Prairie sod is the top layer of dirt composed of the tough, dried, and decayed stems and foliage of many generations of grass, with roots tangled and tightly woven into a matted mass so dense that up to five miles or more of roots might be found supporting one square meter of grasses (“American Prairie History”). A serious difficulty facing early settlers was that their plows, made for turning soft forest soils, were not able to cut the brick-like prairie sod. In fact, many of their iron plows broke in the attempt, and the consistency of the earth beneath the prairie’s tall grasses stuck to the plow’s moldboard, requiring the constant use of paddles for scraping off the sticky soil. But once would-be homesteaders discovered the richness of the soil beneath the tallgrass prairie sod, they determinedly worked toward the goal of cultivating it.
It was obvious that a stronger material than iron was needed to effectively break prairie sod. But even using a modern steel spade, it still took a strong man about ninety-six hours to till an acre of land. Then, in the late 1830s, a blacksmith from Vermont named John Deere visited a friend’s sawmill and noticed a broken steel saw blade. Deere took it to his shop, where he heated it and reshaped it into the share for a plow that also featured a smoothly ground wrought iron moldboard that might reasonably scour in heavy soil. This implement, which Deere finished in 1837, worked better on prairie sod than any previous plow. In 1843, he was producing 400 plows per year, and in 1849, annual production was up to 1,200 (Drache, 5). Prairie sod was packed so tightly that “the prairie literally rang, or twanged, when the steel plows turned over its dense underlayer – ‘a storm of wild music’ was the poetic description given by one wheat farmer’s daughter several decades later” (“American Prairie History”).
Bricks made of the sod, which some jokingly called "Nebraska marble," were used to build homes that were great improvements on the hastily formed dugouts settlers had used for their first crude shelters upon arrival (“This Sod House”).
Simultaneous with these rapid developments in cultivation, settlers were driving bison and other grazers to extinction and finding innovative methods of fire suppression. Once the root system of the prairie was breached and its recovery cycle interrupted by agriculture, the grasslands would never heal unaided. Everything we know today about prairie composition must be inferred from the few wild prairie remnants that have survived the grazing, agriculture and urban uses of the past hundred and fifty years.
The next section of this Discovery Guide describes the temperate grasslands biome, which includes tallgrass prairie and the magnificent land that supported it.
Go To The Tallgrass Prairie Ecosystem