These Gazette file photos show students from Van Buren Elementary School planting a quarter-acre prairie behind the school.

Under the guidance of teachers Berneva Hebb and Karen Colby, students planted prairie flower seeds from “15 types of prairie flowers collected from remnants around Janesville and Madison.”

The photos, taken in May 1975, capture the spirit of the time. Prairies once covered about 2 million acres in Wisconsin, but by the early 1970s, scientists and conservationists realized that the prairies were almost gone.

That’s not surprising. Prairies thrived because of rich, deep soil replenished by the plants themselves, and that soil was perfect for farming.

At that time, prairie remnants could be found along railroad right-of-ways or near gravel roads. The Nature Conservancy bought one of the state’s remaining prairies, a 22-acre tract along Newark Road.

In 1974, a reporter marveled at the variety of unusual prairie plants, including compass plant, prairie smoke, blazing stars, joe-pye weed, false indigo, spiderwort, yellow coneflower, rattlesnake master, Indian grass and big bluestem.

The good news: Because of those conservationists’ efforts, restored prairies are valued for their beauty and benefits for wildlife. Many plants mentioned above are now available at nurseries. Gardeners prize them for both their beauty and their hardiness.

Unfortunately, the prairie at Van Buren is no longer there.

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