Good-Bye, and Hello, to the “Pocket Prairie”: Interview with Dave Monk—Long Version

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Dave Monk established the “Pocket Prairie,” across the street from the WEFT 90.1 FM studios on Market Street in downtown Champaign, in the 1980s; due to development of the space, it has been relocated to the Second Street Detention Pond area, south of University Avenue. He has been doing the Prairie Monk radio hour on WEFT 90.1 for over 30 years. I spoke to him at the Pocket Prairie site, during its last days, in late May.

RE: You’re originally from Australia. How did you come to be in Champaign and how did you get come to be interested in the local flora and the local landscape?

DM: I had been teaching at a fairly large community college. The University of Sydney was more academic and this was a more practical college, and mainly oriented to agriculture and industries associated with agriculture. I felt that to some extent they lacked the science that you would get in the major universities. They would have physics and chemistry and mathematics but it just wasn’t at the same level. When they were dealing with farm people especially, those people would know the recent things by rote, because they just knew it. The academic from the University of Sydney is more likely to know the math and the physics behind it, and if he would walk into a field and kick on a grass that was a nuisance or something like that, he would say “I don’t know but I’ll find out.” Whereas the community, the agricultural people were more prone to be very up to date with the latest thing, but as the years would go on they were not as up to date, and so I thought that I could do audiovisual things that might bridge the gap between those two institutions.

So I wanted to combine art and education and science. And that was a rather unusual thing to do, because higher degrees were mainly monolithic. And it was thought to be rather immature to be doing [both] art and education, and biochemistry. And in either one I was not level with the specialists. So eventually I morphed into what I wanted to do and gave up on the monolithic side; my nature is more Gestalt. And that has served me pretty well and over the years the attitude towards the monolithic thing has changed. We need the monolithic thing for people to do research in pure stuff, and we also need the people who are more Gestalt and are going to look at a range of interesting things. And we did that in university and finally we would service quite a few different departments. And eventually we went community nonprofit, which was quite a different bag than the university, so we didn’t have carpools, we didn’t have movie facilities, we didn’t have a lot of things you have at the University.

But we fit it into downtown Champaign when it was a dead central business district and all the facilities, the shops, most of them had gone to the mall.

RE: When was that that you started, when did you move here?

DM: When we moved to downtown Champaign it was in the ’80s, early ’80s.

RE: And you moved from Australia?

DM: No, no, I came here and was with the university for a while and I worked with a university project and worked with the curriculum lab, and we did things that people felt were interesting with the environment; the environmental movement was starting then, we were looking at RNA, DNA, the gene pool and things like that. I was very interested in the ecosystem, because I couldn’t find it when I came from Australia, one of the things I was looking for was the ecosystem.

RE: When did you first arrive?

DM: I arrived in ’61. The only place where you found prairie was along railroad lines, which you weren’t supposed to dig up, and in cemeteries that weren’t looked after. So gradually, as a recent import here you don’t really relish the thought of telling your—there’s a saying, which is, you don’t teach your grandmother how to suck duck eggs. Grandmothers suck duck eggs so that they can paint on them, and there’s a technique for doing that, and as a different generation you don’t tell grandmother how to do, so I didn’t do that and like I would see people sitting in poison ivy and realizing that this was an ecosystem that wasn’t understood and that it was fairly rare.

So I got involved and then we started buying up old railroad beds, because that’s where the prairie was, and if you had abandoned railroads then the prairie was on the abandoned railroads.

RE: So you would kind of buy a whole stretch of track?

DM: Yes. In the Monticello area we have 33 miles. And it’s rails, trails and greenways, so it can act as a trail on the ballast that’s left, it can be rails if it wants to be rerailed, and we’re trying to do that, we’re trying to get historic trains from the railroad museum into Champaign. And greenways is the prairie preservation on the side. Champaign County was 94% prairie, there were hardly any trees; but people can hug a tree, they can’t hug a prairie. And prairie looks like weeds. So I started to do things and when I came to Champaign there were two big signs. We’re sitting on the Pocket Prairie at the moment, and there were two 30-foot signs and University Avenue which they were looking over is a federal highway, so you have a Lady Bird Johnson wanting signs to be smaller, and so these signs were grandfathered in for big billboards for ten years, and then they had to change to smaller, and this left this area nice and landscaped, but weedy. So we just asked if we can get prairie here.

RE: So the sign was right here? And it was a federal highway sign?

DM: Well, no, it was a billboard, so you could pay your two hundred dollars and advertise on it. And especially Ladybird Johnson was involved in having billboards to be not so invasive. And so on a federal highway there’s regulations to say that you can’t get a McDonalds [billboard] right on the highway. There’s a term called “grandfathering,” so if you have a rule, you get to grandfather for ten years on that rule, but then it changes, it’s figured that by that time you’ve had time to meet the new regulations.

RE: So that was the opportunity that you took advantage of.

DM: Yes and we planted prairie.

RE: And when was that, when they took the signs out?

DM: In the ’80s. So this prairie has been around for about thirty-odd years.

Some of the plants are very huge, you’ll see the silhouette of a lead plant. Just down here a little bit is a very large plant. Looks like oxidized lead. It’s a legume and it’s doing very well, and how do we move it, so that’s why we have a High-Hoe parked along side here, we have to work our way along and take out plants.

It’s a site that’s fairly dry because it was an old landfill, so it’s not healthy prairie soil, but we’ve been able to have up to fifty species here, and we get to know which ones don’t like the landfill and poop out, but we have tough ones that stay.

RE: And you haven’t been watering it, or just at the beginning.

DM: No, it’s self-perpetuating. Most of these plants are perennials that are adapted to dryness, so they’re drought-resistant in various ways. And they all have different niches, some have niches where they’re fibrous roots and some have taproots and some have in-betweens and runners, and there’s a little bit of forest, we have some Sillusberry trees that represent the forest sort of tree, the little of it there was here . .

RE: And where did you get the plants here, you just went out and around?

