History & Culture

Suitable Only for Tree Crops

“Suitable only for tree crops"
The Story of the Shawnee National Forest
By: Mary R. McCorvie, Shawnee National Forest


Nineteenth century America's attitude toward wilderness frontiers were reflected in Andrew Jackson's 1830 inaugural address: "...what good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can divine or industry execute?" More particularly, the attitude of the majority of nineteenth century southern Illinoisans is reflected in this passage from Morris Birkbeck's 1818 booklet, LETTERS FROM ILLINOIS ...the view of that noble expanse (the Ohio River) was like the opening of a bright day upon the gloom of the night, to us who had been so long buried in deep forests. It is a feeling of confinement, which begins to damp the spirits, from this complete exclusion of distant objects. To travel day after day, among trees of a hundred feet high, without a glimpse of the surrounding country, is oppressive to a degree which those cannot conceive who have not experienced it; and it must depress the spirits of the solitary settler to pass in this state. His visible horizon extends no farther than the tops of the trees, which bound his plantation--perhaps, five hundred yards. Upwards he sees the sun and sky and stars, but around him an eternal forest, from which he can never hope to emerge...

This is the view many of southern Illinois' earliest settlers had of the vast tracts of timber that covered southern Illinois prior to clearing. The southern Illinois wilderness was not thought of as spiritual and a place for solitude and meditation as it is sometimes referred to as today, but instead as a worthy adversary. It had to be fought and finally to be conquered with ax and plow.

Similar to the remainder of the nation, much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in southern Illinois were spent in clearing land for farming. Southern Illinois' forests were also cleared for industrial purposes such as the manufacture of charcoal to fuel the iron furnaces in Hardin County, and use as wooden pipes and fuel at the salt works in Gallatin County. Timber was also harvested to fuel the steamboats that plied the waters of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Later, timber was cut by tie-hackers for use on the railroad and as mine supports in the area' s many coalmines. However, by far the largest percentage of trees cut during the nineteenth century was the result of agricultural clearing. In 1818, 99% of the men in southern Illinois were farmers. The number of farms in southern Illinois increased throughout the nineteenth century peaking in 1900, before declining in numbers during the early twentieth century. The character of these southern Illinois farmers was a determining factor in the land use and subsequent effect of agricultural cultivation on the landscape of the Shawnee Hills.

Upland South

The majority of southern Illinois' earliest settlers emigrated from the hilly backcountry of the southeastern United States. Natural routes of migration directed the flow of immigrants into Illinois and the Old Northwest Territory. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the northern one third of the Illinois was populated by immigrants from New England, directed westward by the waterways connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Central Illinois was largely settled by immigrants from Ohio and Indiana, a pattern facilitated by the National Road, an early federal highway project stretching from Pennsylvania to Vandalia, IL. However, as early as 1818 75% of Illinois' population was from the uplands of the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. It was in this area the Pennsylvanian German culture mixed with the Scotch-Irish immigrants to form the Upland South Cultural Tradition. Immigrants from the Upland South appear to have been attracted to familiar natural landscapes, which were topographically similar to their original homes, which were forested and mountainous. In the early years of the nineteenth century, southern Illinois was preferred over more northerly areas such as the Grand Prairie because it was well timbered. Forests were necessary for the perpetuation of the Upland South life way. They were also directed to southern Illinois via natural immigration corridors, such by way of the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap, the Nashville-Saline Trace, and the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. Immigrants who traveled to Illinois by water routes moved inland from Shawneetown, Golconda, or Ft. Massac near present-day Metropolis. Many immigrants journeyed overland through Kentucky and Tennessee sometimes stopping and settling for a number of years before moving on to southern Illinois.

The main characteristics of the Upland South tradition have been described as: (1) a basic cooperative work unit based on the extended family; (2) an economy reliant upon a diversified farming complex; and (3) most importantly, a dependence upon wood-oriented technology. Housing, as well as furniture, tools, farm implements, fencing, and wagons or sleds were all manufactures from wood. Tools such as wooden plows, harrows, cultivators, rakes, forks, shovels, ox yokes, and many domestic items were self designed and self-made. Of course, part of the wood oriented technology of the Upland South was the ubiquitous log cabin.

As noted earlier, the vast majority of the population in southern Illinois lived on farms. Although they are often characterized as merely "subsistence" farmers, meaning they grew only what they could use at home, it was only the lack of adequate transportation systems which kept southern Illinoisan from participating in the larger national economy. Their immigration into southern Illinois was driven by economic incentives: (1) relatively inexpensive land, and (2) the desire to be economically self-sufficient and to acquire wealth. In short, even the earliest occupants of southern Illinois were market-oriented. Alack of early transportation and communication networks isolated the frontier areas in which they lived and slowed their participation in the greater national economy. However, evidence of incipient commercialization is indicated by the demands of settlers for improved transportation systems to principal markets: the Territory of Illinois petitioned Congress for an appropriation for the construction of a road between Shawneetown on the Ohio River and Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River as early as 1812.

