Some call it the Shelby County Weedpatch. The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission christened it the Margaret Guzy Pothole Wetlands Land and Water Reserve. The local Department of Natural Resources staff called it a surprise gift. But most people call it Guzy Prairie, in honor of the woman who donated this 159 acre wildlife sanctuary in 1991.
Guzy Prairie exemplifies how diverse a prairie can be and how quickly cropland can be restored after years of row crop production. The site has become an inspiration for local farmers in search of improving crop production in the flat, black, rich heartland.
The Elusive Margaret Guzy
Guzy was one of eight children born to Charles F. and Margaret Guzy on May 29, 1918. Little else is known about the younger Margaret Guzy until 1935, to the extent that her name has been alternately spelled Guzzi, Guzzie and Guzzy in press releases about Guzy Prairie. Even the middle initial on her gravestone has been edited.
What is known is, at age 17, Margaret took a job as a live-in housekeeper for William Edward “Edd” Miller in Decatur, Ill., on Sept. 3, 1935. She was one of several housekeepers Miller hired after his wife divorced him in 1928. Miller had been born in a Shelby County log cabin on June 7, 1880. Following an education in a one-room schoolhouse, he studied agriculture at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana during the 1899-1900 school year on a scholarship provided by W. E. Killam, a Shelbyville businessman.
A fascination with agricultural and mechanical technology remained with Miller throughout his life. As a young man, he provided mobile threshing services across Illinois and Missouri. Later he owned farm implement dealerships in Decatur and Assumption, Ill.
Fascinated by the first barnstormer he ever saw, Miller promptly bought a Curtiss airplane and began giving rides in one of those fantastic flying contraptions. In the autumn of 1940, Miller sold his implement dealerships.
When he penned his autobiography at age 66, Miller punctuated it with detailed descriptions of agricultural equipment and airplanes he had owned or sold over the years.
According to Guzy’s will, she and Miller married on Dec. 27, 1940, but she continued to use her maiden name throughout her life. By the time spring 1941 arrived, Miller and Guzy had purchased 159 acres in his native Shelby County. He bought an existing house and moved it to the prairie from its original location two miles northeast of Guzy Prairie. It became their new home.
Neighbors heard Miller was in the market for acreage. He took them up on offers to sell him their farms as well. Eventually Miller owned 1800 acres. Using a fleet of eleven tractors to harvest his crops, he claimed to receive the largest check ever written to one person by the Findlay Grain Company a few miles away.
When Miller died in 1953, two local newspapers described him as a prominent citizen. After all, he had already donated $20,000 toward a new addition to the Shelby County Memorial Hospital. The hospital still exists but provides only limited services, without further benefactors stepping forward.
The Findlay Enterprise ran a three-column headline announcing, “Miller Will Estimated to Distribute One and a Half Million Dollars.” By today's currency, that would have been valued at nearly $7 million. The same newspaper referred to Margaret Guzy as “Mr. Miller’s housekeeper” and included her midway down the list of heirs. The Shelbyville Daily Union failed to mention Guzy at all.
Both publications published a laundry list of Miller’s bequeaths. He had set aside $2,000 to maintain his grave, adorned with a $5,000 monument in the small country Knobs Baptist Church cemetery north of Tower Hill, Ill.
Nearly four decades later, Margaret Guzy would be buried alongside him in the family plot next to his parents, Elizabeth (Hart) and Granville Lafayette Miller. Guzy and Miller’s graves are marked with matching headstones and a large monument. Flowers perpetually adorn both graves, as stipulated in Miller’s will.
Neither Guzy nor Miller left any descendants, but Miller generously left cash and property to numerous people. Employees who had worked for him for more than five years received $3,000. That would translate to more than $19,000 each in today’s currency.
Margaret Guzy Miller also received $3,000, along with all the household goods in “the Miller home.” She inherited two income producing farms “provided she remain unmarried.” The home Margaret and Edd shared since their marriage in 1940 became her “own absolute property forever.” But after Miller died, Guzy moved back to Decatur where she reportedly became a hairdresser.
She hired caretakers for all three farm properties. Guzy invested profits from the thousands of bushels of soybeans produced in the local Moweaqua Farmer’s Cooperative Grain Company and Soy Capital Bank. She also invested in properties in four states.
In the meantime, Shelby County was rapidly changing. By 1976, the Kaskaskia River, just a couple of miles to the east of her property, had been dammed to create Lake Shelbyville in an effort to reduce the annual flooding that destroyed acres of crops. The Lake Shelbyville Recreation Area also came into being.
