On a warm day in early summer, John Schwegman looked out over Munson Township Cemetery near Cambridge in Henry County. The cemetery's appearance was jarringly at odds with the manicured look most people would expect. Tall grasses-- big bluestem, little bluestem and Indian grass--nearly obscured ancient tombstones. Prairie wildflowers-- purple coneflower, blackeye Susans and the rare Hill's thistle--pushed colorful above the tangle of grass.
"I can think of less pleasant places to be buried than a pretty little prairie," mused Schwegman, a botanist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Throughout the upper two-thirds of Illinois, there are at least 24 pioneer cemeteries like Munson where microcosms of the original prairie are preserved. Sixteen, including Munson, are part of the state's Nature Preserves System.
Ranging from a fraction of an acre to no more than five acres, cemetery prairies preserve important links to our natural heritage and our cultural past, according to Don McFall, Natural Areas Program Director for the Department of Natural Resources.
When European pioneers first penetrated the Illinois Country, the Grand Prairie covered roughly 25 million acres. Today, only 2,500 acres--about one percent--of the prairie remains in Illinois. Cemetery prairies set aside as nature preserves account for only about 50 acres of that total.
Collectively, Illinois cemetery prairies represent less land mass than is occupied by many agricultural fields. Yet prairie presevationists believe the tiny plots of native prairie are priceless because they have never been cultivated or grazed. The only places the prairie is known to have survived in such a pristine state are along railroad rights-of-way and in pioneer cemeteries. If you want to see what the prairie that greeted our forefathers looked like, you can do no better than to visit a cemetery prairie.
"A little five-acre cemetery prairie that was never grazed may be incredibly diverse, even though it's small," McFall said.
Some prairie plants, he points out, are considered "conservative" in that they are not often found on prairies that have been subjected to grazing or cultivation. White prairie clover, lead plant, cream wild indigo and wood lily are among the conservatives that are indicators of unspoiled prairie.
"These plants are much more likely to be abundant in a cemetery prairie," McFall said. "At a place like Goose Lake Prairie (portions of which were grazed), you can walk for miles and see only one of these things."
According to Schwegman, the state's tiny cemetery prairies provide habitat for some of Illinois' rarest plants--including the federally endangered prairie white fringed orchid.
Prior to the 1960's most Illinoisans were blithely unaware of their prairie heritage and virtually no one knew about the ecological treasure trove locked away in the state's pioneer cemeteries. McFall and other prairie advocates credit Dr. Robert Betz, then a professor of botany at Northeastern Illinois University, with establishing the link between old graves and prairie grasses.
"Early in 1960, I was looking for prairie along the railroad tracks in Will County," Betz recently recalled. "I looked down the tracks and I saw an old cemetery with an iron fence around it. It was about two blocks away and I could see there were prairie plants there."
Excited by the possibility, Betz ran to the ancient cemetery for a closer look. The graveyard was called the Vermont Cemetery because many of the pioneers interred there hailed from Vermont.
Betz's epiphanous experience along the railroad led him to wonder if other old cemeteries held fragmentary examples of pre-settlement prairie. During the next decade he visited 825 pioneer cemeteries in Illinois, venturing as far south as Montgomery County. He found 45 with prairie vegetation he considered worthy of preservation.
In time, Betz embarked on a one-man crusade to manage the cemetery prairies he'd found. Part of the management regimen included the then almost unheard of practice of periodic burning to control invading vegetation and encourage regeneration of native prairie plants. Betz tracked down the cemetery boards and associations responsible for the sites he'd found and convinced them to curtail mowing and to manage the sites for prairie preservation.
"The biggest problem at the time was that nobody really knew what a prairie was," Betz said, recalling the initial reluctance to his proposal. "They'd say, 'That's our dead in there, and you want to burn them?"
Betz's standard argument was that fire was a natural part of the prairie life cycle, a process with which the pioneers buried in the fertile soil of the prairie were familiar. He also assured the caretakers that the fires would move quickly without damaging the ancient tombstones.
"I was almost never turned down," he said.
In 1976, as the Department of Conservation and Illinois Natural History Survey embarked on an ambitious project to catalog the state's remaining natural areas. Betz turned over his records on cemetery prairies to aid in the search.
