|The Europeans who ventured across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World were unaccustomed to the huge trees and dark floor of the Eastern forest wilderness, the heavy canopy which sunlight could barely penetrate and which blocked their view of the sky. They assumed that the entire continent was covered with trees. As they pressed on into the nation's interior, the open, airy grasslands they eventually found were even more unlike any landscape they had known. French explorers of the 1600s marveled at the beauty of the elegant tall grasses, and called these areas "prairies."
The wilderness known as the northwest territory in 1700 was a vast forest, virtually unbroken, where it was said that a gray squirrel could hop from limb to limb across hundreds of miles, never touching the ground. The great black swamp forest of northwest Ohio and the dry rugged ridges of the southeast did indeed cover much of the state with their great canopies, but a different kind of landscape also thrived. For pioneers making their way west through the Ohio frontier, grassy openings in the deep oak forests were a delightful surprise and the first taste of the great sea of tall grass they would find in the nation's interior. More than 300 patches of tall prairie grasses totaling 1,500 square miles formed a kind of prairie peninsula jutting into Ohio's fortress of tall oaks and beeches.
The relatively warm and dry conditions after the last ice age and retreat of the Wisconsin glacier 15,000 years ago set the stage for the development of prairies in the center of North America. The prairie boundary has never been static--trees and grass have struggled for dominance ever since. About 4,000 years ago, drought conditions favoring the advance of the grasslands formed the Prairie Peninsula which brought the great grasses into Ohio. From the dawn of the prairie landscape, its continued existence has depended on natural forces with muscle enough to beat back invasion by trees. Perhaps the greatest of these is fire, often ignited by lightning and transported by the wind. Before the European explorers were even aware of the great seas of grass, Native Americans sometimes set prairie fires themselves to discourage the advance of trees or to drive out game.
The Native Americans were equally at home in the forest and on the grassy plains. In the 1700s, the Shawnee Indian Piqua Town was established on the prairie plains of the Mad River near the present-day city of Springfield. Piqua Town was the birthplace of Tecumseh, the heroic chief and defender of the Shawnee nation. The grasslands of this area were part of the ancient Prairie Peninsula which had evolved by the 1700s into a series of prairie islands surrounded by a sea of trees as Ohio's climate cooled once again. The prairie opening framed by deep beech forest provided the perfect balance of open, fertile cropland with plentiful water, lumber and fuel nearby. This prairie oasis encompasses what is now Buck Creek State Park. Likewise, the grass- swept valley of the Little Miami River enjoyed a reputation for beauty and abundance long before any permanent white settlements were established here. Forests of stately oaks, walnut, maple, ash and wild cherry mingled with stretches of native prairie. Sycamore State Park is part of the Mad River Country admired by pioneers and defended by its Native American residents. The edge created where the forests and plains met provided ideal habitat for rich populations of game animals and birds. Buffalo and elk at the margin of their range in the Prairie Peninsula were prized for their meat and hides; so much so, that the buffalo had all but disappeared from Ohio by 1802, and the elk by 1838. At the prairie edge, pioneers saw entire herds of deer roaming in the grass at dusk and retreating to the woods to find solitary shelter at night. At first glance, the pioneers assumed that the prairies were unproductive, barren lands unable to support the tall trees of the forests. The thick layer of sod at the soil surface, the tangle of matted grasses and roots and the rich clingy soil challenged pioneer plows. Once the prairie sod was broken, however, the rich organic matter and crumbly texture made for the finest agricultural soils in the world. After the first bumper crops of corn, the pioneer farmers changed their view of the prairie from barren fields to fertile paradise-- that didn't require the hard work of tree removal to grow crops. By the 1870s, innovations in farming technology and the expansion of the railroads created a busy agricultural industry that plowed through, drained and replanted much of Ohio's native prairie.
The relicts of the prairie openings left untouched today include a handful of nature preserves along with tiny patches beside railroad beds or cemeteries where the deep prairie soil has remained undisturbed in the midst of Ohio's development. Modern pressures including land development, mineral extraction and use of introduced species for food crops, erosion control, habitat development and beautification have drained much of the vast ocean of prairie that covered the nation's heartland. Frontier Ohio's mix of the giant forests and expanses of gentle prairies must truly have been a sight to behold; the forest edge framing the waves of grass like a lakeshore, ripples on the green and golden surface breaking against the distant horizon which held the promise of new wonders to behold.
Buck Creek State Park's 15-acre prairie was painstakingly recreated to resemble the original prairie as closely as possible. Each year since 1985, seeds have been gathered by hand from mature plants in prairie relicts within a 50-mile radius of the park located in Clark County, primarily within old cemeteries and along railroad beds. After collecting seed heads in the fall, volunteers under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff rub the seed heads over a wire screen, knocking out the seeds and separating the chaff. The seeds are chilled through the winter to maintain dormancy and planted on a prepared patch of soil in the spring. Because the seeds invest so much energy in putting down deep roots, the shoots of the grasses and forbs typically do not peak out from the soil until two to three years after planting. After establishment of roots, however, the grasses and wildflowers have thrived and created a true, diverse tallgrass prairie. Controlled burns every three years keep woody invaders out and help contribute organic matter to build deep, rich soil.
An isolated relict of Ohio's original shortgrass prairie remains at Adams Lake State Park in Adams County, and is protected and managed as a state nature preserve. This precious one- acre patch of dry prairie exists in a zone between the Appalachian mountains to the east and the glaciated area to the north and west. The landscape here more closely resembles the rolling Bluegrass Region of Kentucky than the tallgrass plains of northwest Ohio, and erosion has served as the primary force for creating and maintaining prairie conditions. The soil is a limey shale which is rock hard when dry and highly erosive when wet. The Adams Lake Prairie features little bluestem, prairie dock, rattlesnake master, American aloe, small quantities of Indian grass and big bluestem, and four species of blazing star, two of which are potentially threatened in Ohio. Controlled burning and selective cutting are management tools used by the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves to maintain ideal shortgrass prairie conditions.
Larger tracts of tallgrass prairies have been created at Caesar Creek and Sycamore state parks to restore habitat for grassland birds. The 40-acre site at Caesar Creek in Warren County is adjacent to restored wetlands, and was most likely a wet prairie at the time of European settlement. Seeds of local prairie forbs were collected by hand to supplement a purchased supply of tall grass seed from native Ohio species. Caesar Creek's prairie is now home to a modest population of Henslow's sparrow, a threatened species in Ohio, and has been visited by other state endangered or threatened species including the short-eared owl and northern harrier. The 60-acre grassland at Sycamore State Park near Dayton was established in 1994 to expand the mosaic of prairie openings available for grassland birds whose populations have been declining. Some of the species which Sycamore's prairie may attract include bobwhite quail, bobolink and several sparrows such as the vesper, grasshopper and savannah sparrows. Management of these prairies by the ODNR Division of Wildlife involves creation of suitable nesting habitat by controlling the height of the grass, the density of cover and the amount of ground litter. Mowing is an important management tool along with controlled burning, which is done a section at a time to minimize disturbance of nesting birds.
Story by Jean Backs Special thanks to Cheryl Schutte (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), Martin McAllister (ODNR Division of Natural Areas and Preserves) and Lynn Holtzman (ODNR Division of Wildlife) for their assistance in compiling this information.