Quintessential Barrington

Spencer Otis An Early Conservationist in Barrington

Over a hundred years ago, Spencer Otis, Sr. may have been one of the Barrington area’s first conservationists.


story by Barbara L. Benson


The name of Spencer Otis has appeared in recent issues of Quintessential Barrington as one of the “gentlemen farmers” who put down roots in the Barrington countryside in the early years of the 20th century. His acquisition of six farms, totaling over 2,000 acres—going south along Brinker Road, and giving his name to the cross road, Otis—was the largest purchase of land among his wealthy railroad entrepreneur contemporaries. While Otis joined in the social country pursuits of his neighbors (he was one of the founders of the Barrington Hills Country Club along with George Van Hagen and H. Stillson Hart), he formed an association with the Department of Horticulture and the School of Agriculture at the University of Illinois.

On his Hawthorne Farms, Otis planted experimental crops in association with the University, with soybean and new varieties of corn among them. His son, Spencer “Pete” Otis, Jr., attended the University’s Agricultural School from 1908 until 1911, when the stucco round barns were first being constructed in Urbana. Several of them were built on the Otis’ Barrington properties. The last existing one, at Baker’s Lake, was destroyed by fire in 1997, while plans were underway for its preservation as a landmark.

Spencer Otis, Sr. was also concerned with public landscaping, and an item in the Barrington Review of Thursday, May 14, 1914, “Spencer Otis is Improving Road”, with a subhead “Has a Landscape Gardener Planting Vines and Shrubbery on One Mile of the Public Highway” attested to this: “Spencer Otis, Sr. of Hawthorne Hill farm, is, at considerable expense, having a mile of the public highway improved by a landscape gardener from the Department of Horticulture, Illinois University. This road branches west of the main Elgin road, just south of the cemetery. At the corner, pine trees have been placed and along each side to the dam on the north bank of the Hawthorne Lake will be placed trees, shrubs, vines, and wildflowers.

As a keen lover of nature, Mr. Otis will share his enjoyment of this beauty spot with the passing public, and when developed the drive promises to be one of the local points of interest. Early in the season a designer came here from the university to study the location and according to his plans, the planting is being done by L. E. Vogelsang of Urbana and several assistants. Mr. Vogelsang is living at present at the Orchard Hill Farm. Prof. Miller of the university who lectured here at the High School one evening last winter is at the horticultural instruction of the state institution and the men in charge of Mr. Otis work are instructors under Prof. Miller.

This vicinity has been about cleared of evergreen trees and it is regrettable for their appearance is ever beautiful. In a few village yards and on a few farms are seen trees of the “Coniferal Family” which have been planted by tree lovers years ago, but the only trace of the “forest primeval” exists in this neighborhood east of Wauconda towards Lake’s Corners, where, north of the road, may be seen a Tamarack or Hackmatack grove which seems like a bit of Lake Superior country dropped into Lake County”.

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Barbara L. Benson grew up in Kent, England, and later moved to New York. She settled in Barrington and has walked with our history ever since she first arrived here in 1980.