top of page
  • Dale C. Maley

The story behind Prairie Lands

Over the last 40 years, the Prairie Lands Foundation has been involved with many projects that have improved the quality of life for Fairbury area citizens.

In the late 1970s, a Fairbury family wanted to donate money to a non-profit organization that would use the funds to improve Fairbury. Because no such non-profit group existed in Fairbury, the family gave the money to an adjacent community. Some Fairbury civic leaders realized Fairbury needed a non-profit organization that could use locally donated funds to improve the community.


The first swimming pool in Fairbury was built in 1958 by the Fairbury Swimming Pool Association. By 1980, however, it began experiencing high annual repair costs.


In 1981, the directors of the Swimming Pool Association formed a special study group. This group met with Peoria attorney William Rutherford. Mr. Rutherford was the driving member of the Peoria Forest Park Foundation, which had generated millions of dollars in benefits for the Peoria area. As a result of the study, the Fairbury Community Swimming Pool Association changed its name to the Prairie Lands Foundation. They decided to expand their scope beyond just the swimming pool to other civic benefits.


In late 1981, The Nature Conservancy bought an unused section of railroad track from the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad for $24,000. The 12-acre site would become the Sunbury Railroad Prairie. It was a 100-foot wide strip of land nine miles west and just south of Dwight on Illinois 17, about 15 miles north of Pontiac. After the land purchase, the Fairbury-Forrest Nature Club and Prairie Lands Foundation paid back the $24,000 to the Nature Conservancy. Prairie Lands Foundation eventually took ownership of the site and turned it into a nature education area.


In 1982, Marion Stafford donated 177 acres of farmland in Avoca Township to the Prairie Lands Foundation. She stipulated that the proceeds from selling the land be used to construct a new swimming pool and community center. Prairie Lands Foundation sold the property for $504,450 in 1982. The Fairbury firm of Stoller & Maurer was hired to design the new building complex, which would be named the Floyd and Marion Stafford Community Center. The new pool was completed in 1983.


At the 1989 annual meeting of the Prairie Lands Foundation, Jim Paternoster reported they had received $75,000 from the estate of Gertrude Brady. William and Gertrude Brady spent most of their lives in the Forest and Fairbury area. They operated a dairy farm west of Forest for many years and delivered milk in Forest. After retiring from the farm, they purchased a home in Fairbury. Jim Paternoster reported the foundation had total cash assets of $144,000.



In August of 1989, John P. Wade died. He owned Keck's Insurance Agency from 1962 to 1977. John was a charter member of the Prairie Lands Foundation. He and his wife, Tula Wade, left 75% of their estate to Prairie Lands Foundation.


In 1997, the Prairie Lands Foundation began investigating how a new park could be built on North First Street. It was discovered the City of Fairbury could apply for a $212,500 grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources if they could match the amount with local funds. Prairie Lands Foundation and the city devised a solution that did not involve Fairbury taxpayer funds. Prairie Lands Foundation donated the swimming pool to the City of Fairbury to come up with local matching funding. This plan satisfied the State of Illinois, and plans to build the new park began.


 Marion Stafford donated $170,000 to pay for the walking trail at North Park. The city got another matching state grant so the trail could be expanded to run from the swimming pool to Prairie Central High School.


In October 2001, Howard and Bernadine Fugate of Fairbury donated 120 acres of family farmland and timberland to the Prairie Lands Foundation. Eighty acres of the land were timber, which would be the heart of the recreation area. The remaining 40 acres would generate income to support the new recreation area.


Prairie Lands Foundation officials called this gift a "phenomenal" boost to the foundation's civic and conservation efforts. A board member, Jim Paternoster (1942-2022), recounted, "This is the type of gift we envisioned when we created the Prairie Lands Foundation in 1981." Paternoster also recounted that the Prairie Lands Foundation had always been interested in acquiring timberland near Fairbury to develop into a recreational area and nature center. Paternoster stated, "This gift was just perfect."


The new screened-in pavilion at North Park was dedicated in 2004. It was made possible through generous gifts from the Marion McDowell Stafford Charitable Trust and the John and Tula Wade Endowment Fund.


In 2012, the Dominy Memorial Library was raising funds for a significant expansion project. Prairie Lands Foundation offered to match the first $25,000 in donations to the Dominy Memorial Library building fund. The matching funds came from an endowment fund bequeathed to Prairie Lands Foundation by John and Tula Wade.


Also, in 2012, SELCAS raised money for its new building. Prairie Lands Foundation offered to match the first $15,000 in donations for the South East Livingston County Ambulance Service (SELCAS) building fund. The matching funds came from the endowment fund bequeathed to Prairie Lands Foundation by John and Tula Wade.


In 2016, the Prairie Lands Foundation began funding various projects for the Fairbury Improvement Group. Their first project was the design and installation of five historic murals in Veterans Memorial Park (formerly Central Park). The second project was re-painting the historic Occident Flour building advertising sign at the northeast corner of Locust and Second Streets. Eventually, the old Archer House and Swing & Steidinger signs were refurbished on Locust Street.


In 2017, the Fairbury Improvement Group undertook its most significant project, the refurbishment of Marsh Park. The Prairie Lands Foundation was the primary financial contributor to this project.


Also, in 2017, Prairie Lands Foundation received a donation of acreage to develop Conrad and Catherine Munz Memorial Park. Mary Orth donated funds to add to the existing walking trail. The William H. Orth Memorial Walking Trail extended the path along the west side of Indian Creek.


For over 40 years, Prairie Lands Foundation has accepted gifts from local citizens and converted the funds into Fairbury quality of life improvements. Only a few towns with a population of 3,800 can boast six public parks, a swimming pool, a modern library, miles of walking trails, and nature preserves. Many thanks are owed to the many people who donated to Prairie Lands Foundation and the skill of the trustees in wisely spending those funds to improve the quality of life for Fairbury citizens.

(Dale Maley's weekly history article on Fairbury News is sponsored by Dr. Charlene Aaron)





245 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Dale Maley
Dale Maley
Jul 09

I mis-spelled Forrest as Forest a couple of times............sorry..........the spellchecker did not find that mistake 😊

DAVES LOGO larger.jpg
bottom of page