- Associated Press - Monday, February 1, 2016

LASALLE, Ill. (AP) - Blowing snow and biting wind did not steal the moment last month when the Simonson family saw their dream come true at Starved Rock State Park.

Their family’s White Oak Campground is now the 51-acre Curt & Helen Simonson Canyon Unit of Starved Rock, which will become a day-use area for park visitors. The land had been in the Simonson family since 1835.

“This is awesome,” said their son, Curtis Simonson of Pittsfield. “You can’t ask for anything more or anything nicer than this.”

Curtis Simonson was joined by family members, park staff and Illinois Department of Natural Resources officials including DNR director Wayne Rosenthal for a dedication.

“IDNR has been working to acquire this land since August of 1985 so this has been a long time coming,” Rosenthal said. “We are very appreciative to the Simonson family and their mother and father for the opportunity to acquire this property.”



The land, north of Grand Bear Lodge along Route 178, is on a wooded bluff surrounded by steep hills, ravines and a canyon with a waterfall. The DNR bought the site for $900,000 in the fall of 2013 from the estate of the late Helen M. Simonson, Ottawa, who along with her husband, Curtis, owned and operated the campground from 1965 to 2002. Curtis Simonson died in 2002 and Helen Simonson died in 2011. Their surviving children, Curtis Simonson, Laurie Cunniff of Ottawa and Dawn Swanson of Streator, continued managing the campground before selling it to the state, which was their parent’s wish.

The site was originally owned by the children’s great-great grandfather, Col. Daniel Hitt, the state’s first land surveyor who bought Starved Rock and surrounding land for a reported $85 in 1835 from the U.S. government. In 1891 Hitt sold a parcel to Ferdinand Walthers, who in turn sold the land for $146,000 to the state, leading to formation of the state park in 1911.

The campground land remained in the family. Andrew Hitt named one canyon “Hitt” and another “Curtis” for his wife’s family. The land was passed on to Ethel (Hitt) Simonson, to Curtis Simonson and lastly to the children who sold it to the state.

The land is contiguous to the Starved Rock Nature Preserve and will protect against incompatible development, Rosenthal said. The site is classified as a land and water reserve and will offer hiking, nature observation and bird watching, he said.

“The acquisition of the property also was important for the preservation of archaeological sites and threatened and endangered species,” Rosenthal said.

The state must finish developing and implementing plans for the area before it is opened to the public, said Todd Rettig, director of the office of land management.

Curtis Simonson told a story at the dedication about an important artifact from Starved Rock, a cross worn by Jacques Marquette, who with Louis Jolliet were the first Europeans to discover the area in the 1670s.

“Our grandmother, Ethel (Hitt) Simonson, gave that cross to the Illinois State Museum and it was held in a depository there for many years but we could never find it,” he said.

The cross was later found in the museum’s collection and a replica was made, which is displayed at the park visitor center, Simonson said.

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Source: (LaSalle) News-Tribune, https://bit.ly/1V9IvYK

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Information from: News-Tribune, https://www.newstrib.com

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