Prairie State Park in Mindenmines celebrates the 30th anniversary of its dedication this year with a Prairie Jubilee on Sept. 29.
The daylong event will include bison tours, a living-history loop, live music, bison-chip throwing, native plant sales and an 1800s medicine show. All is free except for a lunch of smoked bison.
Missouri once was covered by some 13 million acres of prairie, nearly a third of the state. Less than 1 percent remains. The park is the largest remnant of tallgrass prairie with nearly 4,000 acres that was saved largely because of the rocky terrain. It was mowed for hay and grazed, but the vast majority of the park never was plowed.
The park is one of several tracts of prairie preserved in the Midwest thanks to Katharine Ordway, a Connecticut heiress who donated more than $40 million to buy up pristine examples of the disappearing landscape. She came to Barton County, on the Kansas border in southwest Missouri, in 1972 and liked what she saw, providing financing for the first land purchases.
The prairie is a special place. Drive the gravel road leading to Prairie State Park and the croplands soon give way to grasses and flowers spreading into the horizon. If you’re lucky, the bison herd may be in view, recreating the scene that greeted the first settlers.
The park can be enjoyed with each changing season.
Spring brings Indian paintbrush, yellow star grass and ragged fringed orchids. Summer color turns to gold and russets in the fall, with sumac a fiery red and tall grasses that wave in the wind. A winter snow coats the bison herd with a mantle of white as their steaming breath becomes a frosty beard.
Because it is a remnant of a rare and disappearing landscape, Prairie State Park may be the most studied piece of land in Missouri. The Nature Conservancy first did a vegetation survey in 1994, and state botanists have used that data as a baseline for observing changes due to prescribed burns, invading exotic species and bison grazing over the following 18 years.
The park has more than 25 rare and endangered plants and animals, many not found elsewhere in the state. There are some 500 species of plants and 150 species of birds, including northern harriers and a small population of greater prairie chickens. Look for scissor-tailed flycatchers on the utility wires.
The stars of the show, however, are the bison that are free to roam some 2,200 acres of the park that is fenced. On some visits to the park, the herd is within view. On others, the only bison a visitor may see are the two mounted animals displayed in the visitor’s center.
Nine bison were brought to the park in 1982. The herd has grown to about 130 with spring calves, and is kept at around 100 with an annual fall sale of surplus animals. Prices have been good lately, with a young bison bringing $700 to $800. The park also has a herd of about 25 elk.
Elk are secretive and seldom seen, hiding out in a grove of trees in a remote corner of the park. The bison herd moves about, and often can be found during a hike of one of the park’s five trails, which total 12 miles.
Written by Tom Uhlenbrock for Missouri State Parks, a division of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.