Making the Prairie by Hannah King, Curator.

How do we define the prairie? And how does it define us? At their most basic, prairies are defined as extensive areas of flat or rolling grassland. The open and expansive views of our area were formed by glaciers moving through the area, which also contributed glacial debris like stones and boulders, as well as creating many lakes. The last glacial period ended about 10,000 years ago. As glaciers retreated, melting ice filled in many of the depressions left behind. Rain and snowmelt help replenish these glacial lakes and “prairie potholes.” The glaciers also moved and deposited other materials, which left us with the soils found in Stevens County today. Most of the soil in the area is till, a mixture of materials ranging from fine clay to large boulders. Parts of the county also have lacustrine deposits, which are materials that settled out of glacial lakes. The deposits tend to be sandy and gravelly near where the lakeshore was and have more clay near the middle of the lake. These areas tend to be very flat and level.  Different kinds of prairie are home to a variety of grasses, wildflowers, and shrubbery.

People followed the glaciers. Rock art and mounds show that the first people arrived in Minnesota at least 5,000 years ago. When European settlers arrived, they found the land inhabited by Dakota and Anishinabe (Ojibwe) peoples. Human habitation had relatively little impact before the arrival of settlers when indiscriminate killing of bison nearly drove the animals to extinction. Around the same time, famers began plowing large fields, which destroyed many acres of prairie. Prairie can be made into one of the most intensive crop producing areas in North America, so very little land was left in its natural state. The availability and fertility of land in Minnesota meant that for decades the main industry was agriculture. Since so much of the land was in constant use, there was not much opportunity to develop large cities and tall buildings, which kept views in Stevens County open even as more people arrived in the area. The landscape, whether agricultural, or built, is still heavily influenced by the prairie that has been replaced.

Today, many people realize the need for a greater balance between nature and people. Prairie restoration kits, programs, and companies abound. Crop and prairie residue is used as biomass fuel by UMM and the West Central Research and outreach Center. Artists inspired by the prairie share its beauty, perhaps stirring appreciation for the natural landscape in someone new. The openness and richness of the prairie shaped the lives of the first waves of people who came to Minnesota. Later people changed the prairie to suit human needs regardless of nature’s rhythms. Perhaps we are heading toward a time of equilibrium, when people can still make a living off the land while also respecting it.