Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hike new trail through region that celebrated Illinois’ first Thanksgiving

Made-up news story
leads to celebration
in Sangamon Valley

These days, suburban housing developments are filling the broad flat fields of western Springfield, Ill. Nearly 200 years ago, though, it was dotted with prairie homesteaders who first celebrated Thanksgiving in Illinois – largely because of a hoax.

Day hikers in the Springfield area now can cross this historical region via the Sangamon Valley Trail. A 1.6-mile (3.2-miles round trip) segment of the trail makes for a perfect hike to reflect upon Thanksgiving blessings.

To reach the trail, from Interstate 72, take exit 91, heading north on Old Route 54/Wabash Avenue. Turn left onto County Road 3 South/Bunker Hill Road; after passing Lenhart Road, take the next right into Centennial Park. The parking lot is to the right of the entry road.

From the lot’s north end, walk west between the two holding ponds. Then cut across the grass, following a makeshift dirt trail to the SVT.

Former railroad bed
Paved and flat, both walkers and bicyclists use the trail, which opened in summer 2011. The pathway used to be tracks for the Chicago and North Western Railroad.

Before the railways crisscrossed the country, this area was home to the few Yankee settlers among the Kentuckians and Virginians who pioneered central Illinois. The Southerners saw little reason to celebrate the “Yankee” holiday of Thanksgiving.

Then in autumn 1838, the Chicago Democrat newspaper published a proclamation, issued by Gov. Joseph Duncan, declaring Nov. 29 as a day of Thanksgiving. Simeon Francis, the Connecticut-born editor of the Sangamo Journal that covered these parts at the time, reprinted the article, heralded the bringing of a great New England tradition to the Prairie State, and asked for anyone who had a pumpkin to deliver it to him as such a squash was an essential part of the celebration.

And some did celebrate it.

Unfortunately, the proclamation turned out to be a hoax. In the Dec. 1, 1838, edition of the Sangamo Journal, Francis ran a retraction.

“A large lot of pumpkin pies”
The push for Illinois’ first official Thanksgiving soon followed, however. On Nov. 4, 1842, the Presbyterian State Synod meeting in Bloomington adopted a resolution calling for Thursday, Nov. 25, to be an observance of Thanksgiving. Feeling the political pressure to respond, on Nov. 12, 1842, Gov. Thomas Carlin named the last Thursday of December as “a Day of Thanksgiving” throughout the state.

That gave Frances the last laugh. On the pages of the Sangamo Journal, he hailed the two proclamations, and to educate his Southern neighbors, he wrote that the Thanksgiving meal required turkey, chicken, geese, partridge and “a large lot of pumpkin pies.”

As to the Sangamon Valley Trail, trees nicely wall it through Centennial Park. Upon leaving the park at Lenhart Road, the trail opens to farmland. The trail does cross two roads – Lenhart and West Iles – so watch for traffic.

Greenbriar Drive marks a good spot to turnaround. If you have a little more energy, however, keep walking to Archer Elevator Road, which is 2 miles one-way (4 miles round trip), or all the way to Stuart Park on Springfield’s northwest side, for a 5.5-mile one-way (11 miles round trip) hike.

Find out about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.