By Gary Barton
It is a cool early spring morning and you are sitting on the backboard of a covered wagon. The sun pierces through freshly formed dew drops clinging to the wild hyacinths that blanket the landscape solid blue. Before you, a small stately white church sits on the horizon framed by majestic American Elm, Oak, Yaupon and Possumhaw nestled along the creek.
This scene existed in the mid-late 1800s and, except for the covered wagon, can be observed today as it was many decades ago. Thanks to Frankford Preservation Foundation President Kathy Wells Power, a pioneer in her own right, and the expertise and tireless efforts of many others, including landscape architect Rosa Finsley, environmental educator and fellow Texas Master Naturalist Rich Jaynes, Matt White (Prairie Time), the Frankford Preservation Foundation, and the Frankford Cemetery Association, this native prairie remnant flourishes.
The Frankford site is literally dripping with history. Running through the property is Halls Branch, a reliable water source and tributary to White Rock Creek. Indian Springs outflows into Halls Branch on the Frankford site. During the mid-1800s, it served as a much needed stopover for travelers along the old Shawnee Trail. Indian Springs was capped during a drought in the 1930s, presumably to increase hydraulic pressure downstream to Keller Springs which was a more accessible spot for water collection. The cement cap was removed a few years ago and now, Indian Springs flows again. Rivergeek Richard Grayson was actively involved at the time and arranged for the Texas Stream Team to monitor this site by the respectful Bruce Stewart and company. A large American Elm on the branch was also recognized by the Texas Historic Tree Coalition.
The Prairie Gothic Church was designed and built by Philip Hamer, a local builder from the neighboring town of Renner. It was completed in 1897, all while he was grieving from the loss of his wife in childbirth the previous year. Although simple in design, the church is exquisitely crafted and remains a loving tribute to his wife interred in the Frankford Cemetery.
The prairie was ‘discovered’ by Rosa Finsley when she and Kathy Power met to discuss plans to landscape around the old church. Rosa observed a few native plants growing in adjoining fields and suggested that mowing should stop to see what else might come up. To the delight of both, more native (and non-native) varieties appeared, including a large stand of Big Bluestem. It soon became apparent that this area of the Frankford site had never been plowed. In 1873, a local farmer sold this limestone prairie remnant for the construction of a church for the Frankford community. For over fifty years the Cemetery Association mowed the area sporadically but they never plowed it, leaving the roots of the ‘ancient’ plants intact. Rich Jaynes later visited the Frankford site and suggested that other areas of the field be given a chance to appear. NTMN Jim Varnum began compiling a plant list of the newly discovered Frankford Prairie. Rich now updates the list periodically which is available on the Frankford Preservation Foundation website, linked here: http://frankfordpreservationfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Frankford-Prairie-Plant-list-R.-Jaynes.pdf
The small and vibrant community of Frankford exists no longer, but the cemetery, restored church, native prairie remnant, Indian Springs, and wagon yard at Frankford will survive long into the future, enlightening subsequent generations of prairie enthusiasts with a few secrets from the past.
In January 2019, the North Texas Chapter adopted Frankford Praire as an approved project in collaboration with the Blackland Prairie Chapter and leader Rich Jaynes. Each workday Rich shares his extraordinary and abundant knowledge on prairie ecology with volunteers eager to learn more about plant identification.
The philosophy at Frankford is to not ‘restore’ the prairie, but rather ‘liberate’ the existing native plants by removing invasive non-natives, allowing desired natives to flourish after decades of moderately destructive human activity.
Please check out the website and follow the Prairie on Facebook to find out about events at this special jewel unexpectedly hidden in the Bent Tree neighborhood of north Dallas.
North Texas Master Naturalists should contact Gary Barton to volunteer at this special place.
Please note: All photographs are courtesy of the Frankford Preservation Foundation.