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Prairie Tales

June 4, 1932


As final preparations were being made for KU’s June 1932 commencement festivities, a late-breaking event was informally incorporated into the schedule. “Its arrangement came too late,” as the Graduate Magazine later reported, to merit advance notice or official designation, but with no pomp and decidedly little circumstance, this all-but-ignored moment may now rank as the most enduring consequence of that long-forgotten graduation weekend.

A small plot of land on the southern reaches of campus received a marker made of limestone from Potter Lake with a plaque dedicating it to “Nature’s sweet fashion of making Her own garden.” (The phrase was borrowed from Life at Laurel Town, a novel by Kate Stephens, a KU professor of Greek from 1878 until her dismissal in 1885.)

When the land was set aside, it was believed to be the last portion of KU’s Mount Oread campus that had never “been disturbed by plow, shovel, blasting powder nor other man-made device for reshaping the surface of the earth.” The parcel also received an official name, by which it is still known today: Prairie Acre.

Located at the intersection of Sunflower Road and Sunnyside Avenue, Prairie Acre was the brainchild of four women – Agnes Thompson, Amida Stanton, Rose Morgan, and Hannah Oliver. All were KU alums, and three had gone on to become KU faculty members. Oliver was a retired professor of Latin whom the University honored in 1932 by establishing a Latin prize “in her name and honor.” Stanton was a professor of romance languages, and Morgan was a professor of English. Agnes Thompson was not a University employee, but she was an active KU alum who had stayed in Lawrence after graduating in 1896, and had served as editor of the Graduate Magazine from 1916 to 1920.

In the early 1930s, the women were struck by the rapid development KU’s campus had undergone over the course of the first decades of the twentieth century. And while it is hardly surprising that the campus had changed a good deal since their years as undergraduates in the late nineteenth century, in looking around the University’s grounds they observed not only new buildings but also different sorts of grasses and trees. In the southeast corner of campus, however, they found to their delight one last bit of what they believed to be “native prairie.” Although parts of it lay under slabs of discarded concrete, it appeared to the women as the campus’s last readily accessible vestige of Kansas’s pioneer years.

To be sure, this corner of land had doubtless been grazed by cattle and no longer benefited from regular burning and buffalo manure. Cattle, however, can serve much the same ecological role as buffalo, and prairie grasses can thrive even if neglected. To untrained eyes, the plot’s grasses appeared pristine.

Others, of course, recognized the degraded state of the parcel of land. One was Professor Carl F. Nelson of the KU Bio-Chemistry Department, who was already planning to reintroduce indigenous plants to that general area. Not surprisingly, Nelson proved more than amenable when the women solicited his assistance to set aside this spot in perpetuity in order to shield it from future development.

With his help, the women persuaded the University in the spring of 1932 to put aside roughly half an acre of land to preserve “the significance of the prairie hillside for future generations.” The fact that early photographs of the southeast side of Mount Oread revealed wagon ruts led many to believe that a spur of the Oregon Trail had run along the south side of the plot. This link to the state’s frontier past buttressed the nostalgia for “virgin soil” and fostered a remarkable affection for the half-acre plot.

Even if Prairie Acre had no grand dedication, much was still made of it during the ensuing weeks and years. One unnamed alumnus, linking the prairie grass of eastern Kansas to the region’s frontier history, waxed philosophic in the Graduate Magazine about the newly established Prairie Acre. Noting that although “something can be said for Kentucky bluegrass,” he claimed that it would be ridiculous for anyone to gaze upon a mere lawn “lost in reverie, traveling back in imagination to the Kansas of pioneers, Indians, buffalo – and to the epochs before.” No, he continued, we must “go to Prairie Acre for that service of release from the things of today.”

Other professors joined Nelson in offering their assistance to the establishment of Prairie Acre by permitting the University greenhouse to be used to cultivate native species of wildflowers, which were to be added to the parcel of preserved land. Perhaps more importantly, the University apparently committed itself to burning the plot once a year in order to promote new growth. By the end of 1940, KU had erected a small stone wall around Prairie Acre to demarcate its boundaries more clearly. This preserved parcel, with its grass, flowers, and single cottonwood tree certainly appeared to have a bright future.

