Thursday, April 26, 2007

Urbana’s Ancient Oaks Provide Living Link to the Big Grove

Urbana’s Ancient Oaks Provide Living Link to the Big Grove

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When we think about the landscape of central Illinois prior to European settlement we tend to think “prairie,” but prairie is not the whole story. Groves of trees intruded on the grasslands 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 something really cool. 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 80 feet from the yard outside Long’s Garage.

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. We know this tree to be roughly 240 years old now, based on calculations made in 1976, when the International Society of Arboriculture recognized it as a “bicentennial tree.”

Greater numbers of oaks that predate European settlement can be seen—and hugged—at Urbana Park District sites. The largest trees in Crystal Lake Park and Busey Woods are relics of the Big Grove, as are 10 or so of the trees at Weaver Park on East Main Street.

Two events scheduled for tomorrow (April 27, 2007), which is Arbor Day, will celebrate local ancient oaks. At 10:00 a.m. the grove of trees at Weaver Park will be dedicated to the commissioners who have served the Urbana Park District in its first 100 years. At 4:00 p.m. there will be a birthday party for the 200-year-old bur oak tree that grows in front of the Natural History Building on Green Street on the U of I campus.

At that celebration bur oak seedlings will be given away so that people can help keep some part of the Big Grove alive for centuries to come.

***Press Release for Campus Bur Oak Birthday***
Bur Oak Birthday Party, 4p, 27 April, in the front Lawn of the Natural History Building, Green Street and Mathews, UIUC campus. All invited. This 200 year old Bur Oak, the oldest living thing on the campus, was a sapling when the prairie fires swept easterly across what is now Champaign, routinely consuming everything before them. The wetlands that became the campus subdued these fires, allowing only the hardiest trees to survive. The Boneyard creek stopped the spread of the fire and allowed the Big Grove to flourish beginning in what is now downtown Urbana, and spread eastward. Only remnants of that grove remain, along with our most famous tree. It is important to learn the impact on the landscape we have had over that last 200 years. This living survivor provides us with a starting point.

The Grand Prairie Friends will present drawings of this landscape. Bur Oak seedlings will be given away with growing instructions. 200 candles will be lit by those attending.