concrete buttresses of the Illinois Central Railroad trestle crossing the Big 4 Railroad

2023 Delta Award: One of the many photos in “A Gazetteer of Johnson County, Illinois: An inventory of natural landmarks” is of concrete buttresses of the Illinois Central Railroad trestle crossing the Big 4 Railroad, across Sugar Creek from the Hobo Hotel. The buttresses are just south of Parker City (now completely gone), southwest of New Burnside. (Photo by Abigail Ramsey)

November 06, 2023

Authors of book about Johnson County's natural beauty win SIU’s Friends of Morris Library Delta Award

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — The authors of a book that highlights the beauty of Johnson County, Illinois, and provides a detailed guide to its natural areas will be honored Nov. 16 with the 2023 Friends of Morris Library Delta Award at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Johnson County natives Max D. Hutchison and Joseph L. Ashby, who wrote “A Gazetteer of Johnson County, Illinois: An inventory of natural landmarks,” will be recognized at a free, public presentation and award ceremony from 5-7 p.m. in the library’s John C. Guyon Auditorium. A reception and book signing will follow in the first-floor rotunda.

Published this year, the 350-page book has more than 550 photographs and maps featuring natural and historic landmarks, bluffs, caves and waterways, along with “quips and quotes from early settlers” to current residents.

The book earned the award for “the comprehensiveness of what they have done to record the natural landmarks in the county with such precision and historical background,” said Judy Travelstead, Delta Award committee chair.

Love of outdoors started with grandfather

Hutchison and Ashby, who are first cousins, have known each other for at least 75 years. They each recall staying with their grandfather when they were young, and he taught them both to “love the outdoors, to hunt and fish and find our way in the woods,” said Hutchison, who lives in Belknap.

Ashby, who moved from Johnson County when he was 13 years old, also recalls those fun times. He would return to Southern Illinois “as much as possible to visit my grandparents and took every opportunity to spend time with Max to hunt, fish or just be in the woods.”

The process of putting the book together was rewarding and enlightening, said Ashby, who now lives in Columbia Falls, Montana.

“Talking with Max for an untold number of hours about the sites and doing research on the internet was gratifying. Max has a very large library of documents and books dating back into the 1700s, and several of these documents and books are downloadable on the internet and searchable,” he said. “Often, I would search for a site in downloaded books written in the early 1800s and let Max know the page number.  At that point, although 2,000 miles apart, we could be reading the same information and discussing what to say in our book. Working on this book taught me so much more about a place I thought I knew.”

Urged to write the book

While the idea of publishing a book on natural areas in the county had been suggested a few times by others, Hutchison said, he seriously began to consider the idea after Gary Hacker, president of the Johnson County Genealogical and Historical Society, asked him about putting one together in 2013. Ashby, who has a background in printing, design and photography, said he learned of the issues in writing the book when visiting Hutchison in 2021 and was honored when Hutchison asked for his help.

“With the love of nature and history, and the experience I had in the printing industry, I felt that I could help Max put this book together,” Ashby said.

Chronicling history before it’s lost

Hutchison said he enjoyed returning to some locations in the county that he had last seen 50 years ago.

“It was interesting to see what changes had taken place,” he said. “I especially enjoyed talking to people who told me about sites, and in several cases, landowners took me to sites I had never seen that they owned.

“The book would never have been done without the help of a lot of fine people. I’m glad we documented what information we could, when we did. Some of the older residents we talked to are already gone, and with them, a lot of history is gone forever.”

Ashby and Hutchison hope the book provides a valuable history lesson and encourages readers to explore accessible areas perhaps never seen before.

“Maybe it will inspire more folks, especially young people, to get outside and see some of the neat natural features we have here in Southern Illinois, perhaps even walk to some of the places without using a four-wheeler or side-by-side,” Hutchison said. “Then I hope most will find information about the importance and significance of natural areas that will lead to more protection for those sites that are being disturbed, some unintentionally.”

The award makes 120 Delta Awards given annually since 1976 by the Friends of Morris Library “to individuals who have contributed significantly to the Southern Illinois region, either by their writing, or by other service.”