PRAIRIES OF ILLINOIS


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DISAPPEARANCE OF THE PRAIRIES

By 1830, farmers began to realize that the prairie soils were more fertile than forest soils and much easier to convert to agricultural use. For decades farmers had always girdled, cut, and burned trees within the forest to create fields. This realization resulted in the first earnest attempts to claim farm ground from the prairie. The breaking of the prairie was usually accomplished by a team of oxen during the month of May. Very often, this type of work was contracted out to a "sodbuster" who charged $2 to $3 per acre for his services (Bogue 1968). The prairie which was intensely grazed was easier to break than ungrazed prairie. Certain plants, such as red root (New Jersey tea) were difficult to plow through.

In the years following the Civil War, cultivation of the prairie accelerated due to the development of railroads which gave farmers transportation for their produce and an easy way to get wood and lumber necessary for building and heating. By 1900 most of the Illinois prairie was gone. Although most individuals did not mourn its disappearance, there were some that did. Dr. A.N. Herre, upon returning to Illinois, wrote the following:

The disappearance of the prairie was more than the loss of vast acreages of plants. It was the loss of a huge grassland ecosystem, its plants and animals. Unfortunately, few descriptions of the bird life of the unbroken prairie are in existence. One notable exception is Dr. Robert Ridgeway’s description of the bird populations of Fox Prairie in Richland County from the late 1800’s:

The words of Ridgeway were all too prophetic, for only vestiges remain of the once vast Illinois prairies. Looking Glass Prairie, String Prairie, and the largest prairie of all, the Grand Prairie exists today as names on maps. Relatively undisturbed prairies still remain Illinois along railroad rights-of-ways, in pioneer cemeteries, or on sites that are unsuitable for row crop farming, pasture or development.


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