, a Bur Oak that predates the Declaration of Independence rises more than eighty feet from the yard outside Long’s Garage. This tree’s limbs spread as wide as it is tall, which tells us that it grew up in a relatively open area, the meeting zone between woodland and prairie.

Farther from the center of town on East Main, a still larger Bur Oak can be seen on the eastern edge of the site of the Quaker Meetinghouse that was completed last year. We know this tree to be roughly two hundred forty years old now, based on calculations made in 1976, when the International Society of Arboriculture recognized it as a “bicentennial tree.”

The “bicentennial tree” and the oak at Long’s Garage are both commemorated with stone markers and plaques that were set up by the Urbana Tree Commission in 1976.

Greater numbers of oaks that predate European settlement can be seen—and hugged—at Urbana Park District sites. The oldest and largest trees in Crystal Lake Park and Busey Woods are relics of the Big Grove, as are ten or so of the trees at Weaver Park, now being developed on East Main.

Special thanks for assistance with today’s piece to Bob Vaiden of the Illinois State Geological Survey, Derek Liebert of the Urbana Park District, and Mike Brunk, City Arborist for Urbana.