HARRISBURG — The creation of the Shawnee National Forest is a uniquely Southern Illinois story.
Even before the stock market crash of 1929, Southern Illinois’ economy had bottomed out. The rampant harvesting of hardwoods for agriculture clearing and other purposes, poor soil maintenance by farmers over many decades and the rooting and foraging of feral pigs left behind acres of worn out land.
Farmers abandoned their infertile fields as they failed to produce potatoes, corn, wheat and oats. They headed toward urban areas for manufacturing jobs that exploded during the World War I industrial boom, according to federal reports detailing the forest’s history. One after another, merchants that relied on farm trade boarded up their businesses.
Staring down hard times, an influential regional newspaper editor, Lindolph Oscar Trigg — or Col. L.O. Trigg, as he was locally known — led a lobbying effort to encourage the U.S. Forest Service to establish a national forest here. He believed it would revive the local economy and encourage tourists to visit the area.
He began hosting three-day campouts with dignitaries to highlight the region’s then-hidden treasures. That included places such as the Stonefort stone fort, Jackson Hollow, Bell Smith Springs, the Iron Furnace, Buzzard’s Point and Cave-in-Rock.
His efforts proved successful. Political will eventually bent in Southern Illinois’ favor. A national forest was born.
Stretching 290,000 acres across Illinois’ lower 14 counties, the Shawnee National Forest accounts for the largest tract of land in the state owned by a single entity. It is home to miles of rolling hills, ancient sandstone cliffs, stunning overlooks and diverse plant and wildlife. Southern Illinois’ forestland has served as an important resource for Native Americans for more than 15,000 years. It also may have provided critical hiding spots on the Underground Railroad as northbound African-Americans sought to escape slavery.
Though the work started years earlier, in September 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially declared it the Shawnee National Forest.
This is the first in an occasional series of stories examining the forest’s past and present as the forest officially marks 80 years.
Below are seven things you may not know about the Shawnee National Forest:
In 1931, the Illinois General Assembly passed a law inviting the federal government to build a national forest in Illinois. In August 1933, two purchase units were approved in Illinois’ southernmost region: the Illini Unit, near the Mississippi River, and the Shawnee Unit, along the Ohio River. That year, the region’s first Forest Service employee arrived, and a 20-man crew spent that fall surveying the region’s assets.
In 1939, these two purchase units, plus the Dixon Springs acreage, were given national forest status by proclamation. The Shawnee National Forest was created under the authorization of the federal Weeks Law. This law sought to uplift farm towns across the country grappling with extreme rural poverty while restoring tapped out landscapes.
2. Building the forest
An army of people built the Shawnee National Forest. In 1933, there were 2,000 Civil Works Administration workers assigned to the task. Additionally there were three Civilian Conservation Corps camps consisting of over 200 World War I veterans, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “History of the Shawnee National Forest.” In the coming years, Southern Illinois would host 13 Civilian Conservation Corps camps, with 10 of them located on Shawnee Forest lands across Southern Illinois’ lower counties, stretching from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River. The camps, which offered work to young, unmarried men, were mostly white and segregated; African-Americans were stationed in Pomona.
One of the first problems they encountered were roads so rough they could hardly access the region. So in addition to planting 62 acres of pine seedlings, the “CCC Tree Army” also built 128 miles of road, according to historical reports by the Harrisburg Daily Register, as compiled by the U.S. Forest Service. Additionally, they set telephone poles along 7.6 miles of roadway, built fire outlook towers, quarried gravel, cut stone and built rustic recreation areas such as Pounds Hollow and Lake Glendale, which continue to serve the public today.
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3. An economic driver
The Shawnee National Forest is an economic engine for southernmost Illinois. It employs about 75 full-time federal workers, according to Sue Hirsch, spokeswoman for the Shawnee National Forest. The employees are tasked with a variety of jobs, including administration, forest management, law enforcement, land survey, fire management, recreation support and customer service.
The Shawnee National Forest is one of 155 U.S. forests. It is the only national forest in Illinois. National forests are administered by the Forest Service division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Shawnee National Forest’s primary office is in Harrisburg; it also has offices in Jonesboro, Vienna and Murphysboro.
