It’s been a relatively cool, somewhat rainy summer this year in northern Illinois, but the payoff is in days that are more comfortable for day-long road trips and in photos wherein the cloudy haze makes the images dreamier, with deeper colors than a normal summer. That was the case this weekend when your three scribes here cruised down to the Sugar Grove Nature Center in Thaddeus Stubblefield Grove Nature Preserve in Funks Grove, IL, a tiny unincorporated community that is barely a shout south of the Bloomington-Normal metro area. It’s so small that most of its postal addresses are listed in either nearby Shirley or McLean. Funks Grove is perhaps best known as the midpoint of Historic U.S. Route 66 in Illinois, which in these parts is also known as the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway – but it’s also home to a large, historic grove of sugar maples and white and bur oaks that is in itself a National Natural Landmark (yes, Virginia, there really is such a thing, as designated by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and Funks Grove is one of 18 such sites in Illinois).
We’ll get to our purpose for being there – last Sunday’s annual picnic of the Route 66 Association of Illinois – later on. For now, let’s just say that even though the day was overcast and the threat of rain was ever present, the day trip turned out to be surprisingly satisfying as a photo shoot in addition to a good opportunity to renew some personal ties, make new friends, and eat like the happy carnivores that we are. We made stops not only in Funks Grove but also in Towanda (just northeast of Normal on Route 66) and Lexington (northeast of Normal, about as far from central Bloomington-Normal as is Funks Grove, but in the opposite direction).
Most people think of a prairie as flat and featureless, especially the tallgrass prairie in Illinois, but that’s not the case. Illinois’s Grand Prairie has always been dotted with groves of trees breaking the line of the horizon. In Central Illinois, the trees in the tallgrass prairie were mostly hickory, oaks and maples. And when you drive down old Route 66 through Funks Grove, all you see on either side is the trees, not the prairie.
Contained mostly within Funk’s Grove Township (yes, the township hasn’t dropped the apostrophe yet and still spells Funk’s Grove the right way), Funks Grove is one of the last remaining virgin prarie forests in the Midwest. In other words, this is primarily old-growth forest, a rarity, though less than half of the original grove remains. This makes Funks Grove the largest remaining intact prairie grove in the state of Illinois. Parts of the grove have been protected for as long as 160 years, and there are tall, stately oaks whose trunks are four feet or more in diameter. The original size of this entire grove was estimated to be around 3,000 acres; about 1,200 acres are still intact today, although because of fire suppression, the hickory, white oaks and bur oaks are gradually giving way to sugar maples. That’s a process called ecological succession. Most of the sugar maples are located along the eastern edge of the grove, which is where the maple sirup farm is located (yes, sirup is spelled correctly: we’ll get to that eventually).
Like six of the other 17 National Natural Landmarks in the state, Funks Grove has a mix of ownership. Most of the land is privately held, but part of it is owned by the state. Moreover, it’s a little bit confusing because the historic prairie forest that is known as Funks Grove actually has at least three state preserves inside it, one of which is a 18.5-acre parcel called Funks Grove Nature Preserve that is closest to the few buildings that constitute the minuscule residential part of Funks Grove proper, closest to Route 66 and I-55 and in the north-central part of the entire grove (the immediate area is so sparsely settled that the entire township’s population was only 245 in 105 households as of the 2010 census). Thaddeus Stubblefield Nature Preserve consists of 237.72 acres in the center of the entire grove, and the Sugar Grove Nature Center lies in the far southeast section of this preserve. Stubblefield Woodlots is the third preserve, 11.8 acres in two lots, located at the far northern end of the grove. Then there are privately preserved parts of the grove, such as the Sugar Grove Nature Center, the Funks Grove Cemetery and the Chapel of the Templed Trees.
Our path to the nature center (and the picnic!) went from I-55 through the Funks Grove crossroads at Funks Road and Historic Route 66. That is the nominal center of the township, considering it lacks an actual hamlet or other settlement that could function as a residential center. However, even though there’s a (now closed) Funks Grove rest stop on I-55 at mile marker 149 just south of County Road E 550 North, there’s no Funks Grove exit on I-55; you have to leave I-55 further north at the Shirley exit, hang a right and go a few hundred feet, then turn left onto Historic Route 66 to go past the village of Shirley a few miles south to the Funks Road interesection. Once there, you turn right onto Funks Road, then take a quick left onto County Road 800 E, which quickly does a right-angle turn into County Road 550 N and just past the Sudden Impact paintball field makes another 90-degree turn (left) into N 725 East Road. Barely have you made that turn when you reach a T-intersection with E 535 North Road, where you’ll see a sign advising you to turn right to reach the church, cemetery and woodland chapel. Hang a right. The directions look a little squirrelly on paper or online maps, but once you’ve driven this path from the Shirley exit, it’s quite easy to find the church, cemetery and chapel.
