FERNE CLYFFE STATE PARK, THEN AND NOW
By Dixie Terry
Nearly everyone in Johnson County has visited Ferne Clyffe State Park at Goreville. And, for those who haven’t, make a point to drive through and take a look. It is especially beautiful in the early spring and fall, and you are bound to see some wildlife any time you visit. The park has an interesting history and the author in a history magazine, called “The Review,” once published in the state, shared the following.
In 1923, Ferne Clyffe Park, though not yet a state park, was named the most beautiful spot in Illinois by a tourism group in Northern Illinois. And, though man has made many changes since that year, the cliffs, flora and fauna remain much the same.
The sandstone cliffs rise regally from the central floor of the valley, covered with delicate ferns, just as they did thousands of years ago. Thus, the name.
The area became a state park in 1949, when the State of Illinois, with the cooperation of the Illinois Redevelopment Board and the Greater Egyptian Association, acquired the one hundred and forty acres of land, which is the nucleus of the present day total of 2,430 acres.
Prior to then, Miss Emma Rebman, a colorful figure in Johnson County history, had owned that portion of the park. She had purchased twenty acres from a Cairo group, L. Dennison and Associates, on which a clubhouse had been built around the turn of the century, by a group of Chicago sportsmen. She bought additional acres from surrounding landowners to total the 140 acres she would later turn over to the state, for a nominal price.
After acquiring the land, Miss Rebman wanted a road constructed leading to the then newly incorporate Village of Goreville. The road itself was not a part of the original park, but belonged to a man named Bob Willmas, who lived near Goreville on top of the north cliff.
From “one who was there” came this statement made by Willmas, “Emmy, I won’t sell you no land; jest fix up your road and use it ‘til I die, then return it to my heirs.”
The original road was not much more than a winding dirt path, barely wide enough for a surrey or a farm wagon. Later, much later, the road was widened and graveled, and in the early 1950s, it was oiled and chipped.
However, in 1973, the Department of Conservation made a decision, in the name of safety and ecology, to close the road, which joined Goreville and the park, a decision that met with great disapproval from local residents who had used the park as their own.
Villagers rallied, but their complaints were ignored and giant machinery removed the road, and new trees were planted in the old roadbed. Presently, the old road is barely discernible, as such. A walking trail now connects the park and the village.
Confrontations, lawsuits and countersuits continued through the following years, but the road remains closed and villagers at one time felt the park was no longer theirs.
That same year the road was removed, the bandstand was demolished; the electricity was discontinued in the main area of the lower park; camping was no longer allowed in that area; many side roads were closed to motor traffic; the concession stand was removed, all in the name of improvement.
However, additional land has been purchased, with expansions made, and additional campgrounds were built, as was a fishing lake. Many more trails and play areas were added, as were parking lots and spacious shelters.
But, to those who remember the park, as it was it the early days, it is not the same. Many pioneer families had settled in the Ferne Clyffe area in the years prior to 1900, clearing out the virgin timber to make way for crops in the level land southwest of the cliffs.
The modernized home of the present-day park superintendent, the only original dwelling remaining, was once owned by the John Billingsley family, whose farm was there. Among the early settlers were the Stevens, Jenkins, Girtman, Craig, Dunn, and Hood families. Only the sugar maples once planted in the yards, and bits of rocky foundations of homes and outbuildings, offer a clue of the early inhabitants.
The only inhabitants now are the wild creatures, including an overabundance of deer, as well as a growing population of wild turkey.
Ferne Clyffe is composed of a number of gorges and canyons radiating from a central valley and containing natural cathedrals, domes, cascades, rills, dells and several so-called caves, actually protruding ledges of cliffs.
Hawk’s Cave is one of these, a sheer cliff of stone hewn by rain and wind, with an opening some 150 feet wide. With a natural pulpit and outstanding acoustics, the cave and its immediate area, which can accommodate several hundred people, had been used many times for religious services. For many summers in the 20s and 30s, camp meetings were held, with rough sawed lumber placed across stumps for seating. A pump organ or piano was always present, hauled from a local church down the steep winding road by a wagon and a team of horses.