Four years after the Lake Shelbyville dam was dedicated, Guzy drew up a will insuring 159 acres of “absolute property” where she and her husband had lived would “be held by the State of Illinois in perpetuity, for the purpose of a wildlife sanctuary and for no other purpose.” As a result, Guzy Prairie became a part of the Lake Shelbyville recreation area.
When Margaret Guzy passed away, there were no front page stories. Apparently her obituary was never published in area newspapers.
Few people probably suspected when she died on March 12, 1991, her estate was valued at $1 million. Only her executor at Soy Capital Bank & Trust was probably aware the property she and her husband, Edd Miller, had known as home for the last thirteen years of his life was to belong forever to the citizens of Illinois. No human would ever again live on the land Guzy and Miller called home.
The gift of this property came as a complete surprise to Stanley Duzan, Site Superintendent with the Illinois DNR. According to Duzan, his department had already budgeted resources, time and seed to other sites when he received word he was suddenly responsible for an additional 159 acres.
A Little History
The Illinois Department of Conservation was established in 1924. The Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act, designed to preserve public lands was approved June 26, 1925. Decades later the INAPA created a nine member INPC under the same act. Created in 1963, a year after Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring,” the commission identifies and protects critical habitats.
The governor appoints Illinois Nature Preserve Commissioners based on recommendations by the Chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey and the Director of the Illinois State Museum. The commission reports nature preserve flora and fauna inventories to the governor every other year.
By 1981, the INAPA was revised to include land “acquired by gift, legacy, purchase, transfer, grant, agreement, dedication or condemnation” under Article VII of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure. This revision meant Illinois would not rely solely on tax dollars to acquire sensitive habitats. Hopefully it would encourage private citizens to donate private land for conservation.
In 1995, the INPC, Department of Mines and Minerals, Abandoned Mined Lands Reclamation Council, the Department of Transportation's Division of Water Resources and the Illinois State Museum and Scientific Surveys from the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources were combined to form today’s IDNR. Guzy’s gift would benefit from the expertise of professionals in all these disciplines.
The DNR At Work
Local farmers were duly skeptical about the wisdom of converting productive agricultural land valued at $3,500 to $4,000 an acre into “a weed patch.” It had taken pioneers decades of hard work, chemicals and the invention of the self-cleaning plow to tame the prairie enough to produce domestic food crops.
Nevertheless, the DNR staff had a job to do. They set to work restoring the prairie as best they could with the strain on resources created by this unanticipated treasure.
Guzy had made legal arrangements for the two income producing farms to pay any taxes due at the time of her death. But, since Guzy left no financial support to pay for restoration, the DNR continued to farm a portion of the property for profit to fund early restoration activities.
Not all of the site was cropland. It was an operational farm with a farmhouse and outbuildings enough to house those eleven tractors.
An aging barn was preserved, but all other structures were razed. A gravel driveway was added. Existing concrete foundations became parking areas. A handicap accessible wooden viewing platform was added to provide a location for prairie bird watching.
Discovering Sustainable Solutions
Probably without realizing it, Margaret Guzy had given the DNR the task of restoring a prairie truly representative of Illinois before the pioneers broke the sod. Flat Drummer prairie once stretched unbroken across 1.5 million acres of Illinois.
In August 2001, Gov. Ryan signed House Bill 605, designating Drummer loam as the official Illinois State Soil. Drummer soil fails to absorb precipitation and, without slopes to create natural drainage, allows pools of water to collect and drown crops. There are spots among the rich Central Illinois cropland where Duzan says you “can’t raise anything but mud and water.” Generations of farmers have installed costly drainage tile systems in order to protect their crops. In an extreme measure, Lake Shelbyville was created.
At Guzy Prairie, the natural drainage pattern was identified early on and the soil excavated to create a 2.5 to 3 foot levee around slightly sloping areas. Water collects in the four tiny “lakes” created within the levee as it drains from the slight slope of a neighboring field to the north. The levee blocks the water from continuing to drain onto the next farmer’s field to the south, as it had ever since this prairie was domesticated and the wetlands eliminated.
Duzan reported that area farmers expressed an interest in applying the same water catchment technique on their property instead of relying on field tile to prevent pooling. Installing and replacing field tile is expensive. Field tile drainage improves crop production but does alter wildlife habitat. The levee construction used at Guzy Prairie costs less. Plus, the State of Illinois offers landowners financial incentives such as individual Sustainable Agriculture Grants up to $5,000 to assist wildlife without sacrificing crop production, further sparking their interest.