DM: Some of it comes from seeds, some of it comes from plants you dig up and bring, and you don’t do too much of that because if you do that you also bring the railroad weeds and things. You grow little plots here and there and distribute them around to places that need to be restorated. And so on south 45 the road was two lanes, and then it was three lanes and then it was five lanes and the prairie was in the middle of the two lanes, so we moved it over and put tandem trucks together and made a Lake Park prairie. As the road was widening we got some funds to do that and we kept doing it. So Lake Park has a two-and-a-half acre prairie. We started off with a drainage ditch, we happened to go there and they had a 45-degree-angle drainage ditch and there was a lot of housing developing and so a lot of runoff, so if you had a five-inch rain that ditch was full and it was eroding on the sides and you couldn’t get cultivar-type plants to grow on it. If you wanted to put in a lawn grass and hope that it would grow in ten days it wouldn’t do that. It was clay and so I suggested that they could put prairie in. So we did that. It takes longer to establish, it has deep roots in it and knows how to handled soils that are very clayey.

RE: And it was in the ditch where there might be a lot of water?

DM: Yes, so it’s got enough strength to survive. So you have to understand, that at Lake Park there was a big meander and a gooseneck, and if you cut across it the water can go straight, so the lake for Lake Park is to block those ends and make a lake. And then you have to bypass, the five-inch rainfall has to go down the bypass, and you’ve taken a mile of land out of action so that would be the fall, and so now you make a very strict fall quickly, and it is eroding the banks. So the roots of the prairie that we have help to stop that. It took awhile to do that. And Lake Park also put in a [set of] groynes, like little waterfalls. So there’s six waterfalls there that allow the water to slow, and so between the prairie and the groynes that’s made an interesting two-and-a-half acres, and we brought plants from Savoy, route 45 where there are towers, not only for road-widening but there are towers for power. And so we’ve kept our eyes on that.

RE: You said between the lake and the groynes?

DM: Lake Park owns a cut-off, which is the one that runs fast. So you can slow the water down, slow the velocity of the water down and the cut-off by putting in little waterfalls, so we have six waterfalls. That came from federal funding and Soil and Water Conservation and Lake Park itself to try and stop that erosion. So if you walk around Lake Park prairie you’ll walk past these little waterfalls, which have back-up, something like a little puddle behind the waterfall, and so that it gives us wetlands species.

So some of the things we do here go to those sorts of places. We have nine acres at Rantoul, which is adjacent to the railroad bed, and it has a remnant prairie on the main line, on what used to be an interurban railroad line, and on an old road. And all those places are fairly original. So our main effort is not being to recreate prairies but to try and preserve what is left. Because we need to know, we need to guess what was here at settlement time. And it is only a guess, and so you look for a little plots along railroad beds and cemeteries to tell you what was the past. So we try to plant, next door to that site we have a gravel pit, and so you’re gradually seeding into the gravel pit the plants that you believe was what it was like before settlement.

It was 10,000 years since our last glaciation. So the plants came in from those areas and started to grow of their own accord. In this case the land has been scraped off. And the glacial till, which is the rock and rubble that came down with the glaciers from Laurentian Shield in Canada, and that was on the glacier or in the glacier, and when it reached Rantoul there was a temperature that meant that it melted, and the ice from it perhaps might be a hundred feet high, but then when it got to be warm it might be four feet high and kind of sloppy, so you had mammoths and others creatures walking around on the ice and people spearing them occasionally, so people find bones with spears in them. That dribble goes out into a flat land and so you have places like Flatbowl which are very swampy until the Germans came, Deutschlanders and Frieslanders came, and they were butt-up against Holland where it was very swampy territory and they knew how to drain. So they came in said “We can drain!” So they would make a puddle in the swampy territory, and put in a pontoon with a dragline on it, and then they’d make a river and they’d keep moving the pontoon downriver, and so they would create a river so as to get the water off quickly and then they can farm. And those farmers got the very best soils, they got the Drummers and the Flanagans that were rich in prairie organic matter, and they’ve been sort of swampy, so the organic matter deepens and so they pay more taxes because the soil taxes are rated according to the soils you have on your farm. And so those areas in Champaign County were cherished and still are, and that was where a lot of the prairie was. And so moraine, and it’s nine acres, is a simulation of that. So we have dry on top, mezic and wetland. And we hope that one day we’ll combine those three, so you’ll go to Rantoul and you’ll go up over the Bloomington Moraine and then down to Ludlow and that will give you an idea of what the plant life was like and those habitats.

And that road goes all the way to Paxton, and we would like to think that you could hop on to the old road and stop here and there and examine the prairie. But that means awareness. So this prairie, the Pocket Prairie that we’re moving, was here mainly to introduce the prairie to people who didn’t realize what their heritage prairie was.

And so we had a few rough-top pieces here, we had up to fifty, and not all of them survived because this doesn’t happen to be a good prairie soil, it happens rather to be a landfill. So it’s got bricks and glass and all sorts of things in here, so it’s not an ideal prairie soil, but it was very good for us to have something that was available to people so I didn’t have to take them or convince them to go twenty miles to a prairie.

And this relates also to the railroad beds we bought. It’s been very friendly in terms of just being a retreat, people come out here and read a book, and we have a few people who come from a bar and smoke a joint. We keep our eyes on things, I give flashlight field trips at night, and let people know why it’s here, it’s not just a place for you to horse around with.

And so the people trust that, and many people who have walked by it for thirty years and never realized that it’s here are amazed when they encounter it for the first time, and [wonder] how did it come that they’ve walked past so many times and never knew it was here. It’s a matter of activating your sensitivity to “what is that plant?” I can show you tortus cantia, it has steminal hairs that have protoplasmic streaming in them, if you put it under a microscope. It takes someone to realize that this plant has some interest, it takes someone with a pair of binoculars or a magnifying glass strung around their neck and they need to look. So part of what this prairie has been about is ambience, but it’s more than ambience, it’s asking you to think about the plants that are here.

RE: So you’ve had sessions, you mentioned flashlight tours and I assume also in the daytime you’ve done over the years different activities over the years . .