An expanse of forest meandering over the lofty cliffs is home to outstanding formations of upturned rocks, such as: Job’s Coffin, Alligator Cave (a misnomer!), Round Bluff, Castle Rock, Devil’s Staircase, Elephant Head Rock, to name but a few.
Miss Rebman spent many years enjoying her park and was greatly involved in studying Indian lore. She honored the Native Americans by naming various sites for them, such as Little Cheyenne Canyon, Geronimo Gorge, Apache Trail, and the eight springs that she called Mohawk, Powhatan, Hiawatha, Black Hawk, Cherokee, Pontiac, Pocahontas and Tecumseh.
The Indians once roamed the park area and many artifacts have been uncovered there, especially pottery, tools and arrowheads. Hundreds of flint chips can be found even today along the drip line of the sandstone overhangs. There is still a boulder in Hawk’s Cave with a large hole in it where Indians tied their horses.
Rumors abound of gold once buried by unknowns in the last century. One morning, in the 1920s, an enormous hole, twelve feet deep was discovered in Hawk’s Cave, apparently by someone searching for the treasure. If any gold was ever found, it has been kept a secret.
Very near the south boundary of the park is an area called Buffalo Gap where great herds once roamed.
The Cherokee tribe passed very near the park area on their infamous Trail of Tears march, from North Carolina to Oklahoma in the early 1800s.
The tribe was allowed to hunt in areas north and south of the trail, with Ferne Clyffe as the northernmost border of their hunts.
Other early visitors were George Rogers Clark and his Kentucky band of “Long Knives” who camped near here in the summer of 1778 en route from Fort Massac on the Ohio River near Metropolis, to Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River, in his conquest of the Illinois country.
Later, another not-so-welcome visitor to the park in the 1920s was the notorious Southern Illinois gangster, Charley Birger, and a male companion. The husband of a hired girl, who was drawing water from Mohawk Spring when the two strangers approached and offered her a beer, recognized them.
Mohawk Springs was the source of water for Miss Rebman’s house and “many a bucketful had to be carried up the steep wooden steps for cooking, drinking, and bathing,” said another former hired girl, who was interviewed as an older lady for this story.
Miss Rebman was said to have the water tested often and it was always 99% pure. One young man, caught spitting in the spring was banned from the park forever, and a high wall was built around the spring for protection.
The Lake of Egypt Water District now provides the park’s water supply.
Miss Rebman’s house, which had been built as a clubhouse, was later used as a summer home by the Dennison family of Cairo, and groups of children brought from that city for camping trips.
The large frame structure was built on a steep slope edging the valley of the park. Torn down in the mid-fifties, the house had featured a huge fireplace on the south wall, a roomy central hall and a large front porch, with a grand view of the surrounding park.
Miss Rebman kept several handymen busy clearing trails and making signs to identify the sites in her park, a place she loved to share with visitors.
For many years she charged a fee to help cover maintenance costs, 25 cents for adults, 15 cents for children, plus an additional 10 cents for the thrilling walk across a wooden bridge spanning two huge boulders.
July 4th always brought a crowd of celebrators and politicians to Ferne Clyffe, many of them arriving early in the day in Goreville at the C&EI Depot, and then riding the two miles or so, in wagons and horses supplied by local liverymen. The procedure was reversed that evening as they came back to the depot and caught a train.
One Goreville oldster, no longer living, remembered one 4th, when 1200 people arrived. A band from Paducah, was paid an exorbitant fee of $150 for two days of playing and spent the night on Miss Rebman’s front porch.
A pit was dug and hogs and sheep were barbequed to be served along with dishes brought by guests. One year, a defiant goat escaped and was last seen on a high cliff, never to be barbecued.
For many years in the forties through the sixties, the Southern Illinois Fox Hunters Association gathered for five days of fox hunting with their hounds. They brought families, tents, and supplies, hunting in the early morning and enjoying country entertainment each night, such as gospel sings, beauty contests, preaching, square dancing, and lots of goings-on.
