Bill Wingate is a local naturalist and steward of the prairie at Veteran Acres. In 1994, the Crystal Lake Park District recognized his unwavering dedication to the prairie's restoration by naming it in his honor.
Young Bill Wingate perched on a fence at the edge of his yard and gazed into the green wooded acres beyond, wondering what awaited him there. Little did he realize the riches he would one day unearth—the sapphire blue baptisia, the amethyst prairie smoke, the golden prairie buttercup—all hidden below the earth's surface waiting to be discovered without treasure map, without compass. Only a man with a well-trained eye and a love of nature would know this land's wealth.
Today this site known as Wingate Prairie—located within Veteran Acres Park off of Illinois Route 176 in Crystal Lake, Illinois—boasts 39 acres of precious gravel hill prairie. Precious because a scarce 59 acres are known to exist within Illinois. In 1994 the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission designated 33.5 acres as Illinois Nature Preserve. Only sites with statewide ecological value are considered for this highest level of protection under Illinois law. An additional 38.8 acres of land was designated around the prairie as Nature Preserve buffer.
This unique prairie land with its rolling terrain, oak savanna and conifer groupings is home to several rare and endangered plant and animal species including the prairie buttercup, pinweed, Queen-of-the-prairie, Pale Vetchling, Purple-flowering Raspberry, Silvery Blue butterfly and the Franklin's ground squirrel.
During its active months from spring to fall, the prairie is in constant bloom. Nature lovers are welcomed by different blooms weekly making the prairie an ever-changing kaleidoscope of wildflowers. From hill to hollow, the type of flowers waiting to be discovered varies. A flat moraine at the northern end of the site is home to yet another variety of plant not requiring the well-drained soil of the hills or the wetter hollow areas.
The prairie uniquely blends both passive and active recreation with nature appreciation. A network of trails twists its way through the prairie, its pine tree islands and the surrounding woodlands. During track season, the trails are used for cross country races and cross country skiing during winter months. Regularly scheduled nature walks are conducted and nature lovers are often found wandering the site solo to relax. All who pass through the site for exercise or relaxation admire the beautiful wildflowers, the rolling landscape and the mixture of open space surrounded by woodlands. Runners who have
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tackled this course comment that it's the most difficult track to run, but by far, the most beautiful to experience.
Unfortunately, the natural beauty of this site was not always enjoyed by the residents of Crystal Lake. The land was once farmed, removing most of the prairie flowers at the surface. Later, it was groomed as a golf course. Evidence of former tee-off spots are still noticeable to the trained eye. It wasn't until the 1930s that the property was purchased by the Crystal Lake Park District for open space recreational use. Gradually the prairie plants' deep root systems began to push their stems toward the surface and blossom once again—and a man named Wingate noticed.
Before the early settlers reached the Crystal Lake area, much of Veteran Acres Park and nearly all of its open field was "a complex of dry-gravel prairie located on the steep, well- drained slopes and slightly more mesic prairie communities in the intervening low areas," according to a report by Steven Byers of the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission. Burr oaks were scattered on north facing slopes and cattle were believed to have grazed the open fields.
Among the early settlers to Illinois was John Walkup who built his home on the land that became Veteran Acres Park. It is believed that Walkup was attracted to the site for the open areas the property possessed, which would be easy to farm. For nearly a century his descendants owned the land and often welcomed the public to picnic on the property. According to Wingate, "Even back then, it seemed the site was a natural areas for residents."
In 1939, at the urging of the local Lions Club, the Crystal Lake Park District purchased Walkup's property for its beauti- ful woodlands and designated it as a public park site. The name Veteran Acres was selected as a memorial to all the World War II veterans who had returned home.
A few years later, patches of pine trees were planted to provide Christmas trees to local classrooms. Shortly after, schools banned the use of live trees due to fire hazard and the patches were left at the prairie to grow.
Decades later, from 1968-1971, Wingate and other teachers conducted conservation course walks through the wooded and open areas of Veteran Acres Park as part of an outdoor education program introduced by local schools. "The students in the participating classes would ask What is this plant? and What is that plant?" Wingate said. "So myself and other teachers began investigating to answer their questions."
The plants were native prairie plants, both common and rare, beginning to blossom in the field where they explored. These educators and Wingate agreed that the "field" with which they had become so familiar, was trying its best to become the rich prairie land it once was.
