Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Guzy family tree online

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This week's newsletter is a more detailed version of the "Hairdresser and the Prairie" and traces the Guzy family from Poland to the Margaret Guzy Pothole Wetlands Land and Water Reserve in Shelby County, IL.

A digital family tree of the Guzy and Miller families is also available in either GEDCOM or Legacy format.

Surnames include Beaxton, Belinski, Belmski, Bistyak, Garrison, Gorz, Graf, Guzy, Hardwick, Hart, Hatala, Kimperda, Kotoski, Kucharska, Kwak, Lurasik, Mason, Miller, Pietrasinski, Silkiewicz, Smith, Suchecki, Vermillion, Whittington, Witkowski-Nowakowski.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Hairdresser and The Prairie

Some call it the Shelby County Weedpatch. The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission christened it the Margaret Guzy Pothole Wetlands Land and Water Reserve. The local Department of Natural Resources staff called it a surprise gift. But most people call it Guzy Prairie, in honor of the woman who donated this 159 acre wildlife sanctuary in 1991.

Guzy Prairie exemplifies how diverse a prairie can be and how quickly cropland can be restored after years of row crop production. The site has become an inspiration for local farmers in search of improving crop production in the flat, black, rich heartland.

The Elusive Margaret Guzy

Guzy was one of eight children born to Charles F. and Margaret Guzy on May 29, 1918. Little else is known about the younger Margaret Guzy until 1935, to the extent that her name has been alternately spelled Guzzi, Guzzie and Guzzy in press releases about Guzy Prairie. Even the middle initial on her gravestone has been edited.

What is known is, at age 17, Margaret took a job as a live-in housekeeper for William Edward “Edd” Miller in Decatur, Ill., on Sept. 3, 1935. She was one of several housekeepers Miller hired after his wife divorced him in 1928. Miller had been born in a Shelby County log cabin on June 7, 1880. Following an education in a one-room schoolhouse, he studied agriculture at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana during the 1899-1900 school year on a scholarship provided by W. E. Killam, a Shelbyville businessman.

A fascination with agricultural and mechanical technology remained with Miller throughout his life. As a young man, he provided mobile threshing services across Illinois and Missouri. Later he owned farm implement dealerships in Decatur and Assumption, Ill.

Fascinated by the first barnstormer he ever saw, Miller promptly bought a Curtiss airplane and began giving rides in one of those fantastic flying contraptions. In the autumn of 1940, Miller sold his implement dealerships.

When he penned his autobiography at age 66, Miller punctuated it with detailed descriptions of agricultural equipment and airplanes he had owned or sold over the years.

According to Guzy’s will, she and Miller married on Dec. 27, 1940, but she continued to use her maiden name throughout her life. By the time spring 1941 arrived, Miller and Guzy had purchased 159 acres in his native Shelby County. He bought an existing house and moved it to the prairie from its original location two miles northeast of Guzy Prairie. It became their new home.

Neighbors heard Miller was in the market for acreage. He took them up on offers to sell him their farms as well. Eventually Miller owned 1800 acres. Using a fleet of eleven tractors to harvest his crops, he claimed to receive the largest check ever written to one person by the Findlay Grain Company a few miles away.

When Miller died in 1953, two local newspapers described him as a prominent citizen. After all, he had already donated $20,000 toward a new addition to the Shelby County Memorial Hospital. The hospital still exists but provides only limited services, without further benefactors stepping forward.

The Findlay Enterprise ran a three-column headline announcing, “Miller Will Estimated to Distribute One and a Half Million Dollars.” By today's currency, that would have been valued at nearly $7 million. The same newspaper referred to Margaret Guzy as “Mr. Miller’s housekeeper” and included her midway down the list of heirs. The Shelbyville Daily Union failed to mention Guzy at all.

Both publications published a laundry list of Miller’s bequeaths. He had set aside $2,000 to maintain his grave, adorned with a $5,000 monument in the small country Knobs Baptist Church cemetery north of Tower Hill, Ill.

Nearly four decades later, Margaret Guzy would be buried alongside him in the family plot next to his parents, Elizabeth (Hart) and Granville Lafayette Miller. Guzy and Miller’s graves are marked with matching headstones and a large monument. Flowers perpetually adorn both graves, as stipulated in Miller’s will.

