Not everyone around Western Springs was happy when, in 2004, Dartmoor Homes snapped up Timber Trails Country Club’s land to create the Village’s Timber Trails development—many in the “Save Our Timber” movement mourned the impending loss of 300-year-old oaks, a one-time Potawatomi Indian camp and one of Cook County’s few remaining open spaces.
But eight years later, with the housing crash having forced Dartmoor to foreclose on Timber Trails leaving only a woefully-underbuilt eastern half, some are seeing a second chance to keep the 55-acre western tract wild.
A proposal has been presented to the Village of Western Springs by Openlands, a half-century-old organization devoted to preserving northeastern Illinois parkland, to purchase the house-free Unit II of the Timber Trails development (currently owned by PNC Bank subsidiary Real Property Holding, Western Springs, LLC) for retention as a natural space.
“With the complex history that’s woven through the site from the glaciers to our prairie and oak-hickory savannah history to the native Americans and the early settlement, it’s easy to understand why so many people are drawn to the site and have been encouraging that it be preserved,” said Openlands Land Preservation Specialist Emy Brawley.
The Timber Trails tract features a 70-foot elevation change from Flagg Creek to its tree-lined peak: the product of receding glaciers. It is noted as the last campsite of about 70 Potawatomi before being forcibly relocated west in 1835, a history memorialized by a plaque on the site. In 1929, it became the 18-hole golf course—which, Brawley said, has actually preserved its ecological value.
“If you look at a lot of the oak groves left in Chicago, they’ve fallen victim to a dense understory of buckthorn,” said Brawley. “The buckthorn is essentially choking any new generation of oak trees from coming forward to replace many of the older trees that are at the end of their lives. But because the golf course was more or less managed, there’s no understory there.”
A number of Western Springs residents are on board, unofficially dubbed “Citizens Interested in Timber Trails West,” about 30 having held a meeting on Jan. 31, They include former Openlands board president Nancy Sutherland and Spring Rock Questers president Sharon Cloghessy, and plan to give a presentation at the Board of Trustees meeting on Monday, Feb. 13.
Cloghessy said there is concern from the residents that the Village is not taking the November-submitted Openlands proposal seriously, or has a vested interest in keeping the land from becoming permanently free of a tax-base.
“This shouldn’t be something that the Village doesn’t even let residents know about,” Cloghessy said “People thought the Historical Society was crazy when they tried to preserve the Ekdahl House. But a group of committed citizens got together and they were able to do it.” (She compared the site to Fullersberg Woods in southern Oak Brook, which has many trails and a Nature Education Center.)
“We’re hoping that [the Trustees] will give us some response of where they stand right now,” added group member Cecilia Hofmann. “If in fact there is a majority opinion that supports the concept of having that green space, [we’d] move forward with discussions of what needs to be done to make that happen.”
Seven years after the last golf ball was struck there, nature is well on its way to reclaiming Unit II. Former fairways have become thick-grassed prairies; the trees that lined them still tower. A few broken-down pavilions, a pump house and the odd scrap of cart path are the only signs of the seven-decade course—besides the occasional suspiciously doglegged shaped paths between the trees.
Preserved as an open space, there are a number of ways the land could still contribute to the Village besides its historical and environmental value. It might uptick property values, and could serve as a local hotspot for dog runs and short hikes. The elevation and open prairie might even give the Village its long-desired sledding hill.
“A park in that area like that, while it’s not huge, if it has trails, is a nice amenity not just for people in that southern area of Western Springs, but also for people in Indian Head Park and La Grange Highlands,” said Sutherland. “They don’t have a park that close to them with trails.”
In any agreement struck, Openlands would serve at most as a temporary owner of the property, with eventual sale back to an entity like the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. The land is likely to be worth far less today than half of the whopping $45 million that Dartmoor paid at auction in 2004. No matter what, it is unlikely to cease to be officially part of the Village.
If the bid succeeds, it would be a slightly ironic, but perhaps fitting third act to the Timber Trails tale.
“I view it as a good outcome for a story that went bad,” Sutherland said.