This is where things start to get interesting. Barely a city block down from the T-intersection is the absolute last thing I expected to see marking the turnoff for the church and cemetery: a picturesque sheltered picnic pavilion made of wood and stone, with a cement-slab floor and integrated wood and steel picnic tables. It adds to strangers’ confusion because it looks like it belongs in a forest preserve, and you’re not quite sure at first where the historic preserve ends and the cemetery land begins (in fact, it looked almost exactly like the old outdoor dining pavilion at my old girl scout camp in Custer, Michigan, which really threw me – deja vu!). A gate in the fence by the pavilion leads across the road to a pea gravel path through the woods. This, in turn, leads to the Chapel of the Templed Trees – a strange name if ever I heard one, given that it implies the trees have been installed inside a temple somewhere rather than that the trees themselves comprise the place of worship. Note: the chapel and the church are very popular wedding venues; we suppose the picnic pavilion comes in handy for those. Hail, chapel in the woods!
And what a place it is. Chapel, schmapel – it’s a virtual cathedral of trees, considering how tall they are. Not redwood or sequoia tall, but damned tall for oaks, that’s for sure: at least 100 feet up. Follow the winding path, and soon you come to an open area, with huge American red elm logs for ‘pews,’ a stump for a lectern, a wooden cross made of rough-hewn stripped branches … and everywhere you look, a green, green canopy, probably a more intense shade of green from the goodly amount of rain scattered throughout this summer. No dried-out looking August landscapes here. All is verdant, from the gently rolling farmed plains along the interstate to the forested preserves.
Just past the picnic pavilion is a turn-in for the church and cemetery. The church is an unpreposessing 19th-century white wooden structure with wrought-iron railings set into the concrete steps. It’s exactly what it looks like: a modest country church, built between 1864 and 1865 by early settlers Isaac Funk, Robert Stubblefield and their sons. The church, picnic pavilion and the chapel in the woods across the road are all on land owned by the Funks Grove Cemetery Association, made up mostly of the descendants of the Funk and Stubblefield families. A quick walk through the cemetery will show that the grounds are just littered with Funks and Stubblefields. The two families were already related upon arrival: when Robert Stubblefield came to Funks Grove in December 1824, about six months after Isaac Funk and his brother Absalom had arrived, Robert was married to their sister Dorothy Funk; he had earlier been married to another Funk sister, Sarah, who had died in 1821 in Kentucky while the Funks and Stubblefields had been living there before moving to Illinois. Isaac and Absalom’s father, Adam Funk, Jr., also arrived that year, after his sons had established themselves in Funks Grove.To say that the two families populated the area with their kin and are largely responsible for the development of the county as well as the Bloomington area just to the north is understatement. There are literally hundreds of Funks and Stubblefields listed at the Funks Grove Cemetery on Find-A-Grave; practically the entire township is related in some way. Adam Funk, Jr. had nine children by his wife Sarah (Moore) – six sons and three daughters – and Isaac, who married Cassandra Sharp in June 1826, had 10 children, nine of them sons. Today, they’re probably mostly remembered for having been the first pioneers in the area, but they were very influential at the time for other reasons. The Funk family began the maple sugaring operations that later led to a commercial maple sirup camp just down the road in 1891, now known as Funks Grove Maple Sirup (we’ll talk about them a bit later). Isaac and Absalom were partners, at first, but dissolved their partnership a year after the Panic of 1837. Isaac and his descendants were also involved in farming, raising cattle and other agricultural businesses such as the Funk Brothers Seed Company, in banking, and in politics. Isaac himself was an Illinois state senator at the time he and Robert Stubblefield and their boys built the church; Isaac had earlier been a state representative and had come to know and befriend the young Abraham Lincoln, who was an attorney for some of the family businesses and whom Isaac supported in Lincoln’s presidential race.
The church, built of white pine that had been brought in by rail, is well preserved and still has its original walnut altar and altar rail as well as the original white pine pews, which are painted white with natural stained wood trim. The interior also includes two antique stoves that have long been used to heat the church in winter and plastered walls. The windows are also original to the building. Only the ceiling has been replaced during recent years. Outside, the concrete steps are fronted by a small garden of wildflowers and rosebushes and provide a view of the shaded cemetery immediately to the west of the church. Just inside the cemetery entrance, not far from the picnic pavilion, is a stone marking Isaac and Absalom’s first cabin. Just west of the church, another stone marks the location of the first school, where church services were held before the church was built. Further on into the cemetery is a six-foot-tall stone Celtic cross monument, commemorating more than 50 Irish railroad workers from the area who helped build the Chicago & Alton Railroad and were buried there during the 1850s. This is most unusual, because when railroad workers died on the job, they were typically buried in unmarked graves alongside the railroad right-of-way, near where they had died.
We’ll have more about our Funks Grove road trip, maple sirup, Towanda and Lexington – and the Illinois Route 66 association’s picnic – in the next few posts, with the sirup post first. BTW, except for the shot of the Funks, all photos on this page and in this blog (unless otherwise indicated) are copyright 2011-2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved, which means if you want to use them, even for a tweet, you have to get written permission from yours truly to do so. No borrowing! Intellectual property protection; be kind and understand. Thanks in advance. ;D
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Until next time,
your peripatetic scribe, Marie