Unknown Illinois: 'The Grove' Prairie Park Offers Respite in Bloomington

Jul 26, 2016

Master Naturalist Jim Bortell looks over The Grove restored prairie near a Bloomington housing subdivision.
Credit Sherrie Snyder

Two miles east of the city limits of Bloomington, not far from Ireland Grove Road and  at the origin of Kickapoo Creek, are 85 acres of restored prairie known as "The Grove."

The Grove is part of unique project in Illinois that combined construction of a housing subdivision with a prairie restoration.

"It's a quiet, almost monastic setting," said Jim Bortell, a member of the Illinois Grand Prairie Master Naturalists, a group dedicated to caring for McLean County's natural areas.

Bortell will lead a free tour for the public of The Grove Wednesday at 6 p.m. starting at the Ireland Grove entrance to the park.

The sight of such a large prairie is now rare in Illinois. Only one tenth of a percent remains in a state that was once two-thirds natural prairie.

Still, very few people seem to know about The Grove. Bortell said he hikes there nearly every evening and rarely sees anyone else. "It's kind of an unclaimed treasure right here in our backyard in Bloomington-Normal," he said. 

Some might drive by and  mistake the area for "a bunch of weeds," Bortell said, "which it certainly it is not." Instead, The Grove contains a variety of native grasses, plants and flowers including big blue stem grass, purple cone flowers, prairie dock, compass plants, and many others.

"There is a saying, 'Anyone can love the mountains, but it takes soul to love the prairie,'" Bortell said.

The prairie plant life attracts a number of birds. "My favorite is the dickcissel. It usually finds the tallest branch it can sit on and has a delightful little sound. It looks a little like a meadowlark,"  Bortell said.

Pheasants, red wing blackbirds, big blue herons and a variety of ducks also populate the area. Members of the local John Wesley Audubon Society have spotted as many as 18 species of birds in the park, Bortell said. 

The Grove also acts as a wetland purifying the water that runs into Kickapoo Creek. As a result, several kinds of fish now thrive in the creek, including certain rare minnows and the large mouth bass. It's not unusual to see muskrats and beavers swimming down the creek, Bortell added.

Friends of Kickapoo Creek poster shows the number of fish species that inhabit the creek. The Grove housing subdivision is seen in the background.
Credit Sherrie Snyder

Bortell said he saw a coyote once during one of his evening walks, but quickly adds that these prairie coyotes are probably more afraid of humans than humans have reason to be afraid of them. .

Before Europeans settlers arrived, Native American settlements probably lined the area surrounding The Grove, where large three-story houses now stand, Bortell said. 

The sound of hammering and sawing can be heard in the stillness of the park, as houses are still going up alongside the prairie. The Grove housing development was controversial when it was first proposed because of the cost to the city of Bloomington to extend water and sewage to the area. 

"Negotiations were undertaken to make sure we have this park right here in our backyard," Bortell said. The Grove, he added, became a fortunate by-product of the additional housing development.