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Lincoln brought Guy Fraker to Illinois; preserving the landscape came later

 A man with glasses, gray hair and a mustache stands next to a stone marker with Abraham Lincoln's profile. He smiles at the camera, with head height corn stalks in the background
McLean County Museum of History
Lincoln historian and retired attorney Guy Fraker is a 2023 McLean County History Maker. He is the last living member of the group that formed the ParkLands Foundation in 1967.

Guy Fraker III was born in Missouri, raised in New York and first came to central Illinois to attend college and law school at the University of Illinois.

“My mom was from Peoria and my dad was from Shelbyville,” Fraker said in an interview. Summers were spent in Midwest. “My mom raised me to come back to Illinois, bless her heart.”

Fraker was recruited to the Costigan and Wollrab firm to Bloomington in 1962.

“It was the right choice for me,” he said. “I didn’t know anybody in Bloomington at the time. I loved what I saw about the town, and I still do.”

A lawyer by profession, Fraker’s two avocations are studying Abraham Lincoln and land conservation — so it is serendipitous that he chose to settle in the Twin Cities. His commitment to both topics is what prompted McLean County Museum of History to select Fraker as a 2023 History Maker.

Fraker’s fascination with Honest Abe began as a child. At age 10, his great aunt brought him to Lincoln historic sites in New Salem and Springfield.

“New Salem really hooked me,” he said. The next year, while out shopping for records, he bought a book on the 16th president instead. “From then on, it’s been a passion of mine.”

Fraker served as board chair for the Abraham Lincoln Heritage Area’s Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition and on the board of the McLean County Historical Society for more than nine years. In 2012, Fraker published the first of two books about Lincoln’s time in Illinois’ Eighth Judicial Circuit Court.

“(Lincoln) was a man of the highest integrity,” Fraker said. “He was a man of persistence that was demonstrated, of course, in the Civil War. His dogged attitude toward saving the Union saved the Union. If the minority can withdraw from the Union because they don’t like the way things are going, then ultimately, such a country is doomed.”

As for his 50-plus year involvement in land conservation efforts, Fraker is decidedly “not a naturalist,” he said. He was part of the original team that formed the ParkLands Foundation. At the behest of Pantagraph publisher Loring Merwin, Fraker helped draw up the legal papers to officially launch the foundation.

“If you’re new in town, you don’t know many people of influence. And when the most important man in town, I think, asks you to do it, you do it,” Fraker said. “That was transforming in my life.”

Since its founding in 1967, ParkLands Foundation has adopted more than 3,600 acres, mostly along the Mackinaw River. Fraker also served as board chair and director of land protection for the Nature Conservancy, negotiating agreements to preserve more than 10,000 acres in Illinois.

Scientists have designated 64 distinct ecosystems nationwide — prairies, woodlands, wetlands, etc. According to Fraker, Illinois rivals California in biodiversity, mainly because of its length.

“You really have to appreciate the Illinois landscape because most of it’s been destroyed, unfortunately,” Fraker said. “The prairies were so easy to plow under. But on the other hand, what we have in Illinois that’s left is still magnificent.”

Prior to conservation efforts by agencies like ParkLands Foundation, Illinois had plowed all but 2,200 of more than 2.5 million acres of natural prairie. Some of those original tall grass prairies are in central Illinois, like Weston Prairie near Chenoa.

But Fraker doesn't see conservation as being in competition with agriculture. As a negotiator, he found that land restoration and agriculture have similar goals.

“Here’s what agriculture and conservation organizations have in common: protecting open space,” Fraker said. “And what you do with it, that’s where there’s a clash, but there’s enough open space for everybody.”

Celebrate Guy Fraker and all the McLean County History Makers at the History Makers Gala on June 21. Details on the event are available at mchistory.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.