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nature before heading west in a wagon train. They adapted and made sod houses and settled in. When I compare myself to what they did, with my car and electricity, I’m a wimp,” laughs Norman. Far from just being decorative, many prairie plants were pressed into service to treat specific conditions or preserve health and well-being. Norman says pioneers used plants such as New Jersey tea and pale purple coneflower, both deep-root immune stimulants brewed to ward off colds and flu, as well as smooth sumac, whose astringent, tart berries can be used to make a lemonade-like beverage. The pioneers’ adventurous discoveries can be experienced through the monthly work sessions Norman leads the third Saturday of every month, except December. His volunteers, known as “Groundhogs,” meet at an appointed place at 9:30 a.m. and work for two or three hours to maintain the prairie. Norman estimates that volunteers have preserved or protected more than 200 species of native flora and fauna on Snyder Prairie.

Snyder and Grassland Heritage In 1977, the late Rachel Snyder purchased 160 acres of land outside Topeka that contained a limestone farmhouse and large tracts of prairie. A former reporter for the Topeka Daily Capital and The Washington Post as well as editor of Flower and Garden magazine and author of Gardening in the Heartland, Snyder donated the land in the 1990s to the Grassland Heritage Foundation. As part of the donation, Snyder requested that the foundation sell 20 acres that contained the farmhouse to the family that had lived on the property and assisted her with managing the land. Grassland Heritage Foundation has worked to preserve and restore the remaining 140 acres for the next generation. Volunteer coordinator Frank Norman estimates 12 acres have been protected as virgin prairie, approximately 103 acres have been restored to native prairie grasses and 25 acres will be left as forested land. The nonprofit foundation, with members throughout northeastern Kansas, also uses a Rolling Prairie Learning Lab trailer to educate schoolchildren and audiences of all ages about native plants and preservation. For more information about Grassland Heritage Foundation, visit its webpage at www.grasslandheritage. org or contact Topeka board member Jeff Hansen at (785) 478-1993 or foundation secretary Sue Holcomb at (913) 856-4784. To join a “Groundhog” work session at Snyder Prairie, call Norman at (785) 691-9748 or send him an e-mail at fjnorman@sunflower.com

These work sessions, and a few guided tours each year, are the public’s best chance to view what is becoming a lost landscape. According to the Grassland Heritage Foundation’s website, less than 5 percent of the Midwest’s tallgrass prairies remains today, as most of the land has been converted to agricultural use. The foundation also estimates that 25 percent to 65 percent of migrant and resident birds are now endangered as their habitats are paved into subdivisions, shopping malls and industrial parks. Preserved prairie land provides an increasingly rare shelter for these animals—and for people as well. “Some people don’t appreciate the prairie’s beauty and purpose until they walk through one and really see its splendor up close,” says Norman. “It’s really a link to our past and a pull toward our evolutionary path.”

Topeka Magazine Spring 2009  
Topeka Magazine Spring 2009  

Topeka Magazine Spring 2009