But, in the late sixties, the DOC began making radical changes and stopped the camping in that portion of the park. A new campground was built on a surrounding cliff, with a new road leading to the modern facility.
A legendary figure that had lived in a log cabin provided by Miss Rebman was Alf Girtman. A hermit, he kept an eye on things for her. After the state acquired the park, Governor Adlai Stevenson had an updated cabin built for Alf and he lived out his life in his beloved Ferne Clyffe. The DOC demolished his home after his death.
From a July 1928 issue of “The Prairie Farmer”, is an excerpt by the late journalist, Dave Thompson of Northern Illinois.
“We were off to Goreville down in the edge of the Ozarks in Johnson County where a celebration was being held in honor of George Rodgers Clark, who passed that way one hundred and fifty years ago on his trip which drove the French out of Kaskaskia. They read their histories and honor their heroes in Southern Illinois.
A white sheet marked our landing place and we stepped out to shake hands with Asa W. Foster and the other folks who had gathered to watch us land. The meeting itself was down in Emma Rebman’s Ferne Clyffe Park, half a mile or so away. This park is one of the real beauty spots of Illinois and is worth going a long way to see. Rocks and springs and waterfalls and a great natural amphitheater large enough to hold a political convention make it a spot you will long remember, even if you see it by climbing rocks on the hottest day of the summer. Someday Ferne Clyffe will be a state park and a hard road connecting it with Marion will make it more accessible.”
Thompson’s prediction of the road came true, with the building of state route 37 in the 1930s, which did, indeed, bring more visitors to Miss Rebman’s beloved Ferne Clyffe Park, which became a state park in 1949.
Though many locals yearn for the old days of Ferne Clyffe, called “the clyffe” by many, when the park was connected to the village by what is now Ferne Clyffe Road, which runs north and south of the Goreville School. At one time, all traffic to the park came this way and down the winding and somewhat steep road, that was later blacktopped.
A trailhead has been established at the original entrance to the park, and hikers can descend to the park as in the old days, although the roadbed has been removed and trees have been planted.
Times have changed, as has the park. Originally a community park, that served as a gathering place for local families on long summer evenings, to play croquet, or pitch washers or horse shoes, catch up on local happenings, and enjoy a picnic supper in the cool shade, the park has evolved into a state-owned facility that brings in visitors from around the world, not only for recreation and camping, but also to study the many rare species of flora, fauna, and rock formations.
Many of the huge overturned boulders seen now were originally a part of the canyon wall in the lower part of the park, and are lying on their sides as a result of the gigantic earthquake and following mini quakes in 1811-12.
Ferne Clyffe, with its present 2,430 acres, is the second largest state park in the Shawnee National Forest, exceeded only by Giant City State Park, some 20 miles to the northwest.
Located adjacent to the village of Goreville, but reached by driving south on route 37, the park is easily reached from Interstate 57 at the Goreville exit, or on Interstate 24, at the Goreville/Tunnel Hill exit.
The park, in spite of its popularity and year-round use, has remained unspoiled, and contains a preservation of wildlife and a vast accumulation of rare plants, plus ferns and lichens, and the not-so-common beech trees.
An 18-acre fishing lake (no boats or swimming!), with a maximum depth of 21 feet and a one-mile shoreline, provides an abundance of largemouth bass, bluegill, and trout. The lake is located at the foot of Round Bluff, and offers a breathtaking view of sassafras, sweet gum, honey locust, persimmon, tulip, and black gum trees, a natural beauty spot, whether for the avid fisherman or nature lover. It is especially gorgeous in the spring and fall.
There are many marked scenic hiking trails, shady picnic areas, group shelters, playgrounds, plus pure water, sanitary facilities, including hot showers at the main campground.
There is also a more rustic tents-only campground, with adequate parking space for horse trailers, near the designated horse trails.
Many signs have been added to the park, along with asphalt parking areas and roads, and improved toilet facilities, all modern necessities for the centuries-old area.
