The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

September 1, 2013

Native grass, plants once ruled the prairie


“There was a profusion of flowers reaching to the horizon and there was a sweetness in the breeze that fairly did blow from the prairie,” Solomon Gilbert wrote in a letter in 1831, describing his first view of the prairie in Vermilion County. He was an early settler in the county and a veteran of the War of 1812.

Gilbert’s statement came to mind when I recently viewed Big Bluestem at the Salt Kettle Rest Area on Interstate-74. Several acres there are dedicated to prairie restoration and a number of native grasses and flowers can be seen.

Big Bluestem, also known as Turkey Foot, is a favorite of mine. It was the predominant grass that defied the plow when the first attempts were made to tame the prairie of Illinois. Early pioneers were concerned the prairie could never be farmed as they attempted to break the well-established sod anchored by Big Bluestem. Its roots descend as far as 10 feet into the ground, and it can grow to a height in excess of 10 feet.

Chester Loomis described the Vermilion County prairie he crossed in June 1825: “An astonishing growth of vegetation is everywhere prevalent, except in the dry prairie, where wild grass holds the ascendancy. The wild grass in the dry prairie grows thick at the bottom, but not more than 2 feet high; but in the wet prairies the grass and weeds grow to a height of 7 or 8 feet, and so thick and close as to impede the progress of a horse, and thus rendering traveling slow and disagreeable.”

It was a slow process to replace the “wild grass” with cultivated crops, but the virgin prairie that Big Bluestem battled to preserve was a war it was destined to lose. In the same period, tens of thousands of acres of government land were being sold to settlers at the federal land office in Danville, and key inventions were being produced that would usher in the agricultural revolution. The reaper was invented in 1831, the same year Gilbert wrote his letter describing the prairie. The steel plow was developed in the years 1833-37, and it was the self-cleaning plow that proved capable of turning over the sod. The two-row corn planter was introduced in 1839, and the grain drill in 1840. That same year, the wooden hand pump, using suction to lift water, made its appearance.

The Big Bluestem in the picture on this page is making an effort to invade the trail that leads to the Pioneer Cemetery at the Salt Kettle Rest Area. In a couple of places it has been successful. One of the plants measured 9 feet, 7 inches tall.

The prairie breeze still blows in the county, as it did in Gilbert’s time, but corn and soybean fields now reach to the horizon. But there are still vestiges of the native grass and plant warriors that once ruled the vast prairie. Among places they can be found are fence lines, parks, and old railroad right-of-ways. If humankind disappeared from the scene, they would march forth, and once again rule the open spaces.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.