An Early Trip to Miller Woods

"Did you ever realize the wholesomeness of the smell of the soil and the loam and the fallen leaves? It is like a tonic to your body and soul." - Lois Willoughby

Screen capture of a historic newspaper page from September 25, 1910 from Chicago's Inter Ocean newspaper. Images of the sand dune country around Lake Michigan are peppered amongst the text.
Take a journey through Miller Woods with Lois Willoughby in 1910 as she chronicles her experience of a 'Saturday Afternoon Walk.' These walks led to the formation of the Prairie Club and are a part of the first efforts to preserve the Indiana Dunes region.

Today's Paul H. Douglas Trail goes around the same haunts descibed in Lois' article.

Henry Chandler Cowles and Jens Jensen were both involved in the Saturday Afternoon Walking Club and the Prairie Club.

Ho! For A Hike Through Country Ways

By Lois Willoughby, The Inter Ocean, Chicago; September 25, 1910

Walking is not a lost art. Nor is it in danger of becoming one in Chicago.

Automobiles have solved the problems of long country drives. Perhaps nothing will ever surpass flying machines for bird’s-eye views. But some of the greatest beauties of nature are kept sacred for those who forsake all modern means of rapid transit, and leaving care behind, strike out afoot into tangled paths which lead over hill and dale.

Cross-country walking is becoming more and more popular. A number of walking clubs have been formed in Chicago and there are hundreds of people who in small groups follow the trail to the country at least once a week, and occasionally one sees a solitary wanderer.

These walking parties have different objectives in view. Some are absorbed in antiquarian research. Some are botanists who find much of interest in the flora of Illinois and Indiana. Some study trees and some try to become better acquainted with the birds.

There are countless reasons why people go–but the real reason is the same. They love to walk and they love out-of-doors.

The Y.M.C.A. has a Hikers’ club whose members are enthusiastic. The boys generally walk to some other town where their association has a club house, rush for the shower bath and then for the dining room. As yet no women have been asked to join them on their walks. One of the members deplored this fact, but said that their trips were really too hard and that ‘women went slow.’

The Saturday afternoon walks are probably attended by the largest number of people. This series is arranged by a voluntary committee who have no club name. The present officers are: Dwight H. Perkins, chairman; E. J. Holden, secretary, and W.E. Walker, treasurer.

“Our only object is to get out-of-door recreation,’ said Mr. Holden. ‘We believe it is uplifting, physically, morally, and spiritually.”

“We don’t make a study of history or botany or anything else. Chicago’s environments are really beautiful, and there we spend our Saturday afternoons to get away from the noise of the city and to rest our nerves. It is quiet and peaceful out in the country, and it gives us time to think.”

“We keep off the road as much as possible and off the cultivated fields. We try to follow streams and along paths in the woods.”

“We have followed the Desplaines from Lockport to Libertyville; Salt Creek from Riverside to Hinsdale; Chicago river from Lawrence avenue to Glenview, and Thorn creek in the country about Chicago Heights. We know the lake shore all the way from Evanston to Lake Forest.”

“One of the favorite walks is to Palos Park and the Sag, and another is to the dunes.”

In the spring of 1908 Dwight H. Perkins, Graham R. Taylor and Alexander M. Wilson were discussing the outer park belt proposition, and Mr. Perkins suggested that it would be a good idea to get some of the people to go out and look over the proposed places.

Invitations were sent to the Cliff Dwellers, Social Service club, Hull House club, Camera club and several other associations to take a Saturday afternoon walk. The idea was so unusual and appealing that one hundred people responded. The success of the outing was unquestioned and three more trips were planned.

One series of walks succeeded another until the club now has a mailing list of 2,000 names. On the fall walks there are usually from 150 to 200 persons.

All last winter from twenty-five to fifty faithful hikers spent their Saturday afternoons in the open, regardless of the weather.

E. J. Holden, J. B. Chapman, C. G. Dudley and D. W. Roper are among theactive members of the new walks committee, and Sunday usually finds them hunting a new trail.

The first walk of the seventeenth series was announced for Sept. 17 to the dunes.

The party was to leave Chicago at 1:42 p. m. on the Lake Shore road for Gary, arriving there at 2:47 o'clock.

