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History

Historical Photos

The Champaign County Forest Preserve District, which covers all but seven sections of Champaign County in East Central Illinois, was established by referendum in 1935. Due to the Depression and World War II, however, the first park was not opened until 1948, when the CCFPD purchased 260 acres of land around a small lake near Mahomet. The area was officially opened as Lake of the Woods County Park in time for the Memorial Day Weekend and was immediately known as a fine swimming, boating and fishing area.

The driving force behind the development of the Forest Preserve District was H.I. Gelvin, the first District president, who served from 1948 until he retired in 1975. During his lengthy tenure, tremendous growth was seen in the District.

By 1950, work had started on the Robert Bruce Harris-designed golf course, with the first nine holes opening the next year. 1952 brought the Sea Slide to Lake of the Woods, which to this day, is the memory mentioned most often by people who frequented the park during those years. By 1953, all 18 holes of the golf course were open to the public. Other attractions were built in the next years, including the Little Golden Gate Bridge, built to scale after the San Francisco icon. In the same period, the Par-3 Golf Course opened in the area that previously was a landing strip used by Mr. Gelvin.

Several landmark events occurred at Lake of the Woods in the 1960s. The Covered Bridge was constructed in 1965; the HI Tower bell carillon was dedicated in 1966; and the Early American Museum opened its doors in 1968. More land was added to the park with the help of federal grants.

It was also during the 1960s that Interstate 74 came through Champaign County. Interestingly, original plans by the state called for just one interchange at Route 47 and the closing of Lake of the Woods Road. The restricted access to the park and surrounding area that would have been caused by this prompted considerable uproar by local residents, along with fire protection, school and forest preserve officials. As a result, the state agreed to two interchanges (the other at what is now Prairieview Road) and an overpass to keep Lake of the Woods Road open.

Focus turned to other areas of the county during these years. In 1967, after the announcement by Congressman William Springer of Champaign that the U.S. Bureau of Outdoor Recreation released $78,000 for construction of Homer Lake, the Illinois Department of Conservation developed the area into a state park. Then, in the early 1970s, the state decided to turn its smaller parks over to local units of government. After lengthy negotiations, the Forest Preserve District was given a twenty-year renewable lease for Homer Lake in 1971.

Disaster struck in 1974 when a tornado destroyed every building at Homer Lake. The next two years brought serious rebuilding efforts, with the construction of many of the buildings in use today, such as the Environmental Education Center. The area became what is today the Homer Lake Forest Preserve, the second preserve in the Champaign County Forest Preserve District.

The Early American Museum successfully completed the extensive undertaking of earning accreditation in 1973. In 1974, at Lake of the Woods, the Botanical Garden was extended with funding by H.I. Gelvin himself. The area was dedicated as a memorial to his wife, Mabery, who had died in 1971. The gardens met with great enthusiasm which continues today.

Also in 1974, the District began purchasing land in the northeast section of the county for what would eventually become the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve. Just in time for the 1984 Memorial Day weekend, the Middle Fork officially opened as the third Champaign County facility. Containing a scenic and tranquil campground as well as numerous hiking trails, this would become the largest preserve in the county.

The 1980s brought good and bad to the District. The Early American Museum earned reaccreditation by the American Association of Museums in 1984, and the District entered the world of computerization, both in the administrative area and with a new golf course irrigation system. On the down side, however, due to tremendous increases in liability insurance costs combined with decreases in revenue, the deteriorating Sea Slide came to the end of its run. Then in the next year, the Lake of the Woods Bathhouse was lost to fire.

It was a momentous occasion at the Middle Fork in March of 1992, as the completion of the Waterfowl Management Area was celebrated, thanks to a huge cooperative effort with Ducks Unlimited. Funded by the Illinois Duck Stamp Program, this area consisted of two, large wetland areas totaling 130 acres of optimum nesting and migratory waterfowl habitat.

Also in 1992, after diligent work on the part of commissioners, then-Governor Jim Edgar signed into law the bill that officially transferred ownership of the 800-acre Homer Lake Forest Preserve (previously the Salt Fork River Forest Preserve) to the Forest Preserve District. After the property had been leased for more than 20 years, it was now owned by the citizens of Champaign County.

In 2006, River Bend Forest Preserve, the first forest preserve to open in Champaign County in more than 20 years, was dedicated. The 275-acre site, located in south Mahomet, contains approximately 130 acres of clear water in two lakes, and 2.5 miles of forest along the Sangamon River. It was purchased in part through an Open Lands Trust grant and was generously matched in land donation by the property owners.

An incredible opportunity presented itself not long after that. Owners of a beautiful 160-acre parcel of land in south Fisher approached the Forest Preserve District as they planned to move out of state. For many years, they had enjoyed hosting people on their property, which included more than 5/8 of a mile on both sides of the Sangamon River, and wanted it to be available to the public. So, with two grants totaling more than $1 million, the CCFPD was able to purchase the land, and by the end of 2008, Champaign County citizens were introduced to the Sangamon River Forest Preserve.

At this writing, 60 years after the first Champaign County forest preserve opened its gates, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District is thriving. It has grown from one preserve at 260 acres to five major sites totaling 3,858 acres. It has a recently-completed strategic plan, a large corps of volunteers, an advisory committee that provides a wealth of expertise, and a foundation that is actively growing.

Many, many people have contributed not only to the rich history of this agency, but to the vision for its future. It would, of course, be impossible to name everyone who helped develop this story. They have all left their mark, however, and the success of the Forest Preserve District today is evidence of that.

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