Down by the Old Mill Stream
Since 1923 the woodlands, picnic areas and shorelines of Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve in Warrenville have offered DuPage County residents a place to escape from the daily grind. But 160 years ago, offering the right kind of grind was what this site was all about.
In 1847 landowners built a dam across the West Branch of the DuPage River to pool and then channel the water toward their new gristmill. Outside, the force of the river cranked a wooden waterwheel; inside, interconnected gears drove a large circular millstone that ground grains into different grades of flour. By one account, in one January the mill produced 3,000 bushels of feed and 1,200 bushels of rye flour.
The upstream pond was more than a power source for the miller, though. Farmers from miles around brought their children to swim there while they waited in line at the mill, and the area became one of the best beach destinations for local families. The pond even served as a baptismal pool and sheep bath. Yes, a sheep bath. Farmers needed an efficient way to clean their livestocks’ wool in the spring before they sheared the animals, and the dam downstream of the pond slowed the river enough for such a chore. It was still a tricky task, requiring farmers to don as many layers of jeans, coats and shirts as they could find to keep warm in the early May waters.
Over the decades the site housed two different gristmills and a sawmill, each subject to repairs due to floods or ice damage. There were even fires in 1879 and 1897, the result of friction-generated heat from the gears’ nonstop operation. The mill lost in the ’97 disaster was the last, and 26 years later the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County purchased the land and surrounding 42 acres, making Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve a permanent recreational destination.
Although it was no longer needed for power, the dam received new life in the 1930s from the Civilian Conservation Corp, which also added trails and a footbridge. Recent habitat-restoration work along the West Branch included the dam’s removal, an undertaking that required the Forest Preserve District to temporarily close the preserve’s main entrance for most of 2012, but you can see remnants of the dam’s limestone abutments from the 1930s and walk across the historic millrace as you listen to water gurgle over re-created natural riffles.
But Warrenville Grove isn’t just a mix of 19th and 21st century scenic features; it’s a mix of pastimes, too. As Leone Schmidt’s “The Life and Times of Warrenville” recounts, “The water held fish in abundance, drawing fishermen from the neighboring towns to the Warrenville mill pond in great numbers.” Anglers still reel in crappie, bass and other sunfish as well as northern pike and catfish but now likely use spinners or plastic curly-tailed grubs on small jigs dropped downstream of the bridge or from the ADA-compliant pier. A 450-foot trail connects the parking lot to the pier and two canoe launches, and there’s even a path that hugs the shoreline that paddlers can use as a portage if they’re not interested in navigating down the river’s main channel.
One paper reported in June 1885 that “picnics are an everyday occurrence with us. They come from Wheaton, from Turner [West Chicago], from Naperville, and elsewhere to rusticate in our beautiful rural retreat.” Today’s visitors can still picnic along the river but can also walk, peddle or push a stroller along a 0.7-mile stretch of the West Branch Regional Trail. The trail cuts north-south across the 126-acre preserve and along a “dry-mesic” woodland — one that rests on high, dry land — that’s anchored with sugar maples, hackberries, bur oaks and black walnuts, including one of the District’s largest. In spring the ground blossoms with white trout lily, Virginia waterleaf, May apple, swamp buttercup and feathery false Solomon’s seal while returning rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes, red-eyed vireos and indigo buntings animate the leafy canopy.
Its access to the West Branch Regional Trail makes Warrenville Grove a well-placed, even if not well-known, trailhead. To the south, the trail leaves forest preserve property but shortly joins McDowell Grove Forest Preserve in Naperville, where it continues for 3.3 miles. To the north, it ends at the Aurora Branch of the Illinois Prairie Path. From there, you can zigzag your way east and then back west to Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville, where the regional trail picks up again for another 3.9 miles. You can also head due east and reach Herrick Lake Forest Preserve in Wheaton and the start of the 5.8-mile Danada-Herrick Lake Regional Trail. Maps of all of these routes are available online at dupageforest.org and in our free trails guide, which you can request from Visitor Services at (630) 933-7248.
Today’s Warrenville Grove may no longer be the place to go grind grain, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a forest preserve that continues to yield such a wide appeal.