This is the story of one of the most incredible gifts ever given: to JDCF, to the natural world, and to the people of Jo Daviess County. A gift over 30 years in the making. And although this story ends in northwest Illinois, it begins across the state in northeast Illinois with a woman named Nancy Hamill Winter.
Nancy grew up in rural Kane County on the outskirts of the Chicago metropolitan area. She grew to love nature as achild and young woman while riding on horseback through the forests and fields of her native countryside. But as urban sprawl began to invade Kane County from Chicago, the forests and farm fields started to disappear underneath strip malls, highways, and subdivisions. “We did everything we could think of to try to stop the development,” said Nancy. “Once, I laid down my babies in diapers in front of the bulldozers while I went into the woods to transplant native wildflowers before they got destroyed. The bulldozer operators scratched their heads and enjoyed a nice little coffee break.”
But the bulldozers kept coming. Between 1969 and 2017, over 100,000 acres of rural land were developed in Kane County. Seeking a reprieve from the encroaching suburbs, Nancy sought refuge in Jo Daviess County, where her great-great-grandfather settled and farmed in the early 1800s. Nancy was attracted to the region because of both her family’s ancestry and the rolling hills that are characteristic
of the Driftless Area.
“I bought the most run-down farm I could find,” said Nancy. The farm that eventually became Nancy’s “Home Farm” is located about 10 miles southwest of Stockton. Prior to Nancy’s ownership, the farm had suffered from severe soil erosion and other forms of degradation. Nancy set out to restore the farm and create a refuge not only for herself, but for all the birds and other creatures that were also suffering from development and habitat loss.
Over 30 years of tender loving care from Nancy have transformed the Home Farm into a vibrant, diverse conservation area teeming with birds and other wildlife. Much of the property’s agricultural acreage has been converted to prairie plantings, cool-season grasslands, and hardwood tree plantings. Over 100 acres of upland forest and remnant prairie have also been restored. A spring-fed headwater stream of the Plum River originates on the property. Wanting to ensure that all of her hard work in restoring the property could not be undone, Nancy donated a conservation easement to JDCF in 2019, protecting the property forever.
Nancy moved away from her Home Farm in 2016 to be closer to her children and grandchildren. But her mind was still lingering on the Home Farm. Who would care for this place after she was gone? After several family meetings, it became clear that none of Nancy’s heirs were likely to become the next stewards of the property. So, Nancy turned her attention to another possible successor.
After nearly 3 years of conversations and careful planning, Nancy donated the 488-acre Home Farm property to JDCF in December 2022. This donation is JDCF’s largest land acquisition to date, defeating the previous record-holder for largest land acquisition, which was set in 2017, when Nancy donated the 409-acre Valley of Eden Bird Sanctuary to JDCF. Located adjacent to each other, the Home Farm and Valley of Eden form a contiguous protected conservation area almost 900 acres in size.
“I never want what happened to my native Kane County to happen here,” said Nancy. “We need more conservation. We can’t trust our elected leaders to do enough. It’s up to local landowners and local groups like JDCF to save this planet, even if we have to do it one piece of land at a time.”
Nancy joined the JDCF Board of Directors shortly after the organization’s founding in 1993 and served on the board on and off for over 20 years, including several terms as President. From the very beginning, Nancy foresaw JDCF potentially playing a role in protecting her land.
“I have to confess, one of the reasons I was so interested in supporting JDCF from the very start was because I hoped that JDCF would one day be able to successfully hold conservation easements on my farm,” said Nancy. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine JDCF would actually own the property one day. I can’t think of a better forever steward for my beloved Home Farm.”
As if donating the land weren’t enough, Nancy funded an endowment to pay for the perpetual stewardship and maintenance of the property. This endowment, combined with other revenue generated from lease agreements on the property, will ensure that JDCF will never have to struggle to pay the property’s bills and the property’s natural features will never degrade.
Per Nancy’s wishes, the Home Farm Section will be combined with Valley of Eden Bird Sanctuary to create the 900-acre “Big Sky Nature Reserve.” It will be opened to the public in 2024. The Valley of Eden Section of Big Sky Nature Reserve is currently open to the public daily from dawn to dusk.