Despite the fact that the construction of new buildings atop Mount Oread north of Prairie Acre required it to be temporarily disturbed in order to lay sewage pipes, and part of the plot was sacrificed for a new sidewalk and stairs, passion about the Acre continued into the 1950s and early 1960s.

“The sightseer who visits the Prairie Acre today will be greeted by a scene of untamed beauty,” rhapsodized a 1956 editorial in the Kansan. “A tall cottonwood tree, standing as a lone guardian amidst a sea of dense prairie grass, whose surface is whipped into undulating waves by an occasional breeze,” the editorial continued, indicated “that the foresighted planners of this area [had] been successful in their attempt to preserve” the Acre.

The Kansan was not alone in its admiration for this spot. In the spring of 1966, in a letter addressed to Chancellor W. Clarke Wescoe and Vice Chancellor Keith Lawton, Professor Elmer F. Beth of the KU School of Journalism asserted that Prairie Acre was “probably the most unusual historical monument on ANY campus.” He suggested that “it would be fittin’” for the University to erect “a really attractive” new marker for Prairie Acre, “large enough so the heading could be read from a car at the traffic check station” just to its west.

Although Wescoe professed to be interested in erecting such a marker in his reply to Beth, none ever was built. In subsequent decades this plot suffered not only neglect, in which its native species might have thrived, but also abuse by ill-considered management treatments that actually hampered their growth.

Indeed, by the late 1960s-early1970s, just as the nation was celebrating the first Earth Day and legislating many environmental protections, KU’s concern and appreciation for Prairie Acre seem to have dissipated. Perhaps this neglect was due to an increase in social concerns over the course of the 1960s, or maybe it reflected a more mundane influence – the nationwide commitment to well-manicured lawns, a concept expounded by Kenneth T. Jackson in his 1985 opus, Crabgrass Frontier.

In any case, maintenance of the Acre began to deteriorate. Regular burnings ceased, facilitating the encroachment of creeping fescue and brome grass among other non-indigenous species. These conditions were exacerbated when Facilities Operations allowed “volunteer” trees to grow up on the plot and just south of it; in time trees would shade out much of the sun-needy prairie grass.

More significantly, the University sanctioned the mowing of the Acre at certain times of the year (most notably during commencement week and in the autumn before the seeds had set), which hindered the reproduction of the prairie grass and facilitated the invasion of non-native plants. By 1992, in an area that field biologists estimate once supported 80-100 plant species, a survey revealed that only 28 still grew.

The condition of KU’s plot of prairie grass worried some individuals who attempted to stem the demise of Prairie Acre’s integrity. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s that concern over the state of the plot began to mount. Led by Kelly Kindscher of the Kansas Biological Survey, a group of concerned faculty members and students began pushing the University to initiate a restoration program.

In November 1987, for example, Professor Kenneth Armitage, chair of the Biology Department, wrote a letter to Greg Wade of the University’s Architectural Services. In keeping with the original intent of the Acre’s establishment, Armitage asserted that it was as important to “maintain an example of our biological heritage as it [was] to maintain artifacts and older buildings as part of our cultural heritage.” Pointing to the plot’s sorry condition, he urged immediate action, claiming that if no restoration was undertaken the University “should abandon … all pretense of trying to maintain a prairie and the stone should be removed and the hillside treated as any other part of the campus lawn.”

These efforts paid some dividends. Early in 1988, Wade agreed that such a project should be undertaken, albeit on a schedule “predicated on Facilities Operations personnel having the time and equipment to undertake the various operations.” While some measures were initiated immediately, including the application of herbicides to combat the non-native species, more substantive changes took a little longer.

It wasn’t until October 1992 that the Office of University Relations issued a press release announcing the University’s decision to begin removing the trees shading the plot by the end of the following month. A subsequent press release also indicated that the University intended to burn the plot the following spring, and pledged that “the prairie will be maintained in the future through regular burning and active removal of invading trees and non-native species.”

In the ensuing years, however, this restoration effort moved forward only haltingly. Less than three years after committing to conduct regular burnings, for example, University officials informed the Kansas Alumni Magazine that fire codes “prohibit[ed] the University from burning the site.” But safety regulations were not the primary considerations in the decision to put the restoration efforts on hold. The city can (and since has), granted permits for regulated burnings.

