Pella Chronicle

March 5, 2014

Iowa's 'Black Gold'

The Pella Chronicle

---- — This is the first of a series of articles written by the Red Rock Lake Association’s “Save the Lake Committee”, by Mark Thompson

When European settlers first arrived in what is now Iowa, they encountered a vast sea of grasses and flowers, with scattered woodlands bordering the many streams and rivers. The north-central part was dotted with numerous wetlands, holdovers from the last glacial event in the state. Over 85 percent of the state was a prairie landscape that was described as a place rich in form, life, and color, and a mecca for wildlife. The first settlers assumed that if the majority of the land was too poor to grow trees, it was surely too poor to grow much in the way of crops. For a long time, homes were built in the wooded areas and the forests were laboriously cleared as they were back in Europe. They failed to see that trees grew on the prairie’s poorest soils, a thin veneer of fertility that would erode over time when there were no longer trees to stabilize it. In central Iowa, as late as 1847, prairie was selling for $3 to $10 per acre while timberland sold for $30 to $50.

In spite of the prairie’s strangeness and struggles, pioneer families soon found that it was where the action was. They left the trees, built sod houses and soon began to find out what the land really offered - deep fertile soil. This legacy was developed by the deep penetrating roots of the prairie species and was responsible for development of a thick, black layer of topsoil - Iowa’s “Black Gold.”

Had they known the world’s most fertile soil lay under these grasslands early on, it would have made little difference. There were no tools available to the new settlers that could be used to plow through the thick prairie sod. Soon, there were plowmen who would break your claim for $12.25 per acre with a “breaking plow” a huge device drawn by five yoke of oxen that cut a furrow three feet wide. The moldboard was seven feet long. A giant breakthrough came in 1837 when a fellow named John Deere from Illinois invented his new prairie plow. It was a walking plow that could be drawn through the prairie’s sod with a three-horse team. A farmer could break the dense sod with amazing efficiency. One man and his team working for only two months could have an “eighty” (eighty acres) broken and planted with sod corn. Even though it might be years before the grassroots had completely rotted and the soil became rich, smooth, loam, it was well worth it for farming. Even though these new technologies made some of the most productive land in the world available to farmers, it also marked the end of the Iowa prairie. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Iowa prairie was essentially gone. Though the 30 million acres of prairie in Iowa took thousands of years to develop, nearly all was converted to agricultural land in less than 80 years.

Next week’s article will be “What is Soil and How Did Iowa’s Greatest Resource Form?”