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On KCC’s Riverfront Campus, it is hard to miss the trees and greenspaces. Here are more details about trees, open spaces, planting and landscaping on KCC’s Riverfront Campus south of River Road in Kankakee.
The Past (1968-2010s)
In December 1968, Kankakee Community College acquired 176.6 acres (“more or less,” according to the Quit Claim Deed from the Illinois Department of Conservation) of former Kankakee State Hospital/Shapiro Developmental Center farm ground. It was almost completely devoid of trees. The college spent the next several years establishing temporary buildings (now known as West Campus) and constructing the original red brick buildings on what is now referred to as the Riverfront Campus.
Dr. L.H. Horton, Jr. began his tenure as KCC’s 3rd president in January 1977. Horton felt one way to beautify the campus was by adding trees. He was a strong believer in avoiding a monoculture by planting a variety of trees, thus lowering the chances of elimination from disease.
According to recollections of KCC retirees John Haley (KCC years: 1975-2008) and Larry Stevenson (KCC years: 1984-2004), some tree planting started before Horton’s arrival, perhaps late in 1975 or 1976. Some trees were planted in the island areas of parking lots, along the east side of the main entrance road, and on the golf course. KCC employed many teenagers during the summer through the Comprehensive Employment & Training Act (CETA) to work with the Physical Plant staff on outdoor projects, including planting bare-root trees. Haley estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 trees were planted by the CETA workers.
In August of 1978, professors from the University of Illinois’ Landscape Architecture department brought seven graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in “Advanced Design Studio” to evaluate KCC’s campus and propose a land development master plan for the college. Data was collected regarding soil type, climate, land use, native vegetation. A brief questionnaire was also distributed to staff.
On May 23, 1979, the land development plan was presented. It included goals such as beautifying the site; encouraging more student and community use of the campus; creating a campus image; emphasizing the natural, flowing, and pastoral forms of Illinois landscape; and considering long-range planning.
In the grass area south of the college’s main entrance, Horton prescribed specific varieties and placement of trees. He also recommended establishing tree groves in several locations, some with trees planted in honor of former trustees, retiring employees, and graduating student leaders. The groves would reduce the acreage of grass that required frequent mowing, thus cutting maintenance costs. Locating large groves west of the permanent buildings was selected to moderate the effects of prevailing westerly winds.
In 1980, the Kankakee Valley Park District wanted to clear mature trees from some of its property east of KCC, and KCC accepted some of those trees to be planted on the golf course and other locations where larger trees could be utilized. A commercial tree spade moved and planted 100 trees from Park District property to KCC. Haley and Stevenson recall that many were 20’ or taller oak trees!
Another good relationship in this general time period started when a researcher from the Morton Arboretum was interested in having a number of new hybrid trees planted on KCC’s campus to see how they would do in this environment. These trees were planted near student parking lots, the baseball and softball fields. Periodic visits were made to KCC by Arboretum arborists to evaluate the trees.
In the early 1980s, at KCC’s new baseball field, 20-foot evergreen trees were planted outside the centerfield fence to create a “batter’s eye” – a contrasting dark background so hitters could see pitched balls more easily. Smaller evergreens were planted around the perimeter of the outfield fence.
Horton also encouraged establishment of a prairie acre in the area northwest of West Campus. Seeds from plants and grasses native to long-gone Illinois prairies were planted. Annual burns would be required to maintain a true prairie culture. After several years following this practice, the Kankakee Fire Department expressed concern about the danger of the fire spreading, so the burns were discontinued. As a result, the Horton Prairie Acre is no longer a true prairie area because trees, brush, and other non-native plants have established a significant presence.
Shortly before his retirement from KCC in 1987, Horton said “I felt that if we were going to market the school and encourage people to come here, we had to have an attractive environment. So, we tried to really work on all aspects of the campus environment to make it a better place to work, a place that students and staff could be proud of, and a place that you would want to attend. Our work isn’t done, but at least I think we’ve made a start on it.”
Following Horton’s presidency, college leadership and Physical Plant Department allowed trees to continue growing as they continued maintaining and keeping up the areas previously planted.
The Present (2020s)
KCC has acquired a few more acres to reach 185 acres of land. Approximately 57 acres is farmland, and 64 acres is open space which includes tree groves. The trees and groves planted in the 1980s and earlier are now mature.
The college has established a Tree Conservation Program to protect tree and plant species on the Riverfront Campus and at extension centers. College grounds maintenance is led by George Mateja. The college also receives guidance and looks to expertise from Katelynn Ohrt, director of KCC’s credit division Horticulture Program; and staff of the University of Illinois Extension Office.
In 2017, large areas of underbrush were cleared along both sides of College Drive. The project created a better view of the golf course on the west side and the Student Grove on the east side of the drive. Some long-covered markers were revealed, as were quality tree specimens which didn’t have as healthy of a growth environment until they were uncovered.
Every two years, the Horticulture Program offers “Landscape Design.” Selected trees around the college are marked with ribbons for students in the class to identify. New trees are also being planted to round out the needs of the tree identification component in this class.
The grounds staff has been tagging and identifying trees in the various groves, including the Staff Grove, Student Grove, Trustee Grove, south courtyard, and on the golf course. More than 150 trees have been tagged. The corresponding tree information is kept in a Campus Tree Log.
The golf course has three holes, is open to the public, and free to use. The greens are not maintained because it would require a watering routine that can’t be sustained with current staffing and water resources.
The KCC golf course is also being used as a tree nursery with about 50 trees in stages of growth from 5 months to 3 years. Twenty new trees were planted there in 2021. This nursery includes Buckeye, Elm and Red Sunset Maple. The first trees to be replanted out of this location were moved from the nursery in 2021.
A new fruit tree orchard is in its early stages. Five apple trees are planted in a fenced-in area to protect them from deer. More trees will be added each year until the orchard is established. The fruit tree area is being developed in cooperation with the Horticulture Program.
Trees and other landscape elements have been removed as well. From 2017-21, more than 350 Ash trees were taken down after being stricken by the Emerald Ash Borer. A former “vita course,” which wound around the northern part of the campus no longer has the stations to stop and complete designated exercises. The crushed stone path still exists and is a frequently used walking path.
The Retiree Tree Grove, which started in the 1970s, still has at least 40 different varieties of growing and mature trees, Mateja estimates. Due to overcrowding and maintenance issues, the practice of designating a new tree for retirees was discontinued in 2015. A retiree Paver Plaza was established to honor retirees, including those who already had a tree.
Mateja is in the process of completing a certified arborist course through International Society of Arboriculture. There are two reasons that are considered when KCC decides to cut down, cut back, prune or remove trees and plantings: safety and security of the college and the health of the tree or surrounding trees.
KCC is working toward becoming recognized by the Tree Campus Higher Education program, which is an Arbor Day Foundation program.
The following programs will continue as part of the college’s Tree Conservation Program:
- Tree preservation and propagation
- Evaluation for safety and security, and for the health of trees and surrounding trees
- Pruning, cutting back, and removal of trees which are not healthy, or which impede other goals of the program
The college grounds department will continue collaborate with the University of Illinois Extension and KCC’s Horticulture program to
- Tag different tree and identify different tree species.
- Plant new varieties of trees.
Note: KCC gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Larry Huffman, Ph.D., (KCC years: 1977-2001 and 2009) for his research and descriptions which were the source for much of this information.