By taking a hike to the waterfall, which only falls after a heavy rain, among the gum, maple, dogwood, redbud and sumac, as well as the oak, ash, and hickory trees, is a step back in time to peace and quiet.
Although Miss Emma Rebman departed this earth in 1951, at the age of 87, her legacy will endure as long as Ferne Clyffe State Park remains.
A plaque, dedicated to her memory is located near her former home site, and states: “Dedicated to the memory of Emma Rebman, teacher and conservationist, who owned and lived on 120 acres of this park and preserved its beauty. In 1923, Miss Rebman’s property was named the most beautiful spot in Illinois. In 1949, she deeded it to the State of Illinois as part of the park system. Miss Rebman loved this area for its beauty and it is said her favorite quotations was: ‘to him, who, in the love of nature, holds communion with the visible forms, she speaks a various language for his gayer hours.”
Some senior residents of Johnson County can remember Miss Rebman, who was described as “a short, fleshy, very energetic person,” said one. “Always planning new projects and deeply involved in anything she believed in,” said another, while another reminisced, “peculiar–very peculiar.”
Born in 1864 to Frederick Augustus and Louisa Rebman, Miss Rebman began teaching at a very young age in a number of country schools. Later, she became the first woman to serve as county superintendent of schools.
A lady several decades ahead of her time, no one remembers her having a suitor, so whether she made the choice for a career, rather than being married, no one seemed to know.
From all who knew her, it was agreed, she was a person who set her own style. She was evidently not a connoisseur of fashion, as her costume never changed. She always wore a simple white blouse, and a long black skirt, fashioned with huge side-slanted pockets, much like those in men’s trousers. She had several of these, identical in style, for daily as well as Sunday wear, winter and summer. (This writer was honored to portray Miss Rebman in a style show, held in 2000, when Goreville celebrated their centennial, and wore a long black skirt, white long-sleeved blouse, and added a black parasol.)
She always kept an elderly lady in her home, as a companion, with one remembered as Granma Carter.
Another companion was a parrot named Poll, who didn’t talk distinctly, but chattered constantly, so remembered a former hired girl.
Miss Rebman loved to read and study and constantly did research on her favorite subjects. This led to her seeking information from many sources, much of this done by mail. This kept a handyman or a local school boy busy carrying her mail to the Goreville post office and bringing back large quantities of stamps. One of those errand boys, later a retired Goreville teacher, remembered she spent much time using an old-fashioned typewriter.
One of Miss Rebman’s hired girls, in her old age, shared her remembrances of the kitchen that always reeked of garlic, a mystery, because they didn’t use it in cooking. And, another mystery was the uncovering of a cache of empty whiskey bottles in an upstairs room, following Miss Rebman’s death. Was the strait-laced Methodist lady not the teetotaler she claimed to be? Was the aroma of garlic a cover-up? We will never know.
Miss Rebman also maintained a home in the county seat of Vienna, where her office was also located, and where she spent much time, when not visiting the dozens of one-room schools across the county. That home still remains, setting next door to a former lumber business, on State Route 146. A rose bush remains there, one she planted many decades ago.
“Slightly eccentric was she,” said former neighbors, who remembered when she had a leaky roof and moved her bed over to stay dry, rather than have the roof repaired.
She was devoted to her church, organizing the evangelistic meetings held in the park each summer. She was said to be a generous and kind-hearted person, “always ready to help her fellow man,” said a late acquaintance.
One, she is remembered giving aid to, was an ex-convict, which raised many an eyebrow in the community. She provided him with a log cabin, located beyond Hawk’s Cave, where he raised chickens and had a large vegetable garden, his contribution to the Rebman household.
Would Miss Rebman, a progressive thinking woman, be happy about the improvements carried out in her park, or would she be sad about the closing of the original roadway and the razing of her former home.
Some have been heard to say that her spirit still walks the trails of her park, stopping to rest at the many springs, and keeping a close eye on the picnickers and hikers.