Every few hours in the months of winter and early spring, a motorist will pull into Jerry Smith Farm Park on the south edge of Kansas City.
They’ll pause at the tiny parking lot near a corrugated metal barn. They’ll gaze at a sun-soaked prairie — and leave in 30 seconds.
“Not much to see,” said a frequent hiker wearing a U.S. Air Force cap and walking his dog, Leah. The two watched a white sedan stop a moment and pull away on a Tuesday in April.
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He’s right. Not much to see until around May, right now, when Missouri’s native flowers are bursting.
Some 270 species of plant life in all.
Gotta love these plant names: Eared false foxglove. Blue spiderwort. Blazing star, pale purple cornflower ... rattlesnake master!
Come August, the big bluestem tallgrass will be chest-high. Goldenrod will be out. More than 250 plant species will be flourishing.
Birds known as the dickcissel will perch on plant stalks and chirp — dick dick cissel — over and over again until most humans have had enough.
Some call it boring, this native tallgrass prairie. Just sits there, sunning and growing, without much shade. You’ll need to bring sun screen.
Yet conservationists such as Larry Rizzo call the vista extraordinary.
In thousands of years, nobody has plowed these 40 or so acres on what became the Smith family farm, at 139th Street east of Holmes Road. Now it’s owned by the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department.
Imagine. Nobody disturbed the soil. “Tallgrass prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world right now,” said Linda Lehrbaum, program director for the nonprofit Kansas City Wildlands.
For centuries, native tribes burned these grasses, a wise idea to provide a fresh field of grass for bison. But no one ever tilled here.
And that includes Jerry Smith himself. He was a Buick dealer whose family observed a bygone tradition of setting aside a chunk of farm property just for cutting hay, not for planting row crops.
The Smiths donated the land to the city, desiring that the virgin prairie be kept that way. A 3-acre lake for fishing was part of the package. In the early 1980s, the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department maintained the property for educational purposes as a working farm with the hay field, fruit trees and livestock.
The Missouri Department of Conservation later partnered with the city parks department to preserve and restore the prairie, which is adjacent to the state’s Saeger Woods Conservation Area.
“People look at our native prairie and think it’s all about what you see above ground,” said Rizzo, who works for the Conservation Department. “It’s really about what’s below ground.”
Grass roots reaching 15 or 20 feet deep, for starters.
Northwest Missouri 250 years ago looked mostly like preserved tallgrass areas in Kansas. Sunny and grassy, not brushy. Not forested.
Until white settlers came in the early 1800s, at least one-third of Missouri looked as the Jerry Smith park does today.
Less than half of 1 percent of the state’s native prairie remains. The tract here is the largest remnant left in Jackson County.
This one is best experienced on the 2-mile trail looping west from the little parking lot. You might grumble that high-voltage power lines stretch overhead, but they’re a blessing to the park.
Kansas City Power & Light has rights to land beneath the lines. The utility’s interest in keeping the easement free of tall trees factored into the Smith family prairie’s staying native. KCP&L donated equipment and labor to a prairie restoration effort of brush removal and burnings that culminated around 2000.
“Once it had full sun, the prairie went nuts,” said Lehrbaum. “If it hadn’t been for KCP&L, the trail there would be dead.
Thousands of volunteers with Kansas City Wildlands help maintain Smith Farm Park and 17 other public sites in keeping trails clear, removing invasive species and assisting in burns.
As for the frequent visitor beneath the Air Force cap, with dog Leah, he said they come to Smith Park to get away from the noisy city.
“People who love this park are kind of reclusive. I don’t even want my name out there on social media,” he said, so he insisted that The Star not reveal it.
“Too many people would ruin this place. Better if they don’t know about it.”
Jerry Smith Farm Park
Where: Prospect Avenue near 139th Street, Martin City
Hours: 6 a.m.-6 p.m.
Directions: From Interstate 435 and Holmes Road, go south on Holmes to 139th Street. Turn left at apartments. Park entrance is three-quarters of a mile along 139th. Speed and you’ll miss it.