Loess Is More
How prairie plants turned dirt into soil
See Illinois (unpublished)
Soil is to the old Grand Prairie of east central Illinois what crude oil is to OPEC. The uncountable tons of pulverized Canada imported by the glaciers is the glaciers’ legacy to Illinois farmers. But while the glaciers made dirt, it was grass that turned it into soil. Plants added remnants rich in organic carbon and nitrogen to the topmost layers of soil, plus microbes that facilitate the cycle of growth and decay by which nutrients are put into forms usable by plants.
The following is taken from the draft of my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. (See Publications for more about that project.) Sharp-eyed readers will recognize phrases from my earlier treatments of the topic; I see no merit in saying something differently unless it is also said better.
In all but a few corners of the Grand Prairie, rubble left behind the glaciers was subsequently buried by loess (“luss”). Loess is a German word that is rendered more picturesque (and pronounceable) as “rock flour.” A mixture of clays and fine particles of quartz, feldspar, mica and other minerals known as Peoria Silt, this loess was laid down beginning about 22,000 years ago by meltwater. Great piles of it accumulated along the floodplains of the Illinois River valley to the west. As fine as talcum powder, the mineral-rich silts were as vulnerable to winds as a farmer is to a tornado. Easterly winds picked up the dust and blew it downwind.
Where the winds weakened, the silt fell from the air, a farmer's idea of manna from heaven. Most of Champaign County is blanketed with 24 to 60 inches of loess; farther from the rivers, in the northern and eastern reaches of the Grand Prairie, it is less than 20 inches thick on average. The difference partly explains why grain yields on Ford County farms tend to be lower than Champaign County’s.
The plants that grew upon glacial deposits aerated upper soil layers with their roots and held soil particles firm against marauding raindrops. Grasses also added organic matter to the mineral-rich loess left by the glaciers. The plants’ top growth died each year and was recycled, and more organic matter was added by the plants’ massive root systems, whose decay enriched the soil to depths measured in feet.
Trees are not such efficient soil-builders, as they store their organic matter more permanently in the form of wood, above the soil surface. John Madson, an able biographer of the tallgrass prairie, reported in Where the Sky Began that a forest soil may include 20 to 50 tons of humus per acre while a prairie soil next door may have 250 tons. As a result, soils that developed under grasses are generally more fertile than those that developed under trees. Darker too—the lighter color of the soils is a clue by which modern scientists deduce the extent of long-vanished forests.
An acre of good prairie soil may contain six to 30 tons of assorted mineral nutrients but also will hold the same amount of nitrogen in various forms, plus 60 to 300 tons of organic carbon. The resulting soils are among the richest in the world in terms of their ability to retain moisture, their store of trace minerals, and their benign pH.
As for microbes, the root zone of a tallgrass prairie hosts a microscopic world that rivals the Amazon rain forest in complexity. One gram of prairie loam is estimated to contain as many as two million protozoans and another 58 million bacteria. Some of these creatures break down chemicals into forms usable by plants; one such miracle-worker is the Bradyrhizobium bacteria that takes nitrogen from the air and “fixes” it in forms available to host soybean plants through nodules it forms on the latter’s roots.
The process has not been going for very long, and could be said to be ongoing, as grasses (in the form of corn, which is a grass) are growing on these soils still). Their relative freshness is another reason why the silts laid down by the Wisconsin ice made such good parents to the Grand Prairie’s best soils. Weather has had only about 12,000 years to worry the surface here. That is not long enough for leaching and exposure to leach away mineral fertility as happened in much of western and southern Illinois, where soils have lain exposed for much longer. Brownstown, near Vandalia in Fayette County, lies about 100 miles and about 60,000 years from Champaign County. A soybean field on older glacial soils there will struggle to yield 35 bushels while one is most parts of Champaign County will produce 50.
Illinois at its founding was the Prairie State in nature as well as name, and no region in Illinois was more festooned with prairie than its east-central counties. Save for a few scatterings of upland groves and trees that lined the stream bottoms, tall grasses and kindred flowering plants dominated the living landscape across all or parts of two dozen counties of this part of Illinois. The region was dubbed the Grand Prairie, and if Texas, Nebraska, and Arkansas also boasted Grand Prairies, none was quite as grand as Illinois’s. The first Euro-Americans who saw it often likened it to Eden. The judgment proved to be uninformed, but if Western humans were not yet adapted to life on the prairie, others were—more than 300 species of plants, 60 of mammals, 300 species of birds, and well over 1,000 kinds of insects buzzing over an expanse bigger than Belgium.
Geology and biology thus created here the nearly perfect place for the factory-style production of row-crops like corn or soybeans. True, the Grand Prairie is hardly the only place in Illinois suited to corn. Corn is raised in every county; even Chicago’s Cook County, which most Downstaters assume harvests more crooks than corn, harvests a million bushels a year. But in no other region of Illinois is corn grown as widely and as well as in the old Grand Prairie. Champaign and Ford counties in recent decades have led the state that leads the world in corn and bean yields—well above one hundred and fifty bushels per acre for corn and approximately forty-five bushels per acre for soybeans. It was not whimsy that left the athletes of Hoopeston Area High School known as the Cornjerkers or the team mascot dressed up like a stalk of corn. Cornjerking is the act of snapping an ear of corn off its stalk.
