Cook County Forest Reserve

Date Published: 
August, 1925
Original Author: 
Ransome Kennicott
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 39th Annual Convention

This forest preserve that we have around Chicago is one of the greatest outdoor playgrounds in the world. It is one of the most popular movements that ever came to Chicago. It is the first thing of its kind in the United States, a large municipal forest, and its popularity is increasing so rapidly that we have trouble in keeping up with our visitors and giving them what they need in this great outdoor park.

To the East we have Lake Michigan, which is not a forest preserve, but is a great opportunity for recreation. On the North and the West and the South we have thirty thousand acres and more of this forest preserve, which is an outdoor park. The idea is to save the forests and to provide the people with the outdoor playground preserving as nearly as it may be done these forests in their natural state.

When this movement was started twenty years ago, no one supposed that they would be used as they are being used now. Eleven years ago when we bought our first acre of land we figured people would go out into the woods and picnic and camp, that our Boy Scouts would use it, but no one knew how many automobiles would travel on our roads. We didn't know that we would have more visitors to this forest preserve district than any two parks in the world. One reason for this is that you cannot leave Chicago by any of the very many splendid hard roads or street cars or railroads without passing through or alongside of some of these parks and the people appreciate their opportunities.

After working for eleven years on this proposition, we still find new uses for the preserve and we find that we are obliged to modify to a certain extent our original ideas. It will still be a natural forest surrounding this city, just as nearly as may be, but we must provide playground opportunities. You have to have roads leading through the preserves; you have to have large parking spaces for the picnics that go there, and you have to have drinking water for the millions of visitors and you have to have toilet facilities. Then, they are demanding playgrounds, and we are putting in playgrounds; in those places that the natural forests will not be ruined, we are putting in baseball diamonds. We have twenty odd baseball diamonds. We are putting in tennis courts, and we have four golf courses on the preserve, which are public courses, and which are very much used.

In our sweep through the county along the Des Plaines River from the North end of the county down to the Southwest corner and down the Chicago River from the North border of Cook County into the heart of Chicago and on the South along Thorn Creek, we are trying to have a continuous holding of forest preserves, so that we can have a continuous drive, so that the people needn't leave our preserve at all to travel fifty, sixty or seventy miles. And there is only one thing that is stopping us. We have the right of eminent domain and it doesn't make any difference how much some farmer wants to hold his farm or how much some private citizen wants to hold his house, if it is considered best for the greatest number of people, we go ahead and condemn the land and take it, and the only thing that does stop us are the cemeteries. We find that they make a dead line.  That doesn't bother me, personally, so much, because with all due respect to our dead, with all due respect to this group of people who are interested in that particular thing, I believe that one hundred years from now our cemeteries in Cook County will all be parks, anyway. I would be very glad to know that a lot of Boy Scouts would tramp over my grave, and I think that one hundred years from now maybe our ideas of cemeteries will change and that we will all be glad to have them used as parks.

I think that cemetery superintendents have a very great field along the line of landscape work and development. Right in Cook County, in the heart of some of the forest preserves, we have a few cemeteries that are treated in more or less of a natural condition, and they are things of beauty, they add to rather than detract from the scenery.

Of course, if you could put building restrictions and decide what kind of tombstones would be put up there, it would help a lot. We have to depend on individual taste very largely for that. But in the laying out and the caring for your cemeteries it is easy to make them a thing of beauty that will fit in with the forest preserve parks or any other parks adjoining.

I am not going to try to give you a lecture on landscape work in connection with cemeteries, because you probably all know more about that than I do, though I have done a good deal of landscape work. Personally, in buying up these forests I have found a little piece of land that has large trees on it, and when we bought it, I got the forest preserve to set aside this quarter of an acre for my burying ground, so lam not worrying. There it will be in the natural forest, and if there are any tombstones marking my family's grave, they will be boulders with perhaps a bronze tablet on. That is what we are doing now in the forest preserve. We have these memorial trees which are in memory of departed soldiers or others, and they a re marked with a boulder and a bronze tablet. The first Gold Star Tree was right west of here just a few miles, in Thatcher's Woods. The Gold Star Mothers selected a fine, young hard maple tree that may live for a thousand years and marked that as their tree. If that tree dies, still the seed of it in that wood will come up and you will have an everlasting green, living memorial, and I think that that is better than the finest marble shaft that any of you have in your cemeteries. So it is all along the same idea.

Our forest preserves,—I suppose you want to hear more about these forest preserves around Chicago than you do any technical thing that could come through forestry or landscape work to you. I hope that you will see much of these preserves. I see that you are going to catch a few glimpses of them this afternoon on your drive, but I want to say that even knowing every acre of the preserves, as I do, for I was here when they bought the first acre and we are not through buying yet,—I can only give a man a glimpse of the different points of interest in the forest preserves if we take three or four days for it, one North, one West and one South; so in the little time that you have, you will get only a few glimpses of our preserve.

You would be surprised—people from out of town, people from Chicago who don't know our county, to know what a diversity we have in the topography of Cook County. Up in the Northwest corner we have some gently rolling hills, nicely wooded. Down in Palos we have some quite decided hills and ravines and things of beauty down through there. We have put in a very pretty little lake that you would never guess was artificial. We put in one up in Deer Grove, in the Northwest, and we expect to put in more, because in any form of recreation or scenic beauty water plays a large part. In order to have it ideal, you must have hills, water and woods. We have woods; we have in some places the virgin timber, some of as fine trees as there are in the State of Illinois or almost anywhere in the central West. We have hard maples and oaks that are five or six hundred years old, that are four and five feet through, beautiful trees. In other places we have some fine second growth, and up on the Des Plaines River north of Des Plaines we have a splendid little nursery, I think for its size it is the most successful nursery in the United States and we are going to re-forest those parts of our forest preserve that have been cut for farms and we are going to reforest those places where for fifty years the cattle have been feeding so closely that there are no young trees coming on to take the place of the old ones that are about ready for their cemetery.

And in re-foresting we are going to choose the finest variety of trees that we can, and we are going to plant them in such a way that it will appear as if nature had done the work and when our children go there to see it and our grand children fifty or seventy-five years from now, they will never suspect which part was planted artificially and which are the native trees that have been there ever since the Indians roamed through these woods.

We find that the people of Chicago are becoming more intelligent in the use of these forests. There is really less vandalism now, with seven million visitors that we will have this year, as closely as it can be estimated and I know that is a moderate estimate, there is less vandalism than there was five years ago, when we had a quarter that number of visitors, which simply shows that we are learning to take care of our own.

On this thirty thousand acres scattered over seventy miles North and South, from clear to the County line East and West, we have very few men to look after it, and we have to depend on our civic organizations to help us, the women's clubs and the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts and organizations of that kind, to help us in the work of conservation, for this thirty thousand acres is a bird sanctuary, this thirty thousand acres is a wild flower sanctuary. In talking to bird people you can take for an hour on that one feature of the forest preserves and explain that all the money that has been spent to purchase these forests and maintain them would be well spent from a commercial point of view if it were for nothing more than to afford a harbor and a breeding place for birds, because your farmers and your truck farmers and your foresters and nurserymen would be unable to raise crops at all if it were not for the help of the birds in subduing the insect enemies of the growing things.

I could talk to the horseback riders for an hour, and I have entertained them in telling them of the wonderful bridle paths, about one hundred miles of bridle paths, that wind through the forest preserves. In most cases we don't have a cinder path that is clearly outlined, but we have a marked trail where the horseback rider goes through the forests, riding up and down hills, sometimes single file, between the trees and in a clearing spreading out and having a fine place for a canter. The horseback riders who were lawless and careless at first, are becoming more careful and considering the feelings and the rights of the people on foot, so we are having less trouble with them. As time goes on I don't believe we will have to have any wardens in the forest preserves and I hope that we will not have to have one sign in a very few years, that we won't have to have a single sign that says "Do Not" or "You Must Not." I think that we can do away with our "No Shooting" signs and our "Do Not Pick Flowers" signs, because we will have all the people so educated that we will simply be able to say, "You May Camp Here." You can't camp everywhere in the forest preserve; it is necessary to zone it and have those camps in places that the picnics don't want to go, because a very few campers can spoil a very beautiful site for a great many people to picnic.

You would be surprised at the number of people that gather at one spot for some of these picnics. A little while ago we had about twenty-five thousand people here at Northwestern Park at one picnic grove. Yesterday, I was over looking over the ground and preparing for the Illinois Automobile Club, who expect thirty-five thousand people in one spot in the forest preserve. In other places where there are not permits given for large picnics, like up here at the dams across the Des Plaines River and I hope you will be able to visit that dam that is North of Des Plaines, where our nursery is and where there are a good many improvements and some things that I don't much care about in the way of concessions, but they are only temporary, if you can visit that place, you will see even during the week how the crowds go in there by single cars, single families. They go out there and cook their meals in the forests, at the side of the river and beside the road, groups and Sunday school picnics and small organizations go out and take advantage of it. And on Sunday those woods are just as crowded with the individual cars and individual small groups as they would be if there was a thirty-five thousand picnic being held in the same woods.

A very short time ago when we had fifteen or sixteen thousand acres people said, "Why do you want any more land? You will never use what you have now."

At that time I didn't realize that we would use it to the extent that we are using it now, but I had a vague idea they would. And there are a lot of men like myself, who don't want to go to a crowded grove like that. Some of us do. Some of us have our pleasure with the crowd around us, all of them having a good time, listening to loud shouts and laughter and gaiety. I like to take my family and go back where we can be almost alone and have our dinner in privacy. There are a very few places left now and if we didn't have the additional fifteen thousand acres, there wouldn't be any place of that character. You know, there are lots of people who want to go back, even on Sunday, and study the flowers and the birds, quietly and peacefully. My playground was way up in Northern Michigan when I had time to play I don't any more, but when I did I went up where you could get twenty miles from the nearest house and not see or hear anything but your own family or your own little camp. We cannot have that in the forest preserve, but we can come close to it, we can have the next best thing, as we have in some of these preserves, a trial leading in and little trails leading to little clearings and there will be fifty or sixty spots where there is a little place and a little table and a chance for one family to have their camp. In the other places the tables are all grouped together and we have the big crowds.

We try to bring everybody as nearly as possible what they want. You cannot do that, of course, there are too many people and too many diversified tastes to give them all exactly what they want, but we are making the most careful study to give them as nearly as possible each man what he wants in the forest preserve and we are trying to make the feeling through all the citizens of Cook County that this is theirs, this is their estate and their playground and we ask them to treat it as if it were their front lawn and not build a fire in the middle of a beautiful grass plot or under a beautiful tree, where it will scorch the tree in the top or scorch the roots, which is a great deal worse.

We have provisions made for you people from out of town who come here to visit Chicago. We have 12 tourists camps where there are dinking water and toilet facilities and the opportunity to gather wood and build your fire and in three places, one North, one South and one West, we have tourists camps that are equipped with a fine shelter, with shower baths, with an opportunity for washing your clothes, stationary tubs and there you are expected to pay 50¢ a day for the time you are there. It isn't that we want the income, but we find that a visitor avoids free camps and by making that charge it pays for the expense of having a man in charge of the camp and giving you the things that you want. And we are going to put in the gas plates in this shelter, so that those of you who don't have your own cooking facilities can find this opportunity to cook.

We are, as far as we are able, building all our shelters, all our log cabins for the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts and these tourists camps, we are building them from logs from the dead trees in the forests. Whether it is a park or a forest, I think it a crime to let any tree go to waste after it has grown for 100 years. If I can, I catch that tree the year before it is finally dead, because the timber is much better than if it actually dies standing and you can tell the next year or the year after that tree is going to lose all its sap and be dead and it is a great economic gain to the, County, the fact that we are producing the timber that we need to build these structures.

One of the uses that we have for this forest preserve is for family camps. We have a number of places owned where people can go and stay all summer. The permit is only issued for 30 days, but it is easily renewable and families go out there and camp in tents and spend the summer, the wife and children staying out there and the man coming downtown to his work. Perhaps he has a flivver, perhaps lie catches an elevated train, perhaps he catches a railroad and comes to town and tends to his business and goes out there again. And you would be astonished to see the condition of those youngsters that run wild in the woods and eat and sleep in the outdoors. The change in those people is remarkable and it has had this good effect on many of those families who have gone out to camp in the preserve. They have decided they didn't want to live in the city, they wanted to get out in the country and they have bought country homes or homes in the suburbs. I believe that 50 percent of our campers don't go back to life in the congested districts.