Neither Guzy nor Miller left any descendants, but Miller generously left cash and property to numerous people. Employees who had worked for him for more than five years received $3,000. That would translate to more than $19,000 each in today’s currency.

Margaret Guzy Miller also received $3,000, along with all the household goods in “the Miller home.” She inherited two income producing farms “provided she remain unmarried.” The home Margaret and Edd shared since their marriage in 1940 became her “own absolute property forever.” But after Miller died, Guzy moved back to Decatur where she reportedly became a hairdresser.

She hired caretakers for all three farm properties. Guzy invested profits from the thousands of bushels of soybeans produced in the local Moweaqua Farmer’s Cooperative Grain Company and Soy Capital Bank. She also invested in properties in four states.

Changes Afoot

In the meantime, Shelby County was rapidly changing. By 1976, the Kaskaskia River, just a couple of miles to the east of her property, had been dammed to create Lake Shelbyville in an effort to reduce the annual flooding that destroyed acres of crops. The Lake Shelbyville Recreation Area also came into being.

Four years after the Lake Shelbyville dam was dedicated, Guzy drew up a will insuring 159 acres of “absolute property” where she and her husband had lived would “be held by the State of Illinois in perpetuity, for the purpose of a wildlife sanctuary and for no other purpose.” As a result, Guzy Prairie became a part of the Lake Shelbyville recreation area.

When Margaret Guzy passed away, there were no front page stories. Apparently her obituary was never published in area newspapers.

Few people probably suspected when she died on March 12, 1991, her estate was valued at $1 million. Only her executor at Soy Capital Bank & Trust was probably aware the property she and her husband, Edd Miller, had known as home for the last thirteen years of his life was to belong forever to the citizens of Illinois. No human would ever again live on the land Guzy and Miller called home.

The gift of this property came as a complete surprise to Stanley Duzan, Site Superintendent with the Illinois DNR. According to Duzan, his department had already budgeted resources, time and seed to other sites when he received word he was suddenly responsible for an additional 159 acres.

A Little History

The Illinois Department of Conservation was established in 1924. The Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act, designed to preserve public lands was approved June 26, 1925. Decades later the INAPA created a nine member INPC under the same act. Created in 1963, a year after Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring,” the commission identifies and protects critical habitats.

The governor appoints Illinois Nature Preserve Commissioners based on recommendations by the Chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey and the Director of the Illinois State Museum. The commission reports nature preserve flora and fauna inventories to the governor every other year.

By 1981, the INAPA was revised to include land “acquired by gift, legacy, purchase, transfer, grant, agreement, dedication or condemnation” under Article VII of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure. This revision meant Illinois would not rely solely on tax dollars to acquire sensitive habitats. Hopefully it would encourage private citizens to donate private land for conservation.

In 1995, the INPC, Department of Mines and Minerals, Abandoned Mined Lands Reclamation Council, the Department of Transportation's Division of Water Resources and the Illinois State Museum and Scientific Surveys from the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources were combined to form today’s IDNR. Guzy’s gift would benefit from the expertise of professionals in all these disciplines.

The DNR At Work

Local farmers were duly skeptical about the wisdom of converting productive agricultural land valued at $3,500 to $4,000 an acre into “a weed patch.” It had taken pioneers decades of hard work, chemicals and the invention of the self-cleaning plow to tame the prairie enough to produce domestic food crops.

Nevertheless, the DNR staff had a job to do. They set to work restoring the prairie as best they could with the strain on resources created by this unanticipated treasure.

Guzy had made legal arrangements for the two income producing farms to pay any taxes due at the time of her death. But, since Guzy left no financial support to pay for restoration, the DNR continued to farm a portion of the property for profit to fund early restoration activities.

Not all of the site was cropland. It was an operational farm with a farmhouse and outbuildings enough to house those eleven tractors.

An aging barn was preserved, but all other structures were razed. A gravel driveway was added. Existing concrete foundations became parking areas. A handicap accessible wooden viewing platform was added to provide a location for prairie bird watching.

Discovering Sustainable Solutions

Probably without realizing it, Margaret Guzy had given the DNR the task of restoring a prairie truly representative of Illinois before the pioneers broke the sod. Flat Drummer prairie once stretched unbroken across 1.5 million acres of Illinois.

