Those looking for ways to contribute to the conservation of Elmhurst or the preservation of its history need look no further than the Elmhurst Great Western Prairie, a gem of local environmental history in the middle of Elmhurst.
The Elmhurst Great Western Prairie is part of Wild Meadows Trace located between Spring Road and Salt Creek, just north of the Illinois Prairie Path. This six acre strip is one of the few prairie remnants left along the Illinois Prairie Path. Prairies are comprised of native grasses and flowering plants, with a limited amount of trees or woody plants. While large portions of Illinois used to be prairie, now much less than 1% of Illinois prairie remains.
It is the oldest living environment in Elmhurst, estimated to be between 3,000-10,000 years old. Areas like the Elmhurst Great Western Prairie, which have seen little disturbance, likely have genetics from that time period that still exist today.
When Illinois was settled, prairie was lost as farmers cleared lands and towns were built. As interest in conservation and the environment grew in the 1960s and 70s, Illinois residents began looking for fragments of prairie to salvage before it was lost. Railroad lines were one place where they found success, since they were usually built on top of the prairie. Along the tracks, the prairie was left mostly undisturbed.
Elmhurst had several railroad lines. Two railroads, the Chicago Aurora and Elgin and the Great Western freight line, were close enough together to allow for prairie plants to continue to grow relatively undisturbed between them. By the 1960s, these lines were abandoned, left to nature, and Elmhurst residents began to see this abandoned prairie as an opportunity.
In the 1970s, volunteer garden clubbers, homemakers, professors and students began working to clear the area of invasive plants and woody trees that were crowding out the prairie growth. The first prescribed burns occurred at this time as well, which help remove invasive shrubs and trees and remove dead stems and leaves without killing plant roots.
Today, this work still continues. If left alone, invasive plants and woody growth would slowly overtake the prairie. Volunteers continue to maintain the prairie while also working to educate the public about the prairie. They also propagate prairie restoration throughout Illinois by collecting seeds from the prairie and sharing and exchanging them with other prairie projects throughout the state, including within Elmhurst itself, where seeds from the Elmhurst Great Western Prairie were used to build prairie areas in Eldridge Park.
Volunteering to keep this prairie alive and healthy presents a perfect opportunity to contribute for those interested in conservation, local history or keeping Elmhurst beautiful. Volunteers not only protect this special piece of the community, but also honor the efforts of all those who came before them who worked to keep the prairie protected for future generations.
Learn more about how you can volunteer at the Elmhurst Great Western Prairie here.