Can’t have Prairie Chickens without a prairie

Two stuffed prairie chickens adorn the pre-1850 room of the Will County Historical Society Museum in Lockport.
Two stuffed prairie chickens adorn the pre-1850 room of the Will County Historical Society Museum in Lockport.

By Sandy Vasko

Since the time of the Paleo-hunters, this region has drawn the fisherman and hunter to its abundance. When the white man first arrived, the skies darkened with thousands of migrating fowl and the rivers churned with large and small game fish.

But it didn’t take long for all of that to disappear. By 1886 people were starting to look around and take notice.

Fishing and hunting had been the staple of Wilmington ever since they could remember. At first, many went all the way to Indiana to hunt geese and ducks, but as that great swamp was drained, and geese no longer went there, they stayed closer to home. Just to the west of us was Goose Lake, and Goose Lake was just that, literally a low, swampy boggy place full of geese and ducks as far as the eye could see.

On November 24, 1882 we read in the Wilmington Advocate: “The party of duck hunters at Goose Lake sent home 129 ducks the other day, and the slaughter continues without abatement.”

Things went on that way, but at the end of 1885, we read the first notice that the old ways would be no more. Nancy Cameron died at the age of 65. She was a well-known lady in the Goose Lake area. She had come from Scotland with her four brothers and sister in 1850, never marrying but keeping house and raising her siblings.

If this were her only claim to fame it would be enough. But she was known for more. Ed Conley wrote this: “The deceased was well-known to our local Nimrods (hunters). Many a time did she take charge of their victuals (food) and outfits while on hunting excursions near Goose Lake, and often did she dry their wet garments and serve them with the kindness of a mother. What marvel then that a delegation from this city attended her funeral with feelings of sincere regret.”

In November 1885, for the last time, Conley announced, “Goose Lake was said to be literally alive with wild ducks and geese on last Saturday evening.”

One year later, November of 1886, the Joliet Record ran the following, “A number of flocks of geese flew over Morris on Sunday. They were headed for Goose Lake, Will County. Of course, they found not their old ‘Stamping’ ground, as the bottom of what was once a large lake is now as dry as a powder mill. Mr. N. N. Osburn, of Wilmington, who owned the lands surrounding the lake, has had an army of men engaged in draining the lake, which has been successfully accomplished.

“Miles upon miles of drain tile has been laid, and by next season this spot, about 1,500 acres, which has always been under water, will be one of the best corn-growing strips in this section. Already Mr. Osburn has rented lots of this land for next year at $3 an acre.

“The Aux Sable Lake will now most likely be adopted by the next goose and duck convention as their future sporting ground. If Mr. Osburn had all the lead that has been fired into the bottom of his new-made land, and could sell it at a penny a pound, he would realize many hundreds of dollars. This lake was famous for many miles around as the rendezvous for sporting men from various sections of the state in the spring and fall months, being noted for the large number of water-fowl going there to feed.”

It was not just water fowl that were affected. Prairie chickens were also dwindling in numbers all over the state. The state legislature had enacted strict laws concerning hunting those ever-scarcer birds, but provided no means to enforce the law. In Will County, it was the County Sheriff’s job to “hunt down” the hunters. However, not surprisingly, the sheriff had better things to do dealing with bad guys without roaming rural areas in search of poachers.

Consequently, poachers bragged about their behavior we read on August 7, 1885: “The law against killing prairie chickens is being shamefully and openly defied, almost daily, by hunters of this city. Let such outlaws be made examples of, without clemency.”

And in the fall of 1886: “The game law hereabouts is simply a mockery, from all accounts, owing to a lack of its provisions being enforced. Only the other day, a young man bragged of bagging 26 chickens, and it is further asserted that the pot-hunters who kill for the Chicago market are by no means idle, notwithstanding the ‘law,’ which is supposed to protect chickens and other wild game until August 15th. The latter class of men especially should be prosecuted without mercy. Killing a few chickens for a family mess is not such a terrible offense, but killing them for the sake of pecuniary gain is a very different matter.”

As late as 1909, prairie chickens were being taken illegally: “Frank Graper and Arthur Weiske, two residents of Custer Park, were arraigned before Judge McCullock in Joliet last Tuesday afternoon on the charge of shooting prairie chicken. They will be given a hearing today (Friday). The men were taken into custody by Constable Wilke of Custer, and according to the officer, he was armed with a rifle at the time and the two men took it away from him. During the mix-up, Wilke took a chicken away from one of them. A compromise was effected, Wilke giving up the chicken and the men returning his gun.”

In 1911 we read: “The Senate last week passed a bill permitting of a ten days’ open season each year for the shooting of prairie chickens in this State. The open season is between Nov. 10 and 20 each year.”

The last year I find prairie chickens mentioned is in 1921, when there was a 15-day season on them in November. It may be said that the over-hunting led to the disappearance of the prairie chicken, but there was another reason. Its name will give you a clue.

Without undisturbed prairie, the prairie chicken, who nested on the ground, could not reproduce. As more and more prairie was plowed under, there was less and less room for the chicken.

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