Environmental Almanac

Ancient Oaks Link Us to the Big Grove


When people think about the landscape of central Illinois prior to European settlement they tend to think “prairie,” vast expanses of flat land covered in tall grass and tall flowers. And for the most part, that image is pretty accurate. But groves of trees intruded on the grasslands here and there, especially on the eastern edges of rivers and streams, which created natural breaks to prairie fires driven by winds from the west.

A bicentennial oak, one more than 200 years old, in front of the Quaker Meetinghouse in Urbana, IL

L. Brody Dunn

Such groves were dominated by fire-resistant species of oak, and interspersed with hickory, ash, walnut, sugar maple and linden trees as well. 

Prairie groves were quite hospitable to humans compared to the prairie itself, offering game and shelter, as well as respite from some of the discomforts of life in the open. They were preferred sites for American Indian villages, and the first places to be settled by Americans of European descent coming from the east.

One of the largest of these timbered areas in our region was named by settlers of the early nineteenth century the Big Grove.

As it was mapped in the original survey of the area in 1821, the Big Grove covered about 10 square miles. Its western edge roughly paralleled the Saline Branch, the stream that drops into Urbana from the north and runs through Busey Woods and Crystal Lake Park before turning east toward St. Joseph. Along its southern edge the Big Grove extended to about where Urbana’s Main Street runs today.

If you’re familiar with Urbana and the locales just north and east of the City, you know there’s no forest left that would merit the name, “Big Grove,” most of the wood from those trees having gone into houses, fences, farm implements and fires long ago.

But here’s something really cool. Some trees that began life in the Big Grove still stand today. You can touch them. Heck, you can hug them. They’re the kind of trees that elicit that response from people.

Near the corner of East Main and Maple Streets, a bur oak that predates the Declaration of Independence rises to a height of more than 80 feet from the yard outside Long’s Garage.

Farther from the center of town on East Main, a still larger bur oak can be seen on the eastern edge of the site of the Friends Meetinghouse. We can take this tree to be roughly 240 years old now, based on calculations made in 1976, when the International Society of Arboriculture recognized it as a “bicentennial tree.” 

At Leal Park, which is on University Avenue near the Carle complex, there’s yet another bicentennial oak marked with a plaque.

Greater numbers of oaks that predate European settlement can be seen—and hugged—at some other Urbana Park District sites. Some of the largest trees in Crystal Lake Park and Busey Woods are relics of the Big Grove, as are 10 or so of the trees at Weaver Park on East Main Street.

If you’re interested to do a little more reading before you head out on your treehugging adventure, check out the Website “Children of Giants” recently established by UI professor of entomology Stewart Berlocher at http://www.life.illinois.edu/berlocher/biggrove.