The Elmhurst Great Western Prairie is located within Wild Meadows Trace just north of the Prairie Path between Spring Road and Salt Creek. This area is the oldest living environment in Elmhurst. Left by chance, the existence of the prairie adds a very special ecological dimension to the community.
Volunteer Opportunities at the prairie
Volunteer dates are usually the third Saturday of each month (plus an extra in June), typically March through November, 9 a.m.-Noon. In addition, there may be a few special work days for larger groups (schools, service organizations, corporate projects) wanting to do service projects:
Volunteers meet on the west side of Berkley Avenue at the Illinois Prairie Path (Prairie Path Lane). That is three blocks south of St. Charles Road, four blocks west of Spring Road and six blocks east of Rt. 83 (map). On volunteer days, you might be working anywhere in the mile long stretch between Spring Road to the east and Salt Creek to the west, but the bench at the halfway point at Berkley Ave is the home base and parking is easy there. Always fun and a full body workout, and more worthwhile than a couple hours at the gym!
- October 21, November 18
- Volunteers will need to sign an Elmhurst Park District Liability Waiver prior to the work day.
- Volunteers should wear durable work clothes: Long sleeved shirt, long jeans, closed-toed shoes (boots are best), and a hat. If you have work gloves, please bring those as well, but we can provide. You will get dirty and might find a few seed passengers attached to your clothes.
- Sunscreen and mosquito repellent are advised depending on the season. There is no drinking water on site, so please bring some refreshment.
- Neighboring Grace Bible Church has kindly offered us use of their restrooms.
- Most of our work involves cutting brush, so if you have loppers, bring them along. No power tools are permitted.
- Hazards to be aware of include: Thorns and sharp-edged plants, trip hazards, sun exposure. There are currently no known poison ivy or ticks in the EGWP, but the possibility of exposure cannot be ruled out.
- Children over 12 years old can be very helpful, but will require direct supervision by their sponsoring organization. Children under 12 will require one-on-one supervision during work days.
- Groups of more than four new volunteers are encourage to contact Eric Keeley (see below). Our regular volunteers can happily arrange special volunteer work days and educational walks on days other than our usual monthly dates for corporate, school and community groups.
- Michelle Karabetsos (Elmhurst Park District Horticulturalist) through the Contact Form or (630) 993-8909
- Eric Keeley (EGWP Steward Volunteer) at keeley.eric [@] gmail.com (keeley[dot]eric[at]gmail[dot]com) or (630) 336-1852
- Keith Olson (EGWP Steward Volunteer) at keitholson [@] usa.net (keitholson[at]usa[dot]net) or (630) 834-7357
Features & Amenities
Native prairie is a distinctive landscape which is rapidly disappearing from northeastern Illinois. The Elmhurst Great Western Prairie is one of only a few prairie remnants remaining along the length of the Illinois Prairie Path. The prairie is many things - a remnant of the pre-settlement landscape, a unique ecosystem that contains many special plants, a visual contrast to lawns and tree-lined streets, a living museum and a constant reminder that Illinois is "The Prairie State."
Elmhurst's virgin prairie remnant is a six-acre strip adjacent to and north of the Illinois Prairie Path. The property is owned and maintained by the Elmhurst Park District. It is bound by Spring Road on the east; Salt Creek on the west; the abandoned right-of-way of the Chicago Great Western Railway on the north; and the abandoned right-of-way of the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railway (now known as the Illinois Prairie Path) on the south.
What is the oldest thing in Elmhurst? It's not someone's home or a commercial building. Or even an early elm tree. It's a long strip of prairie, saved by accident and circumstance.
Before Elmhurst was founded in 1827, the Illinois landscape was mostly prairie, and the vistas had changed little for thousands of years. Even 50 years ago, much was still undisturbed. Today, the development of residential and commercial areas in our town have transformed the landscape, yet we are lucky to discover that "a piece of the past" still remains.
