Bison Prairie Gateway


It's hard to believe this vacant lot along the bike path was ignored for so long. But one man named Bill had an idea to do something about it. He talked to a few neighbors, they talked to a few more, and here we are...building a gateway to our neighborhood.

It didn't happen overnight. Eight months ago we formed a design team and routinely bounced ideas off each other before agreeing on an historic project.

Research shows here in Midvale Heights we're living on top of a glacier till. There's ancient Cambrian sandstone and limestone beneath us. And we're at the far corner of the North American Bison range and grass prairie. Who knew?! Our plans exploded and grew. We will bring our neighborhood history to life!

A living environment! A prairie landscape and rain garden! An interactive sundial with limestone seating! Life-sized bison and calf sculptures! A hidden Time Capsule! A neighborhood sign!

Before you knew it, we branched into committees and got busy. Word spread through Midvale Heights and close to 100 people got involved. Some wrote grants and raised funds, others contributed funds, some set schedules and deadlines, some worked with city officials, some tapped the knowledge of experts, and ALL got their hands dirty.

First came the planting. We chose low-maintenance native perennials, the kind that bloom from spring to fall....lavender topped wild onions, yellow black-eyed Susan's, purple liatris, asters and ironweed. We needed some real soil busters". Then we added tall grasses, bulbs, shrubs and trees, among them a Red Bud, a Gingko, an Ironwood, and several Flowering Crabapples. And of course, one very special tree: A grandfather tree for the future--to become a huge Bur Oak. It will stand tall for generations, representing the oak savannahs of our land before European settlement.

Resting under the trees are the bison sculptures. Sweltering weekend after weekend, in the July heat of 2002 the volunteers sported leather gloves and donned hardhats as they prepared the home for our newest neighbors. Footings were dug, gravel was set, and all of the concrete was mixed by hand. We felt like the effigy mound builders that once lived on this land, except we knew they used the earth to shape their effigies.

The foundation slab was reinforcing rods poking out to form a skeleton frame for the hollow, life-sized bison. The frame is entwined with wire. And the wire is attached to diamond lath. A concrete coat was applied over the frames. When that dried, we finished with a layer of colored concrete. And we watched as our new laidback neighbors settled in.

Our "idea man", Bill Grover, is a sculpture by trade. Bill had the vision, did the research, created the models for the sculpture and sundial, and inspired the volunteers. On top of that, Bill cut his professional fee by 40%. His imagination, spirit and leadership have been the heart of our project. Every neighborhood needs a guy like Bill.

We were so lucky to have a construction company donate a bobcat and a driver for a day. Lucky is an understatement since six tons of stone needed to be moved for the sundial seating.

We wanted a place for the bike path users to relax and take a break. So we formed a semi-circle of limestone seating around the sundial, open to the south. If you look closely, you'll see cryptic images etched into the stone seats---marking the hours of the day.

It was fun getting the area eighth grade art class involved. They designed and made the colorful tiles for the sundial. The school kids also came up with the directions for using the sundial...

"If you want the time of day,
See your shadow as it may lay,
Go to the opposite side you may say,
Sight down the Steel so you may play,
Turn around to the seats and see the display,
The top of your shadow is the time of day."

When a person stands at the gnomon in the center, their body will cast a shadow on the stones, indicating the time. Buried plastic pipes channel rain water away from the sundial area. Rather than dumping this water onto the bike path, a shallow depression was dug to trap the water and allow it to infiltrate the ground of the rain garden. Red granite...our Wisconsin state rock...was carefully placed to mark high noon and true north.

It all came together: One large, satisfying project, sparked by the zeal and commitment of neighbors. Midvale Heights now has a natural place-a place to reflect, relax and appreciate in our neighborhood.

Alas...The dedication ceremony and celebration: Native American music was in the air. No amount of rain would dampen the spirit of this ceremony. City officials and politicians are as proud as the volunteers. As are kids munching on bison shaped cookies. The prairie-style sign is grounded and cantilevered from a base of glacial boulders welcoming those entering the neighborhood.

After dedication it was apparent that something was missing. We needed a prairie for the bison's home. Finding a few neighbors with knowledge, we began the prairie experiment. It continues today to enhance the Gateway to our neighborhood.

Support came from a City of Madison Community Enhancement grant, a Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission Arts grant, a gift from The Madison Chapter of the Hardy Plant Society, funds from local residents, contributions from Landscape Design, Inc, Herman Landscape, Friends of the Southwest Bicycle Path became volunteers, the sowing of seeds and plants by Laura Brown and Mark Shahan on the bicycle path right-of-way, and gifts from many individuals including Ron Rotter, our current Treasurer cuts the grass when needed.

Contributors to this page: Tom Jarvis .
Page last modified on Tuesday July 19, 2022 22:10:39 CDT by Tom Jarvis.