Recreation Haven | Living the Country Life

Recreation Haven

John and Marcia Volk needed an escape from the city. Their Illinois country home gives them what the urban landscape can't--lots of wildlife, gardening space, and room to build a zip line course.
  • Urban folks

    Monday through Friday John and Marcia Volk live in a three-story row house in a trendy Chicago neighborhood near DePaul University. Work drew them to the Windy City in the 1970s.  He’s a former advertising agency owner and now does management consulting and she’s a media strategist.

    The couple’s city roots run deep.  In addition to business opportunities, they enjoy the many ethnic restaurants, shops and cultural events at their doorstep.  Their two grown daughters and families – including a new baby granddaughter – live nearby.

    Date Published: October 5, 2012
    Date Updated: November 28, 2012
  • Country dwellings

    But as much as they love city life, the Volks relish their weekends in the country.  While other urbanites might opt for a lake home or a swanky condo in an exotic location, they slip off to a farm about 120 miles southwest of the city near Magnolia, IL.  

    John’s grandparents purchased the 165-acre property in 1954 for John’s aunt and uncle to farm. John and Marcia bought it from six heirs beginning in 1978 and along the way have added 72 acres. Of the 237 total acres, about 135 tillable acres are rented to a local farmer.  The rest is divided between the grounds surrounding their home, timberland with ATV trails and a zip line, and a beautiful clearing where the original farmstead once stood.

    Date Published: October 5, 2012
    Date Updated: November 28, 2012
  • Family getaway

    The Volks built a small, two-story cottage on the farm in 1991 as a weekend retreat.  At first the home was sparse, sans kitchen and central heat and they elected as a family not to have television.  In 2001, they replaced the original cedar siding damaged by woodpeckers with vinyl siding, and they added a garage and installed central heat, kitchen cabinets, countertops and appliances, plus hardwood floors.  They have not installed a television.

    Each year John and Marcia spend about 20-25 weekends.  Daughters Jessica and Alyssa were in high school and junior high when they built the cottage and it offered much-need family time. “For the first time ever, John started taking weekends off from his business,” says Marcia. 

    That’s not to say weekends at the farm are not teamed with work.  Over the years, John and Marcia have spent countless hours landscaping and mowing, tearing out multi-flora rose and other brush, nurturing volunteer trees and removing dilapidated buildings.

    The physical work is a nice balance to their more sedentary, cerebral day jobs.  “You can visually see the fruit of your work,” says John. “And by improving the farm a little bit every year we increase both the appearance and the economic value of the property. It is a good return on our sweat equity.”

    Date Published: October 5, 2012
    Date Updated: November 28, 2012
  • Conservation efforts

    Beautifying the property is one goal but making improvements that are good for the environment is also a priority. The Volks have completed several conservation projects, including a 7.5-acre native grass and forb wildlife habitat behind their home.  The habitat borders a small field planted to sunflowers, bringing gorgeous mid-summer color and doves for hunting. 

    To create the habitat they utilized the Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds or CP-33.  CP-33 is a USDA conservation program developed to encourage landowners to create 30- to 120-feet wide buffer strips designed to increase upland birds such as bobwhite quail and songbirds. The program, which offers continuous enrollment, pays a per-acre subsidy for investments in inputs such as tillage and seed.

    Other Volk acres are enrolled in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that provides annual rental payments and cost-share assistance for establishing resource-conserving covers on eligible farmland.  The program requires landowners to submit bids for participation during specified enrollment periods.  The Volks have used CRP to plant native grasses and forbs in low lying spots to eliminate creek washouts and erosion, and they’ve created buffers to protect waterways from nutrient and chemical runoff and provide habitat for wildlife. 

    One big recent project was clearing the old farmstead area about a quarter mile from their cottage. The house where John’s aunt and uncle once lived, corncrib and garage were bulldozed and Marcia and John worked side-by-side to clear away rubble and debris.

    We hauled out several dumpsters of junk, including six dozen cultivator sweeps,” said John.  “And 13 frying pans,” added Marcia. After clearing the ground, John harrowed, fertilized and seeded it with shade-loving grasses that would flourish beneath an oak tree 31-ft. in circumference at the base that’s the centerpiece of the site.

    Date Published: October 5, 2012
    Date Updated: November 28, 2012
  • Abundant wildlife

    Watching wildlife is a favorite activity and John and Marcia find plenty to observe at the farm.  Snapping turtles, beavers and waterfowl, including wood and mallard ducks, inhabit a creek that winds past the cabin and makes a mile-long trek through the property. 

    When the Volk girls were younger they enjoyed fishing and catching frogs – some a foot long from nose to toes.  The farm is also home to owl, wild turkeys, doves, possum, squirrel, deer and other wildlife.

    Each spring great blue herons build nests in the tops of sycamore trees about a half a mile from the house.  “It is wonderful to go there in the spring and see all the Dr. Seuss-type nests high up in the sycamores,” says John.  “You can see two or three heads of chicks looking out.” 

    Great blue herons are fun to observe and they are good co-habitants, says Marcia, because they don’t eat what she’s trying to grow.  Ground squirrels, deer and beavers, on the other hand, get under her skin when they mess with her landscaping, gardening or trees she is nurturing. 

    Date Published: October 5, 2012
    Date Updated: November 28, 2012
  • Grooming the land


    Marcia recently built a fenced, 21-square foot raised garden with Brussels sprouts, kale, summer squash, tomatoes, herbs, strawberries, carrots, peppers and zinnia flowers.  Her guide for producing more in less space was the All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. 

    “In the spring I give our kids a seed catalog and have them circle what they want me to plant,” says Marcia.  “On our way home on Sunday nights we stop by and drop off vegetables.  It is a nice way to involve them in our efforts and a good excuse to stop by.”

    The Volks nurture volunteer hickory, oak and walnut trees along the creek and throughout the farmstead. It is a painstaking job. Without chicken wire and plastic tubing carefully snugged around young trees, deer eat them “like popsicles,” says Marcia.

    To manage the deer population, John hunts with a bow and shotgun and recently harvested a white-tailed buck that scored 174 using Boone and Crockett Club measurements.   He also hunts wild turkeys and doves and each winter trappers are brought in to reduce the beaver population.  “Two beavers can take out 60 to 80 trees in one year,” Marcia says.

    Date Published: October 5, 2012
    Date Updated: November 28, 2012
  • Creating recreation

    The Volks enjoy feeding and watching birds, and have recorded many species, including bluebirds, grosbeaks, buntings, yellow finch and recently Baltimore orioles, lured to the feeders with oranges and grape jelly.  “Since we are gone all week the birds get used to eating from the feeders without being disturbed,” says Marcia. 

    Photography, boat rides on the creek or spins on their two ATVs are other favorite pastimes.  “We create our own recreation,” says John. 

    They also enjoy inviting their city friends to the farm.  A recent event was “wine camp” with farm-wide hikes and scavenger hunts, and cookouts featuring farm-harvested game. Admission: a favorite white or red.  They also invite friends from their country neighborhood for visits in the city.  “It is fun to expose both to the opposite way of life,” says Marcia.  “And our farm friends are wonderful about looking after the place during the week, and loaning us needed equipment or help for projects.”

    Date Published: October 5, 2012
    Date Updated: November 28, 2012
  • Zip line adventures


    Recently the Volks’ daughters and sons-in-law talked the couple into building a zip line that stretches 300 feet through a wooded parcel across the road from their home.  They visited a nearby church camp to get design and building ideas and purchased the necessary cables and harnesses online.   

    Flying through the trees 15 feet above the ground is a good adrenalin thrill and nice break from farm work. 

    But honestly, they don’t mind the work.  “Improving and beautifying the land is very rewarding,” says John.

    Date Published: October 5, 2012
    Date Updated: November 28, 2012
  • Learn more


    Square foot gardening:

    Building a zipline:

    Conservation Reserve Program: Contact your local Farm Service Agency or visit

    Date Published: October 5, 2012
    Date Updated: November 28, 2012
  • John and Marcia's grilled dove breasts with jalapeno and bacon

    Carefully clean and debone dove breasts to remove feathers and shot.

    Cut fresh jalapeno in half lengthwise and remove seeds.  Place one-half jalapeno between breast halves; wrap with strip of smoked bacon using toothpick to secure.  Grill on medium heat for approximately 12 minutes until breast is fully cooked.

    Date Published: October 5, 2012
    Date Updated: November 28, 2012

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