To explain how Wildlife Prairie Park came to pass, we must look at its history and founder, Mr. William Rutherford. Bill, an attorney by profession, never expected to develop a nationally recognized park at the age of 60 - it just evolved. In the 1960's Bill heard that the Brookfield Zoo was looking for space to raise exotic endangered animals. Coincidentally, the Forest Park Foundation, a foundation that his family had run since 1939, had acquired 480 acres of land (including abandoned strip mined land) near Peoria with the intention of using it for conservation and environmental purposes. The Foundation thought its land was the answer, and Brookfield agreed. Later, the management at Brookfield Zoo changed, as did their plans for the Peoria development. Since the Foundation had already started planning for the Zoo's project, it decided to create. Something the Brookfields and Lincoln Parks of the world could not do. Use an untapped natural resource to pay tribute to America at the time of the pioneers and establish a zoological park dedicated to Illinois.
Over the next three to four years, native Illinois animals (and those brought by the pioneers) and plants were acquired, construction materials were secured, buildings were erected and money was raised. Bill often remarked, "The head of the Peoria park system said to me, 'Bill, if you do the things you're talking about it will cost you a million dollars.' And I said 'It can't. I've got the land, most of the fences and the entrance road.' Well, so far it has cost me $17 million."
The park officially opened in 1978 and was independently operated until September 5, 2000 when, our founder, William Rutherford Jr. presented the deed to Wildlife Prairie State Park to Governor George Ryan and the State of Illinois. Shortly thereafter, Wildlife Prairie Park became "The Hazel & Bill Rutherford Wildlife Prairie State Park."
An article written by the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources in 1990 gave insight into William Rutherford. The article reads, "It is tempting to lionize this vibrant 75-year-old man who still works 14-hour days seven days a week, bombarding his staff with a constant stream of memos on improvements and ideas, bringing to life ideas that most just talk about. He has been called a visionary. He is." Bill said in response, "That's nice. But I don't worry much about those things. I just want to get a few things done."
The Park is now operated by the Friends of Wildlife Prairie State Park and the State of Illinois. Since its inception, Wildlife Prairie State Park has strived to promote its mission of conservation, education and recreation. Through community support, dedicated members and a growing number of visitors annually, we continue to look for new ways to further that mission.