The Prairie Returns
Prairie grasses voluntarily appeared the first year the land was out of crop production, even though the rich loess had been subjected to traditional corn production for a century, supplemented by commercial fertilizers, weed killers and insecticides.
According to Duzan, native seeds are hibernating across Illinois, awaiting the opportunity to return. But restoration involves much more than merely allowing wild plants to take over. Intense restoration began in 1993 with the first 40-acre plot, and gradually additional plots continue to be taken out of production. To speed up the process, the DNR supplemented the site with healthy plants that had not endured exposure to domesticated crops and chemicals. A no-till drill was used at first to reduce seed loss since some native prairie seed sells for as much as $300 per ounce, “making it as expensive as cocaine,” according to Duzan.
As plots began bearing abundant seed, a traditional wheat combine was used to harvest some of the grass seed for planting additional plots and even other sites in the region. Duzan says the most difficult process was keeping the grasses separate after machine combining.
When DNR staff realized water damages switchgrass the least of all the prairie grasses, they began to plant it closer to the wetland areas. Big blue stem tends to overtake some of the more delicate grasses so it is sometimes relocated to insure a variety across the prairie. Little blue stem, Canadian rye and other grasses are scattered across the more well-drained areas.
Some green plants and root stock are used, most of which can be procured through an increasing number of native prairie plant nurseries in Illinois. Prairie Patch in Niantic, Ill., has been a key source for the grasses and other plant. At least 30 kinds of prairie flowers thrive among the grasses at Guzy Prairie, including cone flowers and cup plants. After all, Duzan notes, this is where these plants originally grew!
A controlled burn, to destroy disease, conducted every two or three years has created a unique problem for this site. It is illegal to allow smoke to cross a highway.
Guzy Prairie is fronted on the east side by Route 128 in Shelby County, a state highway frequently used by visitors to the numerous outdoor recreation sites throughout the Lake Shelbyville area just a few miles away. Much of the traffic includes recreational vehicles, boats and other vehicles in tow.
It can be difficult at Guzy Prairie to find a spring day when there is an eastern breeze to block smoke from interfering with vehicle traffic. The wind normally comes from the west. Performing a controlled burn requires staff to be keenly aware of the weather and flexible enough to reschedule a burn.
More Than Just Grass
Guzy Prairie was designed to attract shorebirds to the manmade drainage areas. More than 18 varieties of grassland birds have been identified in addition to a variety of duck's, Canadian geese, swamp sparrows, scalps, cliff swallows, blue-winged teals, bobolinks, coots, marsh hawks, yellow crowned night heron, and red-winged blackbirds. By the third year of restoration birds began to nest on the property and the established populations thrive.
Deer began to use the area in Fall. Rabbits and raccoons make themselves at home year round. Frogs and snakes populate the wetland areas, where fish abound even though they were not introduced. Duzan says he doesn’t know where the fish came from, but they swim among the dozen and a half wetland plants, including giant water lilies, all of which reestablished themselves naturally from seed carried in by waterfowl or by the winds.
Best of Its Kind
In August 1999, Eric Smith, District Heritage Biologist for Champaign, Douglas, Macon, Moultrie, Piatt and Shelby counties, recommended the INPC approve Guzy Prairie as a nature preserve. The INAPA defines a nature preserve as “a natural area, and land necessary for its protection, any estate, interest or right in which has been dedicated under this Act to be maintained as nearly as possible in its natural condition and to be used in a manner and under limitations consistent with its continued preservation, without impairment, disturbance or artificial development, for the public purposes of present and future scientific research, education, esthetic enjoyment and providing habitat for plant and animal species and communities and other natural objects.”
Smith described the Guzy gift to the INPC as “six shallow wetlands interspersed with restored mesic and wet-mesic prairie.” He said the site “attracts tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, has the size to attract area sensitive grassland birds, and represents the best of its kind of habitat in row crop dominated east-central Illinois.”
The commission approved the recommendation. According to minutes of that meeting, the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission also addressed the need to spend $3,241,000 on land acquisition in Illinois. It underscored the importance of private land donations such as Guzy Prairie.
Protecting the Prairie
No hunting or poaching is ever allowed at Guzy Prairie. Conservation Police Officers, sheriffs and other police officers are responsible for protecting nature preserves. That is one of the protections afforded by nature preserve designation.
