By Greg Hayden
Under a tall, blue sky, I sit under a stately, old, oak tree amidst the historical oasis known as the Heritage Farmstead. Above me, the Titmouse’s high-pitched call, “peter, peter, peter” is joined by the Pileated Woodpecker’s syncopated drum, and then across the way by the Blue jay’s “scree.” The early September heat, like my fellow Master Naturalists from the Blackland Prairie Chapter, has not yet arrived.
Soon this peaceful 4.5-acre historical remnant of the original 395 acre Farmstead will become an island in a sea of early morning traffic with its dull roar, blaring horns, thumping stereos, and toxic emissions. For now, in repose, I can’t help but wonder what vista I might have beheld in 1891 when Hunter Farrell purchased the land for Mary Alice and Ammie, his wife and daughter.
1891 Plano, situated in the Blackland Prairie, consisted of about 1,300 souls and was growing. The threat of marauding Comanche had been eradicated. The nomadic tribe had been either massacred or relegated to reservations, making settlement of the region by immigrant Americans much safer. The vast Bison herds had been decimated. Trains, as of 1872, connected McKinney, Plano, and Dallas bringing iron plows, wire fencing (late 1870’s) and scores of Eastern settlers. The times were indeed “a changing” in the Blackland Prairie.
What was once a 12.6 million acre ecosystem, unique among the world’s ecosystems, was even then beginning its relentless march to extinction. Today less than 1% of the Blackland Prairie remains in small, scattered remnants, many of its bio-diverse inhabitants gone the way of the bison, brown bear, and wolf.
In 1891, the Farrell family, while sitting on their porch, may have admired acre upon acre of tall, native, grasses waving in the morning breeze. Ammie may have plucked a bouquet for her mother from the profusion of native wildflowers that flourished year round in and among the tall grasses. Inexorably, the landscape would be transformed in the coming decades by iron plows hardy enough to break the stubborn vertisols, by wire fences that surrounded row crops and cattle pastures, and by rapidly growing settlements.
Mary Alice and Ammie inhabited their farm until Ammie died in 1972. Soon after, the Heritage Farmstead Museum was formed and the buildings were renovated. Today, visitors to the Farmstead can inspect implements and furnishing utilized over time by the family. They can walk among buildings representative of the period. Chickens, hogs, a cow, and a jackass enhance the stroll through our Texas heritage. All have voices that tell of their role in our history.
I seems fitting that visitors would be afforded the opportunity to witness a representative prairie garden redolent with grasses and forbs that early settlers to the region would have encountered before the landscape was forever altered by row crops and pasture land that was re-cultivated to support cattle. And that is how I happen to be sitting under this Oak tree on an early Saturday morning.
Little by little my fellow Texas Master Naturalists and students from the Plano High School Environmental Science Classes (taught by Mark Yoder and Elizabeth Carson) begin to filter into the Farmstead. The Museum directors have commissioned our Chapter to construct a Prairie garden. The completed garden will contain representative native bunch grasses and forbs that once populated the Blackland Prairie in North Central Texas.
Our Project Leader, Jeff Holba, was trained in landscape architecture at Oklahoma State, and works as a professional landscape architect at the prominent, international architecture firm, Huitt-Zollars. Jeff’s design includes an ADA friendly path that winds its way through the native plants, and a sitting area where visitors can enjoy the birds, pollinators, and butterflies that will be attracted to the prairie plants.
We hope to use the garden as a forum for public discussion of the many important properties of prairies, including Blackland Prairie history, native plant constituency and residential landscape applications, water conservation, soil improvement temperature regulation, and habitat.
In the spirit of our Mission Statement, this project evidences our Chapter’s commitment to Education, Outreach, and Service.