DM: Yes, yes, so you just saw someone leaving just a moment ago, she’s an artist, and she heard our advertising to help move this and she hadn’t been here so she came to have a look now so we were just talking about it. And how can that person teaching art help to relay the unique character of these plants. One is a compass plant and it grows tall and it can be seen on a prairie, and if you’re a human and you go a hundred miles and you only see prairie you’re back on your doorstep. It’s how human brains work and that was very bothering to settlers, but eventually they found a plant that’s leaves face north and south so the sunlight doesn’t beat the water out of it, and so they would climb up on their saddle and look look for this plant. Then they knew what was north and south. Then they didn’t get be sent back home. So it’s called a compass plant. And it’s very hairy, it’s very resilient, its engineering is rough and tough, and it’s resinous so it doesn’t dry out, and its leaves are invaginated so a lot of the breathing pores are dropped and it’s just an emptied “V” for drought resistance. It has a root that goes down ten, fifteen feet sometimes, sometimes we’ve cut the plant off, the top two feet weighed 45 pounds, so do we know what the chemistry of that plant is? No, what you need to do is keep that plant for five hundred years, because in five hundred years you might come up with a disease that needs a biochemical that’s in that gene pool, so my fear when I first encountered a prairie that was almost nonexistent was, where is your gene pool, and even today we keep losing, since I’ve come here we’ve lost more and more prairie. It used to be you couldn’t turn a horse around easily, if you had a team of ten horses, you couldn’t turn easily in a corner [when plowing], so the little corner kept a prairie. These days you can take a humungous tractor and back it up in that corner and get rid of the prairie, and have nitrogen fire from the health of the plants, so the corn growing in that corner will be a foot higher than the corn elsewhere. So we keep losing prairie. Sometimes the drainage ditches have been helpful because the prairie grows along the drainage ditches. But sometimes it’s only the rough turf prairie, and some of the most interesting prairie is the stuff that is almost extinct.

RE: You say there’s a compass plant here?

DM: Yes, there’s one down just below you. And you might even be able to see, the big leaves there, that’s a related plant. They’re both silphiums, and it has a different way of saving its soul as far drought is concerned. It keeps big leaves, but if you put your hands on either side of the leaves and feel them, it’s like a water bag, if you know what a water bag is, you put in front of your car and it’s canvas and so this is where you are taking energy and making the leaves cold. It’s amazing to go on a hot day and put your hands on either side of the leaf and feel it.

Other members of the same family have fibrous roots, they don’t have taproots. And you should know about those niches, you should know about what insects find the flowers and what birds are over here, what cicadas are in the prairie. But you have to be interested enough, and you have to put on blueture boots probably if you don’t want ticks running up your legs. And that makes it a weed patch for most people, and very easy to get rid of. You only have to plow it once and it’s gone.

The “Prairie Monk” at the old Pocket Prairie location

RE: So it’s called a High-Hoe, the machine? Will you try to take it down there to get that compass plant out?

DM: That’s very dangerous to do, because it might roll over. So we’ll try to get as much of the lead plant which is four feet high—more than that, probably more like five or six feet—by now after thirty years it has a huge bundle of roots, and how do we get that? Normally we would go in with a tree spoon, which has blades that go down on either side and lift the whole bundle of soil and plant up and then we put a cage on it, so then we transport it to the site where we’re going to transport it to, in this case it’s the to the Second Street detention pond, and we have a hole dug to the right size and we drop it in the framework would remain, but over twenty years the framework would dissolve. And the plant would not be hurt too much. So that’s what we have to try to do here, we took some plants over tonight, and planted them. And the Boneyard is going fast and it’s where we get water. And the city is interested in what we’re doing, so we’ve had T. J. Blakeman and Leslie Mitchell, both have been working with us and they have exposed a big piece of lawn, they’ve taken the lawn grasses so we can plant these plants in it. But they’re clump grasses, so we have to break off the roots and find the spot where they can go in and they can start to grow again. So we have to dig, like, post holes for them to go in. It’s a lot of work so I need volunteers that come, and we’re supposed to be out of here by Monday. So it’s not unusual, we’ve been trying to save a little bit of the rustic prairie in the beer garden so that people would get educated about prairie. But it’s not really very practical. If you want to do music and you want to have a hundred people, the prairie is not going to be very interesting to people at nighttime especially, it’ll get stomped on. So there are some people who would say when is a prairie not a prairie? It’s when it’s in downtown Champaign.

RE: But you nevertheless do plan to leave some, I mean I guess whatever you can’t take?

DM: No, we’ve come to an agreement that we take everything. And it will go to the “Big Dig,” or the detention pond, and there the city is very interested in prairie and they’ve got prairie growing already, including some compass plants and a nice little puddle of wetland species, and so this will augment what they already have. And Leslie Mitchell is in charge of maintaining this prairie, so you have to watch that the mowers don’t decide to mow this weedy patch, you have to put signs up to say what the hell it is. Yeah, there’s a lot of work associated with it.

RE: How big is this site?

DM: It will be big enough to take, we’re talking from probably about half an acre here, and we have about the counterpart to that over there. We won’t to be able to take everything, because the plants here have sorted themselves out in landscaping that has stone and so they very nicely fitted themselves into stone and they’re part of the landscape. But trying to extract them from their habitat is murder. You can do it, and what we do is we often decapitate the grasses especially, so that they don’t lose transportation and lose their moisture. So we set them back a little bit but they will eventually grow. Many of these things are starting to grow, they’re expressing themselves, there’s a Golden Alexander right here, the Spiderwort which is also called Tradescantia, there’s Bee Balm, called Monarda in botanical terms, it’s a mint, and the bumblebees just love it, they get so intense you can almost pat the bumblebee on the back and they won’t be disturbed. And when they fly off to a new plant you can see them fly down, they’re loaded with pollen and nectar, and then gradually they get speed up and so up they go to another flower. And they’re native bees, as distinct from the Italian bee, which is brought in because it has a comb that you can harvest the honey [from]. And you have lots and lots of bees that are tiny, you almost need a magnifying glass to see them. And many of these plants have “due dates,” and the due dates are used by different creatures. So yes, it’s not just the hundred and ten broadleaf species and about seven grasses, it’s all the bacteria and the fungi in the soil and their integration.

Farmland is being fertilized, insecticided, herbicided, it’s very, very difficult to find a unique soil anymore. If you’re wanting to do it you have to find it in bottles saved by the university and stored, or you have to crawl under a school that’s been there for a century, or a church, and you’ve got some original soil that hasn’t got fertilizer in it and all these other chemicals. And if you want to find the prairie that’s on top you also have to go to the railroad beds.

