Q. What has happened to St. Clair County’s purchase of the Engelmann farm? I have searched all over the Internet and even called the tourism board and there is nothing about the farm aside from the purchase. I could not even find out where it is located aside from the fact that it’s in Engelmann Township.
— Carol, of Belleville
A. The next time you want a quiet family picnic, this would be an ideal place to go. You’ll likely find the new Engelmann Park as quiet and peaceful as its opening was at least six months ago. So quiet, in fact, that even Belleville historian Bob Brunkow, one of the people instrumental in having the property preserved, advised me to call the county to make sure the park was open for use.
“They did have a no-trespassing sign there for the longest time,” he told me. “But, yes, I believe it’s open. They’ve been really quiet about it. I haven’t heard plans for any ceremonies.”
Never miss a local story.
Eight years in the making, the 144-acre park is indeed open to those wanting to commune with nature, Debra Moore, county administrator, assured me Wednesday morning. Efforts to preserve the property began in about 2007 when Brunkow and other conservationists stopped the Shiloh site from being turned into another residential subdivision so future generations would continue to appreciate its role in the area’s history.
Brunkow said the farm was settled in the 1830s by dedicated professionals escaping political oppression in Germany. But this was not just another farm producing corn and other crops. According to Brunkow, the site became known as “the refuge of righteousness on the Mississippi River” because those German exiles would resupply and rest there while en route to settle the American frontier.
“The farm goes to the beginning of the German migration of this area,” Brunkow told us two years ago. “You really get a sense from walking through there of that German heritage. The Engelmann family was among the first German immigrants in the state.”
Over the years, the farm has been called home by some of the most significant historical figures in early Illinois history. Gustave Koerner, Georg Engelmann and Theodor Engelman all lived at the farm in the 1830s after it first settled by Friedrich Engelmann in 1833. Koerner was an ardent supporter of Abraham Lincoln during the 1860 presidential campaign and later became an Illinois Supreme Court judge and lieutenant governor. Dr. Georg Engelmann was a renowned botanist who helped develop the Missouri Botanical Garden. Theodor Engelmann published the first German newspaper in Illinois.
“You kind of wonder what Germany would have become if they had stayed around and flourished, but we got them instead,” Brunkow said. “They originally planned to settle in Missouri, but they stopped in Kentucky and saw the evils of slavery and decided they could not live in a slave state. So when they arrived in St. Louis they contacted earlier scouts who convinced them to live in what is now Shiloh Valley Township.”
So it’s no surprise that when Brunkow learned in February 2007 that Fulford Homes, a metro-east home developer, had contracted to buy the property, he had to stop the purchase. He met with County Board Chairman Mark Kern, who agreed that the property was “truly magical” and began working with the board to apply for the grants needed to buy the old farm. On Aug. 27, 2007, the board voted 22-3 to fund the $4.6 million purchase — roughly $32,000 an acre.
The last Engelmann to live on the farm was Anna Engelmann, who died in 1960 at 90 years of age. Since then, however, the two historic homes, both privately owned, have been well-maintained. In one, you’d find Gordon Stone, who joined Brunkow in the push for preservation in 2007 after reading “Wanderers Between Two Worlds: German Rebels in the American West, 1830-1860” by Douglas Hale. The book tells the story of seven young German revolutionaries, including Koerner, the Engelmanns and Gustav Bunsen.
But other than a new roof and HVAC system on one of the homes, the rest of the property retains much of what Brunkow must find its historic charm, including the Engelmann family cemetery and the last old-growth forest in the township.
“Very little has been done to it, which is a good thing,” he told me. “It has two pavilions that look down into the valley and then some hiking trails down the hill. So it looks right now pretty much the way it always has looked except for those god-awful pavilions. But it was either those or luxury homes, so we’ll take the pavilions. The thought is that — and I haven’t taken a look lately — they are going to plant prairie grasses and flowers on that hillside, but it’s going to be a low-impact location. You’re not going to have volleyball courts or anything like that.”
Finding it is easy. Take Lebanon Avenue/Road from Belleville. Then, just as you start to enter the village proper, make a right on Shiloh Station Road where you see Corpus Christi Church. Follow the road roughly half a mile before making a right on Buena Vista, which will take you through the woods to a small parking lot. You can get a nice overview of the park if you call up a satellite picture of Shiloh on Google Maps.
Do you remember the name of the house band on “The Muppet Show”?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: When the old game show “Beat the Clock” needed someone to test potential stunts in the early ’50s, it once hired an unknown acting wannabe by the name of James Dean. Although he would become an Oscar winner before dying in a 1955 car crash, he reportedly was fired from “Beat the Clock” for — what else? — finishing the stunts too fast.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2465.