Poverty Point‎ > ‎

History

By Alex Ring (as featured in The Land Report)

Poverty Point is the name my grandfather coined for our land after purchasing our 80 acre farm in 1966.  Reflective in this title is his ambivalence toward buying it, stemming from his belief that it wasn’t necessarily a prudent financial decision.  Poverty Point was to be the weekend escape from the trappings of the workaday life he and my grandmother were accustomed to. 

I first came to know Poverty Point as a child of about age eleven.  Since I had always been an outdoor boy, I remember wondering upon my first visit why I hadn’t been told of its existence earlier.  However, I decided to overlook that point, in favor of exploring what this newly-found land had to offer.  I was immediately infatuated with its natural beauty, overcome by a sense of independence and freedom only to be had in a foreign environment.  It was somewhere I could get lost and that was important to me.

My family’s ownership of this land began in the 1960’s, but it had a long history prior to that.  Attesting to this fact is an old stone well that I discovered one day under a shaggy osage orange tree.  With a hole three-feet in diameter, covered by three precariously placed hedge posts covered in green moss, I knew that the spot where I stood once looked drastically different.  The sole survivor of a prairie homestead, this well opened my eyes to the past, sparking more questions than answers.  It was then that I realized that the property had a story to tell me if I was willing to seek it out.

The first owner of our land, I later found out, was a war veteran named Robert Haggerty.  He had served as a private in Cambell’s Corps. of Artillery in the War of 1812 and as a reward for his service was given one-hundred sixty acres by President James Monroe on October 23, 1818.  At this time in history, no Europeans had settled the area of Schuyler County, Illinois and many soldiers sold their “worthless” ground for a mere pittance to speculators.  Such was the fate of our farm.  Haggerty sold it to a gentleman in New York City little more than a month later for fifty-five dollars, foreshadowing the long chain of title that would transpire over the course of the next 150 years.

By 1855, the farm was owned by Joel W. Gillenwater, in whose family it would remain for years to come.  Laura Byers, the wife of Joel’s grandson, was the last family member to own the farm.  In 1934, Laura was recently widowed and found herself unable to meet the payments that were required of her $5,000 mortgage, which was foreclosed upon in short order.  Sold at public auction, Poverty Point would be owned by two more people over the next 30 years before my grandparents purchased the property.

When I was a boy, I discovered a rickety old shack in the woods covered by weathered barn siding.  Its roof was covered by shingles that showed significant deterioration which had collapsed entirely in some spots.  I later learned that the cabin had been put there by my grandfather who had purchased it with the intention of fixing it up as a place to spend time with his family on their weekend visits.  It wasn’t until years later when upon the advice of a friend I decided take on the challenge of fixing it up.  The cabin needed an entirely new roof and the foundation had sunk into the ground over time rotting the lower boards.  Fortunately, much of the old pine barn siding was still in good shape and I was able to create a weatherproof rustic cabin on a $300 budget.  After all of the structural work was complete, I installed a brick floor inside and restored on old-style potbelly wood stove to use as a heat source in winter.  My cabin has become the focal point of the land—the place where I can relax and reflect on the land and my life.

Last fall, while hiking through the woods, I came across a hole behind the twisted mess of an uprooted walnut tree.  Suspecting I could learn something from it, I stepped closer and peered into it.  With a powdered dirt floor that looked like it had been recently traveled, I realized I had come across a den of sorts.  With a flashlight, I looked into the hole and saw a gradually upward sloping floor that stretched into the creek bank at least twelve feet at which point the tunnel rose out of my line of sight.  After a few weeks of monitoring the den, I came to find out that this most unpretentious of homes was a shelter for at least three species of wildlife.  The first was a deer mouse, which looked like a man at the mouth of a gigantic cave, dwarfed by the size of the opening.  I later saw two large raccoons, a couple preparing for winter no doubt.  Later, I witnessed an opossum entering the den.  Somehow, all of these animals had found a way to get along, using a single den as their winter refuge.  I was shocked by the find.  It is moments like these that make life interesting and provide excitement to each and every excursion in the woods.

In my moments of solitude, I often sit in my cabin or on a fallen tree pondering earlier days.  How many Native Americans have crossed this property in search of game or shelter?  Was there once a time when the long since extirpated timber wolf, mountain lion, black bear, and elk called this land home?  Further, did a flock of passenger pigeons ever perch, iridescently colored, in an old oak tree filling the cool spring air with their song?  I comfort myself by thinking that they had.  Those sights and sounds were unappreciated realities to Joel Gillenwater and his family, who were trying to carve out a living in the harsh early 19th century prairie landscape.  To me, they are legend.  As Ted Turner likes to say about land, “It’s the only thing that lasts.”  This phrase could not have a deeper meaning for me than it does in relation to Poverty Point, which is the greatest source of inspiration in my life.  In the future, I look forward to restoring native hardwood trees and tallgrass prairie habitat, while continuing to learn more of what the land has to teach me.

Comments