It was a perfect Sunday afternoon.
A surprisingly large group of Elgin High School’s Class of 1959 gathered under a Shagbark Hickory tree at the edge of a savanna on the grounds of the high school. They were there to dedicate a memorial to their class sponsor and former Biology teacher, Gus Stuart.
The memorial wasn’t, however, the typical bench one commonly sees as a memorial–it was a Council Ring, popularized by the Midwest’s most famous and beloved Landscape Architect, Jens Jensen. A strong, colorful character, he practiced in the Chicago area from 1905 until 1951.
The council ring was a recurring architectural element in Jens Jensen’s designs. A circular stone bench with a fire pit in the center, it was made with flagstone piers topped with large slabs of flagstone. It could have a diameter of anywhere from 10-20’ or even larger.
The council ring was meant to inspire conversation, storytelling, drama, and singing around the campfire. In Jensen’s words from Siftings, his only book, “In this friendly circle around the fire, man becomes himself. Here there is no social caste. All are on the same level, looking each other in the face. A ring speaks of friendship and strength and is one of the great symbols of mankind.”
He situated council rings within a woodland clearing with a view out toward a meadow–just as this one is situated.
The edge of the clearing would be planted with native plants, grouped together in naturalistic designs–just as this is.
The ring is made of boulders that surround an old stump. The floor is covered with pea gravel.
The Council Ring serves as an outdoor classroom, primarily for the environmental classes of Deb Perryman, the award-winning teacher of Environmental Science at the High School. The old stump in the middle serves as a platform for teaching. Teachers of other subjects have found it to be a wonderful classroom setting, as well, such as teaching literature or music.
Let’s hope this sets a trend. Council rings will add to the ambiance of not only schools, but libraries, nature centers, parks, and back yards.