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The Hempstead Plains: Long Island’s Vanishing Prairie
by Carole Neidich

The Hempstead Plains is the only naturally occuring prairie east of the Allegheny mountains. This short-grass prairie once encompassed 60,000 acres, extending from Queens County to Farmingdale, an area of approximately sixty-four square miles.

The word prairie is derived from a French word meaning grassland. Essentially this is what the Plains was: a gently rolling treeless land covered with grasses which formed a dense sod. A true prairie is a climax community; as long as it is undisturbed, it will always remain a prairie.

There have been several theories proposed by ecologists to explain the absence of trees on plains areas. First, sod formed by the grasses is impenetrable to seedling trees and many other plants. Some grass plants can live twenty years or more; when they die, the soil once occupied by their roots is quickly taken over by neighboring plants. Grasses, dominant in this type of habitat, are able to compete more successfully than other plants for soil. Another reason for the absence of trees is fire. Throughout prairie history, there is evidence for both natural and man-made fires. These fires favor the growth of grasses over trees. Within a year after a fire, mature grasses can cover a burned-out area with an abundance of seeds. Trees and shrubs, however, require many years before they reach seed-bearing age. Thus, grasses are able to repopulate an area faster than trees and shrubs.

Long before colonists arrived in the New World, Indian tribes inhabited Long Island, including the Hempstead Plains. Native American history can be traced from archaeological diggings for approximately 5000 years. By 1640, after exploration and colonization of adjacent areas, the Dutch purchased' 'the old county of Queens' , from the Indians. In 1643, Robert Fordham and John Carman, Eng1ishmen from New Haven, purchased the , .Great Plains' , of Long Island for a group of colonists seeking religious freedom. In 1644, these colonists, led by Rev. Richard Denton, arrived from New England and the first white settlement on the Hempstead Plains began.

The name Hempstead was derived from Hemel-Hemsted, a town in England. When the Dutch lost control of New Netherlands to the English, the prairie lands became known as the "Salisbury Plains."

In 1670, Daniel Denton, son of the Reverend, states:

Toward the middle of Long Island Iyeth a plain, sixteen miles long and four broad, upon which plain grows very fine grass that makes excellent good hay, and is very good pasture for sheep and other cattle; where you shall find neither stick nor stone to hinder the horses' heels or endanger them in their races.

Although much of the Hempstead Plains was owned by individual settlers, approximately 17,000 acres remained as a common pasturage throughout the eighteenth century, utilized for grazing oxen, cows and sheep. At first there were no fences on the open Plains; however, as the number and variety of animals increased, fences were constructed. Because the prairie grass was such an important natural resource, laws were passed in the 1700's to prevent setting brush fires on the Plains.

The Plains remained as common lands until 1869, when Alexander T. Stewart, a wealthy New York merchant, purchased 7500 acres at $55 an acre. Stewart's heirs developed Garden City on a portion of the land in the late 1800's.

From earliest times, the Hempstead Plains has been involved in the military history of our country Although there was no fighting on the Plains, troops were quartered there almost continuously from before the American Revolution through World War II. It was in this area that British troops trained during the French and Indian War. While New York was occupied by the British from 1776 to 1783, English troops were quartered on the Plains area now known as Mitchel Field. American troops camped on the Plainsduring the War of 1812, and during the Mexican War of 1846. When the Civil War broke out, Camp Winfield Scott was established on the Plains to house Union soldiers. During the Spanish-American War, the Plains encampment was called Camp Black.

The early years of the twentieth century brought a new chapter to the history of the Plains -the birth of aviation. After powered flight literally got off the ground" in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, aviation soon found its way to the Plains. In 1909, Glen Curtiss, a young pilot and airplane builder, flew twenty- five kilometers to win a $10,000 prize for the first sustained flight of a heavier-than- aircraft. He was so pleased with the Plains, he later established his airplane factory on the corner of Stewart Avenue and Clinton Road. The Hempstead Plains was destined to become the' 'Cradle of Aviation in America.”

