IF A MASSIVE assemblage of bagpipers, shrilling the hymn “Amazing Grace” atop a vast expanse of grassland after a moment of silence at sunset, doesn’t give you head-to-toe chills, check for a pulse.
You may need medical attention.
Shelby and Elizabeth Pruett have never failed to feel such a rush of excitement during that resounding moment at Bagpipes & Bonfire—Lake Forest Open Lands Association’s (LFOLA) annual and multigenerational fundraiser held at Middlefork Farm Nature Preserve in Lake Forest.
“Piper music reaches deep down and touches my soul, every time I hear it,” says Shelby Pruett, a Lake Forest resident for 20 years and a serial Bagpipes & Bonfire attendee with his family. “It’s such a distinctive sound.”
But there’s much more to the beloved tradition than the music that conjures up kilts, sturdy castles, haggis, iconic golf courses, forever-gray skies, and memorable scenes from the movie Braveheart. There’s also Scottish dancing, along with field games, children’s crafts, and other activities for kids, adults competing in Highland Games events, live music, the ever-popular apple launcher station (to be underwritten by Price Insurance), and the presence of animals—with human guides—from the Wildlife Discovery Center.
“There’s the dramatic procession of the 100-plus pipers as well, culminating with a piper on the pyre and the lighting of the bonfire,” Shelby Pruett adds. “It’s a unique occasion for a unique association, and it’s staged for a special community.”
It’s part carnival, part picnic, part concert, part Olympics-ish Games, part outdoor museum, part celebration, part revue.
The sum of all parts: spectacular.
Shelby and his wife, Elizabeth—daughter of the late Rhett Butler, Lake Forest’s mayor from 1993-1996— will serve as co-chairs for this fall’s edition of Bagpipes & Bonfire, set for Sunday, September 25, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., rain or shine (tartans optional). The annual fete that announces Autumn is estimated to bring between 1,500 to 1,700 residents and guests.
Northern Trust is its Presenting Sponsor.
Bagpipes & Bonfire began as a small neighborhood event. In 1928 Evelyn Shaw McCutcheon welcomed local gardeners to bring brush and cuttings of summer to her property behind Shaw Prairie—located in LFOLA’s Skokie River Nature Preserve—for an annual bonfire and family picnic.
The first official Bagpipes & Bonfire was held in 1988, behind the efforts of an inspired John Dick. Dick grew up in a house next to Shaw Prairie and was 4 or 5 years old when he witnessed Scottish neighbors Shaws and McCutcheons host friends for a bonfire in the Fall.
You don’t forget a fiery fest like that.
When Lake Forest Open Lands Association (LFOLA) emerged as an independently funded conservation and educational organization in Lake County decades later, Dick’s brainchild for an extraordinary funder to support a critical cause won approval. Since 1967 Lake Forest Open Lands has acquired, preserved, restored and maintained nearly 900 acres of highly diverse native landscapes. LFOLA’s mission is to connect all to nature through outreach and land stewardship.
“Lake Forest Open Lands Association exists for the benefit of our entire community,” Elizabeth Pruett says. “The organization’s founders had the foresight to think, ‘We must protect land and ensure that it is set aside for future generations.’ Such a commitment continues. It’s wonderful to see children at each Bagpipes and Bonfire running around, interacting with others in-person, and having fun—outside, away from their devices.
“There’s nothing like it,” she adds. “The event acknowledges the importance of stewardship, enjoying the present and looking to the future.”
Shelby Pruett’s present passion, athletics-wise, this time of year is the caber toss, one of several Bagpipes & Bonfire Highland Games events. Each entrant balances a long, heavy tapered wooden pole—picture a thin telephone pole—vertically on one end. The caber is usually made from a larch tree. The main objective is to toss the caber end over end, falling directly away from the thrower in the 12:00 position.
Dick had encouraged Pruett years ago to try his hand in the exercise that rewards technique as much as it does strength. A track and field athlete (shot put, hurdles) and football player (fullback/punter) in his early days , Pruett has won a Bagpipes and Bonfire medal in the caber toss and earned a national ranking in the discipline.
“It’s not that great,” the humble Pruett says of the ranking. “I’m near the bottom of the stack, but it’s an honor to compete”
The Pruetts have three children: son Shelby, daughter Grayson, and son Reding. Grayson, a student at Villanova University, participated in LFOLA’s Center for Conservation Leadership program when she was 14.
“It was life-changing for her,” her mother says.
Lake Bluff resident and Lake Forest High School New Media teacher/soccer coach Steve Douglass has attended more than a dozen Bagpipes and Bonfire gatherings, with his wife, Amy, and their sons, Jack and Peter, joining him at many of them.
“It’s such a unique benefit,” Douglass says. “Bagpipes and Bonfire has beauty, pageantry, and history. The whole evening exceeds expectations each year.”
Visit lfola.org/2022 for more information about Bagpipes & Bonfire. Email [email protected] or call 847-234-3880, extension 17, for sponsorship opportunities. Middlefork Farm Nature Preserve is located at 1401 Middlefork Drive in Lake Forest.