In August 2001, Gov. Ryan signed House Bill 605, designating Drummer loam as the official Illinois State Soil. Drummer soil fails to absorb precipitation and, without slopes to create natural drainage, allows pools of water to collect and drown crops. There are spots among the rich Central Illinois cropland where Duzan says you “can’t raise anything but mud and water.” Generations of farmers have installed costly drainage tile systems in order to protect their crops. In an extreme measure, Lake Shelbyville was created.

At Guzy Prairie, the natural drainage pattern was identified early on and the soil excavated to create a 2.5 to 3 foot levee around slightly sloping areas. Water collects in the four tiny “lakes” created within the levee as it drains from the slight slope of a neighboring field to the north. The levee blocks the water from continuing to drain onto the next farmer’s field to the south, as it had ever since this prairie was domesticated and the wetlands eliminated.

Duzan reported that area farmers expressed an interest in applying the same water catchment technique on their property instead of relying on field tile to prevent pooling. Installing and replacing field tile is expensive. Field tile drainage improves crop production but does alter wildlife habitat. The levee construction used at Guzy Prairie costs less. Plus, the State of Illinois offers landowners financial incentives such as individual Sustainable Agriculture Grants up to $5,000 to assist wildlife without sacrificing crop production, further sparking their interest.

The Prairie Returns

Prairie grasses voluntarily appeared the first year the land was out of crop production, even though the rich loess had been subjected to traditional corn production for a century, supplemented by commercial fertilizers, weed killers and insecticides.

According to Duzan, native seeds are hibernating across Illinois, awaiting the opportunity to return. But restoration involves much more than merely allowing wild plants to take over. Intense restoration began in 1993 with the first 40-acre plot, and gradually additional plots continue to be taken out of production. To speed up the process, the DNR supplemented the site with healthy plants that had not endured exposure to domesticated crops and chemicals. A no-till drill was used at first to reduce seed loss since some native prairie seed sells for as much as $300 per ounce, “making it as expensive as cocaine,” according to Duzan.

As plots began bearing abundant seed, a traditional wheat combine was used to harvest some of the grass seed for planting additional plots and even other sites in the region. Duzan says the most difficult process was keeping the grasses separate after machine combining.

When DNR staff realized water damages switchgrass the least of all the prairie grasses, they began to plant it closer to the wetland areas. Big blue stem tends to overtake some of the more delicate grasses so it is sometimes relocated to insure a variety across the prairie. Little blue stem, Canadian rye and other grasses are scattered across the more well-drained areas.

Some green plants and root stock are used, most of which can be procured through an increasing number of native prairie plant nurseries in Illinois. Prairie Patch in Niantic, Ill., has been a key source for the grasses and other plant. At least 30 kinds of prairie flowers thrive among the grasses at Guzy Prairie, including cone flowers and cup plants. After all, Duzan notes, this is where these plants originally grew!

A controlled burn, to destroy disease, conducted every two or three years has created a unique problem for this site. It is illegal to allow smoke to cross a highway.

Guzy Prairie is fronted on the east side by Route 128 in Shelby County, a state highway frequently used by visitors to the numerous outdoor recreation sites throughout the Lake Shelbyville area just a few miles away. Much of the traffic includes recreational vehicles, boats and other vehicles in tow.

It can be difficult at Guzy Prairie to find a spring day when there is an eastern breeze to block smoke from interfering with vehicle traffic. The wind normally comes from the west. Performing a controlled burn requires staff to be keenly aware of the weather and flexible enough to reschedule a burn.

More Than Just Grass

Guzy Prairie was designed to attract shorebirds to the manmade drainage areas. More than 18 varieties of grassland birds have been identified in addition to a variety of duck's, Canadian geese, swamp sparrows, scalps, cliff swallows, blue-winged teals, bobolinks, coots, marsh hawks, yellow crowned night heron, and red-winged blackbirds. By the third year of restoration birds began to nest on the property and the established populations thrive.

