The Illinois Department of Natural Resources will soon recognize the natural prairie area adjacent to the Miles Mausoleum at Eagle Cliff-Miles Cemetery West of Waterloo.
A dedication ceremony will take place this Saturday, Oct. 19 at 10 a.m. at the site, at which point the IDNR will recognize the approximately one acre area as a nature preserve.
That is a critical step in both protecting the prairie and the restoration efforts at the cemetery.
“Before this, the prairie has no legal protection whatsoever,” site steward Dennis Fitzwilliam explained. “Not that it would happen, but you could build a house there if you want. But by making it a nature preserve, it’s protected forever and the IDNR is in charge of it.”
According to the IDNR website, nature preserves, which are protected by state law, are “private and public lands that have rare plants, animals or other unique natural features.”
“This is a small, but very important preserve, protecting top-notch, Grade A Hill Prairie, including one state-endangered species,” Illinois Nature Preserves Specialist Debbie Newman said.
Fitzwilliam said the history of prairies in Illinois makes this one worthy of the designation.
“The prairie is 9,000 years old, so it’s worth saving,” he said. “There was over 20 million acres of prairie in Illinois, and there’s only 2,000 left, which is a pretty staggering figure. It jumps out at you that these little places that are left need to be saved.”
The dedication ceremony will be somewhat of a culmination of the work done to restore the cemetery in the last several years.
Those efforts began with removing graffiti, rebuilding stone walls on either side of and above the mausoleum and rebuilding the cast iron fencing in front of and on top the mausoleum.
The roughly 100-foot wall has been particularly difficult and time-consuming, according to Fitzwilliam.
Volunteers, who have done virtually all the work on this project with help from donors, have worked to salvage nearby stone to rebuild the wall similar to how it was originally constructed, using photographs as a reference.
“It’s both a structural and an aesthetic thing that needed to be done,” said Fitzwilliam, who has been helping Miles Cemetery Trustee Dylane Doerr lead restoration work.
During this time, the cemetery also started accepting burials in 2013.
Miles Cemetery Trustee Charlotte Hoock said the trustees have sold 11 plots and had four burials so far.
All burials must be cremation burials.
Volunteers have also been hard at work on the prairie to ensure it stays in its natural state.
That involves cutting down trees that try to make the area less windy and sunny than it should be, mowing and performing controlled burns.
“There’s a constant battle between those grasses and the flowers,” Fitzwilliam noted. “It’s forever. You can’t walk away from it. It’s got to be burned. That’s a key thing.”
Other important figures in this effort have been local conservation organization Clifftop and the Snellbecher family, which is one of four families who owned a portion of the prairie before the county bought the entire site.
With the prairie now about to be recognized, Fitzwilliam said the focus will turn mainly to maintenance work both on the prairie and cemetery.
He said Doerr will handle most of that.
“He’s just a workhorse,” Fitzwilliam said of Doerr. “He’s very committed.”
Doerr and the other cemetery trustees will be present at the dedication ceremony, as will Monroe County commissioners, Newman and two local nature preserve commissioners.
The public is invited to attend and encouraged to carpool to help with limited parking at the cemetery.
Newman, Fitzwilliam and a few other dignitaries will speak about the prairie and Newman will present a dedication plaque.
The ceremony should be done before noon. Refreshments will be available.
“We are looking forward to recognizing the county commissioners and Eagle Cliff-Miles Cemetery trustees for their significant efforts to protect this important part of our natural history,” Newman said.
For more information on the cemetery and the work being done there, follow it on Facebook. For information about burials, call Hoock at 618-281-3189.