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Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge hosts Concert on the Prairie

The sun fell over the prairie on Friday June 7, providing a crimson sunset and a rare sun dog. The buffalo meandered across the rolling hills in the distance. Morton Gould’s American Salute and other scores mingled with the chirping of the prairie’s native birds.

This all served to paint the surreal picture that the 109 attendees of the Concert on the Prairie at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge experienced that evening. The event was organized by the Friends of the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge in an effort to celebrate music, art and nature.

The program began with a wine tasting from Wines of Iowa and a guided prairie tour. Next was a special art preview by Iowa artist Michael Wilson, displaying his exhibit titled “Bison, Bison, Bison,” which featured the bison of the refuge. The exhibit was accompanied by a hors d’oeuvres bar by The Cinder House.

After the art exhibit, guests moved to the outdoor seating and stage that had been erected for an address from Neal Smith, the 36-year veteran of the United States House of Representatives after whom the reserve is named.

Smith spoke about the history of the area, the importance of natural preservation and the need for volunteers and donors.

“Everything changed for this land at midnight of October 15, 1845. A cavalry officer fired his musket in the air and the land-grab began,” Smith said. He went on to describe the trip of several days that families would’ve endured to make it to the site of the refuge.

According to the retired congressman, no matter where the immigrants were from, they knew that Iowa’s fertile soils would allow them to grow the crops of their home.

So they plowed.

“They just kept plowing until eventually they’d covered the entire state, leaving no refuges like this,” Smith said.

He urged the audience to help by donating and volunteering.

“Your reward will be knowing that you’re helping,” he said. “This is a place for thousands of children to come, and the reward is to watch them learn.”

Smith’s speech was followed by the Des Moines Community Orchestra, which included music from “Dances with Wolves” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” arranged by Peter Wilhousky.

After the performance by the Orchestra, the attendees were able to take part in guided stargazing with the assistance of The Des Moines Astronomical Society.

Joan Van Gorp, president of the Friends group, considered the event to be a success and said that she looks forward to the possibility of something similar next year.

“We don’t want to look at the concert as fundraising, we want to think of it as friend-raising instead,” Van Gorp said.

In that regard, the Friends were hugely successful, selling 120 tickets of which only 15 went to current members. Included in the price of the tickets was a year-long membership, enabling attendees to keep up to date on the Friends group and other activities related to the Refuge.

“We had people from as far away as Florida attending,” Van Gorp said. “They were passing through to see family and wanted too come … we did a good job of advertising and outreach.”

One couple drove down from Minnesota for the event.

Helen Balcome, from Lake Crystal Minnesota, considers herself a prairie enthusiast and was happy to attend when she received the invitation.

“We found the refuge a few years ago when we were traveling through the mid-west. It’s a great place, so we signed up for the Friends group and we love to hear about what they’re doing down here,” Balcome said.

Another couple, the Petersens, drove two hours from Reinbeck for the event. Their son lives in the area and they had always wanted to visit the Refuge but never found a good opportunity.

“We’d talked about going to something similar in the Flint Hills in Kansas, but it’s very difficult to get tickets,” John Petersen said. “When we heard about this, we were very excited.”

And that’s exactly what Van Gorp and the Friends wanted from the concert. To expose new people to the wonders of the prairie, engage the public in a night of music and relaxation and make new Friends for their organization.

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