By NAH Editor-in-Chief Gordy Krahn
Altered only slightly by the passage of time, the modern-day rural Midwestern landscape clings to the ghosts of its pioneer past.
For many frontiersmen and their families who traversed this country’s midsection during the mid-1800s, the vast golden seas of wind-swept grasses that stretched to the horizons were little more than a passing inconvenience. Prairie aesthetics were lost on those single-minded pioneers who viewed the titanic expanse as a harsh, forbidding wasteland—an impediment between where they were (the East) and where they wanted to be (the West). Most turned a blind eye to the prairie’s subtle and intrinsic beauty as they pushed westward toward the Promised Land. Armadas of prairie schooners wound their way across the landscape, spanning from skyline to skyline, like a giant serpent—their hopeful passengers plotting a course for the promise of a better life. Those weary of travel, hampered by breakdowns or enamored by the solitude and plentiful game, gave up the trail to take up residence and eke out an existence in the harsh Dakota Sioux territory.
It’s not difficult to imagine how the landscape might have appeared during pioneer times. Lose a few wired fences, add a few bison and maybe the odd sod dwelling and there you have it. And even though virgin prairie grasslands have largely been replaced by expansive pastures and sprawling croplands, many things have remained markedly similar on the modern-day rural Midwestern landscape.
Early prairie dwellers were of tough stock—they had to be. Mother Nature was seldom kind to the Great Plains’ early white inhabitants. High winds, dust storms, harsh winters, wildfires and insect infestations were all part of life in this unforgiving land. But they stayed and they thrived—facing each hardship with a stubborn determination that shaped their collective character and defined their existence.
If you look closely you can still see the ghosts of their passage—in the small, rural towns; the scattered farms and ranches; the abandoned homesteads—and hear their faint voices on the prairie breeze. They linger in the deserted, ramshackle buildings; the abandoned, rusty machinery; and in the weather-worn soil.
Those early settlers might be long gone, but the pioneer spirit lives on in the prairie’s modern-day inhabitants through the sense of community, lack of urgency, and bond with the land. You see it in their sincere smiles and feel it in their firm handshakes.
Modern-day visitors to the Great Plains come for a host of reasons, drawn like the early pioneers during the Great Land Rush. But few are less determined than those pursuing another of the region’s native inhabitants—the prairie grouse. The greater prairie chicken once occupied most of North America’s mid-section—stretching from the Canadian prairie provinces south as far as Texas and east throughout the Great Lakes states. But populations fragmented and declined dramatically during the past 200 years, coinciding with white settlement and its trappings—intense livestock grazing and the conversion of native prairie for development and crop production. Today, remnant populations occupy parts of the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas, with strongholds in some localities where habitat best supports them.
A sliver of light lips the horizon. The hunter pauses to soak in the beauty and warmth of the prairie sunrise. Rolling waves of prairie grass bow to 30 mph gusts of wind, creating the appearance of an angry golden sea. His young dog doesn’t give a hoot about prairie aesthetics and tugs at its lead, eager to stretch its long legs. The hunter tugs down on his cap and turns back to face the brisk wind and casts the youngster out for its first run of the morning. An hour later—just as the hunter’s fingers are becoming numb and his demeanor complacent—the pup pulls up into staunch point. Game on, the hunter readies his gun and walks up for the flush.
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