One of our activities is taking care of the poor children of Chicago. We have a camp up at Deer Grove that win accommodate about 600 women, sometimes with little babies, but mostly the boys and girls who would never have a vacation if it were not for this. And they are selected by various municipal organizations and sent out there. They are given the best of care. Their spare time is taken care of by men and women trained in that work, similar to the Boy Scout Training.
We have a good doctor and nurse in charge and their food is wholesome and plenty. Every day they are taken down to the Lake and given a swim, down to this little Lake up in Deer Grove where this camp is.

This was so popular that we are establishing another camp. We have one out West here near Western Springs that is just starting, only been opened now for a couple of weeks, where any outside organization that wants to do the work that the County is doing can take it and rent this place. It is provided with shelter and cots and cooking utensils, all but the individual dishes and the individual bedding. Whatever organization takes it either provides that or the children bring their own and if it were a YMCA or a church or a mercantile establishment, like Marshall Field's, any of those that wanted to provide children with summer outings, they can have this camp.

We are starting another in the North, and we will start more as the demand increases and I know that it will.

That is a very beautiful part of our work in the forest preserves. We have the Des Plaines River, which used to be considered one of the beautiful rivers of the United States. The early explorers who came down in their canoes spoke of this particularly in writing back to France after they had come through Quebec, through Canada, starting from Quebec, they still mentioned this Des Plaines River as a beautiful river. Unfortunately, from the many cattle that have been feeding on the banks and cutting off so much timber on the headwaters, in the summertime the supply of water in that river is very low.

Now we have started a series of dams in the river that are interesting. I hope you will see some of them. We have four now and the dam is about four feet high, four or five, and it backs the water for 6 to 8 miles up the river, giving us a canoe way, giving us fishing, water for swimming when you get far enough up so there is no sewage. These lower towns are very lax about letting their sewage go into the River and spoiling it, but in the upper reaches of the river there is no sewage.

Then these dams drop onto a 20 foot road bed. They drop again to the original lever of the river and the water goes over there so fast that it makes a very nice and a very popular bridge across the River. We expect to have them from one end of the river to the other and the canoeists take advantage of that. It is going to be one of the finest canoe .ways in all the United States. The water is deep enough to paddle and the boys appreciate that. I love canoeing and I would like to have no other boats on the waters of the forest preserve. When you once know a little about handling a canoe it is safer than the row boat and it goes along with that idea of preserving your forests in the natural state. You can pick your canoe up on your back and carry it off half a mile. If it is in the water you know that it can be carried off, whereas a row boat is a permanent thing. You have to have a stake to tie it to and you know that it is permanent.

If I could have all my buildings log buildings and if I could have all the forest transportation by canoe and if the only way of going out of the forest preserves was on horseback, that would be getting back to what our forefathers did originally and it would be the ideal thing for such a park as our forest preserve.

We find there is a great uplift in this forest preserve movement. We find that the people who play there and who work there are made better men and better women by doing it. We feel that if we had spent the fifteen or sixteen million dollars that this land has cost for no other purpose than to provide a proper home for our Boy Scouts, it would be worthwhile, because there is no movement in the United States that is going to mean so much for the future citizenship of the United States as that Boy Scout and Girl Scout and Camp Fire Girl Movement and without such an opportunity for the outdoors as this provides, your Boy Scout movement would fall flat. They go through the rest of the year for the sake of their camping in the woods and down South here, Southwest, we built three cabins and furnished some tents so that they have three camps for the three districts of Chicago that go out there, not only during the summer for their camp, but in the winter time when it is ten below zero the boys go out and sleep in these log cabins, and unless it is too terrifically cold in the tents banked up.

I feel that our forest preserve is going to be a wonderful education always. I think that it will be more of an education than the best college in the United States. I believe it will be as uplifting, and more perhaps, than anyone church in the United States. And I think that it will do more towards the health and happiness of the people than any hospital in the United States. It is something that is going to grow here and it is something that is going to spread all over the United States.

This year Illinois has passed a law creating state forests, a State Forestry Department and your State Forests will be used for recreation and will be valuable for recreation more than they will for the growing of timber, much as that is necessary. Foresters know that it is really a critical situation in the United States, this timber question, and we must grow timber in all the waste lands of the United States. Illinois has 5,000,000 acres whose greatest use would be for the growing of timber. We have started a little in that direction. But the value of that and the value of our forest preserves is for the conservation of man, which is the greatest conservation there is in the world.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 39th Annual Convention
Chicago, Illinois
August 24, 25, 26 and 27, 1925