During the next two years project managers and volunteers visited 3,923 cemeteries established prior to 1900 to see if they held remnants of the original prairie. Completed in 1978, the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory listed 24 cemeteries with prairie relics untouched by plow or livestock.
"The little cemetery prairies are more valuable than most people realize," according to McFall, particularly for those interested in restoring prairielands to their original appearance. "They're looked to for two things--1. to see what the original prairie looked liked (we want to make our restorations as accurate as possible); and 2. as possible sources of seed."
In many ways cemetery prairies represent a genetic time vault, preserving plants that are genetically identical to or descended from those existing on the Illinois prairie 200 years ago. To make sure this resource remains intact, Natural Heritage biologists for the DNR recommend harvesting only enough seed to establish a nursery which can then be used to supply plants for restoring or re-establishing prairie tracts.
Because the cemetery prairies are so small, they are perhaps more susceptible to degradation than much larger, but often less pristine, prairie preserves. The postage- stanp-sized prairies in many instances are isolated in a sea of agricultural fields. The herbicides that ensure a clean bean row also can wither sensitive prairie plants, particularly when weather conditions are such that the herbicide spray is allowed to drift during application.
At the Beach Cemetery Prairie in Ogle County--a 2.5-acre prairie where pasqueflower, puccoons, prairie smoke, leadplant and coneflowers thrive--the Natural Lands Institute purchased a one-acre buffer zone around the original prairie to help protect it from agricultural chemicals and other forces.
Introductions of exotic species are another threat to Illinois' cemetery prairies, according to Schwegman. Some exotics which threaten to take over the tiny patches of prairie preserved in 19th century cemeteries are innocently introduced by families placing flower arrangements or planting flowers on the graves of loved ones.
"Giant teasel is a terrible weed," Schwegman said, citing cemetery prairies where the plant has threatened to oust native vegetation. "It looks great in a dried flower arrangement, but it's a terrible thing for the prairie."
Day lilies and cemetery spurdge, plants that families occasionally plant on gravesites, also are major threats because they spread and displace native plant species.
Apart from preserving Illinois' natural heritage, prairie cemeteries are cultural archives. Champaign's Elizabeth Hanson was a volunteer steward over-seeing the Tomlinson Pioneer Cemetery Nature Preserve in Champaign County for 16 years, attracted to the job both by her interest in botany and her discovery that her father's great, great uncle was buried there.
"People in that cemetery are largely from Colonial times," Hanson says. "They came here after the Revolution and were taking a step West from the Colonial East Coast."
The silent tombstones speak from the past with a poignancy no textbook can match. Among the 237 known burials at Tomlinson are a veteran of the War of 1812, the first European to settle on the Middlefork River, as well as several Civil War veterans. A woman who died in childbirth a few days after her husband left to fight in the War Between the States is buried at Tomlinson, along with her stillborn child and its sibling who died days later.
Roger Kirkwood with the Champaign County Forest Preserve District used a computer to map the stories told by the cold granite tombstones at Tomlinson. The data show that nearly 40 percent of Tomlinson's burials are children under the age of 10--vivid testament to the hardships inherent to prairie life in the 19th century. It's even possible, according to Kirkwood, to track peaks and valleys in the burial rate, pinpointing outbreaks of disease and other hazards facing the pioneers.
"There are probably another 50 or so unmarked graves," Kirkwood said. "We have no idea who they are."
Most settlers interred in Illinois' prairie cemeteries are not famous or well known. They are, however, historically significant. Their unflagging effort to tame the prairie, settle it and make it agriculturally productive set the course of Illinois' history. It is a final irony that in death the pioneers ended up preserving the very prairie--that vast, hostile sea of grass--they sought to conquer in life.
Descendants of many of Illinois prairie pioneers have disappeared into the Miasma of history. No one is left to commemorate the dead. No one is left to lovingly tend the graves. Yet each spring, the graves of forgotten settlers blossom with shooting star, wild hyacinth, coneflowers, Solomon seal, spiderwort, and other flowers of the Grand Prairie.
"These prairie are living memorials to the people who are
buried there," McFall offered, "people who really knew what the
prairie once looked like."
Transcribed by Pat Hageman