RE: So tell me something about the legal status of this space, it had belonged to the city?

DM: No it’s never belonged to the city, it’s owned, Dr. Youngerman bought it, it’s a big, rectilinear building, that used to be a Willys-Knight garage sales unit, and it would handle Jeep, which is a Willys-Knight product. And there was this battle that shaped the piece of land where the advertising billboards were, and, even if the building was occupied, this piece of land was not occupied, and we felt like we could have our prairie there and have a trail around it and it gradually grew.

RE: And so you asked permission from the owner, and he had no problem with it?

DM: Yes, he was quite in agreement, and it’s been like that for thirty-odd years now. But right now the building has been leased, they’re putting a million dollars into it to make it into a bar complex with apartments on top, and this will be a beer garden. So we were so grateful to have been here for thirty years, and now it’s well known. It’s a Pocket Prairie. So if you say “Pocket Prairie in downtown Champaign,” they know exactly where it is. Well, most people do, some people will just walk past it and not know. It’s got a parking lot in front so it doesn’t seem to be a prairie. It’s known enough that it has some economic value, so we have been debating with the leasee to say would you want to leave a little bit of it because people need to know it and people need a niche in downtown Champaign, places where they can go and look at the cars on University Avenue or the trains on the railroad line, people who drink on Walnut Street are people watching. So can we leave some prairie? Well, we’ve dealt with it to the nth degree, and the leasee from Peoria is being very accommodating and listening to us, and we have just generally agreed that this isn’t the place for prairie, adjacent to his bar, and he needs the space for the bar, and that we’re very grateful to him, and [for] what we’ve done here.

RE: So this building was empty for a long time?

DM: Yes, actually it’s been empty for a while, there’s been several attempts to use it. But this one is a good situation. It doesn’t have a lot of parking, but we don’t need a lot of parking, people can come by bicycle, people can come by MTD, and so generally I think that the city is pleased to have this site as a bar, as a little bit of competition in bars. The city has left it so it will be laissez faire, so if you have a bar and you make it you make it, and if you don’t make you don’t make it. That’s the business style of it, there’s not too many regulations to say there will only be eight bars or twelve bars or thirty bars.

Downtown Champaign has gentrified. So where I could have bought two storefronts for perhaps $50,000 then, now you would pay probably $150,000 for one storefront, not two. All around us are apartments, taxes going up; at some stage, we own one building and the taxes will eventually go up to the point where you might have to leave. That often happens in gentrified cities, the people who occupied it, and sometimes the historic people who have occupied since go one, have to get out because they can’t afford to pay the taxes.

RE: By “we” you mean you, and WEFT, and . . ?

DM: Generally speaking [me] and anyone else; this happened in Chicago, you can go to to Milwaukee Avenue and places like that, you’ll find big old homes that used to be, the character of the suburb, and gradually the taxes have gone up to the point that people have to leave them. They cut the big old buildings up into a lot of smaller buildings and then they eventually have to leave. And eventually that big old building comes down and you put in a modern apartment. So it’s part of urban sociology, and the rural people come into town and they have their interests and it’s a matter of how do you balance all these things out.

RE: Now you mentioned gentrification. Why don’t you talk a little bit about the history of the street here. I heard you on your show a couple of months ago talking about that it had a rather checkered history in the past, I guess this was starting in Prohibition?

DM: Well, Champaign generally has grown up. Urbana was the first settled community, and then the railroad came in about five miles west of Urbana, and possibly because it had a route along that was appropriate, it comes through at a slight angle. The federal government sold land or they gave land if they wanted a railroad line, so they wanted an Illinois Central Railroad to go through, and they had a certain amount of land given them, and they platted [land-mapped, RsE] it according to the railroad. So in Champaign you have two different plats [land maps]. The University Avenue that you see in front of you is a northwest Jeffersonian plat, where Jeffersonian people felt that the country, if you came from Europe and you were trying to find your particular site of land that you had paid for, you couldn’t find it, because its cornerstone had been rolled over, or the blaze that was on the tree no longer existed, or the tree didn’t exist, and so Jefferson proposed that the whole country be north, south, east and west-lined up, and that happens, so University Avenue is a Jeffersonian street. But the railroad, if you look at Chestnut Street and Chester Street, the two local streets, they’re on the Illinois Central plat. So that means that you have a city building that is a flatiron building. It’s a triangular building. One side of it is on a Jeffersonian plat and the other side is on the railroad plat.

So you started off with those sorts of conflicts, and you did have a Westside Park, and you had churches all around the Westside Park, and you had to have some stores, like Robeson’s came early, and Kuhn’s came early. If you had a rainstorm you had boardwalks, and boardwalks were boards put down on mud, so that you can walk without getting too sloppy. Gradually you got streets that were brick streets. So today I was salvaging bricks that were probably put down in the 1870s. And they had signs, “Danville” or “Boston” on them, and so I saw these dug out and replaced by concrete, because the new building needs water and needs electricity, and so cutting across a brick street. So I said “these are valuables!” And they said, well, they’re just going to dump them, so if you want to take them, do so. So I ran up to PACA, the Preservation and Conservation Association, and they said, “Yes, we’ll take those!” So I had to wait a while, and they loaded the junk as well as the stones, the bricks and then they took them up and dumped them. In the time I left PACA, they were already scraping off the bricks and looking at the names on them and ready to save them, and they sell bricks and they go back into streets and places. Sometimes there’s a problem with concrete: it doesn’t move. And the bricks do move. And so if you park a car in the one place, your own parking lot on bricks, it will eventually fall down. So, in old times you would take that site, put some more sand in pothole, turn the brick over and put it down. That’s a lot of manual labor, so it’s easier to have concrete. But if you have a brick street and a concrete piece, sometimes a brick goes down and the concrete runs up. So you have this nasty little bump. The historians, to avoid that, they go through a street and they create a concrete street, and then they put down sand, and then they did put down the bricks old-style. But to do that you have to have people mechanically do it themselves. It can’t be done from a front-end loader, which breaks bricks.

