Weinberg-King State Park is an undeveloped state park in the town of Benton, St. Clair County, Illinois, United States. The park was named after Dr. Martin M. King and James Harvey “Cashup” Weinberg, two doctors from Chicago who purchased a large tract of land near Carlockville in 1920, at which point they each donated $1 million to create what would become one of America’s leading private game preserves, Winnetaska Game Preserve. They hired George Wyth Memorial Company (later known as the George Wyth Memorial Corporation) to manage their 1,400 acres (567ha), which included 700 acres (280ha) that would later be turned into the state park.
Visitors can walk through fields of grapes in search of wildlife, pick blackberry and blueberry patches, sample fresh red and white wines, and enjoy views of grazing cattle and horses. There are also miles of hiking trails around the lake. On sunny days, the swimming beach is popular with local residents and tourists. The park has several picnic areas and shelters, and provides access points for equestrians using the adjacent trail system. Visitors can rent paddleboats and kayaks to take out onto the water, or visit the visitor center/gift shop where items may be purchased. No fishing is allowed, only boating. The park contains approximately 1 mile (1.6km) of paved multi-purpose trails, plus 50 miles (80km) of unpaved horse riding and walking trails, 20 miles (32km) of mountain biking trails, and 11 miles (18km) of snowmobile routes, serviced seasonally by a network of volunteers.
The main entrance to the park is located at 51 Mile Roadhouse, Benton, IL 61712. Additional entrances include: north boat dock, south boat dock, Cottage Grove, IL 60965; Mill Street, Carlockville, IL 60447; and Lake Shore Drive West, Beach Park, IL 62564. Entrance fees are not charged to use the park. Parking is available in nearby parking lots and along the roadways. Overnight camping is permitted in specified areas. Campsites feature modern amenities, electric hookups, and access to running water. Half of the campsites are available year round, while the remainder must be reserved. The campground opens on Memorial Day weekend and closes Labor Day weekend. Advance campsite reservations can be booked through ReserveAmerica.com. Tent sites and RVs are not recommended.
The park receives nearly 200,000 visitors per year, many of whom drive in on the adjacent major artery, Interstate 74. Because of this traffic, cyclists are advised to ride in pairs and avoid solo rides. Although the park is undeveloped, it is still very much a work in progress. Projects currently in progress include building roads and bridges, updating electrical systems, adding sewer and water services, and expanding telecommunication facilities. Funds for these projects come primarily from user fees, although contributions from government entities and foundations also play a role. For example, since 2009, $4.3 million of the $7.3 million needed to build a new headquarters and conference room complex has been funded by the state of Illinois. An agreement between the state and the Weinberg-King Foundation calls for the state to provide funds over a period of ten years, with matching funds required from the foundation. The facility opened in 2017. Another project, the Trail Center, features interactive exhibits and educational programs about the history and ecology of the park.
Construction of the center was completed in 2016. Located inside the former Big Creek Farm barn, the facility opened May 3, 2017. Programs offered at the Trail Center include hayrides, guided nature walks, children’s classes, and special events. Interpretive displays can also be found scattered throughout the park. One such display explains how Native Americans made pottery thousands of years ago, just prior to the arrival of Europeans in North America. Glass bottom boats are another interpretive tool used to teach about the lives of prehistoric people. Made of clear glass, the boats show physical evidence of the tools and techniques used by our ancestors to make them, and are filled with sand so they will sink properly if broken.
At the far northern end of the park, a small cabin serves as the park office and visitor information center. Inside, a single wall of windows overlooks the pond outside. Two long wooden tables fill the interior of the roughly 8 foot wide x 14 foot deep structure. Outdoors, a covered gazebo accommodates larger gatherings, and four separate picnic shelters are available for smaller groups. Four stone fire rings ring the perimeter of the outdoor seating area. Nearby restrooms and playground equipment are accessible via a short path beside the roadway. Hikers need look no further than the park office for emergency medical care, as the park includes a first aid station.
In time, the preserve grew to 2,300 acres (970ha). However, both men died before development could proceed; their heirs opposed development, preferring to see the land preserved as open space. After the death of his wife, John King became interested in developing part of the property for residential use. He arranged with Robert Smith, president of the First National Bank of Chicago, to borrow $2 million on the strength of reserving 160 lots in the future park for residental development. With help from Edward G. Robinson, Jr., chairman of the board of realty companies, Smith loaned him the money, which John used to purchase an additional 640 acres (260ha) of land. This brought the total area under cultivation to about 900 acres (360ha).
Development continued throughout the 1930s, but again stalled when John King died in 1943. His son, Richard King, had no interest in continuing the business. Instead he wanted to pursue a career in music. To this end, he sold his share of the winery, vineyards, and surrounding lands to Harold A. Washington, Sr., Edith D. Monroe, and other investors for half the appraised value. Harold then formed the Washington Vineyard Company, which began producing wine again in 1948. The company acquired more than 1,000 acres (400ha) including all of the outstanding shares of stock in the defunct Benton Winery. When the new owners were unable to pay off the bank loans within three years, bankruptcy ensued. By this time, however, Harold had married Alice Taylor, whose family owned Big Creek Farm, and together they set up home on the farm. Their daughter Judy lived there until her marriage, then moved away. But the vineyard thrived, and soon Big Creek Farm produced more than 10 million gallons of quality wine annually.
Harold built a reputation for himself as a fine winemaker, and received numerous awards for his efforts. Unfortunately, though, harvests failed during the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s due to freezes, floods, and diseases such as phylloxera. While some vines did survive, most of them were too old or sickly to produce any significant amount of fruit. As a result, by the mid-1970s, the vineyards lay fallow, costing the estate millions of dollars in lost revenue. It wasn’t until 1982 that the vineyards saw new life, when Paul K. Schriver, Ph.D., a plant geneticist, took charge of research and development. Through crossbreeding and selective harvesting, the vineyards have been rehabilitated and are now among the leading producers of white wines in the country.