Deer began to use the area in Fall. Rabbits and raccoons make themselves at home year round. Frogs and snakes populate the wetland areas, where fish abound even though they were not introduced. Duzan says he doesn’t know where the fish came from, but they swim among the dozen and a half wetland plants, including giant water lilies, all of which reestablished themselves naturally from seed carried in by waterfowl or by the winds.

Best of Its Kind

In August 1999, Eric Smith, District Heritage Biologist for Champaign, Douglas, Macon, Moultrie, Piatt and Shelby counties, recommended the INPC approve Guzy Prairie as a nature preserve. The INAPA defines a nature preserve as “a natural area, and land necessary for its protection, any estate, interest or right in which has been dedicated under this Act to be maintained as nearly as possible in its natural condition and to be used in a manner and under limitations consistent with its continued preservation, without impairment, disturbance or artificial development, for the public purposes of present and future scientific research, education, esthetic enjoyment and providing habitat for plant and animal species and communities and other natural objects.”

Smith described the Guzy gift to the INPC as “six shallow wetlands interspersed with restored mesic and wet-mesic prairie.” He said the site “attracts tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, has the size to attract area sensitive grassland birds, and represents the best of its kind of habitat in row crop dominated east-central Illinois.”

The commission approved the recommendation. According to minutes of that meeting, the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission also addressed the need to spend $3,241,000 on land acquisition in Illinois. It underscored the importance of private land donations such as Guzy Prairie.

Protecting the Prairie

No hunting or poaching is ever allowed at Guzy Prairie. Conservation Police Officers, sheriffs and other police officers are responsible for protecting nature preserves. That is one of the protections afforded by nature preserve designation.

Anyone harming nature preserve animal or plant life is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. The State of Illinois has the right to assess a civil penalty up to $10,000 for each violation. Such monies are used for further nature preserve restoration.

Neighbors assist by reporting hunters who dare to violate the law. The highly visible roadside location provides additional protection.

But that protection applies to the site only. It does not protect wildlife moving to and from a nature preserve. The first year, hunters sent birddogs in to the prairie to flush out waterfowl while they lay in wait in neighboring fields. The bird population was nearly depleted.

Since then, according to Duzan, the DNR has forged a “gentleman’s agreement” with neighbors to create a buffer zone preventing hunting within a quarter of a mile in each direction, protecting wildlife as they come and go from the sanctuary.

The Hidden Cost of Gifts

When I spoke with Duzan, he advised potential donors to be aware there are hidden costs. He estimates restoration costs about $300 per acre for seeds and plants. It is tremendously helpful to have funding in place, or the backing of a fund-raising group to defray that cost.

The time commitment during the early years is high, when planting and seed collection are conducted. Maintenance becomes less expensive once the prairie has established and re-seeds itself. Creating a volunteer support group or organization to lend a hand is tremendously helpful to DNR staff in collecting seed and performing other tasks. Duzan had no such help at Guzy Prairie.

Staff and Volunteers

A staff of four DNR employees maintain the prairie. A Natural Heritage biologist, inventories the wildlife, flora and fauna at least once a year noting changes as the prairie thrives. An IDNR Conservation 2000 grant program funded a Kaskaskia Watershed summer workshop for 25 teachers that included a tour of Guzy Prairie. Volunteer assistance comes from a local high school biology class and by the junior high Enviro-Teams.

Having overcome the early obstacles, Duzan now gives Guzy Prairie tours organized by the St. Louis District of the Army Corps of Engineers in the Spring and Fall. These guided Watchable Wildlife tours are free but registration with the Lake Shelbyville Information Center is recommended.

During these tours, Duzan admits he is pleasantly surprised at how quickly a traditional farm can be converted to native prairie. He also admits working with native prairie dispels the romantic image of pioneers crossing the grasslands, as though they were taking a leisurely hike.

Even after the seed heads are gone, Stan Duzan demonstrates to tours how prairie grass is a couple of feet taller than he is. He poses for photos amid the giant grasses.

Unlike wooded areas, the giant prairie grasses block breezes. “It feels like 180 degrees in eight foot grass,” Duzan says. “You don’t want to try to hike through a prairie in summer!”