"Prairie" was the name given to the vast open lands which awed the French explorers when they first visited "The Illinois Country" in the seventeenth century. In French, "prairie" means meadow, the only word they had to describe our vast grasslands. The plants they saw were perennial native grasses and flowering plants. The only trees or woody plants at that time were along the edges of rivers, streams and ponds.
Once, most of the northern two-thirds of Illinois was prairie. Now far less than one percent of that original grassland remains. Elmhurst has a rare and unique opportunity to maintain and display a prairie in otherwise developed surroundings, thereby preserving a living time capsule of Illinois in its original state.
Prairie Preservation in Elmhurst
Interest in preserving the Elmhurst Great Western Prairie has been increasing in recent years, thanks to a growing number of local conservationists who are volunteering their time and expertise.
The Elmhurst Great Western Prairie is considered a "jewel of the Elmhurst Park District." To preserve this local treasure and ensure its future existence, a comprehensive management plan is being implemented to guide preservation and restoration efforts, to increase public awareness, and to ensure continued progress toward reestablishment of the historic appearance of the prairie.
Value of Natural Prairies
- As a landscape dominated by unknown grasses, it serves as visual contrast to lawns and tree-lined streets.
- As an example of prairie near the Prairie Path, it displays many native plants: shooting star, spiderwort and the nodding wild onion of spring and summer; the asters and coneflowers of late summer and fall; the compass plant with its tough leaves pointing north and south; the big bluestem and Indian grasses with their blades and flowers reaching overhead.
- It is a place in the midst of our schools and homes to teach preservation and the values of the natural world.
- One of the outstanding features of the prairie is its diversity. Every square yard is different from every other. It is an archetype of the world's ecosystems and their complexities.
- As a remnant of the pre settlement historical landscape and a living plant museum, this land is a nearby reminder that Illinois is the Prairie State.
Prairie Burns and Other Management Tools
In order to manage the prairie, the Elmhurst Prairie was first burned in 1977 and almost every year since. The burn is conducted by Elmhurst Park District staff. The original prairies were stable ecosystems maintained primarily by fire, set either by lightning strikes or by Native Americans driving game. Prairie fires, which sweep quickly over the ground, do not harm the deeply rooted prairie plants but destroy the bark and wood of the trees and shrubs which are not part of the prairie ecosystem. Fire renews the soil by returning nutrients in the form of ash. Prairie animals escape the fire by running, flying or retreating to their burrows. Within a few weeks after the burn, the well-established prairie plants begin to emerge from the ground once more.
Other prairie management practices include cutting woody growth and spreading high quality native seeds to add more kinds of plants to the varieties that have always been there. Seedlings started in the Elmhurst Park District greenhouse are planted each year to expand and enhance the native species already growing. Prairie plant growth and brush removal are also monitored.
Before European settlement, prairies were the dominant landscape of Illinois for thousands of years. Fires, whether set by lightning or Native Americans, helped maintain the prairies. Sweeping across the landscape, the fires burn quickly through the dead growth from previous years. The living portion of the prairie plants is below ground, protected from harsh winters as well as fire.
- With a burn, the ground is opened up, stimulating new growth.
- With a burn, nutrients are returned to the soil, stimulating new growth.
- Without a burn, thatch builds up, suppressing some prairie plants
- Without a burn, shrubs and small trees spring up, choking out the prairie plants.
Why the name “Elmhurst Great Western Prairie”?
Two railroads, the Chicago Great Western and Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin ran parallel through Elmhurst. The prairie lies between the two, but more on the former right of way of the Great Western, and is the only place in the Western Suburbs with preserved native prairie. The land is controlled by the Elmhurst Park District as part of Wild Meadows Trace. The right of way of the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin is now occupied by the Illinois Prairie Path.
The early Europeans saw a landscape very different from the present, and named it prairie, after the French word for meadow. Their observations, and the records of surveyors, documented that the northern two thirds of Illinois and all of DuPage County were primarily prairie. Those prairies are now the corn and soybean fields, towns, and housing developments.