Southern Illinois

All of the characteristics of the Upland South Cultural Tradition were adaptable to the southern Illinois landscape. The wood-oriented technology is still visible today in the log houses scattered along the backcountry roads, although often all that remains are the stone chimneys. The value of the extended family as a workforce can also be inferred in the small family cemeteries that dot the countryside. Even today, agriculture in southern Illinois continues to be generalized farming including raising livestock and major row crops such corn and beans, as well as hay and alfalfa.

Land Use Initially, farms were located along slopes of the Shawnee Hills, overlooking major drainages such as Eagle Creek and the Saline River along the eastern side of the forest. This choice provided farmers with productive agricultural land as well as access to forested uplands necessary for the wood-oriented technology of the Upper South. The wooded uplands also provided forage for livestock such as hogs, which were allowed to roam free to fatten on nut mast. The interiors of ridge tops that did not contain a natural water source, and bottom "drowned" lands remained in the public domain until at least the mid-nineteenth century.

The mid- and late-nineteenth century was a time of relative prosperity in southern Illinois. The large storage barns which today accents the rural landscape attest to the increasing volume of crops and livestock produced during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Although never as wealthy as farmers in northern and central Illinois, the number of farms in southern Illinois, and their relative wealth increased through time, as did the population. One factor in the increasing size of the farms was the reduction in the price of unsold federal lands during the 1850s. The price of unsold public lands went from $1.25 per acre to $0.125. Much of the unsold land in the Shawnee Hills consisted of dry ridge tops, rocky slopes, and narrow creek valleys. The clearance of these thin-soiled upland landforms and subsequent cultivation were to have dire consequences for the prosperity of the farmers and the economy of southern Illinois.

According to federal agricultural census documents, the number of farms in Pope and Saline Counties, for example, nearly doubled in the years between 1850 and 1860, and the size of the farms increased likewise. At the new price, 40 acres of land could be purchased for $5.00. In 1850, the average farm size in Saline County was 87 acres and was worth $329.00. However, in 1860, the average farm was 142 acres in size and was worth $1,163.00 Similar situations occurred in all the counties throughout southern Illinois.

The Great Depression in Southern Illinois the number of farms continued to increase throughout the late nineteenth century, peaking in 1900. In Pope County, there were 1,977 farms in 1900; in Saline County, there were 2,512 farms. However, the years that followed were marked with dramatic declines in crop production and severe economic hardship for farm families:

Eight farms, listed in a Biographical review as being among the best in their day, were visited during the early part of 1937. Ownership of most of these farms had passed from the descendants of the original family about 30 years or more ago. The same story was told concerning most of these farms. Potatoes, corn, wheat, oats, and red clover thrived for a few years, until the small amount of natural fertility in the soil was exhausted through cropping and erosion. At present red clover cannot be grown with any degree of success without expensive treatment of the soil. Potato production for commercial purposes has been abandoned. Wheat production has declined drastically. The average yield of corn is now said to be about 15 bushels or less per acre. Erosion has steadily reduced the acreage of cropland. Some of the operators remember when badly gullied fields, now abandoned, had been plowed. (Fielder and Lindstrom, 1939, in LAND USE AND FAMILY WELFARE IN POPE COUNTY)

For these reasons southern Illinois was counted among the most destitute areas of the country:

There are great catastrophes that bring sudden destruction and leave communities impoverished until rebuilt. But the poverty in southern Illinois in 1933 did not arise abruptly. Hardwood forests once covered most of the areas we had visited. The removal of these timber resources provided opportunities for productive work and brought good incomes to landowners and others. General farming followed the clearing of the land. Lack of attention to the maintenance of soil productivity was accompanied by gradually declining yields of crops, reduced numbers of livestock and decreasing income. (William G. Kammlade, in REDEEMING A LOST HERITAGE).

In addition, poor housing resulting from the severe economic hardship described above also resulted in high infant and adult mortality rates. For these reasons, establishing a national forest in southern Illinois, along with many other rural economically depressed areas in the country, was seen as a way to help the impoverished inhabitants. The creation of a national forest solved two problems: 1) it immediately took the land out of cultivation so that restoration might begin; and 2) it poured cash into economically depressed areas.

