Forest Faves: St. James Farm
A trip to St. James Farm Forest Preserve in Warrenville provides visitors with a rich historic journey through time and the perfect way to connect with nature, making it a favorite of ranger Nick Kubis. The 612-acre forest preserve contains more than 100 acres of woodlands, prairies and wetlands and is home to more than 300 native plant species and wildlife like great blue herons, red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, coyotes, fox squirrels and white-tailed deer.
Kubis said the pond in the southwest corner of the preserve is his favorite spot at St. James Farm. “It’s often quiet and tranquil, enticing wildlife to visit a setting that provides harmony not only for them but for me as well,” he said. The pond is also a scenic spot for catch-and-release fishing. Kubis especially likes it when the fountain is on in the middle of the pond, shooting a geyser that almost reaches above the tree line.
Morning and late afternoon are especially nice times to visit, with each offering its own beauty, Kubis said. One hour after sunrise basks the trees in a morning glow while waking up the fish, frogs and birds in and around the pond. Sunset provides a whole different beauty and sends the wildlife home for the night, he said.
If you go, Kubis recommends taking a tractor-drawn wagon ride to see and hear about the buildings, natural areas and equestrian roots of St. James Farm. Before the District bought the property in 2000, the property was the retreat of the McCormick family.
St. James Farm also has a two-mile multipurpose limestone trail that connects to nearby Herrick Lake and Blackwell forest preserves as well as the Illinois Prairie Path for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Interpretive signs along tree-lined promenades called “allées” relate the history of the estate, and picnic tables west of the dairy barn offer ideal places for lunch breaks and rest stops. Groups can reserve the forest preserve’s pavilion by calling Visitor Services at 630-933-7248 but must do so at least three business days before their visit.
Throughout the preserve, visitors can view a number of pieces of artwork commissioned by the McCormick family: a dolphins fountain, Fiona and something special relief, water-trough fountain, red brick wall, horse sculpture, stable mural, “I Saw a Child” relief, and the Chamossaire sculpture.
In fall 2015, the District completed a portion of its Spring Brook Creek Restoration Project that runs through the north end of St. James Farm. The project reintroduced more natural twists and turns to the straightened waterway and created adjacent wetlands. The new meanders connected the creek to the floodplain in the surrounding preserve, allowing it to better receive, store and filter nutrient-rich floodwaters. The configuration and the addition of gravels, cobbles and boulders also improved habitat complexity for macroinvertebrates, fish and mussels.
In addition to its natural beauty, St. James Farm has a rich history. The preserve also has a 1906 Chicago, Burlington & Quincy caboose located by the east farm barn, which Brooks McCormick’s grandchildren used to play in. The caboose has a built-in mechanism that simulates rocking back and forth, Kubis said.
The first Europeans to settle on this land were farmers, and several structures from late-1800s farmsteads remain, including a gabled-roof-and-wing farmhouse, one of the last of its kind in DuPage County. A massive wood-planked German-style barn with cantilevered floors dates back to 1890, if not earlier, as do the remains of another barn’s fieldstone foundation.
For decades, the property was the retreat of the McCormick family. Chauncey and Marion McCormick acquired the initial 203 acres in 1920. Chauncey was the great-nephew of Cyrus McCormick, who invented the first commercially successful mechanical reaper and in 1851 cofounded the McCormick Reaper Works, which would merge with the Deering Harvester Company in 1906 to become the International Harvester Corporation.
The couple built a number of stables and barns to accommodate their interest in horseback riding and their award-winning herd of Guernsey cows. For the better part of two decades, the buildings housed a dairy operation that was a benchmark for farmers throughout the Midwest.
In the late 1950s, the property passed to the McCormick’s son, Brooks, who managed the estate with his wife, Hope. They built the estate’s indoor arena, which not only accommodated their black-tie events but also later served as the St. James Riding School for the Handicapped, one of the McCormicks’ charitable interests.