Anyone harming nature preserve animal or plant life is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. The State of Illinois has the right to assess a civil penalty up to $10,000 for each violation. Such monies are used for further nature preserve restoration.
Neighbors assist by reporting hunters who dare to violate the law. The highly visible roadside location provides additional protection.
But that protection applies to the site only. It does not protect wildlife moving to and from a nature preserve. The first year, hunters sent birddogs in to the prairie to flush out waterfowl while they lay in wait in neighboring fields. The bird population was nearly depleted.
Since then, according to Duzan, the DNR has forged a “gentleman’s agreement” with neighbors to create a buffer zone preventing hunting within a quarter of a mile in each direction, protecting wildlife as they come and go from the sanctuary.
The Hidden Cost of Gifts
When I spoke with Duzan, he advised potential donors to be aware there are hidden costs. He estimates restoration costs about $300 per acre for seeds and plants. It is tremendously helpful to have funding in place, or the backing of a fund-raising group to defray that cost.
The time commitment during the early years is high, when planting and seed collection are conducted. Maintenance becomes less expensive once the prairie has established and re-seeds itself. Creating a volunteer support group or organization to lend a hand is tremendously helpful to DNR staff in collecting seed and performing other tasks. Duzan had no such help at Guzy Prairie.
Staff and Volunteers
A staff of four DNR employees maintain the prairie. A Natural Heritage biologist, inventories the wildlife, flora and fauna at least once a year noting changes as the prairie thrives. An IDNR Conservation 2000 grant program funded a Kaskaskia Watershed summer workshop for 25 teachers that included a tour of Guzy Prairie. Volunteer assistance comes from a local high school biology class and by the junior high Enviro-Teams.
Having overcome the early obstacles, Duzan now gives Guzy Prairie tours organized by the St. Louis District of the Army Corps of Engineers in the Spring and Fall. These guided Watchable Wildlife tours are free but registration with the Lake Shelbyville Information Center is recommended.
During these tours, Duzan admits he is pleasantly surprised at how quickly a traditional farm can be converted to native prairie. He also admits working with native prairie dispels the romantic image of pioneers crossing the grasslands, as though they were taking a leisurely hike.
Even after the seed heads are gone, Stan Duzan demonstrates to tours how prairie grass is a couple of feet taller than he is. He poses for photos amid the giant grasses.
Unlike wooded areas, the giant prairie grasses block breezes. “It feels like 180 degrees in eight foot grass,” Duzan says. “You don’t want to try to hike through a prairie in summer!”
Viewing The Prairie
Guzy Prairie is ungated and open from dawn to dusk. There is a parking lot, but no other facilities. A handicap-accessible raised viewing deck makes it possible to view the prairie and wetlands much of the year. A mowed path is maintained along the southern border, but no trails are cut through the prairie. The best viewing time is early morning or early evening and in the early spring before the tallgrasses block the view. Binoculars are highly recommended.
Directions: From Shelbyville, take US Route 128 north about three miles past the Findlay-Assumption Road.
The prairie is on the west side of the highway south of the intersection of county roads 2300N and 1800E.
Hours: Trails are open dawn to dusk daily
Shelbyville Wildlife Management Area (West Okaw Unit), R.R. 1, Box 42-A, Bethany, IL 61914, Office 217-665-3112.
Department of Natural Resources District Office, 2005 Round Barn Road, Champaign, Ill. 61821, Office 217-278-5773 FAX: 217-278-5763
INHD@dnrmail.state.il.us Sources Lake Shelbyville Information Center, Rte 4, Box 128B, Shelbyville, IL 62565, 217-774-3951
Findlay Enterprise, Findlay, Ill., April 24, 1953, p. 1, column 2 -4.
Illinois Administrative Code 30ILCS. Illinois Compiled Statutes, Conservation, Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act, 525 ILCS 30.
Illinois Compiled Statutes, Special Districts, Park District Code 70 ILCS 1205.
"Last Will and Testament, Affidavit of Heirship, Inventory, Estate of Margaret Guzy, deceased.” Macon County Circuit Court 91-p-124.
Miller, W. E. “Edd”, “Autobiography by W. E. “Edd” Miller, 1880 - 1953,” Jan. 27, 1946. Courtesy of Shelby County Historical and Genealogical Society. Transcribed by Tammy Wilson, 1588 Fairway Drive, Newton N.C.
Shelbyville Daily Union, April 25, 1953.
Sustainable Agriculture Grant Program, Conservation 2000, Illinois Public Act 89-49.