A field trip this fall to the Field Museum in Chicago was a journey back in time for a Forest Preserve District group.
The contingent – made up of volunteer stewards and Jason Buss, the Forest Preserve’s volunteer liaison and restoration crew leader – viewed specimens from the late 1800s and early 1900s that were collected in Will County by Ellsworth Jerome "E.J." Hill.
Hill was a minister and American botanist who collected specimens in the Chicago area for decades. He was born in New York in 1833 and died in Chicago in 1917. He taught at Kankakee and Englewood high schools and spent many years searching for plants in the region, even though he had an affliction that made it difficult for him to walk.
In the book "Of Prairie, Woods, and Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing," author Joel Greenberg says additional medical issues cropped up later in Hill's life, but his time outdoors seemed to restore him.
"He left teaching in 1888 because of health problems and declining vision," according to the book. "For the next dozen years, over which time his health improved, he spent as much as four days a week botanizing." Agnes Chase, a friend and colleague of Hill's, wrote about the botanist when he died. She said Hill didn't allow his physical issues to stop him from documenting the region's plant life.
"Before the word ecology was invented he was calling our attention to the zones of vegetation about the sloughs in the dune region of northern Indiana and pointing out to us the successive stages by which vegetation converted the sloughs into dry land," Chase wrote. "He possessed the vision of plant life as a whole, seeing it as an active factor in building and shaping the surface of the earth."
Hill discovered the rare Kankakee mallow plant on an island in the Kankakee River and he has three plants named after him: Hill's pondweed (Potamogeton hillii), a type of hawthorn tree (Crataegus hillii) and Hill's thistle (Carduus hillii).
Six sets of dried plant specimens viewed by the Forest Preserve group at the Field Museum all came from Lockport.
Photo courtesy of the Field Museum
"Most of the plants were described as sitting on limestone rock, which is the habitat found at Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve," Buss explained.
The Field Museum has 24 plant specimens from Lockport, most collected by Hill, according to the museum's Botany Collections Database. They range from hairy rock-cress (Arabis hirsute) to Canada germander (Teucrium canadense).
The database includes photos of the actual dried leaf samples collected by Hill and his notations of where the plants were found in Lockport. For instance, the rock-cress sample indicates, "moist ground, Lockport Ill., July 30, 1898." There are 1,036 samples collected by Hill at the Field Museum, including some from Joliet, New Lenox, Lemont and the banks of Hickory Creek in Mokena, as well as Waukegan and Wauconda in the north, and Kankakee in the south to neighborhoods in Chicago.
During the fall field trip, the Forest Preserve group also learned about the plants and birds of Illinois and efforts by the Field Museum to create more habitats for monarch butterflies, said volunteer Mark Bettin. Also discussed during the field trip were the benefits of prescribed burns and other restoration issues. A tour of Markham Prairie followed.
Forest Preserve volunteers who attended were: Espie Nelson, Don Nelson, Marie Wendt, Dave Wendt, Bernie O'Reilly, Phyllis Schulte and Linda Andrews.