"You felt as if you were participating in a great discovery," Wingate said. "A Garden of Eden coming alive."
Norbert Ziemer, the first director of the outdoor education program, encouraged classes at District 47 and local Lutheran and Catholic schools to aid in prairie restoration by clearing buckthorn and other menacing plant life that could choke the sun-loving prairie plants. Students and teachers volunteered many, many hours to clear brush. Schools seemed eager to accept the prairie as part of their curriculum until 1979 when
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The prairie or pasture rose with its sweet pleasant fragrance is very common to the Illinois prairie.
the outdoor education program was eliminated and the students were no longer a plentiful source for volunteers.
The discovery of prairie plants at Veteran Acres, however, caught the attention of the McHenry County Chapter of the Illinois Audubon Society. This organization, known for its interest in birds, had been considering other areas of nature to support. Prairie land seemed ideal. Coincidentally, the president and treasurer of the local Audubon chapter attended a class taught by Wingate at Northeastern Illinois University. The two members learned of the prairie through Wingate and soon scheduled a meeting to discuss the site.
The Audubon members were so impressed with the site, they spurred the formation of a committee called the Friends of Veteran Acres Prairie to protect and nurture the land in cooperation with the Crystal Lake Park District. The park district granted the committee a 25-year lease on the site to restore the prairie to its original beauty. The Audubon Society donated $50 for new plantings to start the project and, on an annual basis, the park district donates $40.
The Friends, led by Wingate, began to evaluate what would be involved in prairie management and restoration and community education concerning the value of this natural resource. An initial plant inventory was made by Dr. Robert Betz, a professor from Northeastern Illinois University, identifying 56 prairie plants growing on the site. A careful study was made to determine which plants most likely survived in the prairie long ago. From this list, the Friends began reintroducing native plants to the site with the guidance of the Wildflower Preservation and Propagation Committee of the McHenry County Defenders.
Tuesday were work nights when the Friends met to clear buckthorn, spread seeds from existing plants and transplant other species to encourage their spread. Even during bitter cold winter months, volunteers showed their interest and continued the work effort. People came from all over McHenry County and many neighboring counties to contribute their time and energy. Local organizations, groups and volunteers periodically assisted.
The long, time-consuming effort to rehabilitate the prairie involved removal of alien plant species. Brush was cleared, chipped and used to pave trails through the site. Periodic bums were conducted to eliminate alien shallow-rooted plants and allow the deeper-rooted prairie plants to thrive. In addition, volunteers opened two savanna areas by removing honeysuckle and buckthorn.
Gradually working from the southwest comer of the prairie toward the northeastern most point, volunteers cleared the way for the prairie to re-emerge. As a reward for their kindness, the original hill prairie delighted volunteers as the first to boast its true colors.
Years later, a second detailed study of the site determined a number of prairie plants were overlooked on the initial inventory. Over 100 species are now listed as existing on the prairie including Prairie Gentian, Canadian Milk Vetch, Ladies Tresses, Canadian Hawkweed and Bracken Fern.
During his 27 years of stewardship Wingate guided over 150 volunteers in prairie restoration efforts. Nurturing rare plants and flowers at Veteran Acres Prairie has become second nature to him. Wingate's love of plants and wildlife and his interest in educating the community about its precious resource were recognized following the prairie's designation as a Nature Preserve. A prairie volunteer contacted the Crystal Lake Park District and suggested the prairie nature preserve bear Wingate's name. The park district agreed; it made sense.
On June 26, 1994, Wingate Prairie was named after the man who led others in raising it to the standards required by the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission for preservation. "A prairie is shaped by many forces...including the forces of Bill Wingate," said Dwight Dalton of the McHenry County Audubon Society. A sign welcoming the public to "Wingate Prairie: An Illinois Nature Preserve" was erected at the entrance of the site.
Over a quarter century ago, Wingate first dug his hands into the prairie. Years earlier, he first set foot in the woodlands surrounding the prairie in search of the natural mysteries and treasures that awaited him. Daily he is reminded in some way that years of time and effort invested by himself and others has real value. Small glimpses of new plant species beginning to emerge, the first bloom of Prairie Buttercup and Blue Baptisia, the scurry of ground squirrels and other wildlife around him are all the reward he could ask for.
Ellen L. Riedl is the public information coordinator for the Crystal Lake Park District. Riedl also took the photographs of the prairie flowers which illustrate this story.
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