Viewing The Prairie

Guzy Prairie is ungated and open from dawn to dusk. There is a parking lot, but no other facilities. A handicap-accessible raised viewing deck makes it possible to view the prairie and wetlands much of the year. A mowed path is maintained along the southern border, but no trails are cut through the prairie. The best viewing time is early morning or early evening and in the early spring before the tallgrasses block the view. Binoculars are highly recommended.

Directions: From Shelbyville, take US Route 128 north about three miles past the Findlay-Assumption Road.

The prairie is on the west side of the highway south of the intersection of county roads 2300N and 1800E.

Phone: 217-774-3951

Admission: Free

Hours: Trails are open dawn to dusk daily


Shelbyville Wildlife Management Area (West Okaw Unit), R.R. 1, Box 42-A, Bethany, IL 61914, Office 217-665-3112.

Department of Natural Resources District Office, 2005 Round Barn Road, Champaign, Ill. 61821, Office 217-278-5773 FAX: 217-278-5763 Sources Lake Shelbyville Information Center, Rte 4, Box 128B, Shelbyville, IL 62565, 217-774-3951

Findlay Enterprise, Findlay, Ill., April 24, 1953, p. 1, column 2 -4.

Illinois Administrative Code 30ILCS. Illinois Compiled Statutes, Conservation, Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act, 525 ILCS 30.

Illinois Compiled Statutes, Special Districts, Park District Code 70 ILCS 1205.

"Last Will and Testament, Affidavit of Heirship, Inventory, Estate of Margaret Guzy, deceased.” Macon County Circuit Court 91-p-124.

Miller, W. E. “Edd”, “Autobiography by W. E. “Edd” Miller, 1880 - 1953,” Jan. 27, 1946. Courtesy of Shelby County Historical and Genealogical Society. Transcribed by Tammy Wilson, 1588 Fairway Drive, Newton N.C.

Shelbyville Daily Union, April 25, 1953.

Sustainable Agriculture Grant Program, Conservation 2000, Illinois Public Act 89-49.

About the Author

I am a genealogist and freelance writer. I have been involved with genealogical research since the late 1970's when my grandmother interested in me family history. I have written for GenWeekly News & Information Service since May 2007. I am a contributor to the Dictionary of UU Biography, where I wrote Ada Kepley's biography. My most recent book release is "The 33 Worst Mistakes Writers Make About Genealogy and Family History." I grew up around history, including Illinois' Historical 1872 Two-Story Outhouse.
Copyright @2009 by Judy Rosella Edwards. All rights reserved. If you would like to reprint this article, in part or in total, please email for rates and permission.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Where Nature and People Meet

When I first visited the Ballard Nature Center in 2002, I found a flyer that aptly read, “Where nature and people meet.” The BNC can rightfully make that claim. Some 3,000 visitors from 29 states and four countries visited the BNC during its first year, and the nature enthusiasts just keep coming and coming back.

A $300,000 visitor’s center serves as a meeting place for clubs and a living classroom for educators and schoolchildren. Paths radiate from the center through 210 acres of prairie, woodland and wetland areas where hikers meet nature up close.

BNC demonstrates the possibilities private citizens have to preserve land, identify available assistance, create a private foundation, coordinate with other organizations and revise plans. The site has garnered a number of awards for its efforts involving a mix of private and public collaborations.

The BNC was created by restoring a traditional dairy farm to native prairie and woods. Along the way, the site was donated to the local soil and conservation district. Through mutual agreement, the property was deeded back to private ownership. BNC continues to thrive as it offers year round opportunities for nature and people to meet.

The Ballard Property 

It has taken half a century for the BNC to evolve from a traditional dairy farm to an environmental education center. The BNC was the brainchild and the gift of Ernie Ballard, a native of Chrisman, Ill. In fact, Ballard never lived on the property that bears his name. He said, “It was just a place to come and do some work when I felt like it.”

Ballard’s father was a woodsman and hunter but Ernie was frequently quoted as saying, “I never shot a thing that was running or flying in my life. I've always been interested in conservation, though.”

He has always been interested in education, as well. Ballard enrolled at Eastern Illinois University in the 1920’s, during the early years of fraternities. Phi Sigma Epsilon, formed in 1927 at Kansas State Normal College in Emporia, was created as the National Teachers College Fraternity. Ballard pledged the third chapter of the organization as one of the first members of Delta, Phi Sigma Epsilon at EIU. Phi Sigma Epsilon has since merged with Phi Sigma Kappa.

Another well-known alum of Delta was Burl Ives, a classmate of Ballard’s at EIU. Ives chose another path in life, at the encouragement of the university president, while Ballard completed his teaching degree in 1933.

After teaching school for one year Ballard was offered a teaching position in Altamont, Ill., depending on what the principal chose to teach. The principal opted to teach the very classes Ballard had been offered, leaving him without a job.

As a result, Ernie Ballard arrived in Altamont with no future and a new wife during the Great Depression. His wife, Edna Marie Schumacher, was hired to teach in a nearby country school while Ballard and his brother-in-law, George Charles Schumacher, went into the dairy business selling milk by the pail for pennies.

A local farmer offered to sell them his dairy operation for a mere $500. That farmer was the owner of the property that would eventually become known as BNC. But not for decades.

Ballard and his brother-in-law formed the Schumacher and Ballard Dairy. Today a metal cooler bearing the Schumacher & Ballard Dairy logo is on display at the BNC as a reminder of the days when all the local schools bought their milk from Ernie Ballard.

But Ballard never intended to be a dairyman. “My brother-in-law trumped me!” he chuckled. “He married the home economics teacher, moved away—and left me with the dairy business!”

He believed the days of the small dairy operation were numbered. It was time for him to move on to a new line of work.

When Ballard bought the BNC property in 1958, he was in poor health. His own version of therapy was carving trails across the property, which he claimed improved his health greatly. Over the years, others have benefited from national cross-country finals taking place on those trails.

While serving on the Effingham County Fair Board, Ballard met a county board member who suggested forging a partnership in the implement business, selling John Deere equipment. Anticipating selling his share in the dairy business to his brother-in-law, he became a silent partner in the implement business.

For three years, Ballard continued to run the dairy before and after his day at the John Deere dealership in Effingham before closing down the dairy although he kept the property. Ballard retired from the John Deere dealership in 1972. It would be another 25 years before he would open the BNC.

Ernie’s Gift
While he appreciated the beauty of nature, education remained his first love. In earlier times, Ballard taught "field days" on growing shitake mushrooms. 

Ballard became aware of timber buyers offering to buy wood from landowners who didn’t know the price or value of wood, how to select wood to cut, or how to replant properly. “Timber can provide an income if it is properly managed,” Ballard told me. “But people were selling their timber for a fraction of its value and depleting the natural areas in the process.”

As a solution, he founded the Woodland Owners Association to educate property owners. The now defunct Woodland Owners Association had members across Illinois at one time.

In 1989, the Illinois Department of Conservation Division of Forestry Resources honored Ballard’s efforts “...for outstanding achievement and dedicated service. As a private citizen, to forestry in Illinois. By his example, he encourages others to practice good forestry. Through many hours of service, he founded and  served as president of the Illinois Woodland Owner’s & Users Association.”

Ernie Ballard has garnered a number of awards over the years, reflecting his values. In 1984, he received a certificate for Distinguished Service from the Effingham County Soil and Water Conservation District, a group that has maintained a close relationship with the BNC for decades.

That same year, and again in 1989, Ballard received Eastern Illinois University President’s Club Award “In recognition of significant financial support to the university which provides Eastern’s margin of excellence.”

The Heart Shrine Club presented him with an award of appreciation. The fraternal organization “for men of good character” is committed to community involvement. He was an honorary Future Farmers of America Chapter Farmer.

A plaque inside the nature center, dated 1987, proclaims “Altamont Lions salute Ernie C. Ballard for a dedicated contribution to his community and a friend of our forestry and natural resources.” The Lions Clubs International was created for “the betterment of their communities and the world at large.” In fact, Ballard was a fifty-year charter member of the Lions.

In 1990, he received Eastern Illinois University’s Alumni Association recognition for “loyalty and service to the Board of Directors.” Ernie Ballard’s greatest achievement was yet to come, during his fourth quarter of a century.

BNC Becomes a Reality

After visiting a Soil and Conservation District involved in a project similar to his vision for BNC, Ballard deeded the old dairy farm property to the Effingham County Soil and Conservation District in 1997. He says he chose to donate the land because, “Altamont  has been good to me and I just wanted to give something back. Land like this—with timber—is getting scarce.”