Small airfields on the Plains hosted many of aviation's history-making events. Flights originated from Hempstead, Mineola, Garden City, Hazelhurst, Curtiss, Roosevelt and Mitchel Fields. The first cross-country flight, first American-designed monoplane, first American woman pilot and the first airmail flight were just part of the rich aviation history of the Plains.

During World War I, Hempstead Plains Aviation Field was converted to regular military use and was renamed Hazelhurst Field. Two years later it was named Roosevelt Field after Quentin Roosevelt (son of Theodore Roosevelt) was killed in an airplane crash in France. This field was used throughout the war to train aviators. In 1916, the area north of Hempstead Turnpike from Clinton Road to Meadow Brook became Camp Mills. This was a principal embarkation center for troops leaving for Europe.

Between the World Wars, the infant aviation industry blossomed and many record-breaking flights originated on the Plains. In May, 1927, Charles Lindbergh made his flight from Roosevelt Field to Le Bourget Field, thus becoming the first person to fly non-stop between New York and Paris.

During World War II, aviation continued to be important on the Hempstead Plains. Mitchel Field became a major military air base for the defense of the New York region and served as headquartes of the Air Defense Command for the entire United States. In 1949, all tactical aircraft were shifted from Mitchel Field to other bases because of the hazard of flying over densely populated areas of Long Island. By 1961, the base became surplus government property.

After World War II, a new era on the Hempstead Plains was born -Levittown-a development of more than 17,000 mass-produced, low-cost homes designed to alleviate the housing shortage on the now rapidly developing Hempstead Plains. After the housing boom of the early1950's, the bulk of "open" Plains land remained at Mitchel Field. In 1961, after the field was closed and declared surplus, six hundred acres of prime land became available in the heart of Nassau County. This land has been developed for use by Hofstra University, Nassau Community .College and, finally, the Nassau Veteran's Memorial Coliseum.

In 1968, a. study of Hempstead Plains vegetation was undertaken by the Baldwin Bird Club and the Lyman Langdon Chapter of the National Audubon Society. In all, 147 species of wildflowers, twenty-seven species of shrubs and vines and thirteen species of grasses were found at the Mitchel Field Park site. This is surprising in view of the fact that, in 1892, a botanical census by Henry Hicks of Cornell University listed only 122 species of flowers, shrubs and trees in the entire remaining Plains area.

Although the most numerous plants of the Plains are grasses, primarily the Andropogon species, the birdfood violet, Viola pedata, may be the most interesting plant species. A century ago, during the first two weeks in May, the Hempstead Plains was colored a brilliant purple hue as these distinctive flowers blossomed. Its leaves are dissected into a pattern resembling the toes of a bird's foot-hence its name.

These violets were thought to have been extirpated from remaining "Plains" areas of Nassau County. However, several plants have been found in the forty-acre section designated as a prairie park at Mitchel Field, and at least several hundred plants were found at Eisenhower Park, East Meadow.

At present, only forty-four acres of land have been preserved at the eastern end of Mitchel Field. Known as the Hempstead Plains Preserve, it includes flat prairie land as well as a portion of the old Meadow Brook stream valley. This land is a testimonial to the rich natural and human history of the Hempstead Plains, but represents less than one-tenth of one percent of original Plains area.

Currently under review is another county-owned Plains parcel, eighteen acres in size. Immediately south of Nassau Community College and north of the forty-four acre preserve, this piece appears to be the best remnant of Hempstead Plains habitat. It is of prime interest to The Nature Conservancy's Heritage staff to evaluate the relative importance and long-term viability of these eighteen acres. Several unusual and exciting wildflower species were once common on the Plains, and Heritage Program staff will be on hand this Spring and Summer to confirm their continued existence. In the meantime, The Conservancy is requesting a moratorium on development within these eighteen acres.

Note

This article was adapted from "The Hempstead Plains and the Birdfoot Violet" by Carole Neidich, Senior Curator of Life Sciences, Nassau County Museum Originally published in Long Island Forum. Volume XLIII, No.6, Pages 108-115.

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