Larry Pulice, a volunteer with the Brookfield Conservation Commission, has spent the past two years removing buckthorn that had made South Kiwanis Park largely impenetrable. His efforts have made a dramatic difference in making that public parkland accessible. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

Everyone in Brookfield knows about and most likely has spent many hours enjoying Kiwanis Park, the home of Brookfield Little League and the village’s annual (well, when there’s no pandemic to stop them) Fourth of July picnic, the Fine Arts Festival and summer concerts.

But, many longtime Brookfield residents might not know there’s another part of Kiwanis Park and even fewer probably have set foot in it.

South Kiwanis Park, which runs along the east bank of Salt Creek south of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad right-of-way could be mistaken for a stray section of Cook County Forest Preserves. And until a couple of years ago, it was so overgrown with buckthorn it was not easy to enjoy as a natural haven.

“It was an impenetrable thicket,” said Bridget Jakubiak, the chairwoman of the Brookfield Conservation Commission, whose volunteers have been trying, slowly, to remove buckthorn for years.

Small groups of five or six people, often members of the commission, “make a little progress each year.”

Larry Pulice (left) and Brookfield Conservation Commission Chairwoman Bridget Jakubiak walk through one of the cleared areas of the South Kiwanis woods. They’re still trying to figure out how to get rid of the piles of buckthorn that are neatly stacked after they’re cut down. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

“We’ve been doing this over several iterations of the commission,” Jakubiak said. “We’ve had volunteers from the commission, local scout troops, RB, LT [students]; the neighbors here have all pitched in considerably.”

Up until about two years ago, the commission had managed to carve a corridor about 20 yards wide through the buckthorn thicket heading west from the 3800 block of Arden Avenue in the South Hollywood section of Brookfield. 

There’s now a woodchip path along that corridor, which serves as an unofficial entrance to the woods, which are otherwise hard to access.

Chopped down buckthorn branches are seen in piles around the wooded area on April 7, at South Kiwanis Park off of Arden Avenue in Brookfield. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

“I didn’t know it existed,” Jakubiak said. “I lived in this area my whole life and I had no idea until I joined the commission and we came here for a work day. And that’s kind of a common reaction. People are like ‘I didn’t know it existed.’ It’s like a hidden gem.”

Now, if you walk into the woods along that woodchip path, you’ll no longer confront a wall of buckthorn, though there’s plenty of the invasive shrub left to remove. You’ll walk into a secluded but far more open woodland revealing towering, old oaks like those residents enjoy in the oak savanna section of North Kiwanis Park.

“It definitely feels like your somewhere not in Brookfield when you’re here,” Jakubiak said.

The transformation from buckthorn thicket to open woodland over the last two years is largely thanks to the efforts of longtime Brookfield resident Larry Pulice, who himself had no idea South Kiwanis Park existed until he was introduced to former Conservation Commission Chairwoman Lisa Lynott.

Larry Pulice cuts down a buckthorn with a chainsaw on April 12, at South Kiwanis Park in Brookfield, Ill. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

“She invited me over to see what’s going on here and it just went from there,” said Pulice, who was busy cutting away buckthorn with a chainsaw last week before a succession of rainy days made the ground too muddy.

It turns out this is one of Pulice’s retirement projects, and when the weather cooperates you can find him in South Kiwanis Park with his chainsaw at least two or three days each week, systematically cutting away buckthorn and applying herbicide (he’s certified to do that work) to the remaining stumps.

Pulice retired a couple of years ago from the Brookfield Zoo, where he did exactly this kind of work on the grounds of the park — woodland restoration and wetland reconstruction.

Larry Pulice cuts the branches off of a buckthorn before throwing them into a pile on April 12, at South Kiwanis Park in Brookfield. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

“I still had a taste for it,” Pulice said.

You might have thought that when Lynott showed Pulice the scale of the task confronting the commission, he might have begged off. Instead, he jumped in enthusiastically.

“It attracted me like a moth to a fire,” Pulice said. “As long as I’m upright I’ll come out here.”

Pulice said the area might have been open oak/hickory savanna or wet woodland — it’s in the Salt Creek floodplain and parts of the woodland are under water almost all the time.

He said he’s seen no sign of hickory trees these days, but there are still plenty of mature oaks. The problem is that the buckthorn is choking out any new oak growth. One of the main reasons for clearing out the buckthorn to allow oak saplings to survive and replace the old growth oaks in time.

Larry Pulice carries buckthorn over to a pile on April 12, at South Kiwanis Park in Brookfield. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

“They’re all fairly mature oaks and that’s why it’s so important [to remove invasive species],” Pulice said. “Once the mature oaks are gone and there’s nothing to replace them, that’s it, you won’t see any more oaks in this area. So if we can start a new population of oak trees that’d be great. The problem was there wasn’t enough light for the young oaks to grow.”

