Severson Dells Nature Center: preserving the natural history of northern Illinois

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117087901414644.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘A new display of taxidermic specimens shows a passenger pigeon with an orange breast in the center.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11708790495058.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Executive Director of Education Don Miller (left) and Brian Leaf, executive director of Development, check out a new bird sighting at the center.‘);

In 1929, Harry Severson purchased 369 primeval acres off Montague Road in Winnebago County. He and Fannie, his wife, dearly loved the land and the flora and fauna that occupied it. They frequently walked the property or rode about it on horseback and entertained those interested in the natural history of the area, among which was the famed ecologist and naturalist Aldo Leopold.

After Mr. Severson died, Mrs. Severson donated the land to the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District in 1975 with the stipulation that it always be used to protect and preserve the native plants and animals of northern Illinois, and that it become a center of education for the residents of the area. Mrs. Severson’s requests are being carried out admirably today by a small but highly trained and dedicated group of individuals.

Don Miller, a native of this area, has been associated with the Center for 25 years as both an employee and volunteer and is the executive Education director. Brian Leaf is executive director for Development, and Richard Benning is the Youth Education coordinator. Betsy Johnson serves as the executive secretary of the Center. In addition more than 65 volunteers assist in various ways.

The Dells offers a variety of environmental niches, including oak-hickory association, prairie, pond and geological formations including cliffs and part of an abandoned quarry. Each of these ecosystems is utilized for instruction at various times of the year including the old quarry where paleontology can be understood from the 350-million-year-old fossils present in the limestone Three miles of well-maintained trails take the visitor to all parts of the property with two-thirds of a mile being especially adapted for the handicapped. The original Severson house has been converted into a headquarters building and interpretive center.

Though the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District owns the property and provides routine maintenance services, it does not control the nature center. The center is under the control and guidance of an autonomous board of some 10 directors headed by Connie McIntosh. The Forest Preserve District provides no funds for the operation of the nature center. The Center operates strictly on donations, membership dues, bequests from wills, and profits from some activities and the small gift shop.

The staff aims to provide environmental education for all ages, from children to senior citizens, which was one of Fannie Severson’s requests when she donated the property in 1975 .The diversity of the programs offered by the Center can be illustrated by the following calendar of events scheduled for January. Jan. 3, Moon rise over Harlem Hills prairie; Jan. 4, Preschool nature adventures; Jan. 6, Tracks scats, and facts; Jan. 8, Nature’s apprentice begins; Jan. 16, Monumental (with Sinississippi Audubon Society); Jan. 19, Winter night hike; Jan. 20, Coyote clan lives at Sugar River; Jan. 21, Dr. Pond scum’s winter visit; Jan. 27, Winter bird hike. An eclectic series of programs is offered for each month of the year.

Programs for schools are routinely provided according to the subject matter being taught in the classroom. More than 5,000 area students, from kindergarten through 6th grade, are served annually by the Center. On a recent visit to the center, a group of kindergartners identified birds avidly feeding at the several feeders.

The education programs stress what is going on outside rather than inside exhibits one would associate with a museum. A recent inside exhibit will, however, surely draw much attention. Around 1900, a Pecatonica man made a superb taxidermic collection of the animals inhabiting this region. The specimens were artistically placed in a large glass-enclosed case. The case was recently found in an attic and donated to the Nature Center and makes a striking exhibit. Of special interest is a specimen of a passenger pigeon. This bird became extinct in the early 1900s. There are also specimens on display of the prairie chicken and the ruffled grouse that no longer exist in northern Illinois.

If you are the least bit interested in the natural history of this region, you should become a member of Friends of Severson Dells Nature center. Individual dues are $20 a year with $30 for a family. Money from annual dues goes a long way in supporting the educational program. A membership makes a fine gift for someone’s special occasion. The “Friend” receives a periodic publication entitled Notes from the Dells, and most programs are free to members.

Some people say, “There is nothing to do in the Rockford area,” and I would like to suggest to them that they become a member of the nature center and develop new interests by participating in the numerous and varied programs that are professionally offered.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Feb. 7-13, 2007, issue

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