Friday, August 19, 2016

Newton B. Ashby and the prairie landscape

Compass plant, summer on the prairie.

This brief meditation on the prairie as Lucas County pioneers found and experienced it is the final excerpt from Newton B. Ashby's slim 1925 volume, The Ashbys in Iowa. Here are links to three earlier excerpts: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

The Ashby family arrived in Otter Creek Township from Indiana during the spring of 1861 and settled on a prairie farm that later would be the site of part of the village of Norwood. William H. and Margaretta Ashby purchased 280 acres of prairie, part of which had been broken by previous owners, and 100 acres of timber along nearby Otter Creek.

At the time, much of Lucas County still was prairie interspersed with areas of savanna and old-growth timber along streams or in enclaves protected by marshland and sloughs from prairie fire. Only remnants of that remain; Iowa's landscape, because of its agriculture productivity, is among the most altered in the United States.

I've interspersed Ashby's narrative with photos I've taken over the years in our county's prairie remnants.

Prairie Blazing Star, summer on the prairie.

By Newton B. Ashby

I can not describe to you the charm of the prairie. It always had a charm whether it was the ripple of wind over the green grass or a lazy autumn day windless and the air glistening with suspended webs of gossamer, and the prairie like molten gold with rosin weed blossoms and golden rod. The season round from May to October brought its flowers so that the prairie was continually decked as for a fete. In June the field lily was everywhere. About the edge of the hazel thickets we gathered orchids.

Rosin weed, late summer on the prairie.

In  the autumn, after killing frosts, came the prairie fires. You may have seen attempts to reproduce a prairie fire in the movies, but it isn't the real thing any more than are representations of the eruptions of Vesuvius put on at our State Fair. You saw an arc of fire coming on over a front of two or three miles. As the fire gathers headway it creates its own driving power by the suction of cold air pouring into the heated area. It moves very stately over the hill where the grass is short, then it comes on like a race horse when it strikes the low ground with tall grass.

Goldenrod, late summer on the prairie.

The whole heavens are aflame and the darkest night is alight like mid-day.

A plowed fire break, unless very wide, affords very little protection from a great prairie fire because the burning grass is lapped up and carried forward by long leaps. The only safe protection was the back fire. As soon as a prairie fire was seen approaching the settlement every available man and boy turned out to fight fire. All the sloughs then had plenty of water in deep holes. We filled a bag with grass dipped into a water hole, and then the back fires were started and as the firer ran along with his torch the wet bag was dragged behind the line of defense while others followed to beat out any fire the crossed over the dead line. When the advance of the fire was not too rapid we came off easy victors, but at other times after hours of fighting we came off hot, and with faces blackened and scorched.

Butterfly Milkweed, early summer on the prairie.
Hazel nut bushes grew everywhere on the rough land, and produced abundantly. Most of these valuable and bearing bushes have been ruthlessly destroyed. If I owned rough land in southern Iowa today I would encourage the hazel nut growth and expect a fair revenue from the nut crop. 

There were abundance of black walnut trees along the Otter creek bottoms, and wild plums and blackberries grew wherever a little protection offered. Crab apples were abundant and served in place of apples. Gathered and put in pit over winter, they came out in the spring golden yellow and mellow. I am fond to this day of an occasional crab apple.

The prairies were covered with thousands of prairie chickens. In the spring the mornings resounded with the boomings of the cock birds as they ruffled their plumage and strutted to and fro. In the fall after the corn was in the shock they were so plentiful as to be destructive and were shot and trapped beyond the needs for food. Indeed prairie chicken was not a rare dinner delicacy then for a hunter could shoot in an hour more birds than he could carry.

Prairie Gentian, midsummer on the prairie.

Rabbits were plentiful, squirrels were found in the woods rather sparingly, and there were wild turkeys. There were a few wolves but not enough to be destructive to any great extent.

Bottle Gentian, autumn on the prairie.

Old Jim Nyswanger, a hard drinking Dutchman who was our greatest nimrod, boasted of an occasional deer. I remember joining in a wolf hunt one night when we caught five coons but had no luck with wolves. One night when there was to be an eclipse of the moon at three o'clock a.m. some half dozen boys of us went wild turkey hunting to be sure and see the eclipse. We saw the eclipse and bagged one turkey.

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