In 1853, John R. Rayburn purchased 650 acres of land stretching from south of the Bloomington Road to north of the Museum of the Grand Prairie for $10.73 per acre. Among the lands Rayburn held was the stand of timber which we now call Rayburn-Purnell Woods. He and his descendants used the timber woodlot for over a century. From it they harvested not only for firewood, but also to build homes, fences, furniture, wagons and repair work. Three log cabins were built on the family lands using this wood, one purportedly of solid oak. A bank-barn, with mortise and tenon joints was built by J.R. Rayburn using oaks from this lot, and wild cherry was used to make furniture.
Backstory and Context
Forests like the Rayburn-Purnell Woods originally covered 40% of Illinois, while the other 60% was open prairie. Providing shelter from the wind and sun of the open prairie, these forests were important to the early pioneers who traveled through Illinois. These forests were important to Native Americans and settlers because they provided shelter from the wind and sun of the prairie, as well as food, wood, and other resources. Some of the trees in Rayburn-Purnell Woods are believed to be over 175 years old!
The land was designated as a “woodlot” in the early 1900s for the purpose of providing lumber and fuel for woodstoves. Because it was set aside, it has never been farmed, and so many of the original wildflower species still grow here.
The Rayburn-Purnell Woods is an excellent example of an old-growth oak-hickory upland forest. This woodland was acquired by the Forest Preserve District from the Purnell and Rayburn families of Mahomet in 1969, and after being acquired by the Forest Preserve, it was named after those families of Mahomet, who previously owned the land.