Dickson Mounds Prairie
You are standing at the western edge of an eleven-acre tract of restored prairie. A prairie is an ecologically diverse, vegetative community dominated by native grasses and featuring many colorful flowers. The name comes courtesy of French explorers and trappers of the 17th and 18th centuries, who gave the grasslands they beheld a name meaning "natural meadow."
Prior to pioneer settlement of Illinois in the 1800s, more than 60% of the state, approximately 22 million acres, were covered with prairie. The first European settlers moving westward from the forests of the eastern United States encountered the prairies, which seemed like a vast ocean of grass. The wind caused waves on the surface of the shimmering grasses. One type of wagon used by the pioneers was the "prairie schooner," a reference to a sailing vessel, further adding to the analogy of the prairie being a large inland sea of grasses. It was easy to get lost in the prairie, especially since there were few trees or other natural features to act as landmarks. Even when on horseback, it was often not possible to see across the prairie to the horizon.
The early settlers, originally from the forested regions of Europe, found the prairies to be rather frightening. They were not used to the hordes of biting insects, intense summer heat and high humidity, windy winters, and periodic raging prairie fires. Because few trees grew on the prairie, the settlers at first considered the prairies to be infertile. This, plus the need for firewood and construction timber prompted them to build homes at the edges of the prairies and along rivers, where trees persisted. It was not long, however, before the settlers discovered that the prairie soil was more fertile than forest soil, and was in fact among the most productive soils in the world.
A difficulty the settlers encountered was that their plows, made for forest soils, were not able to cut through the dense prairie sod. It was not until 1837, when John Deere invented the self-scouring, steel-bladed plow in Grand Detour, Illinois, that it was possible to break the prairie sod and farm the prairie on a large scale. Then, in a remarkably short period of perhaps 50 years, the vast majority of prairie in Illinois was plowed and converted to agriculture. Now just over 2,000 acres remain, less than one-hundredth of one percent.
Today these prairie remnants can be found in forgotten or ignored areas that were not destroyed by cultivation -- areas along railroad rights of way, old cemeteries established in prairie areas, and other sites, many of them small or in out-of-the-way places, or in restoration projects and reconstructions such as this one.