Ballard said he had always wanted to do it and did not want to see the property sold to become a development. Unfortunately, by October of 1999, the Soil and Water Conservation District realized they lacked the staff necessary to restore the farmland to a native area. In a mutually agreeable arrangement, the ESWCD returned the 210 acres to Ballard. The District continued to be involved with the BNC project and maintained a cordial working relationship, according to Ballard.

A board was formed to oversee the 501(c) nonprofit organization. By July 2000, a full-time naturalist was hired and the BNC was opened to the public.  During the first year in operation, Ernie Ballard was recognized by the Illinois Audubon Society as  Conservationist of the Year.

“In Recognition of his vision in creating an outstanding environmental education area in south central Illinois. This donation of his 210-acre farm, the construction of a $300,000 nature center and the funding of a nonprofit foundation to manage the center for future generations defines his high level of commitment to this undertaking. The Ballard Nature Center will provide families, school classes and visitors from many places an opportunity to gain an appreciation of the natural communities in this area of Illinois and see firsthand the value of protecting our natural resources with vision, dedication and effort, one man can indeed make a difference.”

In 2001, at age 93, Ernie Ballard garnered First Place in the Illinois Governor’s Hometown Award in the general category with population 23,000 to 33,000. In fact, he earned the Governor's Cup, a traveling silver trophy awarded annually to the community whose project was deemed most representative of the spirit of volunteerism in Illinois.

Ballard was 93 years old when I met him. He continued to walk the trails as best he could, or motor around the property by golf cart when he could not. After nearly a century of appreciating nature and education, Ernie Ballard created a center embracing both.

A Landmark Site

BNC is located on US Route 40, just east of Altamont, in Effingham County. US Route 40 was originally a section of the old National Road, the original National Highway built in the early 1830’s, connecting the eastern seaboard with the midsection of the country.

For two decades, it was the primary path from Cumberland, Maryland to the Midwest. The railroads became a more popular method of travel in the mid-1800’s until the invention of the automobile revived US Route 40 in the 1920’s. Forty years later, Interstate 70, just a few miles south of Altamont, became the major east-west artery and remains so today.

The slower traffic and quiet setting of the National Highway as it cuts across Effingham County, is reminiscent of earlier, less hectic times. A gravel road meanders through the woods to an open prairie. A large and spacious two-story visitor’s center with a large classroom, public restrooms and a kitchenette serves as a focal point.

A wall of glass faces a bird-feeding area with speakers so the birds can be heard from inside the building. Benches with binoculars and bird identification books are at the ready.

The interior of the nature center, the children’s discovery area, is filled with wildlife displays and interactive educational displays. A table littered with real snakeskins and other items is marked “Please Touch.” A library filled with guidebooks and videos is available for identifying flora and fauna.

The old farmhouse is gone, replaced with a pavilion. 85 acres remain in production as agricultural land to help fund the center. A small cemetery is incorporated into the trail system. The land is designated as an Illinois Acres for Wildlife preservation property.

A butterfly garden graces the front entrance. Flyers explain how to construct one at home.

Visitors are invited to borrow a map and hike the three miles of well-groomed trails and wooden boardwalks weaving through 100 acres of oak-hickory woodland, 15 acres of restored prairie, and 10 acres of shallow-water wetlands.  Along the way, hikers encounter more than 35 species of trees, 30 species of wildflowers and prairie flowers, in addition to woodland flowers and native grasses.

There are more than 100 species of birds and numerous butterflies. Bluebird boxes are located throughout and a display at the visitor’s center explains how to build one.

The local Audubon Society meets regularly at the center. The National Turkey Federation conducts outdoor events and workshops onsite. An annual EnviroThon for local high school students takes place at BNC, along with EcoWatch training for Citizen Scientists by the Department of Natural Resources. Quail Unlimited leads quail management seminars onsite.

Workshops for K-12 educators are taught using the Projects Wild, Learning Tree and Wet national curriculum. These four national award-winning environmental education programs are sponsored by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Summer programs for children ages five through eleven are presented by naturalist, Karan Greuel. During the academic year, Greuel offers in-class presentations to schools.

