Just 75 acres remain from the original 185,000 acre expanse of the Sandusky Plains that once sprawled across Crawford, Marion and Wyandot counties. The bits that are left today exist in a disjointed patchwork of narrow railroad rights of way, historic cemeteries, and modest plots of grazing land. At 35 acres, Daughmer Prairie Savannah comprises the largest uninterrupted plot of the prairie land that survived settlement and development by people, not to mention invasion by trees.
Historically, the prairie grasses fended off trees and shrubs with their dense tangle of long, tough roots that crowded the soil. The grasses got help from occasional prairie fires, sparked by lightning strikes or deliberately set by native Americans who valued the natural grazing land for bison and elk. The fires, in turn, spurred the regeneration of grasses and forbs while withering any tree saplings attempting to gain a foothold.
One tree species that has always coexisted here has adapted smart strategies for compatibility rather than competition. The bur oak tree (Quercus macrocarpa) grows in clusters on sun-drenched knolls surrounded by the blanket of prairie grasses. Once the bur oak’s super-sized acorn falls to the ground and germinates, it sets out a particularly long taproot that grows quickly, tunneling nearly four feet in the first year. The bur oak tree itself is slow growing and long lived. Its deep, widespread roots lend drought resistance, and its thick corky bark protects the heartwood from windswept wildfires.
In addition to the bur oak savannah, the preserve harbors other plant communities including mesic prairie, wet prairie, sedge meadow, bluejoint swales and a prairie pothole marsh. Dense stands of classic prairie grasses, like big bluestem and little bluestem, grace the dry prairie, while moisture loving species such as prairie cord grass fill in the wet spots. These unique habitats support state threatened species including Bicknell’s sedge (Carex bicknellii), wheat sedge (Carex atherodes), and flat-stemmed spike-rush (Eleocharis compressa).
By early summer, the nodding blossoms of wildflowers including Ohio spiderwort, yellow star grass, prairie loosestrife, marsh pea and Virginia mountain mint, paint the prairie landscapes with splashes of vibrant color.
The Sandusky Plains and its surroundings remained a wilderness bastion for decades after Ohio achieved statehood in 1803. Some European pioneers thought the sea of prairie grass would be a poor choice for a farmstead, believing that the absence of trees indicated impoverished soil. Those who tried to tame the prairie found that their wooden plows were a poor match for the tightly woven sod. Beyond the prairie, the pioneers were stymied by the stretches of dense virgin woodlands and the expansive swamplands sitting atop the poorly drained soils. Packs of howling wolves and reports of prowling panthers discouraged travelers from venturing far or staying long.
These impediments to settlement were a boon to the Indian lifestyle. The Wyandot, whose villages dotted the Sandusky River nearby, organized their activities around the promise of the rich hunting grounds at the intersection of forest and prairie. Long after demand for their homeland pushed other tribes from eastern Ohio, the Wyandot were left to live peacefully near the western prairie.
Eventually, though, the flood of eager immigrants swept into the far corner of Ohio, and advances in agriculture finally tipped the balance. With the introduction of the sturdy steel moldboard plow in 1837, enterprising farmers could break up the stubborn sod. New techniques for draining the wet meadows and swampy woodlands transformed these forests and plains into broad swaths of fertile farmland.
Just a few plots of the original prairie evaded the plow. The White family’s farm had been dedicated to cattle and sheep grazing for generations when Hazel (White) Daughmer inherited the family’s land. The farm was eventually purchased in 2010, thanks to conservation minded tax payers who donated a portion of their Ohio income tax return through the natural areas tax check off. It was designated as Ohio’s 135th state nature preserve, and named in honor of Hazel Daughmer. A ceremony is planned this summer to officially dedicate the preserve as part of Ohio’s natural legacy.