The Evolution of the Shawnee National Forest

The Weeks Law of 1911 as early as 1864 George Perkins Marsh recognized the relationship between the diminishing number of forested acres and the increasing frequency of catastrophic floods. The Weeks Law of 1911 authorized the federal purchase of lands that would aid in watershed protection. Prior to 1911, with the exception of a few Great Lakes forests, the National Forest system consisted largely of western forests, which had been carved out of unsold public lands. The Weeks Law allowed for the formation of eastern forests through the acquisition of "forested, cut over or denuded lands with the watershed of navigable streams...necessary to the regulation of the flow of navigable streams...” The first Weeks Law forests included the Pisgah in North Carolina, several forests in the central and southern Appalachians, the Alabama National Forests, the White Mountain in New Hampshire, and the Allegheny in Pennsylvania.

New Deal Forests New Deal forests, of which the Shawnee National Forest is one, were created under the authorization of the Weeks Law specifically for the restoration of severely degraded landscapes and for economic aid to rural agricultural areas. The majorities were located in economically deprived areas of southern and midwestern states like southern Illinois. Logging, and poor farming practices had largely destroyed the productivity of the soil. As a consequence, farm families abandoned the land in search of economic security, hoping to secure factory jobs in urban areas. This rural emigration caused economic hardship to merchants that relied on farmers trade. It also decreased the tax base for the rural agricultural counties.

"The Government Wants Wasteland..."

The initial consideration of establishing a National Forest in the State of Illinois can perhaps best be illustrated by quoting a paragraph form the Regional Forester in Milwaukee to the Chief of the Forest Service, dated August 13, 1930:

The Illinois situation was more or less forced upon us because of editorial interest on the part of the Chicago Tribune. Our activities up to this time have been more in nature of preventing the move of the Tribune and the Illinois Manufacturers' Association taking the wrong direction. As a matter of fact, in my meeting with the interested individuals with the State of Illinois, I urged that nothing be done until facts had been determined that would indicate that there was some place where Federal activity would be practical. This position was assumed in order to prevent embarrassment that might ensue if no suitable area was available in the state.

One of these Tribune editorials, entitled "National Forests in Illinois" was included in the May 25, 1930 issue:

While 80,000 women of the Illinois federation are establishing town forests and planting roadsides to trees, the Illinois division of the Izaak Walton League will work for state forests or state and national forests in this area. With the attention of two groups as powerful as these converging on reforestation in Illinois, results of great value should follow.

Forty-two per sent of Illinois was once forested. Today 10 per cent of the state's area is left to timber, and the amount grows smaller every year. With waste lands in Illinois suitable for forests and for nothing else up to three million - perhaps five or six million - acres; with marginal lands in large quantities now under partial cultivation but poor paying, inefficient, and disastrous in creating surplus that keeps the farmer down, it is obvious that projects to regrow our forests have great importance. They will supply timber for the state free from high freight rates. They will withdraw marginal lands from cultivation and greatly help the farmer. The Walton's plan to restore the marsh lands of the Illinois and Mississippi river bottoms to their primitive condition will withdraw more margins, assist in flood control, and provide great refuges for birds, fish, and other game.

The town forest and the state forest long have been successful economically and recreationally in Europe. In New York great areas of forestland in the southern counties are being purchased by the state. In Illinois a state forest plan or a federally aided state forest plan, as the Izaak Waltons have proposed, should be effective. The decline of the rural districts shown in the 1930 census shows the need of scientific planning for the whole rural problem. Good lands for cultivation must have a chance to make a profit or farmers will leave the soil. The wastelands of Illinois, in part left by farmers going to the city, should be used and administered. Their return to forests, founded by the state, is one of the best answers.

On June 18, 1931, the Fifty-seventh General Assembly of the State of Illinois passed an enabling act. This act invited the federal government to establish another national forest in the state. In 1925 the 11,000-acre Savanna National Forest was established by executive order and administered jointly by the Secretary of War and the Secretary of Agriculture. It was later abandoned as a national forest. The National Forest Commission approved approval for the acquisition of new federal lands on August 30, 1933. Although other areas such as Brown, Pike and Adams Counties were put forward as possible locations for national forests, it was generally felt that southern Illinois would benefit the most from the creation of a national forest. The areas in west-central Illinois were not economically depressed enough to be considered. In addition, the farmland in those counties was still in good condition and there were not large tracts of forested areas available. According to William Barker, author of a 1931 preliminary report on the Illini and Shawnee National Forest Purchase Units in southern Illinois: "The general region has been farmed for 100 years and much of the farms soil is worn out. The cost of reclaiming it as farm soil by artificial methods is prohibitive. Many of the farms have been abandoned on account of worn out soil and erosion. A large percentage of the row crops are on soil, which should not have been cleared of timber. It was suitable only for tree crops."

