Little Cemetery on the Prairie

From 100 Miles from Home

  • Place: Smith Cemetery Nature Preserve
  • Location: On the west side of IN 63, about 1.9 miles south of the Perrysville, IN exit (Map) 
  • Distance from Home: 38.6 Miles
  • More Information 

Then as to scenery (giving my own thought and feeling,) while I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara falls, the upper Yellowstone and the like, afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the Prairies and Plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.

–Whitman, Walt. Prose Works. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1892;, 2000. [November 28, 2016].

Imagine the space you live in—your home, your yard. In the Midwest, the average house has about 2500 square feet, while the average lot has about 22,000 (approximately half an acre). Imagine yourself in that space, walking from room to room, standing in the driveway, surveying your domain.

Now imagine that your space begins to shrink, until 99.9 percent of it has disappeared.

What you have left is about the size of a small garden shed.  Or a coffin, depending on how you look at it.

This is what happened to the prairie. Illinois once was home to about 22 million acres of tall grass prairie, meaning that nearly 60% of the state was covered in grass. Today, only  about 2300 acres (.1 percent!) of the original prairie remain. [1]

The land didn’t disappear, of course: It was devoured and re-purposed, and now instead of tall grass prairie, there are farms.

Like ours.

Prairies came into existence about 9,000 years ago after a series of climate changes that, simplified, worked like this: The glaciers melted. The spruce forests and then the hardwood forests that replaced them died out as the temperature continued to rise.  Prairies thrive where there is less moisture and more sunlight. And their grasses’ deep roots help them resist drought and fire far better than trees can.

Since the prairie had no trees, the first Europeans to travel to this part of the world assumed it was not fertile enough to farm. In fact, the soil was rich, thanks to the fires and the long-term decomposition of the deep-rooted prairie grasses. Pioneer settlers figured this out soon enough, of course, and by about 1900, the 169 million acres of tall grass prairie that formed a roughly triangular area extending west, north and south from Illinois were almost eradicated. (See this map showing the original extent of the prairies.)

Fortunately, patches of native prairie still exist. One of them, Smith Cemetery Nature Preserve, is just up the road from The Perry Farm.

smith-signLess than a third of Indiana once was covered with tall grass prairie. But of those original seven millions acres, only 1000 remain. By virtue of its being a graveyard, Smith Cemetery was never plowed, and thus it still is home to native grasses and forbs.  The search for one special member of the latter category, royal catchfly, led to the cemetery’s “discovery” in 1979 and to the local township agreeing to begin managing the cemetery as a prairie.  Twenty years later, Smith Cemetery was officially designated a state nature preserve.

According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, native plants growing in the cemetery include prairie dock,  Culver’s root,  yellow coneflower,  leadplant,  pale purple coneflower,  white prairie clover,  prairie alumroot,  hoary puccoon,  New Jersey tea, wild quinine,   showy tick-trefoil , Indian grass  and big  and little bluestem.

Keith and I visited the cemetery in the fall.  Its oldest human inhabitants were born in the 1760s (Martha Isenhood, 1761; David Smith, 1764). The oldest burials are from 1822—Susannah Fultz, Andy Rudy.  Few of the prairie plants still were in bloom, but we saw asters, big blue stem grass and goldenrod.  We saw the carcasses of bergamotbush clover, lead plants and quinine.  And we can vouch for the unexpected splendor of this small prairie nestled between the highway and the farmland. We’ll be back when the royal catchfly blooms next July.

Update: The Royal Catchfly is blooming!




[1] I adapted these data from Samson and Knopf’s Prairie Conservation in North America. I also learned a great deal about prairies from Ken Robertson’s  Formation of Prairies.
[2] If you own/owned land in Illinois, you will be fascinated by this website, which offers facsimiles of the original land plats.

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