UTICA -- Mark McConnaughhay stepped through deep snow to the bluff edge. White-tailed deer darted along the hillside. Two bald eagles roosting in a tree took flight.
McConnaughhay, site superintendent for Starved Rock State Park, was checking out the park's latest land acquisition, the former White Oak Campground south of Utica.
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"It is a great addition to Starved Rock State Park and we are extremely grateful to the Simonson family for this acquisition," McConnaughhay said.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources bought the 51 acres last fall from the estate of the late Helen M. Simonson, Ottawa. The campground, north of Grand Bear Lodge and west of the park along Route 178, was owned and operated by Helen and Curtis Simonson from 1965 to 2002. Curtis Simonson died in 2002 and Helen Simonson died in 2011. Surviving children Curt Simonson of Bloomington, Laurie Cunniff of Ottawa and Dawn Swanson of Streator managed the campground until they sold it last fall.
"We always wanted to it to go back to the state of Illinois"' Laurie Cunniff said. "We just had to make a decision on the future of it and my dad's desire was it should eventually go to the state of Illinois. Letting go was a really hard thing but if anything we wanted it to go Starved Rock State Park. It's a beautiful piece of land."
"It was a very, very hard decision for us (to sell) because it is a part of who we," Curt Simonson said. "It's what we grew up with. It's your identity."
The campground is on a wooded bluff top surrounded by steep hills and ravines, including Curtis Canyon, which has a waterfall. The state classifies it as a land and water reserve. It won't become a state campground and it may eventually be opened to the public, McConnaughhay said.
The state bought the land for the appraised/negotiated price of $900,000 using Open Land Trust capital funds. A management plan for the new land will be drawn up by natural heritage, forestry, nature preserve and wildlife officials, McConnaughhay said.
The land was the last piece of a larger parcel that had been in the Simonson's family since 1835, said Curt Simonson. It was owned by his great-great grandfather, Colonel Daniel Hitt, the state's first land surveyor who bought Starved Rock and surrounding land from the U.S. government.
Hitt sold 200 acres of the Starved Rock land in 1890 for $85 to Ferdinand Walthers, who later sold the land for $22,000 to the state, leading to formation of the state park, Simonson said.
The campground and surrounding land remained in the family. Simonson's great-grandfather, Andrew Hitt, named two canyons, one "Hitt" and another "Curtis" for his wife's family. The Curtis name was later taken as first names by Curtis Simonson and his surviving son. The land went to his grandmother, Ethel (Hitt) Simonson, and then to his father, Curtis Simonson, he said.
The state renamed Hitt Canyon as Hitt-Joliet Canyon, Curt Simonson said.