"Practically the whole region has been logged from one to ten times. Some small areas have been lightly culled. The areas are located in regions, which were formerly the most heavily timbered parts of Illinois. There were so many species of timber growing on the same areas that there was never a market for all of them at the same time. Hence, much of the cutting was a selective system by species and forest conditions, to a reasonable extent, were maintained.... nearly all of the original timber has been removed and replaced by second growth, where the land was not completely cleared for farming. Many abandoned farms are being reforested naturally."

After permission to establish a National Forest in southern Illinois was given August of 1933, John Wernham, who served as the acquisitions chief-of-party, arrived in southern Illinois on Oct. 1 that same year; by Oct. 7, 16,000 acres had been offered. There was a sense of urgency in acquiring land: there was only a limited amount of funds to be shared with three other states: $20 million dollars for Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. In addition, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was scheduled to camp over the winter in southern Illinois. According to John Wernham "Within a short time after setting up shop that first fall, there were 20 men in a cruising party, 2,000 CWA (Civil Works Administration) workers, and 3 CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camps with 200 WW I vets in each and a variable office staff of 2-12."

The Shawnee National Forest and all of southern Illinois owes a great deal to the CCC. Eventually 11 camps were established in the Shawnee National Forest, including Camp Pomona, an African-American CCC camp. Other camps in or around the Shawnee National Forest included Camps Kedron, Cadiz, Hicks, Simpson, and Herod on the eastern side of the Forest and Camps Glenn, Water Valley, Delta, Union, and Hutchins on the west side. The majority of the work conducted by CCC enrollees housed at these camps consisted of clearing and constructing forest trails, quarrying gravel, cutting stone, building roads and rustic recreation areas, constructing look-out towers, working as fire look-outs and ground crews, stringing telephone line, collecting nuts for tree seeding, and planting trees.

The recovery of the landscape is closely intertwined with the recovery of the people. The CCC, WPA and other depression-era work projects not only helped to heal the eroded hillsides, but also helped in providing employment and educational opportunities, and the restoration of a feeling of self worth among the people who had formerly farmed those hillsides.

Charles Morris Butler, an ex-CCC enrollee summed up his experience with the CCC: "Times were hard; you could do a lot with a dollar then. It didn't take so much to survive, you could take $30.00 a month and you could live pretty well. It was a really good experience for me. I really enjoyed it. I got a lot out of it. I learned how to save a dollar - take care of myself. I learned a lot. I know a lot of people who weren't in there; they didn't have nothin'. It was quite an experience. I wouldn't take nothin for it. I really wouldn't." The CCC and other employment programs such as Emergency Conservation work (ECW) continued in southern Illinois until the beginning of WW II.

With the help of young Mr. Butler and other CCC enrollees like him and others, including Forest Service employees, nearly 60,000 acres of land have been reforested. Reforestation continues on such projects as Inahgeh, our Mississippi River floodplain wetland restoration project, Oakwood Bottoms and other restoration projects. The Shawnee Hills have come full circle since Euro-American settlement and the beginnings of agriculture in southern Illinois. Natural transportation routes funneled the earliest settlers into southern Illinois. The immigrants brought with them established technologies and farming practices which they adapted to the southern Illinois landscape. Land sale policies encouraged farmers to cultivate parcels of highly erodable land, which were "suitable only for tree crops" and quickly depleted the small amount of natural fertility contained in the soils. All these factors conspired to rob the Shawnee Hills of its naturally diverse lushly vegetated landscape. Since the earliest descriptions of traveling through gloomy "deep...eternal forests", much of the wooded areas have been cleared, farmed, and eventually abandoned, only to be reclaimed as public land once again and restored as the Shawnee National Forest.

Books and Articles of Related Interest

LANDUSE AND FAMILY WELFARE IN POPE COUNTY, by V.B. Fielder and D.E. Lindstrom, 1939, Department of Agricultural Economics, Research in Rural Sociology,

Agricultural Experiment Station, University of Illinois, Champaign, IL.

REDEEMING A LOST HERITAGE, THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE DIXON SPRINGS AGRICULTURAL CENTER, by William G. Kammlade, Paul W. Rexroat, and H.A. Cate, 1976, College o Agriculture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Special Publication No.

40, Urbana, IL.

THE LANDS NOBODY WANTED, by William E. Shands and Robert G. Healy, 1977, The

Conservation Foundation, Washington, D.C.

THE LANDS NOBODY WANTED: THE LEGACY OF THE EASTERN NATIONAL FORESTS, by Willia E. Shands, 1991, The Pinchot Institute for Conservation, Milford, PA.

THE U.S. FOREST SERVICE, A HISTORY, by Harold K. Steen, 1976, University of

Washington Press, Seattle WA.

The Making of the Shawnee, by Fred Soady, Jr. FOREST HISTORY 9(2):3-16