PACA was glad to get those, and we did have a conversation about the brick streets happening in other places, where we put the whole street in concrete and put the bricks on top of them, to cover. The brick street we have on Market Street was an area that was bars, and theaters, there were lots of theaters, you didn’t have movie places and so entertainment was often theaters, sometimes it was like the Virginia Theater, you had a proscenium stage that was narrow and you could have a team of young ladies kicking their legs up and doing interesting things. And so you have a unique Virginia Theater, you have an Orpheum theater, there were theaters all over the place. There were hotels that you could come and stay [in]. If you were a farmer, you would bring your horses to town and you put them in a livery stable that’s just down the road, and then you’d take your harnesses which were kind of worn out and take them to the harness factory and they would be repaired, and you’d take your check and you perhaps go to Chicago on the new Illinois Central. And stay there and use your check. When you finished, when you came back and got to Champaign, you picked up your horses and your harnesses and went back to farmland.

In there somewhere you had a lot of wooden houses, so they are actually burnt from time to time, and so then it got to be brick buildings, and even brick buildings can burn, too. And so Market Street, where WEFT is, was eight buildings, each a hundred feet long, they replaced [what was there after] a fire. They were brick, and Walnut Street had a similar set of buildings, and they had bars, and starting price betting, and various activities where it had a front that might be a coffee shop or something that was more mundane, but the walls inside, upstairs might be betting boards, and some of those are still there.

There was an East-Central mafioso, related to Chicago, and there were buildings that had little jut-outs so that you could actually see what was going on. And there were buildings that were speakeasies, and if you looked up the stairwell you’d find that at the top of the stairwell there was a little door that you could open and look down to see whether the person coming to the speakeasy was legitimate or not. And there are places where there have been a bullet or two, and there have been brothels, and various activities where it was obvious that people were paid off, and this was what you enjoyed, and it was part of the fun of that era. More recently, the mafioso era closed in about 1956, . .

RE: Was there a mafioso, the one you mentioned, was he based here?

DM: Yes. The family is still here.

RE: Do we know his name?

DM: Yes, well I don’t really, you see . .

RE: It shouldn’t be mentioned. It’s a past they’re trying to keep on the lowdown.

DM: Yes. And they would sometimes be out of action because they hadn’t paid their dues to Chicago. So it was related. And some of it was probably Italian or Sicilian or . . And so it had a base in Chicago, and it was fairly strong. It was an era that was different.

RE: And then you were about to say, about the year, you mentioned a year that things changed?

DM: Oh, it was in 1956, the Grubb family bought it, these buildings, and eventually they bought eight buildings. They were engravers. It was the letterpress era, and you had linotype. A linotype of machine was where you had a typewriter, but you’d have the letters that filled with lead and made an image and you could take those letters and put them together in a case, and that was what you printed from. You laid it down and you ran paper, if you wanted you could put wet paper on it and get the image. So you had a press. And some of these presses would weigh fifty thousand pounds, they were just like Rolls Royces. They had to kiss that letterpress, that letter format, just right so that it would print. And you had to know how to ink it. You can ink so they take ink from the top, or you could ink it so that you’re taking ink from the well; you had to know what pressure to put on. And a good you could feel it was there. They had like a Somosax machine, that would give you an idea of the raise or the fall of the copper plate you were printing from. And so make it perfectly flat. And then you would print from that, but you would also go and make a paper mâché copy of that, so then you’d send the paper mâché copy to Rossville or Danville or Decatur or wherever, and they’d pour their own lead into that and create their own images, you wouldn’t have to send lead around the country, you were sending paper mâché copy and then they would print from what they made.

RE: So the paper mâché would show the letters and they would then put the type into those spaces?

DM: They would pour the lead print material into the hole.

RE: Oh, they wouldn’t need to make individual type pieces, they’d just pour lead on it and make a hole.

DM: Oh no, so the letter press was here, the printing press was here. And some of the printing presses were never used to publish, like a newspaper. They were there to do things like medical illustration, and they had to be tremendously proper to scratch an erasure out, if there was a glitch or a mistake, they were journeymen who would be repairing that situation, so if especially when it was a medical illustration, your pimple had to be just like a pimple was. And so the Grubb family was respected for being that sort of talent. Then they went into rotogravure, so you had like photocopies on metal, and then after that you see a computerization. So the engraving industry went to nominal things like making awards for sports trophies and things like that, so the industry changed.

RE: And which building were these presses in?

DM: These were all, where WEFT was was a Grubb family building, so they had artists, they had engravers, they had printers. And gradually they closed out because the industry was changing, and then you had offset press, and now you don’t even have the press. The News-Gazette has sold their press and they produce their paper in Peoria.

RE: So this Grubb family, were they connected to the News-Gazette setting up on this street?

DM: Oh yes, they were a service to many different groups. They came from Decatur, I think, in about ’56 or ’57, and they had all sorts of stories, about various events that happened in downtown Champaign. I don’t know that they were ever captured by anyone, but I can remember that one fellow was part of the whole show and he was giving out hundred-dollar bills on the corner until he was caught by some of the people who were in charge and that was stopped.

RE: Counterfeit bills?

DM: Well, that happened too. No, I think they were real, but they had someone in Danville who was coming over, and he would copy bills, and they would do a little bit at a time so nobody really realized it was a bill. Until the F.B.I. came by and said you’re a part of reproducing fake bills, and then they put things together and yes, they were, there was somebody who was doing counterfeit bills. So yes, it has changed a lot.

RE: So the News-Gazette took over some of their facilities at some point?

DM: No, the News-Gazette was an independent paper, and the Courier was an independent paper.

RE: And they brought in their own printing presses.

DM: Oh yes, these were more Praxio printing presses that could do a lot. So you had journeymen there who know how to produce a newspaper. And they had a lot of people who would put the newspaper together. Recently the News-Gazette sold its printing press and the buildings they were in, you’re sitting [with your] back to one of them at the moment.

RE: So then the street became kind of emptied out or quieted down?