What appears to have been at issue in the mid- and late-1990s was something quite different. For the University’s current campus plan, laid out in 1997, identified the corner of campus around Prairie Acre as “a primary expansion area,” and one of the few buildable sites within walking radius of the academic core. Indeed, the architects of the plan went so far as to assert that, “the significance of Prairie Acre as a traditional landscape feature needs to be evaluated.”

The suggestion was hardly surprising. After all, even in the Acre’s heyday in the 1930s through early 1960s, precedents were set permitting the disturbance of the plot to “improve” the campus. Stairs had been built diminishing its size, and utility lines had been laid under it. The ensuing decades had seen it mowed so that it would look tidier at strategic times of the year when certain visitors were on campus.

Maybe even more significantly, in its debilitated state, no one could argue that the plot was pristine. In the mid-1960s a KU representative rightly asserted that “there’s nothing to the idea of virgin soil, untouched by civilization, flourishing as it did in Coronado’s day.” But just as correctly, he added, “Prairie Acre continues to preserve a bit of real Kansas that few students ever see” anywhere else. By the 1990s, that was no longer the case.

While its future remains unsettled, it is clear that Prairie Acre has endured several decades of hard times. Nurturing a stand of prairie grass, in an area where the indigenous vegetative cover is prairie grass, has proven surprisingly difficult for the University. Ill-timed disturbances — especially improper mowing — facilitated the encroachment of non-native species, which in turn choked out, shaded out, or inhibited the growth of its natural prairie grasses.

Set aside as a monument to “Nature’s sweet fashion of making Her own garden,” Prairie Acre stands now as a testament to the ability of humans to inadvertently degrade “nature’s gardens.”

Just outside the walls of the Acre, on the small tract of land from which the trees shading it were removed in 1992, the native grasses flourish. The streetside slope, which was re-seeded after the trees were cut down, is too steep for easy mowing.

Less disturbed than the intended refuge just to its north, the indigenous grasses have begun to thrive again in only a decade. Indeed, in other areas of campus where regular maintenance is difficult (such as the slope above Memorial Drive), the University has contemplated planting prairie grass to “naturalize” the landscape.

As for Prairie Acre, although the 1997 campus plan remains in effect, the restoration project appears to have restarted. The Acre was burned early in the spring of both 2002 and 2003, perhaps indicating a renewed commitment to restoring the native grasses of the plot. Michael Lang, project director of Facilities Operations’ Landscape and Maintenance Department, acknowledged that it “may take years to get a good stand of native grass back,” but said Facilities Operations was doing what it reasonably could to reinvigorate the plot. If this maintenance continues, Prairie Acre might quickly rebound.

