September 30, 2022

The bison has landed: Prairie City find its icon

Prairie City continues to strengthen its ties to the nearby Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge with the addition of a larger-than-life steel bison, sited at the western edge of town. The sculpture by Mt. Vernon artist Dale Merrill, near the Casey’s General Store and the exit of Highway 163, will be the centerpiece of Entryway Park, intended to showcase Prairie City’s history, both natural and social, as well as serve the function of interpreting the prairie’s native flowers and grasses for visitors. Rick Hager, chairman of the Entryway Plaza Committee, said the hope was to let visitors know about the area before they visit Prairie City and the wildlife refuge. “The bison will be surrounded with prairie grasses, and plots of prairie forbs and grasses will give visitors a better understanding of what they can expect on the prairie,” Hager said. The bison is at the culmination of a bike trail that winds through Prairie City’s new recreational park, and eventually, it is hoped, will connect with a bike trail from Monroe and Lake Red Rock. A bike trail from Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge also is in the planning stages. In addition to the sculpture and prairie plants, the park will feature several picnic tables, a rain garden and a kiosk with information on the refuge and Prairie City history and businesses. The project was made possible by a $593,494 Department of Transportation grant through the Transportation Enhancement Act (TEA). Wildlife Refuge manager Nancy Gilbertson said her assistant manager discovered that there were DOT funds available for such projects, and the refuge approached the Prairie City Business Association. The city organized several groups to explore the possibilities. A committee headed by local veterinarian Jim Walker,the Icon Committee, was considering some type of sculpture or artwork that would act as a symbol for the town. “When I first came to Prairie City 36 years ago, I looked around and said, ‘Where’s the prairie?’ Some people couldn’t even spell prairie.” The bison seemed to fit the bill for a city icon, and Dale Merrill of Liberty Iron Works was approached with the idea of creating the piece. Merrill said his enthusiasm for the commission grew as he did his research. “I viewed the site (near Casey’s) in November, and got the idea of how I wanted the bison to look and the direction he would face,” Merrill told the crowd of nearly 300 Thursday afternoon. “Then I researched the bison.” He cut the framework first, then began to weld the Cor-Ten steel together. Cor-Ten steel is manufactured specifically for weathering, Merrill says. It oxidizes and seals itself, creating a cinnamon-brown patina. Prairie City’s new artwork is 10 feet tall and 15 feet long, weights about 3,000 pounds and took approximately 800 hours to complete, Merrill said. He is also the sculptor of the kinetic art at Thomas Jefferson Elementary in Newton as well as a couple of sculptures at the Newton Arboretum. He is working on a sculpture to be dedicated soon at Aurora Heights Elementary in Newton. Prairie City Mayor Les Evans summed up the impression of many in attendance Thursday afternoon. “This is something, isn’t it? This will draw attention to Prairie City for a long time to come,” he said.