DM: Yes. Once they decided that malls were a good idea, this is before there were big malls, and so in places like Kalamazoo, they had a mall and people would go there for farmers’ market and people would sell their goods. And they did this on Neil Street. It cost a million dollars to put this mall in on Neil Street, but it didn’t really work. You can imagine, if you know Neil Street, if you have to go through to the other end of Neil Street, you had to go around through Main Street and down Market Street, and it was a pain. So eventually they spent a million dollars to take it out. And many other communities did the same thing. Then we had the mall north of Champaign, but most communities had a mall, and Sears and Penney’s, and the key people moved out to the mall. And cars were big. See after World War Two, people had been running tanks and planes and they came back to a city that was not necessarily attuned to cars and trucks. There were still horse people who’d come to town with a buggy. So it changed. You had in about 1920s, you had a railroad station, they moved that old railroad station up the road, with all pulleys and horses and whatever, and they put in a new station that you can see at the end of this street. And that was 1923 I think—I might have my dates wrong—and then by 1928 perhaps you started to have a lot of traffic and you had 28 trains a day and you had T-model Fords and Chevys and Whippets and DeSotos and what have you, stopped by the trains. So they got wise. They went to a moraine in Paxton, you have to know that in the glacial era glaciers brought down rock and rubble in and on the ice and it melted wherever the temperature was right for melting. If the world warmed up then they went back, and when the world got colder they went forward. So this is called stratigraphy, you can study that. But they had a big moraine in Paxton, big enough that if you had a freight train you had to have a pusher engine to help push the train up and over the moraine. So the railroad came through on the west side, just here at the end of the little pocket prairie. And they decided to go to Paxton and carve a corridor through the moraine. And that would save having to have a pusher engine there, and brought all the glacial till from the moraine down to raise up the railroad line, and they put it a little bit east of where it was before, and created about six or seven underpasses, so the railroad could go over and the interurban or the streetcar could go under, and the cars could go under, it was a big deal.

RE: That was at the same time that they built the station, in the ’20s? Or after that?

DM: I think the station came first and then after that the railroad was raised. So when you hear a train coming from the yards in Champaign, it’s moving fairly slowly because it’s moving up a little bit. And then it gives up speed. And these [underpasses] have been very helpful. They sometimes [collect] water, so they need a sump pump, and they’re a little bit low for semi-trailers that sometimes get trapped underneath them. You probably can hear it on your [recording] machine, because there’s a stop sign here near the MTD building. Just look over and imagine that in a few weeks’ time you’ll be able to drink a beer here and look over.

RE: Is it going to open that soon, in a few weeks?

DM: In mid-June, I think. Some time there was a modification of Market Street. There was a lawyer building. They took out a lot of these bars and the like, it [was] basically for lawyers. And that has changed too now, I think they have about 20 artists in the Lincoln building now. So things have changed, and the building that’s behind you may become an apartment, and we’re trying to say that it not be a modern apartment but keep the character of downtown Champaign and especially of Market Street. So if you’re gonna drink a beer and have a brick street and watch people go by and go to the Seven Saints and do things like the Pocket Prairie or whatever, you need an old building. You need the tinware up. They didn’t have the money for masonic facades, so they had zinc or tin, and they put it up there and they put an urn, and it has a sort of character. So if you walk around downtown Market Street you can pick up these things. WEFT had a front on it which was an addition, and we have a room next door and we have the same sort of addition. But this is a modern sort of, probably, late ’30s addition, and it just looks like it was added. But some people didn’t like the old style front that WEFT has, and they would take three feet of space and they would put a new facade on their building. So it would have a different sort of buff tuckpointing and a different character, meeting the norm of the sociology of the year.

RE: How old is this building then?

DM: Oh, this building behind us? I would think the early 1900s. It used to be a vegetable store, so if you stand out you can look at the vegetables listed in the columns of the building. It’s got a very ugly addition, a white painted concrete brick addition that was used, but we would like it to remove itself historically, and we’re hoping that the building might stay. But that’s up to the people who own it.

RE: Does the city exert a strong kind of control or influence, or is it pretty laissez-faire about keeping historical character and that kind of thing?

DM: Not as much. It depends. Urbana is more attuned to that. Champaign was the commercial, they were near the railroad line and so they were the more commercial thing. The city building and the like was in Urbana still.

So, yes, Champaign is so much bigger and more financial than Urbana. Urbana tends to charge themselves higher taxes and enjoy doing that, and doing some things that don’t happen in Champaign. And sometimes people come from Urbana and do things in Champaign like they used to do in Urbana, and that doesn’t always work.

RE: So when will they decide about this apartment situation?

DM: I don’t know. I am intrigued by what goes on, and I’ve kept my ear to the ground, so I know a little bit about things.

RE: Back to the rails, just to get an overview of the rails and trails project: you said you had 33 miles out in Monticello?

DM: Some of that has been converted to a rail trail, where you take the abandoned railroad and put in a bicycle trail that goes over a truss bridge. We have three truss bridges and 27 trestles. And most of them have been preserved. People have been very good not to really invade territory. Some places they do invade. But it’s basically for the prairie. And that has problems too, because somebody decided that olive trees would be a good thing for birds. So, in biology there is a thing called a bird strip, and that’s where you put in a strip of corn or leave some grasses for the wildlife. Well, these early olive trees were planted in forest tree nurseries. And then they were given to people, and they were planted, and they were rather wonderful because birds like the olives, and birds also poop the olives in different places, and very shortly we now have a Midwest, an olive tree which is sometimes called a Russian olive, it depends where it came from, it may have come from Russia.

RE: Are the olives usable, for eating, or . . ?

DM: Oh, absolutely, yes and we have crews that come and harvest it, they have a million seeds, so our prairies are now loaded with a complement of seeds that [would] last for 400 years. So what do you do with olive trees? They cover up the prairie, and so, yes we have some prairies that have a lot of olives. You can burn the prairie and that will reduce the olives. But they’re still very fecund, they keep coming back.

RE: So you considering that a kind of invasive species.

