On a crisp fall morning in Busey Woods, a small group of avid birders, binoculars in hand, spy a bright red scarlet tanager bathing in a puddle. Meanwhile, at Meadowbrook Park, a couple walking band-in-hand on the concrete path pause to gaze admiringly at "Here and There;' the latest addition to the impressive Wandell Sculpture Garden. Later that afternoon, a family gathers under a pavilion at Crystal Lake Park. Smoke rises from a grill as children huddle during a game of touch football.
ln Urbana, it's good to be outside.
And that is perhaps the real reason for the creation of the Urbana Park District a century ago: to encourage residents to enjoy the outdoor spaces; to build up their bodies and minds by connecting with nature-no matter whether it's by playing in a summer softball league, taking a dip at Crystal Lake Pool, or watching the birds feed outside the Anita Purves Nature Center.
When the Urbana Park District was formed in 1907, it had but one property, Crystal Lake Park, with its towering oaks and hickories. The park is a remnant of Big Grove, a 10-square-mile prairie grove that attracted pioneer settlers to the area, starting in the 1820s. As Big Grove disappeared, the timber cleared and marshes drained for farmland, for pastures and for an expanding city, Urbana residents realized that not only was their heritage on the verge of vanishing, but their connection with nature could be lost forever.
The park district quickly expanded. Next came Carle Park, in the heart of the community's residential area, in 1909, followed by a string of other parks. The expansion continues to this day, with the restoration of a 9-acre savanna and creation of wetlands at Weaver Park.
Restoration and reconstruction of ecosystems that once were common features of the Illinois landscape has been one of the most important missions undertaken by the Urbana Park District. Once the productivity of the soil was realized and the
moldboard plow came along, the tallgrass prairie, the most common ecosystem in Illinois (about 60 percent of the state was prairie), quickly disappeared. Vast marshes and river bottoms were drained. The oaks and hickories in the prairie groves were felled. Today, Illinois looks nothing like it did when it became a state in 1818. The figures are startling: Less than one percent of native prairie-land never touched by a plow-remains.
But visitors standing in the middle of the Meadowbrook Park, surrounded by head-high grasses and colorful flowers, can easily imagine what the vast tallgrass prairie must have looked like. In the same way, a hiker on the boardwalk in Busey Woods can see firsthand a bottomland woods, with muddy ponds and overflows from the Saline Branch of the Salt Fork River. The restored savanna at Weaver Park, with its majestic oaks amid the grassy prairie waving in the breeze, will become another gem for people to enjoy.
This tour features 19 of the Urbana Park District’s parks, and also features the Chautauqua, a historical and cultural event that was once at home on the grounds of Crystal Lake Park.
Text by Kirby Pringle, published in Mancuso, Dana L. (Ed.). (2007). A century of growth: the Urbana Park District's first 100 years. Urbana, IL: Urbana Park District.