Roots of the Prairie Style: Part III
by Bob E. Grese
Director of Nichols Arboretum and
Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture,
University of Michigan

At the core of the Prairie Style movement was a desire to awaken people to the subtle natural beauties of the Midwestern landscape. Landscape design cultivated that appreciation and led people to active involvement in land conservation activities. There was a continuum from small-scale design interventions to the preservation of large blocks of natural habitat as parks and preserves, as well as the encouragement of forestry and farming practices that incorporated strong conservation ideals.

Jens Jensen’s career particularly exemplified this continuum from garden design to broader conservation. Jensen formed two conservation groups, the Prairie Club and the Friends of Our Native Landscape. An outgrowth of the Playground Association formed in 1906, the Prairie Club introduced thousands of Chicagoans to the wilds around the city through a series of weekend walks and other programs. They helped to establish constituencies for the various tracts of land that would form the core of the original Forest Preserve system, and became a key force in establishing the Cook County Forest Preserves in 1911.

The Friends of Our Native Landscape, organized in 1913, took this model of conservation a step further by building political support for conservation at a state-wide level. With a clear eye for establishing a state-wide network of parks and preserves in Illinois, the Friends orchestrated talks, poetry readings, pageants, masques, and other celebrations to foster legislative support for protecting key tracts of land.

Their argument for protection of land appealed to people’s historical, recreational, scientific, artistic, and ethical sensibilities. In 1921, they published Proposed Park Areas in the State of Illinois: A Report with Recommendations, and effectively lobbied the state legislature in 1925 to establish the Illinois State Park system. In 1926, their booklet A Park and Policy Act for Illinois set long-term guidelines for land acquisition and ongoing management. Similar Friends groups were established in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Perhaps the most passionate conservation effort by both the Friends and the Prairie Club went to establish a national park in the Indiana Dunes. The Prairie Club had long held regular pilgrimages to the Dunes, particularly around their cabin located near Tremont. They considered the Dunes to be the greatest natural wonderland in the greater Chicago area, worthy of the same protection then being afforded scenic natural treasures in the Rocky Mountain west and elsewhere across the United States. Networking with a variety of other conservation groups, they convinced Stephen Mather, the newly appointed Director of the National Park Service and himself a former member of the Prairie Club and a founding member of the Friends of Our Native Land-scape, to hold hearings on the establishment of a national park in the Dunes. The hearings, held in October 1916, were among the most fervent for protection of land anywhere and were followed by a festive dune pageant in May and June 1917 that was seen by some sixty to seventy thousand people.

Despite these heroic efforts, Congress turned a deaf ear. Estab-lishing a National Park in the Indiana Dunes would have meant purchasing and perhaps condemning private land—something quite different from carving National Parks out of public lands elsewhere in the country. The State of Indiana was a bit more receptive, however, and in 1926 established the Indiana Dunes State Park on 2,250 acres of lakeshore and dune habitat. Not until the 1960s would the National Park Service finally create the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The colorful history of these conser-vation efforts is recorded in J. Ronald Engel’s Sacred Sands: The Struggle for Community in the Indiana Dunes (1983) and Kay Franklin and Norma Shaeffer’s Duel for the Dunes: Land Use Conflicts on the Shores of Lake Michigan (1983). The earlier Outdoors with the Prairie Club by Emma Doeserich, Mary Sherburne, and Anna B. Wey chronicles the Prairie Club’s colorful early history.

Other “prairie style” leaders were also involved with conser-vation efforts that extended their landscape design approach to broader land protection strategies. O. C. Simonds, the head of the Rural Planning committee of the American Park and Outdoor Art Association, argued long and hard for rural conservation strategies to pre-serve important habitats along streams and roads and include fencerows and woodlots as part of the farm mosaic. His 1907 publication Michigan Forestry, published by the Michigan Forestry Commission, contended that natural beauty should be a goal in the management of Michigan’s forest lands. On his own lakeshore property in Saugatuck, Michigan, Simonds created an experimental arboretum to restore dune habitats that had been cleared after the Chicago fire created an intense demand for Michigan lumber. Similarly, his work at both the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, and at the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was built around protecting blocks of natural habitat as well as displaying collections of native and cultivated plants.

In many ways, Wilhelm Miller provided the most intriguing expose on how the “Prairie Style” related to broader conservation ideals in his twin publications The “Illinois Way” of Beautifying the Farm (1914) and The Prairie Spirit (1915). Both of these exhorted Illinois citizens to plant their properties with native plants and to help preserve natural habitats. The “Illinois Way” urged farmers to celebrate Illinois’ natural heritage in the plantings around their homes, to plant for birds, and to manage their woodlots to encourage native wildflowers. In The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening, Miller went a step further, exhorting people to contribute to various conservation groups and programs, to work to extend the state and local park systems and to save native vegetation along roadways and city streets.

Miller urged people to take the “Illinois Citizen’s Oath” whereby planting native Illinois plants and working to preserve wild areas was equated with the civic responsibility associated with citizenship. In his oath, which he modeled after the famous Athenian oath, Miller urged voters to work for “liberty, health, and happiness” for “all fellow citizens” and “toleration in matters of conscience.” He advised communities to cooper-ate with neighboring towns to help “preserve and protect” Illinois’ “sacred shrines of native beauty.” Individual citizens were asked to plant “many permanent plants native to Illinois,” particularly “Illinois roses” to remind others of the “Illinois spirit.” For Miller and others, the “Prairie Style” was not only a style of design or approach to planting but truly a conservation ethic that permeated all aspects of community life.

Friends of Our Native Landscape at Starved Rock, Illinois