WILLOW SPRINGS, Ill. — Daniel Burnham’s celebrated Plan of Chicago envisioned a string of greenspaces, filled with trees, plants, and gardens – known as the city’s “emerald necklace.” Today, the most expansive stretch of preserved nature is in the Southwest suburbs – a swath of emerald green, with an important splash of ruby red.
The Little Red Schoolhouse in Willow Springs is located less than 20 miles from downtown Chicago.
Built in 1886 as the first grammar school in the area, it served the children of farmers. In the 1940s, modern schools were built, and development consumed much of the farmland.
By 1948, just two students attended the class in the white one room schoolhouse, but it was such a community cornerstone, it was preserved, and moved rather than demolished.
“(It was moved) with horses and log rollers to take that schoolhouse that was closer to maple lake, move it across this, to where it was at Camp Kiwanis, and then move it again,” said Deborah Silic, the assistant director of Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center.
The schoolhouse landed on its present foundation in the mid-1950s, was given a new coat of paint and a new purpose.
“The first nature center of its kind in the Midwest,” Silic said.
It is now the centerpiece of the Palos Preserves, a 15,000-acre jewel that is the largest concentration of preserved land in the Cook County Forest Preserve system.
The schoolhouse is now a sort of museum – complete with an original bell, chalkboard, and exhibits from the past meant to spark interest so that visitors explore the real classroom: nature itself.
Silic – with 25 years of experience – is the unofficial historian of the grounds.
“Being 15 miles southwest of the city we have this connection – we’re sitting on 15,000 acres,” she said. “We can continue to excite the general public by being so close to the city but offering something that kind of feels special.”
A larger nature center was built in 2010 next to the Little Red Schoolhouse.
Today, tens of thousands of visitors come to view the land and participate in educational programs every year.
“It is such an awesome resource, its’ free, first and foremost,” said Aimee Hall, who recently visited with her daughter Lola, 7. “They have so many things to see, there’s something new to see every day.”
Naturalists Amy Julian and Rebecca Moss hosted a series called “I am a Scientist,” and on one November day taught a room full of children about the differences between insects and arachnids. It’s an immersive approach that keeps students interested and engaged.
“It’s always changing,” Silic said. “We adapt, and we continue on with that change.”
The Little Red Schoolhouse
LOCATION: 9800 Willow Springs Road, Willow Springs
HOURS: The Nature Center is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays-Thursdays from March through October. It’s open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays-Thursdays from November through February.
It’s closed Fridays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day.
COST: Admission is free.
CONTACT: Phone: 708-839-6897