The walk was to be along the south shore of the Grand Calumet river to the lake shore, opposite the old mouth of the river, and then along the beach to a favorable point for a camp fire and lunch. The return to the station at Miller's was to be a moonlight walk along the beach. The length of the walk was about eight miles and the party was due to reach Chicago at 10:27 o'clock.

A five-mile walk was planned for those who preferred it. The day was cloudyand threatening, but that makes little difference to people who like out of door tramps.

The ride to Gary was in the nature of a reunion, and as nearly every one had been away for the summer–questions flew thick and fast.


"I intended to stay away until Monday," said one hiker, “but when I got the announcement I started back. I couldn't miss a trip to the dunes."

The secretary was kept busy meeting new members and seeing that every one was properly ticketed for the return trip.

Seventy-five hikers descended from the train at Gary and followed their leaders under the viaduct and down the track. No one turned for a second glance at the bustling city which sprang up almost in a night. "Back to nature!' was the cry, as the hikers pressed steadily forward to the dunes.

Walking in sand is an all-absorbing study–not diversion. We varied it by walking the rails as long as we could keep our balance and then tried the ties. Some day the specifications for railroads will be more explicit. Not only will they call for ties of standard white oak, but it will be further designated that those ties be laid far enough apart, or near enough together, to permit of easy walking.

The party kept along the shore of the river for a ways and-then clambered up the side of the Dunes. This was real exercise.

Walking on level sand and making "footprints that perhaps another" hiker may profit by is easy compared to uphill work on the dunes. Your clambering footprints are apt to be so pronounced that they are a hindrance rather than a guide to the faltering friends in the rear guard.

Longfellow must have taken Saturday afternoon walks and one of his jaunts was undoubtedly among dunes. Thus he describes it in Hiawatha:

"Then along the sandy margin

Of the lake, the Big-Sea-Water,

On he sped with frenzied gestures."

At last by climbing and pulling and pushing, every one reached the top the dunes. The professional hikers neither stopped nor stayed, but struck off into the woods. Others paused for a few moments to take a long breath and then disappeared along the various paths. And a few, faithful but more feeble, sat down on a fallen log and viewed the landscape.

One woman who has taken the trip several times said it always made her think of the old story of the frog who was so many feet deep in a well. Every day he jumped up a foot, and every day he fell back a foot and a half. She said she was sorry for that frog, for he must have felt the same way she does when she steps up a foot in the sand and slides back two.

On another log was seated two new members. The young fellow was picking sandburs off his companion's long coat. To make the task less irksome he counted them off by saying: "She loves me; she loves me not." His fate was still in doubt when we left, although he had passed the 200 mark.

The flow of the Grand Calumet at this point is interrupted by big beds of water lilies and tall rushes. There were no lily blossoms to be seen, but the wide-opened leaves lying placidly on the water have a quiet beauty of their own.

On the other side of the river the sand mounds seemed even larger. They, too, were covered with a dense forest. High above the other trees a dozen isolated pines reared their heads and stood like sentinels.

The sloping dunes were covered with big clusters of Russian thistles. A few of the bushes were green, but most of them were a mass of brilliant purple.

And, over all, was the blue sky, with its fleecy clouds scudding along to join the heavy bank of clouds which hung low in the north.

It was a glorious place to rest–but who ever heard of resting on a walking trip? The voices of the foreguard grew fainter and fainter. With one last look at the beautiful scene, we turned and followed the walkers into the woods.

There must be some magic in the solitude of the forest. Weariness vanishes, cares fly away and a spirit of pure enjoyment takes possession of those who wander therein.

And the wonderful odor! You don't need to be taught deep breathing out in the woods.You just naturally breathe to the very depths of your being and your lungs expand to their full capacity. You drink in fresh air and pure joy with every breath. You become fairly intoxicated with the fragrance of the woods.

Did you ever realize the wholesomeness of the smell of the soil and the loam and the fallen leaves? It is like a tonic to your body and soul.

The fragrance of the pines is different- it soothes and quiets. And from every bush and shrub and flower that grows comes a whiff not only fragrant but inspiring.

It is quite useless to try to put into words the charm of the forest. It is so elusive and so tantalizing. It defies analysis and flees from all who would express it.

But It really makes no difference. If a person has a love of nature in his soul–tell him you were in the woods or the hills or the fields, and he knows the rest.

