Doolittle Prairie, a state preserve a couple of miles south of Story City, was acquired by the State of Iowa in 1980. Although scattered small patches of prairie can be found along railroads and on a few steep hillsides, Doolittle was the only large remnant of unplowed native prairie left in the county. The Doolittle family had owned it for more than 100 years at that time. It’s a minor miracle that the prairie survived, as all land around it was converted to agriculture by 1900. The area between the Skunk River and Keigley Creek, later known as the Story City flats, was wet and poorly drained. Farming was initially done only on the small areas of slightly higher, drier ground between the thousands of shallow prairie potholes that dotted the landscape. Attempts to drain the potholes and make more land tillable soon began. The effort was initially done by hand-dug shallow ditches that drained smaller potholes. Clay tile began to be available by early in the 1900s. By World War II, most of the land around the prairie was tile-drained and under cultivation. Yet this prairie remained, with its potholes and plant community largely intact.
William Rochester Doolittle and his young wife, Fidelia, left New York and arrived in Story County in 1865. They settled on their homestead just north of the prairie that bears their name. The prairie was a source of wild hay. The single cutting that was taken in late summer each year had a good market. Horses that powered all the farms loved it. Cattle were shipped by rail back then. The stress sometimes left them sick with what was known as shipping fever. A diet of prairie hay was like tonic to bring them back to health again. In addition, some of the Doolittles were hunters well into the 1950s. The prairie, with its pothole ponds, was a natural haven for prairie chickens in the early years. Pheasants had replaced prairie chickens by World War II.
The area continued to be attractive to waterfowl during their migrations into the mid 1900s before major reservoirs and wildlife refuges shifted migration patterns elsewhere. William had no formal schooling, but must have been an astute business man and farmer. It’s said that he owned nearly 1,000 acres south of Story City by the time he died in 1892. Though some of the remaining prairie was plowed up, his descendents continued to harvest an annual hay crop from the prairie we have today until the time the state bought it. Haying kept trees and brush from taking over the prairie, as fires had done in the time before settlement.
Story County Conservation agreed to manage the new Doolittle Prairie State Preserve and reintroduced fire as a management tool. Seed was hand-harvested from the prairie by conservation staff and volunteers to reestablish new prairie stands. Interest in prairies, their place in Iowa history, their value for soil conservation and as wildlife habit continued to increase. Story County introduced monthly prairie walks, led by conservation staff to introduce more people to the prairie.
Those walks continue yet today. Although I used to lead them, I hadn’t been to a Doolittle Prairie walk in many years. I finally attended a walk there last night. It was led by Dr. Tom Rosburg, a noted prairie ecologist and researcher from Drake University. I learned a few things about the prairie and its marvelous diversity of plants from Tom. It felt good to be there on a spring evening, even though only a few of the nearly 200 native plant species that live there were in bloom. That kind of plant diversity supports an equally diverse population of insects, birds and animals. All are interdependent, but each has its own unique role to play. Managing such a place is a challenge because it is essentially a small island. The nearest prairie remnant with that kind of diversity is many miles away. With the exception of a few birds, the plants and animals are genetically isolated. I think I’ll visit another walk or two this summer. They’re scheduled for June 27, July 25 and Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. Different things will be in bloom each month. It was a first visit to a prairie for nearly half of the people who attended last night’s walk. Plan to attend one of this summer’s Doolittle Prairie walks and be amazed by the beauty and diversity of life that’s found there.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.