4. History of tension
There is a long history of tension between environmental activists and the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Shawnee National Forest. That tension escalated in 1990, when protesters camped for 79 days on an access road near the Fairview Christian Church close to Murphysboro in an effort to circumvent a timber harvest. Forest Service officials and loggers claimed it would provide a boost to the local economy, and noted that logging has historically been incorporated in forest management plans. But environmentalists said it could cause irreversible damage to fragile ecosystems.
One activist chained himself to a machine used to pull timber from the forest. Others buried themselves up to their necks to block machinery from passing the access road. Activist photographer Orin Langelle captured the dramatic event, which included dozens of arrests and at least one injury to a protester by a logging truck. Protesters pushed the issue into the legal system, which allowed cutting to proceed a year later. But demonstrators changed public perception about logging and secured broader policy changes, including a prohibition on logging, oil and gas drilling that was in place from 1996 to 2013. Logging has since resumed.
5. The visitors
About 1 million people visit the Shawnee National Forest annually to participate in a wide range of recreational activities. Those include camping, paddling, hiking, horseback, riding, taking photographs, swimming, running, fishing and picnicking. In addition to its full-time staff, an army of volunteers also help maintain the forest. Some 200 organizations assisted the Forest Service in its upkeep, such as by picking up trash and helping to maintain trails, according to the Shawnee National Forest’s 2016 year-in-review report. Combined, organizations gave about 3,400 volunteer hours that year. “It is a place that provides respite from the world — and basic necessities, such as clean drinking water,” Forest Supervisor Brendan Cain said in the report.
Among the most well-known gatherings are those of the Rainbow Family of Living Light, or the “Rainbow people,” as they are colloquially known. The unofficial group draws people to the forest for camping and fellowship who are looking to escape the grind of daily life in “Babylon.” Most people go by nicknames, choosing to shed their given or “corporate” names. There is no hierarchy to the Rainbow Family or official structure to the gatherings. They form organically by word-of-mouth and social media postings. The only requirement for admission is having a belly button. But if for some reason a person doesn’t have one, that’s probably OK, too.
6. A ceremonial coin
In 2016, the U.S. Mint released a new quarter featuring the Shawnee National Forest. The quarter was launched following a ceremonial coin pour in the gymnasium of Southeastern Illinois College that drew hundreds of people. One attendee summed up his feelings about the forest, calling it a “forgotten gem in our nation.” The coin featuring Camel Rock at Garden of the Gods is part of the U.S. Mint’s America the Beautiful Program designed to honor 56 parks and sites throughout each state, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories. Since its release over two years ago, it has become one of the most requested quarters in the series, according to Hirsch, the forest service spokeswoman.
7. Underground railroad?
Miller Grove in Pope County was settled in the mid-1800s by Harrison and Lucinda Miller, freed slaves from Tennessee. By 1860, there were a dozen black families living here, and the rural settlement continued to grow throughout the late 19th century after the Civil War. There is little written history on Miller Grove, but oral history suggests it was likely a station on the Underground Railroad. The nearby Sand Cave likely served as a shelter for runaway slaves, according to a document provided by the U.S. Forest Service on the site’s history.
Folklore also suggests that bonfires were lit atop Crow Knob, a large sandstone bluff overlooking Miller Grove, to guide freedom seekers toward the community. “Although this has not been documented in the literature, we believe it to be true,” the Forest Service’s report on the community says. “It was not written in books because it was too dangerous to write such things down. Who else would be as committed to aiding runaway slaves as they traveled north to freedom than slaves who had already won their freedom?”
The location was likely remote by design. Illinois was a free state, but Southern Illinois was not a progressive place for race relations. Many here sympathized with slave owners in southern states, and sought to capture those seeking freedom and return them, oftentimes for a fee. As farming became unprofitable here in 1920s, the residents of Miller Grove left the region in search of jobs, much the same as farm families across the region. But Miller Grove, nestled in the Shawnee National Forest, remains an important site in Southern Illinois’ African-American history.
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI