North Branch Otter Creek

Quick Facts

Hydrologic Unit Code (HUC-12):  070900040801

Area: 15.3 square miles (9821 acres); 5.1% of Lower Sugar River Watershed/2011

Counties:  Wisconsin: Green County/Spring Grove Township; Illinois: Winnebago County/Laona and Durand Townships; Stephenson County/Rock Grove Township

Municipalities:  Northern third of Durand [population 1,315 (2016 estimated census)]

Primary Land Uses:  Agriculture (cropland 53%, pasture/hay 29%), Forest (9%), Developed (7%) of landcover/2011

Points of Interest:  Laona Heights Forest PreserveRaines Honey Farm

Water Quality: Watershed Rapid Assessment Survey (WRAS) data collected by trained LSRWA citizen science volunteers in 2011 and 2012 (data on file with LSRWA) rated the watershed to be in fair condition. For a map of WRAS data points click here

At a Glance

  • Although most of this subwatershed resides in Illinois' Winnebago and Stephenson Counties, North Otter Creek's headwaters arise from the subwatersed's northwest corner located primarily in Green County, Wisconsin.
  • The Creek flows southeast through the mid-section of the subwatershed's hilly agriculture landscape and on exiting the subwatershed joins South Branch Otter Creek to form Otter Creek.

Learn More 

Three subwatersheds, North Branch Otter Creek, Otter Creek and Sugar River, largely in Illinois' Stephenson and Winnebago Counties are part of the larger Natural Division called Rock River Hill Country which is generally characterized by rolling hills drained by the Rock River. Recall that the Sugar and Pecatonica Rivers and associated watersheds drain into the Rock River and accordingly are included in the Rock River Watershed located in both Wisconsin and Illinois.


The only public area available in this subwatershed is the 40 acre Laona Heights Forest Preserve (FP) in Winnebago County off Anderson Road. Half of the of the FP is an Illinois designated Nature Preseve. The wooded site is especially suited for picnicking with a stone shelter house, picnic tables, grill, bathroom facility and playing field. Additional features to explore are a small restored prairie at the west end of the preserve and an unmarked, half-mile trail circumventing a good portion of the preserve's perimeter. 


Did You Know?

Jane Addams is generally thought of as the founder of Hull House in Chicago, but that is not truly the case. The settlement house was actually co-founded with Ellen Gates Starr, who was born on March 19, 1859 in Laona, Winnebago County, Illinois. Her homestead, called Spring Park no longer exists, but in its stead at 17321 Rock Grove Road is the Stanley Panoske farm northwest of Durand. The Laona settlement at the time of Miss Starr's birth was located in the vicinity of what is now the intersection of Rock Grove and Eicks Roads. 

Jane Addams was born nearby in Cedarville in Stephenson County on September 6, 1860. The two never knew each other until they met and became close friends at Rockford Female Seminary (Rockford, IL) which Ellen attended for only one year (1876-77). In 1888 while traveling together in Europe, Jane expressed her interest in establishing a settlement house in Chicago to help the largely impoverished, immigrant population adjust to life in a new country. On their return they opened Hull House, one of the first settlement houses in the United States in September of 1889. To learn more about Ellen Gates Starr click here

Nearly two decades before the birth of Ellen Gates Starr, the Sackett family was among the early settlers in the pioneer community of Laona*. The family’s journey from New York City by steamboat and horse and wagon in 1841, and their early days of homesteading in this Winnebago County settlement was documented by their sixteen year old daughter Mary. Over the course of a year, in journal entries and letters to her younger brother George, who remained behind in New York, Mary Johnson Sackett described the routine of daily life managing livestock, provisioning building materials, food and clothing (sewing was almost a daily work activity!), as well as maintaining important relationships with other settlers for socializing and commerce. Considerable time was spent planting crops, gardening, collecting and swapping seed, churning butter, berry picking, pressing cider, making cheese, and in the seasonal production of maple syrup. The early nineteenth century Sugar River bottomlands and surrounding woodland, prairie and barrens landscape come to life as she tells of the 5-hour, 18-mile journey to Rockford with her father, negotiating the often muddy and impassable dirt roads, crossing spring brooks and the Sugar River (either by ferry or toll bridge at a cost of 18 pence), and bracing against the unrelenting winds of the open prairie. She describes traveling along the “pleasant but unhealthy” banks of the river, picking from the endless supply of prairie flowers, encountering and killing rattlesnakes, waking to the howls of wolves at night, hearing the chorus of songbirds, and observing prairie chickens by the hundreds, not to mention the abundant “Prairie devils” (a bird of some sort) and sandhill cranes. She noted the practice of burning the prairie prior to breaking the sod and evidence of rapid settlement with considerable land clearing and fencing underway. Mary Sackett died at the age of 43 in 1869. In 1985, William Murray Underwood recovered his great aunt’s tattered journal from a dusty attic and transcribed it, providing additional information about the family. We thank George Johnson, a descendant of the family and formerly from the Durand area, for sharing the journal and making available this fascinating local historical account.  A newly revised edition of the journal by Barbara Johnson is currently being prepared for publication in the coming months.

* Some confusion exists as to the Laona settlement one is talking about. The Laona settlement mentioned in Mary Sackett’s Journal was the orginal settlement and later renamed several times (Medina, Howard, Pettingill), but finally settled on the name of Durand in 1863 after Henry S. Durand, President of the railroad running through the town. At some point around 1850 the Laona post office was relocated northwest to a store at the intersection of Rock Grove and Eicks Roads. This is the Laona settlement associated with Ellen Gates Starr. We thank Beverly Waller, Durand resident and historian for her valuable input and helping us get our stories "straight".

For those who are seeking locally produced honey, Raines Honey Farm on Best Road produces honey and beeswax products from their hives located on farms in northwest Illinois and southwest Wisconsin. For more information visit their website.

For a printable PDF map of North Branch Otter Creek Subwatershed click here.


2011 National Landcover Database: