Hayden Prairie turns 75

By Casandra Leff
HOWARD COUNTY - This year, Hayden Prairie, located about five miles southwest of Lime Springs, turns 75 years old, but its history dates much farther back and is more interesting than many may know.
The tract was well-known, even before the prairie was officially established, as the only quarter-section in Howard County that had never been plowed or cultivated. The land produced wild grass familiar to older residents. There was also a variety of wildflowers that grew there, including bird-foot violets, shooting stars and granddad's whiskers, along with wild strawberries, two kinds of prairie lilies, brown-eyed Susans, resin plants, meadow ren, wild peas and more.
The original land grant for the land where Hayden Prairie sits was dated 1857, but there is no known record of development there. There were just two transfers of land until 1868, when William Knabe, a Baltimore piano manufacturer, purchased the land. 
Knabe Pianos were so successful and well-known they were sold nationally and were advertised in Howard County newspapers. They were known as the dean of American parlor instruments, and Knabe decided to invest his money in western land.  
He was an eccentric and never visited his property in Iowa. He did allow locals to use it for haying, but nothing else. Their local manager was John Kakac. He was followed by W.W. Cray, who used to go camping in the area during the haying period. Joe Armstrong then managed the land, followed by the Strand Cattle Sheds of Manly, Iowa. After Knabe’s death, his brother-in-law, Charles Keidel, followed the same policies.
Its many years as being used as a hay meadow served it well, as woody species, such as aspen and dogwood were prevented from growing, and farmers used the prairie grass, which they said had nutritional value, for their draft horses during the winter. However, breaks in prairie sod that took place when machinery was moved from field to field could affect the proportions of species on the land.
In 1924, Keidel passed away, and the land was passed to his heirs. He owned so much land that when his will came up for probate, it had to be printed in book form. During World War II, lawyer W.L. Barker of Cresco handled the paperwork, selling the land to Jesse S. Walton of Oklahoma in 1944. 
In late July that year, Ada Hayden of Iowa State University visited Howard County to survey the plant life there. The college’s botany department and the state conservation department were interested in preserving the land, and any similar parcels that existed in the state, for future generations. 
She described the prairie as, “Gently rolling with drainage ways which afford some types of wet meadow flora. Tall grass prairie. Tall bluestem is dominant . . . Flora typical of northeastern Iowa. Birdfoot violet and shooting stars are abundant in the spring. In the gully aspect, blazing star, smooth goldenrod, wild tiger lily, Indian plantain and rattlesnake master are abundant. Virgin. In excellent conniption . . . An impressive sweep of rolling country may be seen. A colorful panorama of flowering plants occurs throughout the growing season.”
Hayden’s visit to Northeast Iowa resulted from a $100 grant from the Iowa Academy of Science to locate prime tracts of virgin prairie in Iowa. The little quarter-section of land in Howard County rated high on her list, as she described it as an “impressive sweep of rolling prairie . . . A colorful panorama of flowering plants occurs throughout the growing season.”
The next year – in 1945 – the State Conservation Commission purchased 240 acres of land in two portions as a state wildlife area. The cost was about $10,000 and funding assistance came from conservation and women’s organizations. The main tract consists of 200 acres most people are familiar with, but there is also a 40-acre unit southwest of the main section, separated by a gravel road.
It was the first large tract of prairie purchased by the state of Iowa and would remain the largest for nearly 30 years until the acquisition of the Loess Hills Wildlife Area in 1974. In September 1951, it was announced the tract had been named in Hayden’s honor, one year after her 1950 death.
In April 1952, signage was put up on three sides of the prairie. They stood about six feet high and recognized the land as the “Hayden Prairie Area.” The Iowa State Conservation Commission gave the declaration. In December 1965 the prairie became a national natural landmark, and in 1968, it was declared a state preserve.
In 1971, Dr. Paul Christiansen of Cornell College did a study on Hayden Prairie, which resulted in the practice of using spring fires to manage plant life. The fires remove plant debris that has accumulated and allow exposed soil to warm up faster and plants to flower earlier and more abundantly. There had been earlier burns, with one coming in 1954. 
At that point, it had been five years since the land had been mowed for hay, and wild strawberries, wildflowers and other plants had been choked out.
At the time, Herbert Eellis, a local conservation agent, had noted that burning was normally condemned, but it was being done at Hayden Prairie to try to permit refreshed plant growth. The experiment and results had drawn attention from many midwestern states, including Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska.
In July 1984, the Hayden Prairie chapter of Ducks Unlimited was formed. Officers included Area Chairman and Arrangements President Russ Betsinger; Treasurer Jim Walton; Ticket Chairmen Steve Anderson and Lee Dvorak; Raffle Chair Jim Smith; and Publicity Chair Keith Wherry.
In the 1980s, the preserve became the home to two nesting raptors – a northern harrier and a short-eared owl, a ground-nesting predator that hunts during the day. There were also many reptiles and amphibians and over 18 species of butterflies, the most interesting of which was considered the state-threatened silvery blue. 
In September 1986, Iowa Governor Harold E. Hughes signed paperwork declaring Hayden Prairie an official state preserve. It was one of just three prairie areas given such designation.
A rededication took place two years later, with Christiansen, by that time, Chairman of the State Preservation Board, delivering the opening address. Also speaking was Sam Kennedy of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Land and Water Division. A third speaker, Daryl D. Smith, Professor of Botany at the University of Northern Iowa and Coordinator of Prairie Heritage Week that year, spoke about and paid tribute to Hayden. There were several other standout speakers, including Sylvan Runkel, a pioneer Iowa naturalist.
Hayden Prairie's legacy spread beyond its 240 acres in 1987, when about 300-400 pounds of seed was used to start a native prairie tract called Crossman Prairie near Riceville.
Trees shad become a problem by 1993, so a special management plan unique to Howard County was formulated, in which they were controlled through three techniques – burning, cutting and girding, which involved stripping bark off the trees, killing them in 2-3 years.
The preserve’s 50th anniversary was in 1995, with speakers taking part in a special event, commemorating the anniversary on Sept. 8. The event was sponsored by the State Preserves Advisory Board and the Iowa DNR. Old-timers shared fond memories of haying and pickling flowers from the site. 
On May 15, 1996, a kiosk was dedicated at Hayden Prairie on, with Mary Stark giving the address. She was born four miles from the preserve and developed an interest in nature and the life forms from her dad. 
Today, a visitor to Hayden Prairie can take in wildlife that calls it home, including birds, insects, garter snakes, bobolinks, northern yellowthroats, masked warblers and more. In wetter portions, one can enjoy blue flag irises and cotton grass. Pink and white colors can be seen in the spring, while yellow and orange become predominant later in the summer and in early fall, as goldenrod, sneezeweed and sunflowers take over. There are over 200 species of native plants known to grow at Hayden Prairie, which has become known as Iowa’s Rainforest because such a large number of plants are supported there.
The tract is too small for large mammals to call it home, although an occasional deer can be spotted there. Smaller animals such as pocket gophers, voles and jackrabbits can also be seen. 
As a state preserve, hunting is allowed at Hayden Prairie in the fall, and ring-necked pheasants and Hungarian partridges can be spotted there. During the daytime, the public can visit the area and walk mowed pathways, although there is no camping and picnic areas, water fountains or restrooms.

Cresco Times

Phone: 563-547-3601
Fax: 563-547-4602

Cresco TPD
214 N. Elm Street
Cresco, IA 52136

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