If you grew up on Aurora’s west side and pedaled a Schwinn, Sting-Ray or Huffy, chances are the Virgil L. Gilman Trail – or “nature trail” to ‘60s-through-80s kids – served as a trusty thoroughfare through childhood.
And on a certain section of that trail, then blanketed with crushed limestone, stood iconic flagstone walls, each shaped like a cupped hand as if it was protecting the bronze sundial anchored in front.
The roughly 1.5-mile stretch of the Gilman between trailheads at Terry Avenue and W. Galena Boulevard was the original “rails to trails” abandoned right-of-way conversion, recalls Bob Vaughan, longtime executive at the Fox Valley Park District.
“The trail was one of Virg Gilman’s first capital projects as the Fox Valley Park District’s founding director,” says Vaughan.
The fledgling trail marked the beginning of the first “linear park” in the United States, its flagstone walls the brainchild of Gilman and designed by local architect Lou Cordogan.
Constructed in 1967, the iconic walls were installed for aesthetic purposes “to make our first section of trail distinctive, since it was one of the first public recreation projects of FVPD,” says Vaughan. “In our early days, the focus was more on land acquisition with the primary focus on riverfront access.”
Fast-forward six decades. Today, the FVPD’s trail network stretches 48 miles, including 11.5 of the Gilman, which snakes from Hill Avenue in Montgomery, northwest through Aurora, to Waubonsee Community College’s Sugar Grove campus. And through the spirit of preservation, the seven signature walls remain between Terry and Galena, the stretch of Gilman that rolls between housing subdivisions and alongside an active railroad.
Return to glory
Three years ago, a comprehensive inspection of the walls, each one fitted with suspended concrete benches, put District officials to a decision, for more than a half century of natural deterioration, weather events, and vandalism had taken a toll. Common issues included missing mortar, non-structural cracks, deteriorating seats and capstone, and exposed reinforcing bar.
“No large-scale improvement work had been done since they were put in,” says John Kramer, the FVPD’s director of operations. “We felt that continuing to do spot repairs did not render value to the District or pay any homage to the history of the walls.”
Though degree of repair varied at each of the seven locations, “they all needed some amount of love,” says Jerad Campbell, the FVPD’s assistant director of park operations.
The restoration project, which Campbell quarterbacked from its 2020 start with the goal of refurbishing 1-2 walls per year, was completed the first week of August when the finishing touches were applied to the flagstone wall at the trailhead just outside Blackberry Farm on Aurora’s far west side.
Campbell aligned project deliverables with local contractors who specialize in masonry, artisanship, and tuckpointing for the walls; and molding and casting for the sundials, each of which were refurbished or replaced (images inset below). The cast aluminum letters that read “VL GILMAN TRAIL – FOX VALLEY PARK DISTRICT” on each wall have all been replaced, retouched and/or re-anchored.
“You don’t go into the hardware store and buy these things,” says Campbell. “Between the walls and sundials, we had some components that were falling into disrepair, and the District made a decision to restore these landmarks to their original beauty.”
‘A brand we can’t let fail’
Leland-based Burroak Masonry completed tuckpointing and masonry work on the seven walls, which are located at Terry Avenue, Edgelawn Drive (east and west), Orchard Road/Prairie Street (southeast and northwest), Blackberry Farm/Barnes Road, and W. Galena Boulevard.
The project was funded through existing budgetary expenses allocated for fence repairs and improvements, with costs ranging from $3,000-$7,000 per wall, based on condition.
“A few dollars spent now really saves us down the line,” Kramer says. “I believe the Gilman walls are a brand we can’t let fail, so that’s why we wanted to make them a priority.”
For 53 years, tens of thousands of trail users have walked, jogged, or pedaled around these iconic landmarks – actual birthmarks – of the Gilman.
With a wink at history and the resolve to restore and preserve original assets, the Fox Valley Park District’s first-ever section of trail remains distinctive – just how its namesake intended – with the seven original flagstone walls ready to stand strong for the next generation to navigate and marvel, too.
“The District’s founding fathers saw it important to create these landmark relics,” says Campbell. “Who are we not to protect them?”
The Fox Valley Park District Operations team works diligently to address potential issues at our facilities, parks, and trails. Should you notice anything that seems amiss, please send an email to email@example.com and include the location and an image, if possible. Residents can also report issues through the SeeClickFix app. Type in your location (you must be within FVPD boundaries) to access the FoxTrax portal.