What Grand Prairie farmers owe to the glaciers is made clear by a drive south through southern Illinois. Between, say, Champaign and Shelbyville the farmland is richer and flatter than farther south, but it stands no comparison to the best land in east-central Illinois, mainly because the older soils outside its river bottoms are weather-beaten, having been exposed to leaching more than 40 times as long as that to the north. In the days before cheap artificial fertilizers, such soil was quickly exhausted by even subsistence farming. Burl Ives grew up nearby, and in his autobiography, Wayfaring Stranger, he recalled, “The yellow-clay land of Jasper County was not very productive. Those farmers who farmed on the share, as our family was doing then, moved frequently. ‘We are moving in March.’ I heard a hundred times, ‘We are moving in March.’”
Also, since the ice last visited far southern Illinois, weather has had time to erode it severely. As a result, much of the terrain, at least in the extreme south, is ill suited to cultivation by machine. The thin topsoils are underlain across much of the region with hard clay, and water runs off as if off a shingled roof, taking soil with it. That mattered less in the days when farmers grew their own “tractor” fuel in the form of grass-like hay and pasturage that protected topsoil from eroding rains. The switch in the 1920s to petroleum-powered tractors, however, freed up these fields to be planted in cash-earning row crops like corn that exposed soils to damage from erosion just as they exposed farmers to damage from a cash economy.
Climate and terrain were abetted in the theft of soil in Egypt by many of its farmers. Often more desperate than their counterparts in more fertile parts of the state, southern Illinois farmers also have been less informed, less provident, less expert. Many forested hillsides—land that was never suited to crops but was cheap because of it—had been cleared for farming. Hill farming was something the many Southern settlers had learned back home in Kentucky and Tennessee; sadly, they never learned to do it well. Among hill farmers the solution to soil wastage was to move to a place with new soil. (Norma Jacke Tucker in her memoir refers ruefully to her ancestors who had stopped for a while in Virginia or Tennessee or Kentucky, “ruining a little land” before moving on to Illinois to do the same.) “Fruitgrower,” a pseudonymous correspondent to the Jonesboro Gazette in the 1860s, chastised his neighbors “Hezekiah Slovenly” and “Jim Careless” for their improvidence, to no particular effect.
In short, soil is among the mineral wealth that has been mined to exhaustion in southern Illinois. By end of the 1930s many southern Illinois farm fields looked as though they had been strip-mined, which, in a way, they had. The Shawnee National Forest was justified as a setting for recreation and timber production, but these were means to its larger end, which (as revealed in the official report that led to its establishment) was erosion control. Tucker recalls playing in the gullies that scarred her family farm and rued the day forest rangers came and planted soil-holding pine trees. “The government had it in for gullies,” she wrote. “They gummed up, totally ruined the best playground in the whole wide world.”
The poor quality of Egypt’s soils has always been reflected in land prices. In 1930 corn and bean land in McLean and Champaign counties sold for around $190 an acre; in Hardin and Pope counties, such land brought barely $20 per acre. While such soils can be made productive, they needed capital that southern Illinois farmers found hard to raise. It is his land that a farmer borrows against for capital to improve his operation; the less valuable the land, the smaller the loan.
Also, farmers in most of the rest of Illinois equipped themselves for commercial agriculture after the Civil War, but farms in the southern counties were so small or so hilly that investing in machines made no sense. Some soils that are ill-suited to grains are good for fruits and vegetables, but their cultivation demands a lot of hand labor. The result was that farmers in the region were trapped in old-fashioned labor-intensive styles of farming for decades after farmers in the rest of Illinois moved on.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, many former farmers who had lost town jobs returned to the land in hopes of at least feeding themselves and families. They farmed any land they had, with terrible results. Erosion from the region’s sloping land at first merely made fields less productive; extreme erosion that led to gullying made many of them unfarmable. Exposed subsoils wash away too, and when they settled atop fertile fields below them, two fields ended up being wasted. Eroded soil filled drainage ditches too, and drainage districts passed on to farmers the costs of keeping them unclogged, which contributed to tax delinquencies before and during the Depression.
Southern Illinois got much attention from the federal government in that era. One of the aims of the Resettlement Administration, the rural version of the WPA, was to take people off land that was too poor to sustain them and resettle them elsewhere. after which submarginal farms could be turned into productive forests, recreation areas, and public reserves. Two Resettlement Administration projects were located in the southern part of the state—Crab Orchard, a 20,000-acre development centered on an 8,000-acre lake in Williamson County, and Dixon Springs, a demonstration forest in Pope County.
Marion Pedersen Teal’s The Earth Is Ours, published in 1948, is part memoir, part polemic on behalf of soil-saving farming methods—a sort of agronomic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Unhappily for the region, the lessons of the 1920s and ‘30s were lost on many later farmers. In the 1950s, Washington tried a new tack—“land banking,” in which the government paid farmers to not plant vulnerable land. It worked for a while, but in the 1970s, a run of high grain prices tempted the owners of these set-aside lands to convert them to row-crop production. Profits jumped; so, predictably, did erosion. Average soil losses in parts of the region in the mid-1980s were more than twice what is considered sustainable, spurring Washington to again pay farmers to take land out of production via an old program that was given a new name, the Conservation Reserve Program.
Any prediction that the region’s profligate ways worth soil have changed for good would be rash, but soil-wasting in southern Illinois has at least slowed. By the late 1990s the careless farmer has been pretty much forced out of business, as has the uneducated one. Soil-saving tillage methods of some kind was being used on a much higher proportion of the region’s land than in the state as a whole, as much as four acres in five in some areas. In some of the hillier parts of the region only half the land is in agricultural use, and much of the land that is cultivated grows pasture—grazing cattle and hogs can navigate steep slopes easier than can tractors—or grass-like crops such as small grains. This is especially true in areas that have even more hills than nature provided because of strip mining; thousands of acres of reclaimed mined land in the region have been converted into pasture. The net result is that soil losses from farm fields have dramatically lessened since the 1930s. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.