Community programs are offered to youth clubs such as 4-H and scouts. Tours and slide shows can be arranged for adult groups.

A volunteer board oversees the operations, raises money, and lends support. Memberships are available for $25, $50, $75 and Sponsorships for $250, $500, $1,000. Members and sponsors receive the seasonal newsletter and certain privileges including half price or free classes and pavilion rental.

Collaboration is Key

Site Naturalist, Karan Greuel, a graduate of Ballard’s alma mater, Eastern Illinois University, praised collaborative efforts as a key component to BNC’s success.

BNC turned to Douglas-Hart Nature Center, in Mattoon, Ill., for guidance in designing the visitor’s center. That center is also on land donated by its former owner, Helen Douglas Hart.

A collaborative spirit continues through other organizations conducting events on the BNC property.  According to Greuel, sharing technical and funding information with other nature centers has been invaluable.

Ballard called financing a center of this scope “a burden.” But he was grateful that, through collaboration, funding comes from a variety of sources and ranges from volunteer staff to materials, equipment and fund-raising.

Following a luncheon presentation, the Effingham Women of Today, an educational and philanthropic organization showed their appreciation of Ballard’s efforts by purchasing four pairs of binoculars for the bird viewing area. The club has also raised money and purchased picnic tables, a brochure rack and they have done volunteer work.

Ten more binoculars, along with other educational materials, were purchased through a grant from the Mary Heath Foundation in Oblong, Illinois. This foundation makes grants to tax-exempt organizations in the areas of recreation and education among others within the state of Illinois.

The children’s discovery area was developed in part through a $2,200 grant from Illinois Consolidated Telephone Company. A grant from the Lumpkin Family Foundation in Mattoon also went toward that project, in addition to creating interpretive trail signs, the bird observation area and the butterfly garden interpretive area. Grants from the Illinois Audubon Society, Altamont Grade School, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Furbearer Fund went toward interpretive displays in the visitor’s center. The KOHIO Foundation funded computer equipment. The Little Wabash Longbeards chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation funded the purchase of educational materials, classroom equipment and office items. Conservation 2000 grants paid for educational kits and a self-guided trail.

A Conservation 2000 grant made possible a wetland boardwalk and signs through a wetland development area funded by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Habitat Stamp fund and funding by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The Woodland Owners Association paid for additional interpretive trail signs. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Preservation Fund paid for prairie restoration and trail signs.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars gave the center a flagpole and flag. The Altamont Lions Club paid for a pavilion. A local equipment dealer donated a chainsaw and weed eater. Additional funds are raised through an annual benefit banquet including dinner, raffle and auction.

Ballard learned early on to seek expertise along the way from experienced professionals and from similar sites. During the early years of owning the property, Ballard learned of the Forestry Improvement Program from the County Soil and Conservation District. Foresters would thin the forest, identifying trees to be removed in order to improve the quality of the remaining woodlands. Under that program, the owner could sell the wood that was removed. For seven years, Ballard participated with two plots on the current BNC acreage.

An old friend instrumental in advising Ballard was a district forester who had been involved in restoring and preserving Beall Woods in Southern Illinois. DNR staff conduct or teach prairie burn techniques onsite. Illinois Natural Heritage Biologists assist with plant identification. These biologists provide private landowner assistance with the identifying and managing rare and endangered species and resources. Native seed is purchased through the Department of Natural Resources.

Greuel advised any site to develop a volunteer base. A crew of about thirty volunteers lend a hand at BNC. The nature center building was landscaped with the help of 4-H members, local garden club members, and other volunteers. The visitor center is staffed by volunteers on Saturday afternoons and mow the trails and other areas on Thursdays. Lake Land College in Mattoon, Ill., created the complimentary trail maps. Organized workdays are dedicated to trial maintenance.

The opportunity for people and nature to meet on a regular basis is at the heart of BNC. It is what makes the center possible as well as being its mission.

After nearly a century of appreciating nature and education, Ernie Ballard created a center embracing both. Ernest Cook Ballard passed away in 2004. But the Ballard Nature Center continues to thrive and welcome visitors.

Copyright @2009 by Judy Rosella Edwards. All rights reserved. If you would like to reprint this article, in part or in total, please email for rates and permission.