And if he has not that love of nature in his soul, there aren't encyclopedias enough in the world to convey the idea to him.

All of which is talking and not walking.

The party naturally resolved itself into three groups–hikers, walkers and strollers. The hikers were far in advance, trying to beat their previous records. The walkers were keeping up an even pace, which was fast enough for exercise and slow enough for pleasure. The strollers, frequently known as the laggers, were a trifle slow but decidedly happy.

Our immediate party belonged to the latter class. We numbered four–including two photographers and the Rambler, who was blissfully ignorant of strenuous sports. We were doing the very best we could. It wasn't our seventeenth series, anyway–it was our first.We came across a belated hiker–the Botanist we called him. He had discovered a new species which it took some time to classify properly, and thus had fallen behind.

We adopted him as our guide, and as we tramped through the woods he added knowledge to our happiness.

The weariness of walking disappeared. The shifting sands seemed to shift the way we were going, instead of trying to thwart our progress as they had done before.

We trailed behind the Botanist, making many turns to avoid stepping on the cacti which grows in profusion on the dunes. The blossoms were all gone, but the prickers were in their prime.

We were wondering what right Arizona cacti had in Indiana, and the Botanist told us.

"This is the meeting point, he said, "of the flora of the north, west and south sections of the country. Isolated botanical specimens from all these locations are found here. I know of no other locality of which this can be said.”

He showed us specimens from different parts of the country and told of others which were not in season.

We brushed against nodding stalks of golden rod and soon were able to recognize the three different kinds–the feathery, to which we are most accustomed, the flat and the spiked. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing no doubt, but it gives a person a most superior feeling.

Wild asters and purple lobelia formed a beautiful contrast to deep yellow flowers that might have been Black-eyed Susans if their eyes had been black. Then there was milkweed and spurge and downy yellow foxglove. The cacti were of course at home in the sand, but it seemed strange that the other flowers should take so kindly to it.

It was an oak forest we were in and the ground was covered with falling leaves and acorns. We looked in vain for the squirrels, who should be living in the midst of such plenty, but not one was to be found. The Botanist told us he never remembered seeing one there– and the Botanist's memory goes back over sixty years. Some day this acorn country will be opened up by an enterprising squirrel and the chattering of the little homesteaders will be a pleasant accompaniment to the walk across the dunes.

At the edge of the dunes the juniper bushes grow thick. The green berries shade so perfectly into the leaves that it was hard to discover them at first. They are beginning to turn, though, and soon will be the deep purple of the grape. The shumac is just going into its autumn finery, and the red dogwood flashes here and there in the woods.

Mother Nature is rapidly getting ready to take her fall fling at fashion. In one respect she is a decidedly sensible woman, and, having found out what lines are becoming to her, she clings to them–but how she loves color! She fairly flaunts it in your face. She puts on every shade of red and yellow imaginable, and she goes into tones that no artist can reproduce. She alone knows the secret.

She decks out the rose bushes and Solomon's seal with red berries, and the vines that climb up the trees and twine around the branches she paints a deep crimson.

The Rambler stooped down to examine a creeping vine that was turning into gorgeous red and yellow shades.

“Don't touch it." cried the Botanist. "It's poisoned Ivy!"

“I don't see how anything so beautiful can be poison," she said as she reluctantly drew away.

It certainly was alluring as it carpeted the ground in flaming colors, but it issued its own warning–three leaves.

“Beware of three-leafed ivy,” almost commanded the Botanist, "always and everywhere.”

We solemnly promised we would.

Then the Botanist broke the only law the club has–he picked a flower.

This law is really a request, but its importance is fully understood by all of the members. The offender's attention was called to the printed form:

"Please do not pick the wild flowers. They soon wilt and we do not want to destroy for some one else the pleasure which we have had in their beauty."

“I did it for scientific purposes,” he said with a quiet smile, as though he considered his act justified.


The photographers kept near the edge of the bluff and occasionally made a path through the bushes and branches to get a good viewpoint, and secured many beautiful views.

Deeper and deeper we went into the woods. The river was completely hidden from sight and the dense foliage shut off the view of the sky. The hikers and walkers were far ahead. The strollers were alone–and forgotten.

The peacefulness of the scene quieted us and we ceased talking. The only sound was the scuffing of our feet through the crisp leaves and the dropping of an occasional acorn.

