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Ohio Prairie Hall of Fame

Jack H. McDowell

On 12 July 2013, the Ohio Prairie Association inducted Jack H. McDowell into the Ohio Prairie Hall of Fame.

Jack was a native of Ronceverte, West Virginia, in the eastern mountains of that state. As a boy, Jack learned the "ways of the woods" and honed his fishing and hunting skills, becoming a superior woodsman and naturalist. Jack's observation skills and understanding of the interactions of the natural world later led to his success as a conservationist and prairie restorationist.

After high school, Jack attended Greenbrier Military School, earning an Associate's Degree in Science, later receiving his Bachelor's Degree in Science from Morris Harvey College. He completed graduate work in radiation biology, chemistry, physics and environmental studies.

Jack married his wife Sue in 1956 and in 1959 moved to Columbus, Ohio. Later that year, Jack began teaching chemistry, physics, biology, and environmental science at West Jefferson High School. During his 33-years of teaching, Jack became a favorite of many of his students.

Jack served his community in many ways. From 1998 through 2012 he was the director of the Village of West Jefferson Parks and Recreation Department. He convinced city leaders to permanently protect and restore the floodplain and riparian corridor along the local Little Darby Creek Federal and State Scenic River. He created a native Darby Plains Prairie demonstration area to promote awareness of local prairies.

Jack's career with Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks began in 1965 when he became a part-time ranger at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park. Over the next 47 years Jack held the positions of Park Manager and Part-time Land Management Coordinator. He was the longest-tenured employee in Columbus and Franklin County Metro Park's history. Jack's legacy with Metro Parks will be the Darby Plains Prairie Restoration Project.

As the new Ohio Prairie Survey Project began state-wide inventory operations in the 1970s, Jack focused on investigating the Darby Plains area, spending countless hours researching and reading historic accounts of the Madison County prairies. Jack and his wife Sue began walking railroad tracks, looking for remnant prairies and plants. Often, with their three daughters in tow, they located unknown prairies and plant populations that they recorded on local maps.

Jack also talked with local landowners and educated them on the significance of the small prairie remnants he had discovered, often obtaining permission to return to collect seed.

Jack's efforts and relationship with Chester Clime, the former owner of the Pearl King Prairie Savanna, eventually led to Metro Parks' purchase and preservation one the best tallgrass prairie savannas in Ohio.

Early on, Jack had a vision of prairie restoration in the Darby Plains on Metro Park property. He claimed that his original goal was to restore 500 acres of prairie. Starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with other Metro Parks Staff, Jack started sowing what little seed he could collect, 1 to 2 acres at a time. He started seeding prairie false indigo with only 26 individual seeds. Today, several hundred plants bloom in late June at the Indian Ridge Prairie.

Jack began restoration efforts through much trial and error. When asked how he arrived at using cheap sawdust as the carrier for hand sowing seed, he said, "Well I started with sand. But pick up a five gallon bucket of sand with a little prairie seed in it and start across that field and let me know how you feel. I then used vermiculite. The dust from hand-throwing it nearly suffocated me. So when I found a small sawmill in Circleville, I thought I would give sawdust a try."

Until 1996, when the first Truax drill was purchased, Metro Parks employed his improved  sawdust-broadcasting method of seeding.

Around 1994, Jack and Metro Parks official John Watts discussed the idea of re-introducing bison to restored Darby Plains prairies. Many laughed at the idea. But in February 2011, Jack saw his dream come true as six female bison were released at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park. As Jack watched, he joyfully sang "Home on the Range," as six bison charged out of trailers into the snow and ice of the prairie pasture.

Because of Jack McDowell's seminal efforts, Metro Parks currently manages nearly 1,500 acres of restored native Darby Plains prairies, wetlands, and prairie savannas; with plans to continue such native habitat expansion.

Jack's contributions to prairie restoration, preservation, and conservation, and his sharing of knowledge with others in the Ohio prairie community, will be enduring legacies.

For example, Jack was frustrated by the inability to collect ample seeds from Silphium forbs. Goldfinches and other birds commonly consumed the seeds before they could be adequately collected. But Jack discovered that these and most other prairie forbs can have their seeds collected just as flowers begin to wilt. Everyone else waited until the flowers were completely dry, when avian feeding had already consumed most of the seeds. Jack, intelligently, determined that forb flowers could be collected for seeds just at the end of the full-flowering period, when the flower was still mostly in color. He then learned how to effectively dry these early-collected flowers, which then yielded large quantities of viable seeds.

Jack became expert in drying and processing prairie grass and forb seeds. He artfully adjusted and used an agricultural combine to effectively harvest large quantities of prairie seeds for his massive restorations.

Jack McDowell's enthusiasm for prairies in the natural world was contagious, and his accomplishments in surveying and restoring significant remnants of the great Darby Plains Prairie are fitting criteria for his induction into the Ohio Prairie Association Ohio Prairie Hall of Fame.

Courtesy Columbus and Franklin County Metropolitan Park District

Honoring and Recognizing Those Who Have Profoundly Contributed

to the

Discovery, Study, Conservation, Management, Restoration, Recognition, and Public Appreciation


— Ohio’s Native Prairies —