Wilson Prairie


It's been theorized that the ridge served as an early route taken by wagon trains heading west in the 1800s. One of the early settlers who remained in western Winnebago County was Ephraim Sumner, whose name was given to the nearby creek. He certainly tilled some of the surrounding lands, but left this prairie fragment because of its location on the ridge of dolomite. The bedrock "was so close to the surface that the land could not be cultivated. A small quarry . . . may have provided foundation stones for Ephraim Sumner's mill on the creek below . . ." (Anderson, 1980).

The 1905 Plat Book for Winnebago County shows that the land, the prairie and the tillable acreage to the south, was then owned by E.C. Campbell, with the parcels to the east and south owned by James Josephus Wilson. The site may have been grazed by cattle at various times in the early and mid-1900s.

Across US20 from the Wilson family farm, the property was bought by Harry H. Wilson in 1960 and the prairie portion has not been grazed since that time. Although the widening of US20 destroyed the farm, when Harry and Lily were forced to move to town in Pecatonica, they retained this property largely because of the prairie. Harry always loved that hill, and sometimes used to spend leisure time watching the plant and animal life there. Deer, red foxes, coyotes, pheasants, and badgers were often among the life that could be seen, and the plants presented an ever changing display of color through the seasons. The tillable portion of the property has been farmed by the Hilton family, who have also been longtime friends of the prairie.

On September 7, 1977, the prairie, then called "Sumner Prairie", was listed on the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, area # 923, reference number 139. It was noted as a "medium-quality prairie that has the endangered foxglove Penstemon grandiflora." Protection was recommended, and the report stated that the prairie could be easily restored with management.

The present owner, James H. Wilson, inherited the property in 1987, and worked with Gillian Moreland of The Nature Conservancy and John Alesandrini, Natural Areas Preservation Specialist, NW Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, to dedicate the prairie as an Illinois Nature Preserve. Several visits to the prairie by Don Miller, Sue Merchant, and the Hiltons documented the wildflowers, including videotapes of some of the visits. The proposal to dedicate the prairie was completed in January, 1991, and it was approved by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and by Governor Edgar in June.
Site management has been coordinated by local preserve stewards, initially Don Miller, followed by Andy Bacon, Greg Keilback, Kevin Rohling, and currently Zach Grycan, and carried out by local volunteers, in cooperation with the Natural Land Institute.


Anderson, O.M. 1980. Pondering the Prairie. Rockford Register Star, Sunday Magazine, June 1, 1980.