DM: Oh yes, it is tremendous, it is in park districts, it’s all over the Midwest. Yes, it costs a lot of money to get rid of it. We have a few invasive species that are really mongrels, one is a very beautiful dried arrangement and it’s called teasel. There’s a little pod on it, and you tease its wool so you can spin it and then weave it. And so that pod when it’s ripe had projections on it which allow you to tease it. Well its dried arrangement gets into cemeteries, and we have a prairie near a cemetery in Rantoul, and wow, it takes over with big rosettes, and it can destroy a prairie too. Some people think if you have a prairie, that will save us, knowing the territory, but if you have a prairie and it’s that small, you also have to maintain it. And you’ll find that some creatures like cup plant will take over. We don’t use sunflowers very much, because they are aggressive. You try to keep a balance. But if you’re in the forest preserve or the conservation district or the park districts, you have to watch your prairie. You can put a path through them; some places they don’t put a path because they figure if you’re a buffalo or rain you wouldn’t be in a path, so don’t do it alligator style but just walk through the prairie. So it has to be maintained.

RE: So there’s that Monticello part, and then there’s Rantoul. Rantoul is another trail?

DM: Oh, we have prairies in various places. And some of them are owned by other groups, like Lake Park is owned by Lake Park settlement. So we own the 33 miles, but we also own nine acres of prairie at Rantoul. We look at Route 45, at one stage 45 was two lanes wide, three lanes wide, and we took the prairie off of that and pushed it aside, and then it was five lanes wide so we got a grant and we took that prairie around Lake Park, and that formed the basis of a two-and-a-half acre prairie at Lake Park.

RE: And are you looking to buy more rail areas?

DM: Yes, we would love to buy a little piece of perhaps seven or eight or nine acres at Rantoul, which is farmland at the moment. It would allow us to extend our nine acres. And it would probably be a more practical type of prairie. It won’t be a remnant prairie, it’s been in agriculture. And it will be soft and fertilized and it will be a different cat from the remnant prairie. But it would give us a spectrum of prairie up the face of the Bloomington Moraine. So I would like to do a Kickstarter, if I got game enough, and I’d have to have enough people who are interested. And that’s part of what we’re doing here with moving the Pocket Prairie, is encouraging people to be involved. We need leaders, we need people who’ll be able to deal with twenty young people who don’t know yet what their heritage is, so we need someone like a grad student or retiree who knows enough, and it takes a little bit of pizazz, you have to be a little crazy to be involved, you have to have a passion for it. I thought that was a rude term when I first encountered it, but I think it’s used to explain that I need some people who are very curious, very willing to do something to preserve buildings. So I took bricks to people today who are interested in preservation. We need those people, we need the twinkle in the eye.

And the ability to do it young in life, because life goes very very quickly. You’d be amazed how soon twenty years can go. And so all this has to be so that you can hand it to the next generation. So you have to be cognizant of people like . . early people came here, and there was a Gleason who did botany, and he labeled all the prairies that he found, the little spots here and there. It all disappeared, we don’t know what information Gleason got. But we know he went over to Beardstown, where the aquifer that’s underneath us comes out, and there are sand dunes there that were part of the big glaciation, and wind-blown material after the glaciation, Aeolian material.

So Gleason was around. Then there was Vistel, and then there was Kendy, and these three people were staff members and they put together an Ecological Union. And then they had a student named George Fell, and they decided that one way or another, George Fell went off to Washington and bought a house and a printing press, an offset press, and they created the Nature Conservancy. So very few people know that the Nature Conservancy had its start right here in town, and now it’s a worldwide establishment. And so George Fell was always doing his homework. He had boards, and at one stage the board decided that they wanted to look after one particular site, it was a barrier island on Long Island and they wanted to preserve that. And George had decided that each state should have its own Nature Conservancy unit. And that was a disagreement. So the Board fired George Fell. And then he came back to Illinois and worked with forest preserves, which included a little bit of recreation as well as the forests. We have a forest preserve, it’s in a county which [was] 94% prairie. But it’s a forest preserve, and people love to have forests, and groups grow forests. Then they wanted to improve on that and conserve more. So Vermilion County has a Vermilion County Conservation District, so it’s got more right to preserve. And then George had a research unit, they called it an institute, and they created a Nature Preserves Commission, and George was in charge of that for 23 years. And then they decided that George’s establishment was getting to be a little bit too much in charge, he did his homework, and everyone agreed. And so George was fired once again from his bailiwick. Which is very typical, if you get people who are innovators and do things, then they’re not always approved of. And in my work, there are a lot of people who don’t approve of what I do, and so you have to live with that.

So George went off and he took the Illinois Nature Preserves Committee, and really worked on it. So the Chicago area started to get a lot of nature preservation work, and they had people who were architects that did things like Park Districts and the like. And Chicago was getting to be bigger and a little bit more power, a little bit more money, so they have very good sites, in the seven ring counties. So you’re not without nature if you’re in Chicago. And then there was a movement there, there was Coles who got into the dunes that are on the east side of Lake Michigan, and he was an early ecologist, and his daughter was May Watts. And when the railroads were closing out in Chicago, she wrote to the Tribune and these could be good for the vegetation that was on the side of them and for trail, and people would enjoy it. So that got to be a prototype letter, and that started a movement of rail trails in Chicago. So they have a lot of rail trails we don’t have. And then there were things like the Open Lands Project in Chicago, which is a group of people started by a guy named Gunnar Peterson, and wanted to get people to advise the various administrations about nature and nurture and land, and that’s become a very important facility for advising the ring counties. They don’t have any elected power, but they have real power in the sense of people enjoy what they do and they want them to do it. And we would like to have something like that here. We have regional planning, regional planning is local. We want a regional planning office and I don’t know what you’d call it, it might be Open Lands like in Chicago. That would be ten counties. It’s very hard to do, it’s a little bit like communism, you’re telling me what to do with my land, or my bridges or my road or whatever. It sometimes works if you’ve got an aquifer that a eighty thousand people are going to drink from, and there’s a problem with putting PCBs in it, then you get people together. And you have maybe 40 communities that are pumping water from that aquifer, and this is a landfill right on top of it. So then you have some joint action. But when it gets to be more mild-mannered after you fix a problem, then it dissipates. So how would we have a regional planning office with a staff of lawyers and interested people, who would look at a new trail coming through from Bloomington to Farmer City and Mansfield, or how would that relate to Mahomet, and how would you get into Champaign?

