Marion County’s Conservation Movements

In 1835, Cyrus P. Bradley recorded a journey from Marion to Sandusky in his journal. Passing through the Killdeer Plains near Agosta (now Big Island), he wrote: “I shall never forget my ride across those gloomy, unhealthy prairies, which produce nothing but long grass, horned cattle, disease, mosquitoes and rattlesnakes.” Early settlers agreed with his assessment: by the turn of the twentieth century, prairies had almost completely disappeared from Ohio, eradicated by the steel plow.

As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth and Americans fretted about the impact of the “closing of the frontier,” progressive leaders in education and politics encouraged taking up the “Nature Study” movement. The close study of flora and fauna was seen as a way to maintain a moral connection to the land. Marion County got in on the action in 1917 when its leading citizens formed the Burroughs Club, one of many named for America’s most popular “literary naturalist,” John Burroughs.

The Progressive era also saw the first formal studies of Ohio’s prairies. In the wake of World War I, an outbreak of European corn borer threatened the state’s economy and found OSU botanists directing teams armed with surplus flamethrowers in a failed attempt to contain the corn-eating moths. Looking for places where the moths failed to gain a foothold, E. N. Transeau found he was seeing the edges of Ohio’s prairies. For Transeau, Ohio’s scattered prairies marked the easternmost archipelago of a vast “prairie peninsula” that extended in a triangle from Minnesota to Oklahoma and east to Marion County.The first proposals to restore portions of the prairie peninsula by hand came out of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s, but World War II prevented their implementation. The first prairie to be formally preserved in Ohio was at Cedar Bog, near Urbana. It became the state’s first official nature preserve in 1942.

In the late 1940s, the Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to dam the Whetstone just north of Delaware, Ohio for flood control. Trella Romine — familiar with the area from gathering native plants for Hemmerly’s Flowers — documented the flooding of the valley through 35mm photography and 8mm film across 1950.

The upper Whetstone was also the site of intense environmental interest from the state in the early 1950s, as the Ohio Division of Wildlife attempted to understand why game birds and rabbits had all but disappeared from the landscape. The newly-created Delaware Reservoir area was used as an “outdoor laboratory” for early efforts to understand the effect of insecticides on other wildlife: a decade before the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962).

By the late 1960s — as a new sort of environment movement swept the country — North-Central Ohio’s Sandusky Plains prairies careened back into focus as an underrecognized regional ecological gem, in urgent need of conservation.