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Reber, other Grand Prairie Friends interested in maintaining natural habitat


Originally Published in the News-Gazette, December 12, 2023

Grand Prairie Friends member Bob Reber, left, speaks with Eastern Illinois University students during a September visit to Prospect Cemetery in Paxton, the site of a patch of native prairie. The students were researching the founders and origin of Grand Prairie Friends, a 40-year-old nonprofit.


PAXTON — Bob Reber is passionate about the need to protect the native prairie in east-central Illinois.

He’s not the only one.

Reber is a member of the Grand Prairie Friends that works diligently to protect that prairie from invasive plants.

Quoting author Wes Jackson, Reber said, “Nature is the gold standard that you measure everything else against.”

Prairie has learned to survive for 10,000 years through changes in climate — all the changes in temperature and moisture, “and through the process of natural selection these species are tough,” Reber said.

The project he is most passionate about is Prospect Cemetery on Paxton’s southeast side, which holds the graves of numerous 19th Century settlers of the area.

Reber stressed he is just one of several people who have maintained the quality of the prairie.

“It’s been a project for years for dozens of people. I just happen to have been there the longest,” the 82-year-old Reber said.

The retired University of Illinois professor in food science and human nutrition learned the importance of the prairie and nature from a number of people.

Reber was about 10 years old when his interest was first piqued. He remembers visiting the Prospect Cemetery with his father and a neighbor, Joe Volden, who was avidly interested in rural cemeteries.

“At that time my dad made some remarks, ‘There’s a lot of prairie plants out there.’ Any farmer along the railroad knew what prairie plants were.”

Farmers, in many cases, knew them by different names than the academics did.

Prairie dock, for instance, was known as “elephant ears” because of the size.

Farmers knew cord grass as “ripgut” because of the tiny sharp saw teeth on the leaf edges.

“I just got attached to it because we were around it so much,” Reber said. “It went through a lot of derivations.”

Not many people know the 5-acre cemetery holds a remnant of the tall grass prairie — what Reber called “one of the three best remnants left in east-central Illinois.”

The other quality prairie stands are just north of Pine Ridge Cemetery near Loda and a tract west of Fairbury and Forrest.

Reber spends a lot of time in nature.

In addition to maintaining his home place that he shares with his wife of 60 years, Pam, he maintains the Howard Thomas Memorial Nature Preserve just off Illinois west of Paxton.

He credits his wife as his best help in protecting Prospect Prairie.

The number of old graves at the cemetery is unknown — Reber saying there were several old settlers buried there.

“I’ve heard all kinds of numbers. When they were first buried there is a real question. Possibly as far back as the 1850s,” he said.

There were several graves that were never marked. Their presence is obvious because the ground around them has sunk.

The settlers came to the Paxton area because it was on the Ottawa Trail that stretched from Danville either west toward Saybrook or northwest toward the Illinois River and Ottawa.

“That was a trail that probably lasted 1,000 or more years,” Reber said. “The settlers tended to use the same route when they wanted to go northwest.”

Paxton was originally called “Prairie City” and later “Prospect City,” hence the name of the cemetery, before the town got its present name.

Grand Prairie Friends’ work at Prospect Cemetery involves “just about everything.”

Much of it includes getting rid of invasive plants not native to the prairie — plants such as Japanese honeysuckle and bush honeysuckle. Another major invader is the Asian day lily, which Reber called “the enemy of most prairies around here.”

“Anything that’s woody like the honeysuckles you have to cut off at the base and treat it with Roundup,” Reber said.

The main control method, however, is to burn the prairie because many of the “exotics” can’t stand the fire.

“The prairie plants can because they’ve developed over thousands of years through fire,” Reber said.

Half of the prairie generally is burned one year and the other half the next.

Part needs to be left unburned each year to prevent the elimination of the native insects to the prairie such as prairie cicadas.

Depending on the type of work, volunteers can work solo or in groups.

“If you’re doing burns you need at least half a dozen people who know what they’re doing,” Reber said.

“Sometimes you can just go out there and work on your own, like if you’re going after a particular species like smooth sumac. If left alone it would take over some of the prairie.”

Reber said one of the most diligent volunteers, Mary Kay Solecki, drives the farthest to work on the prairie — from Springfield.

Returning to the subject of why maintaining prairie plots is important, Reber noted, “From nature we learned that diversity is the best route to go.”

He again quoted Jackson, who invented use of the word “sustainability” in terms of prairie maintenance, according to Reber.

“You’d better save a patch of native prairie or native woodland to see how these survive as things change.”

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