NIPE always says that Hanley Savanna was founded in 2003, but its history goes back much further than that of course. 

I met the landowner, Jim Lewis, back in 1978 when we were both working in the same building on Michigan Ave. in Chicago. He would stop in the plant and gift shop where I worked from time to time; a charming man who loved to flirt. Sometime after I had begun dating one of his co-workers, he invited both of us for a weekend to his place ‘in the country.’ That turned out to be Hanover, Illinois where he owned a house in town and land, both on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River (the upper farm) and on the floodplain that bumped up against, what was then, the Savanna Army Depot (the lower farm). He had bought the land in the early 1970’s sight unseen to help a friend who was having financial difficulties. That weekend I fell in love with the countryside and with the 43-acre parcel that was for sale next door to the upper farm. I bought that acreage and Jim and I became neighbors.

There were many amusing rumors floating around Hanover about Jim—that he worked for the CIA was a persistent story; that he made his fortune importing bird seed to England during WWII, was another. I know the first was untrue and I’m not sure about the second, but I do know that his environmental roots went way back and ran deep. A direct descendant of Civil War General John Buford, James Hanley took his step-father’s name when his mother, Leah Hanley, remarried, and became James Lewis.

The first acres of land to be donated by Jim, and his neighbor to the south, became the beginnings of the Hanover Bluff Nature Preserve (HBNP) which was dedicated in 1987. A few years later, Jim donated an adjoining 115-acre parcel to The Nature Conservancy. This land connects the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ farms and is adjacent to HBNP which is now a 1,200-acre protected natural area.

In 2003, Jim sold the remaining 110 acres of the ‘lower farm’ to TPE and created a conservation easement on the residual 89 acres of ‘upper farm’, held by the Natural Land Institute. My own acres were also protected by a conservation easement at that time. In 2004 another 44-acre parcel was purchased by TPE from a lower farm neighbor, Gene Roberts, completing the 160-acre tract known as Hanley Savanna.

The importance of this parcel cannot be overstated—it connects Hanover Bluff with the Lost Mound Fish & Wildlife Refuge creating the largest protected natural area in northwest Illinois and containing prairie, woodland, barrens, wetland, and savanna.

The Prairie Enthusiasts restoration work began at Hanley in 2003 with the seeding of the West Savanna, Lark Prairie (named after one of Jim’s daughters) and The Sandbox. I remember The Sandbox seeding well. True to its name, it’s a sandy dune into which prairie diva Barb and I were tasked to seed porcupine grass (Hesperostipa spartea) by hand. This grass has very long (3” to 8 “) awns that are sharp and spirally twisted so they can drill themselves into the soil upon contact. We had gathered the seed at Lost Mound during late summer and laboriously bundled it by the dozen with the help of rubber bands. Then we unbundled it and pitched it high in the air, so it could corkscrew into the sand.

2004 and 2005 saw the seedings of Bumblebee and Aster Prairies. Bumblebee gets its name from the prolific insect life there and Aster Prairie for the large population of azure asters (Symphyotrichum oolentangiensis). The earliest seedings contained about 85 species; these days we use over 100 species with a value exceeding $145,000 and often weighing in at over 1,000 pounds.

In the winter of 2005, the pine plantation was harvested, and work began on restoring ‘The Pinelands’. We were lucky to be paid a nominal amount to have this non-native species removed and initially meant to restore this area to black oak savanna. However, after many years of work, we were astonished to find that Yellow-breasted chats had moved in from the neighboring Lost Mound Wildlife Refuge, along with grasshopper and lark sparrows. Based on these finds we are rethinking our management strategy for this area.

2006 saw the restoration of Roberts and Lewis Prairies; 2007 was the year for Eagle Prairie, named for several Bald eagles the hubby and I saw there that winter. A Little Bluestem field was created and an overseeding was conducted at the East Savanna as well. Overseedings are often done after a successful burn when the ground is open.

By 2008, the entire property had been restored. Of course, that work is ongoing. Every year brings new opportunities and new challenges. Some years we find new species, some years we find new weeds. We’ve learned that restoring a prairie is almost easier than maintaining it.

Currently we have a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation which will allow us to advance our management of Hanley Savanna to the next level. By collecting detailed ecological data over the entire site, we’ll be able to create a new management plan to adaptively manage the site.

As always, we invite you to come out to Hanley Savanna, enjoy the prairies and the wildlife, and help us with our restoration efforts.