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Discover the vibrant history around Better Place Forests Rock River

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When our team chooses forestland, we’re committed to protecting and conserving the land for generations to come. Just as important are the communities surrounding these forests. We select forests with high conservation value, widespread community support, and rich history that make each location unique. 

Our newly opened forest along the Rock River in northern Illinois, is no exception. The 60-acre forest not only boasts beautiful native trees and an abundance of wildlife along the river but is also bordered by Lorado Taft Field Campus and Lowden State Park, establishments of rich artistic and cultural history. 

These sites were once the location of American sculptor Lorado Taft’s Eagle’s Nest Colony, founded in 1898. It’s now known as the Lorado Taft Field Campus, and is owned and operated by Northern Illinois University. Lowden State Park has become a popular destination due to its sweeping views of the majestic Rock River and its prominent Black Hawk Statue sculpted by Lorado Taft.

Learn more about the rich history of the Rock River region surrounding our newest forest — or book a free online forest tour to see the forest for yourself. 

Aerial view of the Rock River and surrounding forests

The rich history of the Rock River region

The Eagle’s Nest Colony story began when a group of artists and writers sought to escape the Chicago summer heat to gather, have fun, and collaborate through art. Chicago lawyer Wallace Heckman generously offered a part of his estate in Oregon, IL, agreeing to a $1 a year lease that ran for as long as one of the founding members of the colony remained alive. From its inception in 1898 until 1942 — when its last founding member, Ralph Clarkson, passed away — the Colony was a place of summer fun, friendship, and beauty in nature for these artists and their families. 

During its 44 years in existence, the art colony produced many art pieces that are still well-known and cherished today. One of the most famous — the Black Hawk Statue — is a centerpiece of Lowden State Park. Inspired by days spent admiring the sunset across the Rock River, thinking about the Native Americans that have stood in that place before, Lorado Taft and artist John Prasuhn created what is thought to be the second tallest monolithic sculpture in the world. For its time, it was considered an engineering masterpiece. Although intended to represent the spirit of several tribal cultures, the Oregon community immediately adopted the Black Hawk name in honor of the Sauk leader — and the name stuck. The statue was dedicated in 1911. 

Another well-known landmark influenced by the art colony is the Oregon Public Library. Funded by Andrew Carnegie and designed by two colony charter members, Allen and Irving Pond, it features a second-story art gallery. Lorado Taft encouraged fellow artists to donate over 50 pieces of art to the gallery, where they remain as a permanent collection today. 

NIU Lorado Taft Field Campus and the sculptor’s legacy 

Northern Illinois University acquired the Eagle’s Nest Colony in 1951. Now named the Lorado Taft Field Campus, it sees over 6,000 elementary and middle-school students each year. Their programs combine multidisciplinary activities — like skills-based classes — with programs that get students outdoors and interacting with the natural world. This holistic approach to outdoor education supports the philosophy that learning happens as much outside the classroom as it does inside it. 

Campus Director Melanie Costello shared with us how the program successfully infuses nature and conservation into their curriculum. Spending so much time outside means students naturally learn about the benefits of having forests, healthy rivers, wildlife diversity, and what makes these ecosystems so important. “I want them to enjoy it and not just have to learn. They’re not coming here to learn the different tree species necessarily. It’s not about giving everything a name,” says Melanie. “It’s more about being in nature to enjoy it. You don’t have to be able to name it to know that it’s lovely and that it’s worth something to us.”

Keeping the Lorado Taft name keeps his memory, and that of the Colony, alive. Three of the campus buildings are the original structures built by the colony, and they’ve named newer buildings after prominent colony artists. The university also preserved some of Taft’s students’ artwork that’s now featured throughout the campus. Most notably, the tree that held the eagle’s nest — and gave the colony its name — now sits on campus. When the tree fell in 1972, the campus moved it to the front of the dining hall with a plaque sharing its story. 

Many of the core tenets of the Eagle’s Nest Colony — getting away from the city, enjoying the outdoors, and connecting with others — remain alive within the NIU Outdoor Program. “The fact that we are getting kids — many of whom are from Chicago — out in nature and doing something that they think is fun leaves the impression that you don’t always have to be where the outlets are to have a good time,” shares Melanie. “I hope kids leave here with a ‘nature is fun’ impression.”

An eagle soars over the Rock River

Visit our forest along the Rock River

Better Place Forests is proud to preserve and protect 60-acres of forest in the Rock River Valley in Illinois that has been a source of inspiration and tranquility for many over the generations. When you visit the area, you’ll experience the beautiful natural world and vibrant culture of art history. This region is known for its high diversity of trees — including red and white oak, black walnut, shagbark and bitternut hickories, basswood, red elm, hackberry, and black cherry. Strolling through the forest’s unique sections, you may be greeted by wild turkeys, turtles, frogs, beavers, or bald eagles. 

We look forward to showing you the beauty surrounding the Rock River in Illinois. To learn more about this flourishing forest with riverfront views, book a free online forest tour

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