“Party on the Prairie” Celebrates Natural Prairie Land
By Jill Draper
Want to see a real tallgrass prairie that’s never been plowed and is full of wildflowers, butterflies and birds? You don’t need to drive several hours to the Flint Hills in the middle of Kansas. A 40-acre tract of land just minutes from Martin City is a close-to-home example.
Described as a hidden gem and a well-kept secret, Jerry Smith Park is less than a mile east of 139th Street and Holmes Road. A short drive up the entrance road takes you to a parking lot where the trailhead for a 1.36-mile loop through an unspoiled remnant prairie begins and ends.
It’s an easy, mostly level walk high on a hilltop that offers views of Overland Park’s skyline when the air is clear. What Tom Schroeder likes about the place is that it’s peaceful, but always changing. Schroeder, a South Kansas City resident, master naturalist and KC Wildlands volunteer, visits the park every two weeks to photograph bees and other pollinators and collect seeds. He calls June the “white” month, when flowers like beardtongue penstemon are blooming.
“The landscape shifts to pink and purple blooms by July, and in September and October, yellow is the dominant flower color,” he says, adding that the natives grasses will be 8 feet high by then.
Schroeder will lead two short walks at the park for “Party on the Prairie” on Saturday, June 3. He expects that hikers will see butterflies, native bees and dragonflies as well as wildflowers. But they won’t see the most important part.
“Most of the prairie is underground,” he says. “The grass roots can reach down 15 feet as they intermingle, communicate, and compete for water and nutrients.” And while Schroeder helps KC Wildlands restore damaged prairie landscapes such as the parking lot area, he says the bacteria and fungi in the soil that naturally occur in undisturbed ecosystems cannot be easily duplicated.
Bill Fessler, a conservation specialist with the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department, agrees. “You can plant prairies all day long and still never have the variety of insects, plants and soil microorganisms that Jerry Smith has. That area is the most diverse prairie area in Jackson County.”
The 40-acre prairie is just a small section of the entire Jerry Smith Park, a former working farm which totals 360 acres and includes woodlands and a 3-acre manmade lake. Jerry Smith, a retired Buick dealer, civic leader and philanthropist, donated part of the land so it could become a city park in 1976. The City Council and a federal grant paid for the rest. Smith reportedly said he got the idea to make a park out of the land after watching a sunset one evening “that was so pretty, it was a sin everyone couldn’t see it.”
From the beginning, the acquisition of the park was considered a visionary action. And at only $440 per acre, then-6th District Councilman A.E. Asel called it “one of the best bargains the city has picked up in many years.”
It turned out to be an ecological bargain as well. A survey last year by conservation experts recorded over 100 different types of wildflowers, 65 kinds of butterflies, 20 dragonfly species, 70 kinds of native bees and over 100 different birds. It probably helps that a smaller tract of land owned by the state, Saeger Woods Conservation Area, connects to the park on the west side.
The city’s Parks and Recreation Department partners with KC Wildlands to burn part of the prairie every two or three years, just like native tribes did to provide grassy areas for bison. According to Schroeder, tallgrass prairies occupied nearly half of Jackson County before the first settlers arrived. The Smith family used the prairie for cutting hay, but never for row crops.
When the park was first dedicated more than 40 years ago, the Kansas City Star reported how Smith marveled that a piece of land could be so big and so wild and yet inside the city limits. Thanks to a joint vision by Smith and various civic leaders, we can marvel the same thing today.
Party on the Prairie!
On Saturday, June 3, KC Parks celebrates National Trails and Prairie Day at Jerry Smith Park near 139th Street and Holmes Road (13700 Prospect Ave., Kansas City, Mo.). Enjoy family and environmentally friendly activities amidst the flora and fauna of Jackson County’s only remnant prairie. The event includes live music, guided trail hikes, bird walks, hay rides, a plein air quick paint competition, scavenger hunt and a prairie touch table from Lakeside Nature Center.
9 a.m. Bird walk with Sherry Leonardo, Burroughs Audubon Society (please arrive by 8:45 a.m.)
9-10 a.m. Quick paint artist check-in
9 a.m.-1 p.m. Prairie touch table, scavenger hunt, hay rides
10 a.m. Prairie hike with Tom Schroeder, master naturalist and KC Wildland volunteer: 1.36-mile loop (not appropriate for wheel chairs or strollers)
10 a.m.-noon Quick paint competition
11 a.m. Free hot dog, chips and water (while supplies last)
11:30 a.m. Prairie hike lite with Tom Schroeder: short, accessible walk to the overlook and back
12-12:30 p.m. Quick paint voting (people’s choice)
12:45 p.m. Quick paint purchase award