So there’s a lot of things where we would like to talk to each other. And the conservation people generally say, talk to each other. Talk to each other one-on-one to start with. Get in the basement with a coffee and a donut, and talk. Don’t try to get a bedsheet of people that you think will think like each other and go ahead. Do that gradually. And so we’re in some of that phase, we initiated a Kickapoo trail, and that’s taking off. We’ve initiated other things, the Grand Prairie Friends we initiated, and a Natural Area Study Group that is still rolling. And most of those have been taken over by other people, not necessarily taken over in an unkind manner, they would have the capacity to organize people, to get people together, and do it much better than we could do it as an initiator.

So we’re still in the artistic format of bringing people together on things like a pocket prairie, or a nine-acre plot of land, or 33-mile railroad bed. And the next step is to get leadership, and to get people. So you have to have young people especially, it has to go to the next generation. And the next generation needs to do music, and the things they’re doing on the Internet, and how do you get people. And then the retirees are realizing they’re going to live another thirty years and so they’re into religion, or whatever they want to do. So you have to be totem pole for what you’re doing, which is sometimes unkind, and then you have to find leaders that will take it over. That is really hard, and WEFT finds that hard sometimes. And all non-profits have some of the same problems. So you just have to have a sense of humor, and get those people together, and so having a group of people come to lift plants is getting them together. I had a person who’s retiring from gene pool today, and he did a tremendous amount of work. It’s amazing what one person can do! And I had other people come in, after having an announcement on WEFT. We had people call in and some of them brought pots, and one woman brought pots, she was very genuine, but she didn’t realize that the plants we have are positively huge, and they have huge roots, and they almost don’t fit in, and we’re talking to people who thought we could have a prairie in pots. But you can’t put a 10-foot root into a pot. There are some plants that certainly will survive in a pot, and you might be able to do that. It might even happen yet.

So just today has been interesting, to go from bricks in the street to plants in a drainage basin.

RE: How many showed up today?

DM: It might be four or five, six, seven. Different people, some people just came to see what was going on.

RE: And you’ll be working on that the next three days?

DM: Yes, we have to be out by Monday. So we hope that we’ll get enough done. We have the High-Hoe, which we hope will break the soil and get enough roots to go. We need trailers, if people are out there that can lend us a trailer. If we put a lot of stuff into a tandem trucks, it gets to be put there fairly indiscriminately, and when it’s dumped you’re left with a pile of soil and plants, and that’s not very kind. So we have cardboard boxes, and we’re putting some of those things that are are small enough to be in cardboard boxes and liftable. And yes, we’ll be at it in the morning, and we’ll be at it Sunday, and by Sunday night we’re supposed to be out. And we probably will be.

RE: Just one last thing about the Pocket Prairie, do you think there’ll be some kind of plaque or sign that will remain, that the Pocket Prairie was here?

DM: Ah! It’s called a legacy.

RE: Or that sign that was there, will they allow that to stay somehow?

DM: I don’t think so. These things pass on. They don’t necessarily have to have a legacy. You know that it’s happening, and there are people in Audubon who have changed people’s lives. I went down on Sunday with thirty birders. And it’s interesting to get thirty birders together, different generations, and there are always binoculars, looking. And they had an event the other day where somebody passed, and one of the memorial things was they went to Busey Woods and they found 37 species. And then they had a different memorial program.

He had just a week before found a bird that was sort of rather rare here, so he called up Beth Cato and said could you come and verify this bird, and she did, and at his memorial she said kind things about him doing that.

Yes, part of the achievement is to talk to people and enjoy what you’re doing. This should not be a challenge where you’re in court. But it is serious, because the Amazon is going, we’re losing species by the minute, and if we don’t think beautiful thoughts about climate, the world will go into a different orbit, and we just might go the route of dinosaurs. It’s serious.

And there are just a lot of people around, and it’s too many people for the world’s ecology. How to suggest otherwise, if you give food, all of a sudden the population increases. It’s probably better to give education, but that means that some people will be sophisticated, and some people will be not sophisticated, how do you do this? It’s a tremendous challenge, and that’s what’s behind some of this.

You may see we work with prairie, but I’m also thinking about other ecological things in the Arctic, the Antarctic, Australia, India. We have someone at WEFT who has a family that has an establishment in India that goes back to people who are Ragars. And they’re responsible for x number of peasants, and so they, as sophisticated Indian people, have to be responsible for a caste system that is different from what we know, and different from colonialism. We go from paganism to kings and queens, we were marrying a royal person today. We keep their elements of this, sometimes they’re very subtle, you don’t even notice them. And they’re still there. So it’s much more general than the specific; we’re dealing with the specific, but we’re playing a piano that is broader.

RE: A final question, just back to the specific: what are your expectations for the new location?

DM: Oh, wonderful!

RE: There won’t be as many people wandering by I guess, because it’s not located in a central area.

DM: Right, it’s going to be a different cat. But we have people in the city who are really wanting to see some nature, and nurture. So if you go to—the Big Dig, it’s called—it’s actually the 2nd Street Detention Pond, and it has the Boneyard running through it but it has a big pond. The birds, ducks and the like, have found the pond, and so they breed there and they hybridize, but they stay in the pond. There’s a little trickle of Boneyard that comes down to the pond and there’s a bridge, and they don’t come under that. So the prairie that’s surviving is to the north, nearly on University Avenue, and that’s where we’ll put the prairie. And they’ve cleaned off the lawn grasses and we’ll plant in, and if we take something like a big lead plant we’re going to have to dig a hole for it. That will be hard. So I have a lot of thinking to do before tomorrow and tomorrow.

RE: OK, well unless you have anything that you feel we left out or any final words, . .

DM: Well, I’d say that there’s a detention pond; there’s also a part of that detention pond that goes through Scott Park, and that’s got people who are ecologically oriented, and they’ve got a nice little ecology there on the Boneyard. People seem to enjoy, it looks like it’s flat country, but six inches of change, and you’ve got different plant life.

RE: All right, thank you so much for talking to the Public i and we wish you the best of luck and commend your energies over the many many years you’ve been trying to preserve and care for the environment here.

About Richard Esbenshade

12-year resident of Urbana, taught history for several years at UIUC, specializing in Eastern Europe; contract not renewed due to budget cuts, currently self-employed; longtime activist in peace/green/social justice/solidarity movements; father of two, including Public i alumna Shara.
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