Removing the buckthorn has other benefits. Letting in more light also allows woodland ephemerals, like trout lily and red trillium, to thrive. The oaks also support wildlife.

“It’ll help all the animals,” Jakubiak said. “Hundreds of different bug species rely on the oaks, so we can get a new generation of oaks that will ensure their safety and well-being going forward. We have host plants for swallowtail butterflies starting to come up. Just a lot of different habitat.”

Removing buckthorn will also help amphibians, like frogs, thrive. Those species, Pulice has found don’t co-exist with buckthorn, whose seeds, leaves, bark and roots are toxic.

Last year, Pulice did a frog survey for Cook County, and his findings showed frogs and buckthorn just don’t mix.

“There were areas close to the Des Plaines River where you would think there would be a lot of frogs there, but there weren’t any,” he said. “And it was covered with buckthorn.”

One problem resulting from Pulice’s success in clearing out so much buckthorn is that there are stacks of cut buckthorn piled up neatly in long rows inside the woods. The commission itself doesn’t have the resources to get rid of it all.

“We’re trying to figure out what to do with it,” said Jakubiak. “We’re thinking about the village maybe come and chip it and maybe use it for more trails or something.”

Victor Janusz, Brookfield’s forester, said he’s amazed at the progress Pulice and the commission have made in South Kiwanis Park. In the past, when the buckthorn yield was a bit smaller, volunteers would drag it to the curb along Arden Avenue and he’d send over a chipper.

There’s so much now, said Janusz, that he’s trying to see if there’s a way to drive a chipper into the woods to get it closer to the stacks of buckthorn.

“Without the buckthorn, it is so much nicer, so much more welcoming,” Janusz said. “It’s a lot of work. And for how few people they have and how much they’ve done, it’s just tremendous. … Eventually they’re going to overcome and keep the buckthorn from coming back.”

Jakubiak says the Conservation Commission always welcomes willing volunteers to help with their efforts, both in South Kiwanis Park and in the oak savanna cross the tracks to the north.

Anyone wishing to volunteer can email conservationbrookfield@gmail.com and ask to be added to the commission’s volunteer list or be notified about events. They can also follow the Friends of the Brookfield Oak Savanna on Facebook. 

The volunteer restoration days are scheduled once a month at either the oak savanna at Kiwanis Park or at South Kiwanis for about two hours at a time. The commission supplies the equipment and instructions.

“A lot of the volunteers who’ve come onto the commission have never done any restoration work and they’re just learning on the fly,” Jakubiak said. “It’s kind of a miracle how successful we’ve been at passing the torch and keeping these two areas going with volunteer labor.”

What the heck is South Kiwanis Park?

The woodland area south of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad tracks between Salt Creek and Arden Avenue looks like random woodland, but is actually official Brookfield park land.

It’s been something of an afterthought since Brookfield acquired the land in 1955, along with the more well-known and actively used Kiwanis Park property north of Brookfield Avenue, bounded by Salt Creek, Arden Avenue and Washington Avenue.

The purchase in 1955 was part of a wholesale selloff of suburban land owned by the city of Chicago during the 1950s and 1960s and was part of the Gage Farm, a sprawling 1,060-acre property that in the 1860s included what is now the Cermak Plaza, Morton West High School, Costco and North Riverside Park Mall as well as much of Riverside and part of eastern Brookfield.

The area known as South Kiwanis Park is pictured on Olmsted’s General Plan of Riverside in 1969, part of a large, never-built subdivision contemplated west of the Des Plaines River.

The owner of the Gage Farm was David Gage, owner of the Tremont Hotel in Chicago, one-time president of the baseball team that would later be known as the Chicago Cubs and Chicago’s city treasurer. 

He also was a director of the Riverside Improvement Company. Gage sold some of the farm land for the development of Riverside, a real estate venture that ended up crashing after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the financial collapse of 1873.

Gage was later found to have allegedly embezzled about $500,000 from the city’s coffers to prop up the financially failing Riverside enterprise. He was acquitted, but the court ordered him to surrender what remained of Gage Farm to make good the shortfall in the city’s accounts.

From about 1916, the village of Brookfield leased at least the north end of the Gage Farm land from the city of Chicago for recreational purposes, naming it Kiwanis Park in 1936.

In 1955, voters in Brookfield approved a bond issue to buy 32 acres of land east of Salt Creek outright from the city of Chicago. The village completed the sale in early 1956.

Bob Uphues