Museum of the Grand Prairie to Celebrate CCFPD's 75th Anniversary

Museum of the Grand Prairie to Celebrate CCFPD's 75th Anniversary

Mahomet Daily

Published Date: April 10, 2023

By: Dani Tietz

East Central Illinois residents may not know that some of their favorite spots in Champaign County are all connected. But the Lake of the Woods Covered Bridge, Illinois’ first International Dark-Sky Park and the Homer Lake Forest Preserve Maple Grove all have one thing in common: they are part of the Champaign County Forest Preserve. 

But whether it’s walking on a paved path with a friend, kayaking in Champaign County’s largest lakes, geocaching, birding, or enjoying a picnic with family and friends, the Champaign County Forest Preserve (CCFPD) has touched the lives of generations in its 75 years of existence. 

On May 27, the Museum of the Grand Prairie will open an exhibit in the educational hallway to help guests experience the district’s breadth of evolution since the referendum to establish the taxing authority passed in 1935. Because of the war, the first park, Lake of the Woods didn’t open until  1948. 

Seated Left to Right: T.D. Parkhill, Hartwell C. Howard, H.I. Gelvin Standing Left to Right: CV Wilson, D.C. Delbridge, Donald Porter, Leonard Bantz

At that time, the Lake of the Woods was categorized as a county park. Today, CCFPD manages 4,000 acres that include six preserves and a regional trail that will soon connect Urbana to Kickapoo State Park. 

Retired Museum of the Grand Prairie Director Barb Garvey and CCFPD Marketing Specialist Kristin Rose have spearheaded the multimedia exhibit that takes guests from Mahomet’s Lake of the Woods to Homer’s Homer Lake to Penfield’s Middlefork River Preserve. 

Rose said the self-guided tour will help guests understand more about how each preserve got its start, how each preserve has been used over the years, and how CCFPD’s mission to restore and maintain biodiversity impacts the local environment.

Garvey pointed out that as a taxing body, CCFPD has tried to be in tune with what the community looks for as it continues to grow. 

Lakes provide fishing spots in four spots of Champaign County; the Lake of the Woods Golf Course gives access to a publicly maintained course; the Mabery Botanical Gardens give residents a space to browse native plants; while the Homer Lake, Sangamon River, Riverbend, Middle Fork, Kickapoo Rail Trail and Lake of the Woods provide about 50 miles of trails for hiking and biking. 

“We do talk about the genesis of each preserve,” Garvey said. 

The photographic journey, which will include QR codes to videos, will begin with Lake of the Woods before traveling chronologically to Homer Lake (opened 1971, signed over from State in 1992), Middle Fork (1984), River Bend (acquired 2002, opened 2006), Sangamon River (2008), Kickapoo Rail Trail (2017) and Heron View (2020). 

To be historically accurate, the exhibit will open on Memorial Day weekend, the first weekend Lake of the Woods invited the public onto the property.

“Each preserve is unique and different in its own way,” Rose added. 

“I think oftentimes, we forget all the things that the Forest Reserve does, all the preserves we have,” Garvey said.  “This lays it all out there: there are seven preserves, and there are so many amenities. It’s hard to count them all.”

“The district, as a whole is so multifaceted,” Rose said. “The exhibit is attempting to show that in an educational way.”

All of the opportunities, though, would not have been possible without the work of volunteers, which is also highlighted throughout the 2023 exhibit.

“There are so many aspects to how people are involved,” Garvey said. “All the different ways we approach preserving the natural and cultural resources.”

Garvey started out as a volunteer, writing grants and proposals while serving on the museum advisory committee in the 1990s. She has seen the district’s progress and understands all the hours staff and volunteers put into educational programs, land stewardship, committees, and annual events like the Lake of the Woods fireworks show. 

In producing the exhibit, both Garvey and Rose understood not only the importance of education but also the sentimental value each park holds for residents throughout East Central Illinois. They also acknowledged the role the district has played in citizenship and environmental education over the last 75 years. 

More information about the time of the May 27 event is still forthcoming. In the meantime, CCFPD is hosting its annual Easter Egg Hunt throughout the six parks and invites residents to register for a summer camp, stargaze, camp, hike, fish, or throw a party at one of its properties.