Prairie Path board secretary Mary Jo Malach sits among stacks of boxes and filing cabinets. Ancient letters, sketches of trees, concept maps stretch across the room. These records tell a story of immense struggle, community and triumph — one Malach wants everyone to know.
To Malach, the archives represent a much greater idea than the building of a 62-mile walking path.
“They’re inspiring stories — stories with a life of their own — about the spirit of ordinary people who came together to do an extraordinary thing,” Malach said. “They are timeless. They can inspire anyone of any age facing any challenge.”
The archives contain stories, photographs, illustrations and other materials that chronicle the 50-year history of the Illinois Prairie Path.
The path was created by a joint effort between volunteers and the government, with much of the advocacy and early work done entirely by unpaid volunteers.
The founders of the path faced significant opposition from local governments and landowners, as well as large-scale vandalism — including a bridge over the East Branch of the DuPage River that had to be replaced six times. The archives tell these stories and more, capturing the volunteers’ struggle and eventual success.
That’s why an open house Aug. 11 at North Central College is so meaningful for her and others. The event welcomes the public to view materials from the path’s history and meet long-time volunteers.
The passion of the founders is clear as one pours through the archives: folders are bulging with permits, promotions and meticulous designs. A large box — currently restricted — sits in the corner, labeled “lawsuits.” One folder contains a seven-year history of a fight to rename the IPP. The founders documented their efforts well. According to Malach, “they knew they were on to something.”
Kimberly Butler, the college’s archivist, has been organizing this mountain of data since the college accepted delivery of the archives in February. The collection was previously stored in an archive work space in downtown Wheaton. It is now part of the college’s Suburban Studies Archives collection.
“The archives are quite unique,” Butler said. “It’s a fascinating example of a volunteer group causing change at a large-scale level — a government level.”
For Malach, the greatest purpose of the IPP archives is “to honor the volunteers who dedicated their lives to the creation and preservation of the path.”
Among those volunteers is renowned naturalist May Theilgaard Watts. A Naperville resident, Watts spearheaded the IPP’s creation and rallied the community to her efforts. She visited groups throughout the community, promoting the path with a film strip and a projector. The strip and projector will be available for viewing at the open house.
Watts’ granddaughter Bridget Watts, who has published several books by May Watts, says the IPP archives would earn her grandmother’s approval.
“She wanted people to know the history,” she said. “It’s an important history of a grassroots movement. She created a following, but she was also the one going out and promoting the path to anyone who would listen.”
“She felt people had a right to wonder — a right to ramble — and she organized a means to do that.”Tags: Illinois Prairie Path, Naperville history
A brief history of the Illinois Prairie Path:
1961: Land becomes available. The Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad ended its commuter operations in 1957 and its freight operations in 1959, and in 1961 its 54 miles of right-of-way became available.
1963: May Watts describes her vision for a public path. Her letter to the editor in the Chicago Tribune was published Sept. 30. Two weeks later she led a walk in the right-of-way with 80 people.
1964 to 1965: Her vision is communicated throughout the region, state and nation. Supporters formed a Committee for the Footpath. They selected a name — the Illinois Prairie Path. They launched an extensive communications campaign with: a 9-minute film strip; printed fliers; field trips; media interviews; letters; phone calls; mailing lists.
1965: An organization is formed to achieve the vision. The committee formed a board of directors that eventually became The Illinois Prairie Path not-for-profit corporation (IPPc).
1966: The IPPc obtains a 12-year lease to develop and manage 27 miles of railroad right-of-way in DuPage County. Path supporters faced significant opposition and skepticism.
1966 to 1986: Volunteers adopt, build and maintain sections of the path in DuPage County for 20 years. By 1971, volunteers were responsible for building and maintaining 70 percent of the 27 miles of trail in DuPage County. Volunteers worked to build and restore trail segments and bridges that were destroyed by weather or vandalism. In 1983, volunteers built a three-span bridge in Wheaton named Volunteer Bridge.
1971: Part of the Path becomes a National Recreation Trail. At a ceremony June 2 in Washington D.C., 12 miles of the path became part of America’s new National Recreation Trails system. Over time, a total of 27 miles of the path received National Recreation Trail designation.
1972 to 1979: Land is acquired to develop the Illinois Prairie Path in Kane and Cook counties. In 1972, the Illinois Department of Conservation acquired right-of-way in Kane County. The Kane County Forest Preserve now maintains the Elgin Branch and the Batavia Spur of the path, and the Fox Valley Park District maintains the Aurora Branch. In 1979 the Illinois Department of Conservation acquired 4.5 miles of right-of-way in Cook County.
1976 to 2011: America honors decades of work by path volunteers. In 1976, as part of the bicentennial celebration, the Illinois Prairie Path was selected as one of 200 projects honored for finding ways to deal with human needs in the Horizons on Display program. In 1988, volunteers were given the Take Pride in America Award in a White House Ceremony and Rep. Henry Hyde read a brief history of the path into the Congressional Record on July 26, 1988. In 2008 the Illinois Prairie Path was inducted into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. In 2011, the vision of May Watts was honored with a Dopplet Family Rail-Trail Champions Award for “her determination that Americans stay connected to their natural landscape in a time of increasing urbanization.”
1986-2013: Government agencies and volunteers partner to continue path improvements. While volunteers still work every year on advocacy (Special 8 acres preserved in 2005), annual cleanups, prairie maintenance and path amenities, the path’s government partners have made major path improvements such as: Trees for Trails program; Taylor Avenue Bridge, Stearns Avenue Bridge Underpass, Fox River Bridge, and the Des Plaines River Bridge.
2013: 50 years of archives saved by volunteers were acquired and are now preserved at North Central College in Naperville.
— Compiled by Mary Jo Malach
If You Go
What: An open house of the archives from the Illinois Prairie Path housed at North Central College
When: 1 to 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 11
Where: Lower level of North Central College’s Oesterle Library, 320 E. School St., Naperville
Other: To schedule an appointment to view the archives during regular business hours, contact Kimberly Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Open house schedule
Scheduled open house presentations include:
1 p.m. — “The Red Caboose Trail,” Dick and Nancy Wilson will highlight decades of innovative volunteer projects by Boy Scouts.
2 p.m. — “Promoting the Vision for a Public Path,” Experience the premiere showing of the restored persuasive 1964 film that was exhibited more than 400 times.
3 p.m. — “Wheaton Friends of the Prairie Path,” George Johnson and Don Westlake will tell a citizen action story about the path’s first mile.
4 p.m. — “The Founders: People of Vision, Courage and Determination,” Carol Doty will describe how fellow volunteers and mentors provided inspiration.
5 p.m. — “Prairies of the Path,” Keith Olson and Larry Sheaffer will talk about prairie sites, prairie burns and Monarch butterflies.
6 p.m. — “Let’s Build the Bridge,” participants who helped build the Volunteer Bridge in 1983 will share their stories.