When researching the flora of Northwest Illinois there is one man’s name that repeatedly shows up: H.S. Pepoon. More well known in Chicagoland, Pepoon was a native of Northwest Illinois, was the first professional botanist to study the area’s flora and is responsible for the creation of Apple River Canyon State Park.
His father, George Pepoon, was a Lieutenant in the Civil War, a member of the famed 96th Infantry from Galena, IL. He was the Superintendent of Schools for Jo Daviess County as well as the Warren Township Assessor. Pepoon School on Twin Bridges Road is named after him. Herman Silas Pepoon was born to George and Mary Pepoon in Warren, Illinois on January 21, 1860.
Herman grew up south of Warren, IL and attended Warren High School (1877). He left for Champaign to attend the The University of Illinois, graduating with a degree in Natural History (1881). After graduating from Hahnemann Medical College in 1883 he became a doctor and practiced medicine from 1883 until 1892 in Nebraska and Lewistown, IL. In 1892 he left Lewistown and the medical profession to become a botany instructor at Lake View High School in Chicago. He held that position for 38 years until he retired in 1930, when he reached the limit age of 70 years old.
Pepoon was highly influential among his peers and the community. He inspired thousands of students at Lake View High School in Ravenswood, taking them on field trips and hosting Saturday classes on a wide variety of subjects. Joel Greenberg wrote in his book Of Prairie, Woods, & Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writings, “[Pepoon] always struck me as an unusual person if for no other reason rather than he abandoned medicine to teach science at a Chicago public school. No doubt this gave him greater freedom to botanize, but he apparently truly valued his role as a teacher to be a “molder of character.”
One student he “molded” was Alfred Caldwell, who became one of the country’s great landscape architects, blending natural materials and native plants into his work, which includes Eagle Point Park in Dubuque, IA. Another was Frank Caleb Gates, who became the Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and had other accomplishments in botany.
Over the course of his tenure at Lake View he had over ten thousand students. Each of these, according to V.O. Graham (a peer at Lake View), was touched by his distinguished pedagogue: “His buoyant spirit changed work from drudgery to joyous effort.” Upon his retirement from teaching the Lake View Alumni Association said of him, “He has made botany a beautiful and popular subject.” The gardens Pepoon kept at his Chicago home attracted thousands of visitors annually.
Doctor Pepoon died December 26, 1941. Today his work is often cited during deep research. However, there are no memorials to him, no parks in his name, no awards given in his honor.
Today, Pepoon is best known for his work out of the classroom. His books, Representative plants; a manual for the use of students of botany in secondary schools and colleges (1900) and Representative Plants (1912) are still being used as student references today. An Annotated Flora of the Chicago Region (1927) is widely referenced by ecologists in Chicagoland and served as the predecessor to the popular Plants of the Chicago Region (Swink & Wilhelm), first published in 1969. Beginning in his days as a medical doctor and continuing throughout his life, he published numerous papers in varying capacities.
Several of these papers dealt with the flora and ecology of Northwest Illinois, including Cliff Flora of Jo Daviess County (1909), The Forest Associations of Northwest Illinois (1910), Peculiar Plant Distributions (1916), The Primrose Rocks of Illinois (1917), The Flora of the Driftless Area (1918), A Proposed State Park (1919), The Forest Lands of Jo Daviess County (1920) and The Flora of the Rights of Way of the Illinois Central Railway: Waddams to East Dubuque (1927).
Pepoon’s observations are very important to us because of the time period and his amazing attention to detail. During the height of his documented trips back home to Northwest Illinois (1900-1920) the un-farmed portions of the county were in relatively good condition and his observations showed intact ecosystems before they degraded and before non-native and invasive species became so dominant. He was able to recount images from his past and those from a previous generation to offer a timeline of land use change. For instance he writes, “The writer is informed by old settlers that in those days there was very little underbrush except in moist places, and that one could ride in any direction through the timber without difficulty.”
Pepoon used a camera for the first time to capture images of the landscape. His pictures of Apple River Canyon and the bluffs above Savanna, IL are important to have today as they offer a glimpse of what the landscape looked like a century ago.
In 1918 at Jacksonville, IL Pepoon made a pitch to the Illinois Academy of Sciences to have a state park formed in the Apple River Canyon down the road from his boyhood home, the first step in turning his vision into a reality. In 1932 the state purchased that land. Pepoon was intimately familiar with the area from his boyhood days and he discovered the Bird’s-Eyed Primrose (Primula mistassinica) there on April 5, 1905. This was a groundbreaking discovery that met much skepticism from the scientific community, although many botanists traveled to see this plant in person, a pilgrimage that continues today.
In his 1919 paper, A Proposed New State Park, Pepoon closes by describing the possibilities for Northwest Illinois: “It is earnestly urged that all who can visit this region, and learn firsthand what it has to offer of beauty and wildness, recreation and rehabilitation for all the care-worn, business fagged, mentally benumbed citizens of our great commonwealth, who here may come to renew themselves with might in the inner and outer man.”
Some fifty-plus years before the area began to serve as a get away for recreation, tourism and relaxation Pepoon was already envisioning that process. A true visionary and leader, indeed.