Suddenly a low rumbling sound broke in on our solitude. It came again and again with startling precision. It was just the fanciful touch we needed for our perfect afternoon. We imagined we were in the Catskills and that somewhere, not far away, the funny little men were playing nine pins.

We even caught ourselves looking cautiously around half expecting to see Rip Van Winkle climbing up the hill, his dog at his heels.

Then it grew still. Not a leaf stirred. The shadows became deeper and deeper, and in the intense calm a drowsiness seemed to steal over our senses. What if we, too, were going to sleep for twenty years?

The rains descended. "Rains" is the correct word, for no one rain could have been so wet. The photographers sped down the path to the river, the rest of us kept close to the heels of the Botanist, who went even deeper into the forest.

Fleeing from a rainstorm in a forest is really quite unnecessary, for there is no place to flee to. Some one once said that when one tree was wet you could stand under another, and so on until the storm ceased, provided the woods were big enough. This didn't work, however.

Had the Botanist been alone, no doubt he would have stopped under some sheltering oak and waited for the storm to pass. But he was pursued by three frightened women who had one idea in life–to get to the bridge at Miller's.

Now, the Botanist had never heard that a bridge was a particularly good shelter in time of storm. He was hopelessly in the minority, however, and started that way.

The underbrush crackled beneath our feet and often broke, throwing us first against one tree and then against another. We crawled under overhanging limbs, which drenched us soundly for disturbing their leaves; we pushed our way through branches that struck us sharply in the face as we released them, and the sticks and low bushes cut our ankles as we sped along.

Each path we followed with implicit faith led us to the river’s edge, but no farther. For all we knew we might be going around in a circle, as lost people do, and we couldn't remember for the life of us which side of the trees moss grows.

This "we" does not include the Botanist, who we now feel certain was exploring each new path with a certain zest which the unknown inspires in some persons.

A few minutes later a path led us to the edge of the woods, and not far away, loomed up the railroad tracks. It seemed a pity to be found–we were so delightfully lost. Unwillingly we turned to the road, stopping only long enough to inhale once more the delicious odor of the damp leaves and the damp soil.

Down the track we walked to Miller's, climbed down the high embankment of cinders and sand with the agility of mountain goats (?), and then consulted the station agent.

"Gone!" was all he said.

The others of the party were already speeding toward home in their special train.

But fate was kind, and a through train came along fifteen minutes later, and we climbed aboard. We could not get over the climbing habit. The conductorcuriously surveyed our slips: “Good for one return trip to Chicago."

The circumstances were explained–how we had been lost in an interminable forest. Our general appearance was conclusive evidence, and the tickets were accepted.

Regretfully we thought of the camp fire and lunch and the moonlight stroll on the beach. The weather man had not been asked to join the club, which was a serious oversight.

Just as we were pulling out of Miller's the sun peeked from behind a bank of black clouds and destroyed our peace of mind. We longed to be back in the woods again to see the millions of glistening raindrops.

The rest of the party had a much less exciting time than the lost brigade.They found shelter under trees from the heaviest rain and walked between showers. At least, this is their story. They were dryer than we were, but surely, they could not have been happier.

In the vicinity of Chicago there are many tracts of woodland of great natural beauty.At the north lies the lakeshore, with its high bluffs and ravines, and at the south the forest covered sand dunes. Then there are the three rivers, the wooded hills, and the open country.

Yet to the majority of city people all of these beauties of nature seem “over the hills and far away.” So far away, indeed, that many believe they exist only in Memory Land.

But run away some Saturday afternoon and join the walkers. They will take you through forests as dense as they seemed in your childhood; over hills as high, through valleys as deep, and across fields as broad.

Doctors say that there is no better tonic in the world than out of doors; that there, things assume their right proportion and the littleness of life fades away.

Here is one doctor's prescription, and he says if people would follow it he would need few others:

"Get out in the open. Take wholesome exercise and breathe deeply. Get out of doors!"

He claims this is the greatest tonic in the world for the body and the mind.

So, when you are searching for happiness, and don't know what to do, take a cross-country walk.

"And when you don't know where to go,” adds the Rambler, “go to the dunes. It's the crossest country walk I know."

Last updated: September 18, 2023

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