HOMER — Champaign County residents are free to roam a small property near Homer Lake that apparently has never been touched by development.
The Champaign County Forest Preserve District recently acquired a wooded, 6.67-acre site along the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River that forest preserve Executive Director Daniel Olson called "as untouched as central Illinois comes."
The property, known as Sylvester Woods, is at 1176 County Road 2400 East, about a mile west of the Homer Lake Forest Preserve. There is no parking lot at the location, and Olson urged visitors to park on the shoulder of the county road. But it already is open to exploring.
"It's not a bad time to go and visit it because the leaves are down and you can see further into it, but the best time to visit will be in mid-April when those wildflowers are popping up," he said. "The real beauty of it in my opinion will be in the springtime. It has all these really great ephemeral wildflowers in the woods and the river transects it. It's a small piece but we felt that because of the great attributes it has, it certainly was worth saving."
The property was acquired from George B. Sylvester, a lifelong Homer area farmer who died at the age of 88 in December 2010.
In 1981, Olson said, Sylvester agreed to sell the land to the forest preserve district. It apparently had been a part of his family since the time the county was settled nearly 200 years ago.
"What we know is that it has never been clear-cut. It's never been agriculture. We don't believe it was grazed, because looking at the plant material that's in there, it appears that it's never been grazed," Olson said. "And we know from the Sylvester family history that it was held as a place for them to recreate, a place for them to go and enjoy the river and camp out there. There was a rumor that one of the original settlers' cabins may have been there, but we haven't found any evidence of that.
"We know that for the last 100 years, it's been a very passive place. About the only thing they did there was when some trees fell down, they turned it into firewood."
Sylvester Woods includes land on both sides of the Salt Fork, Olson said, "although it didn't always used to be.
"When that land was first acquired, apparently the land went out and stopped at the river. But over time the Salt Fork has rechannelized and kinda cuts through the property. There's a big horseshoe bend right at that point so that there's a little bit of land on the other side of the river too."
He said the forest preserve district is excited about the acquisition "because this is really our first effort to have a true preserved site. That is, this site has been this way since the original land grab. We are not going to develop it.
"So much of what we do as the forest preserve is to develop trails, which everybody loves. And we develop accesses and parking lots and all that good stuff. But we're going to hold this site as a place where you can go and see pretty much exactly what the river flood plain looked like 200 years ago."
The property also is valuable as a source of rare plant species, said Olson.
"We obviously have our Homer Lake and other sites that we do restoration on, so we hope we can collect seed of rare plants and propagate them elsewhere and lead to more diversity and restoration," he said.
The property was purchased for about $42,000, entirely with private donations. About $5,000 came from the proceeds of a fundraising appeal in 2011 and $15,000 came from the district's foundation. But Olson said the district was astonished by the response from a fundraising appeal sent out less than two months ago.
"We knew we had some people out there who really loved the area," he said. "But in late November we sent out one fundraising campaign letter specifically for Sylvester Woods. The response was unbelievable. We just targeted about 120 people. It wasn't a big mailer or anything, but we knew a lot of people were interested in preserving that particular piece of land.
"And we got back $22,000-plus in donations in about a four-week period. We were shocked. So the reality of this is that it is completely funded with no taxpayer dollars. We're really proud of that."