Mark D. Hersey and Robb Campbell
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source notes: The Prairie Acre File at University Archives is the largest source of material about Prairie Acre. The authors also made use of documents collected by Kelly Kindscher of the Kansas Biological Survey that cover the beginning of the Acre’s restoration effort in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
As is often the case at archives, some of the materials lack complete documentation. For instance, there is a draft of a handwritten note (presumably from Rose Morgan since the University credits her with donating it) soliciting the assistance of an unnamed faculty member. Perhaps the note was sent to the Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds. More likely, given the context of the letter, it was to an unnamed botany professor. In any case since we don’t know for sure, we can’t draw definitive conclusions beyond the fact that Morgan was actively recruiting support to set aside the plot of land. The file contains a number of similar documents.
Although the women believed the plot to be “native prairie,” they did hope that indigenous wildflowers would be added to it. Of the four women, Hannah Oliver is probably the best known today. Although the Kansas Alumni Magazine 93 (May 1995) claims that Agnes Thompson headed the efforts, the publication offered no evidence that this was the case. Indeed the Kansas City Star (25 May 1932) listed Oliver, Morgan and Stanton, but did not even mention Thompson, perhaps indicating that the latter’s role was the least important of the four. On the other hand, in January 1955 the University Daily Kansan did credit Thompson with chairing the committee pushing for the plot’s preservation. It would seem prudent to reserve judgment as to the extent of Thompson’s influence. There is at least circumstantial evidence that Morgan led the efforts, chairman or not, since she was the one who contacted Professor Carl F. Nelson to secure his assistance. (See C. F. Nelson to Miss Rose Morgan, undated; Prairie Acre File, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.)
No University document or publication records the exact date of Prairie Acre’s dedication. Contemporary sources, such as the Graduate Magazine (June 1932) merely noted that it was set aside during commencement week. Subsequent publications (both from the University and unaffiliated news organs) adopted this convention. Indeed we have found no article in any KU publication that places an exact date on the Acre’s dedication. Because it was scantly covered at the time (due largely to the fact that “its arrangement came too late to be incorporated into the week’s festivities”), there is little in contemporary sources to help. The Lawrence Journal-World, however, (4 June 1932), noted “the new marker for ‘Prairie Acre’ is in place.” Since commencement week had begun on the night of June 3 with a rehearsal for the graduates, it is exceedingly unlikely that the plot was dedicated that night. Because the Daily Journal was an evening paper and could report the news of the day, the plot must have been dedicated on June 4, 1932. It’s worth noting that the plaque was set on a piece of limestone excavated from the campus by Potter Lake. To get a feel for what coverage there was of Prairie Acre’s upcoming dedication see the University Daily Kansan (1 May- 29 May 1932).
Forty or so years later, some KU source documents would begin to credit Sam Steele Elliot, the University’s “postman, custodian, tutor, philosopher and friend,” with “decid[ing] that the Prairie Acre … needed to be preserved.” While Elliot may in fact have played a role, there is no contemporary evidence to suggest he did. Consequently, it appears as if the idea for its preservation owed its genesis to the four women, who were consistently credited with “spearheading” the effort in contemporary sources.
While virtually all the coverage of Prairie Acre has noted that the inscription on the marker was taken from Kate Stephens’s Life at Laurel Town, few noted that she had been a professor at the University. Not one that we have come across has pointed out that she was viewed as a difficult person and was all but run out of the University. Numerous journalists have lifted the Graduate Magazine’s line about the plot having never “been disturbed by plow, shovel, blasting powder nor other man-made device for reshaping the surface of the earth” wholesale without crediting it as a source. See, for example, the University Daily Kansan (12 January 1955), the Lawrence Journal World (19 October 1961), Kansas City Times (6 June 1932), Summer Session Kansan (3 July 1956) and numerous other articles in the University’s General History Scrapbook, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.
For information on the enclosing of the Acre with a rock wall see the University Daily Kansan (19 November 1940). For evidence that it was regularly burned see the Lawrence Journal World (19 October 1961).]
Elmer Beth knew that Prairie Acre already had a marker since he noted that the “small stone marker is beside a sidewalk which few people use.” Of course, 1966 was the University’s centennial year and interest in the University’s history was somewhat heightened. See Elmer F. Beth to Chancellor Wescoe and Vice Chancellor Lawton, 24 March 1966. Although the chancellor professed interest in erecting such a marker, he did acknowledge that he wasn’t sure “what we can do at the present time.” See W. Clark Wescoe to Professor Elmer F. Beth, 29 March 1966.
The authors thank Kelly Kindscher for offering materials and a lengthy interview. On 15 September 1992 he conducted the survey revealing that only 28 species could still be found on the plot. See also Ben Johnston, “Indecision jeopardizes KU’s memorial Prairie Acre, experts say,” University Daily Kansan (4 September 1987) and Michael Dekker, “ KU’s Prairie Acre coming back to life,” Lawrence Journal World (28 November 1992). For more of Kenneth Armitage’s remarks see Armitage to Greg Wade, 5 November 1987. For Wade’s (and by extension the University’s) response see Wade to Mike Richardson, 13 April 1988. For KU’s decision to remove the trees and commit to regular burning to restore Prairie Acre see “Campus Events publicity notice concerning Restoration of Prairie Acre on KU campus, 24 October 1992 (submitted 16 November 1992)” and “Press Release from Shelley Wells, Environmental Education Coordinator,” undated.
For a take of the University’s position as late as the mid 1960s, see Tom Yoe, “from the K.U. News Bureau,” 11 November 1966. The University’s 1997 campus plan, is at http://www.ku.edu/~fmkuhtml/cmpuspln/content.htm. — See “Land Use Options.”
The authors also thank Tom Waechter and Mike Lang for their assistance in confirming information and providing updated reports as to the current plans for the future of Prairie Acre.