Pat Jones teaches kids to learn by getting dirty

By Elise Moser

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Pat Jones is helped into her John Deere “Gator” by her caretaker Jamie Coe and Prairie Fork education coordinator before taking a tour of the prairie in Williamsburg, Mo.

WILLIAMSBURG, Mo.– Every spring, as the weather warms up and spring rolls in, Jones invites schoolchildren to the Prairie Fork Conservation Area to spend a little time outdoors. That’s Pat Jones’ biggest goal.

On the farm-turned-conservation area, there are rules. Everyone who comes to Prairie Fork is required to do three things: “Learn, get dirty and have fun.”

Jones, now 88, has devoted her life to helping Missourians learn about conservation, nature and wildlife.

She’s the force behind some of Missouri’s biggest conversation efforts. You can find her name on Edward “Ted” and Pat Jones-Confluence Point State Park, at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and on a pedestrian/bike lane that connects Jefferson City to the Katy Trail across the Missouri River.

The Katy Trail, an old railway transformed into the bike path that stretches from St. Louis to the western part of the state*, was made possible largely due to a donation from Jones and her late husband, Ted Jones, the former head of Edward Jones Investing. Her family has donated hundreds of acres of land to conservation, including her and Ted Jones’ personal farm in tiny Williamsburg, Mo.

People magazine called her the “Prairie Godmother” in 2007 for her efforts to save remnants of the 13 million acres of tallgrass prairie that once stretched across a third of the state.

“She’s been a very generous philanthropist in the conservation circle,” said Ron Coleman, vice president of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, which recently gave Jones a lifetime achievement award. “She and her family have donated hundreds of acres of land for conservation use. It’s had a tremendous impact in terms of setting aside properties that have conservation value and letting the public enjoy the features.”

In 1996, Jones donated the 711 acres for the Prairie Fork Conservation Area to the Missouri Department of Conservation and the University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

Classes flock to the Prairie Fork Conservation Area to learn by doing. Children visit three unique habitats: the pond, the prairie and the forest, discovering the plants and animals that inhabit them along the way.

For Jones, who grew up in Clayton, it’s personal. “I’m the old bat that goes out and says hi,” Jones said. But her work at the Prairie Fork Conservation Area gives her the chance to work on an effort to restore the land back to its pre-settlement vegetation while also opening up her home to education and research.

A Love of Conservation

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Pat Jones rides along on a tour of Prairie Fork Conservation area after a controlled burn in March. Jones donated the land for the conservation area in 1996.

Jones has nature in her blood. Her father, Truman Post Young, loved the outdoors.

“My father grew up in St. Louis and his recreation was to go out and get a canoe and get on a train,” she said. “He’d take the train until it crossed the river and take the canoe off and float out on the Meramec River. He said the only month he never went swimming was March.”

Young was a lawyer in St. Louis. He enjoyed his trips to the country so much that he purchased a small, 10-acre parcel of land around 1910. Near Eureka, Mo. It grew to over 900 acres, and is now the Young Conservation Area.

Jones spent much of her childhood at “The Shack,” which is what they called their weekend getaway. She enjoyed getting dirty. She would spend her days swimming and riding horses, one of her favorite activities.

“When you have a good horse, it’s a lot of fun,” Jones said. “I’ve been lucky I’ve had two really good horses.”

Spending time outdoors was when Jones felt most at ease. “I did not like social affairs where you had to behave yourself,” she said.

Her love of the outdoors was cemented when she read a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about soil. The story, she recalls, was about how plants get their nutrients and “the dynamics of the underground activity.” Jones was enamored with the ideas, and attended the University of Missouri to study soil science at the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

Prairie Fork

It was a love of the outdoors that brought Pat and Ted Jones together. In 1940, while attending high school at the all-girls Mary Institute in St. Louis, Pat Jones went on a cycling trip with a group of local high school students. The group of teenagers biked from St. Louis to the Ozarks. That’s where she met Ted.

It wasn’t love at first sight: Ted Jones dated Pat’s younger sister, Anne, first. But after World War II, Pat and Ted reconnected. She graduated from MU in 1950 with a degree in soil science and married Ted the same year. The couple moved to the farm in Williamsburg a few years after they married and built the home Pat still lives in today.

The land that encompasses the Prairie Fork Conservation Area came to the Jones’ family in 1933. Jones’ father-in-law, Edward D. Jones, bought the farmland through the Federal Land Bank. The founder of Edward Jones Investing didn’t know anything about farming, Jones said.

“Ted’s father had experience with bargains,” she said. “People in St. Louis were buying farms and he was interested in getting a place for his family to come and visit.”

While Jones spent her time taking care of the farm, Ted Jones would travel between Williamsburg and St. Louis, doing business for his family’s investment firm.

“Ted, even though he grew up in the city, he loved the country,” she said.

Katy Trail

Pat and Ted Jones’ love for cycling turned into one of their biggest conservation success.

In the late 1980s, Ted Jones took a trip to Wisconsin and saw a rails-to-trails bicycle trail. The experience sparked an idea to turn the railroads in Missouri into a multi-use public trail.

“Maintaining the (railroad) right along the river was getting too expensive,” Jones said.  The 1968 National Trails System Act** had granted states the power to turn railroad corridors into trails. However, state legislation to open the Katy Trail stalled because of opposition from Missouri landowners bordering the proposed trail. They were concerned about potential harm to their property.

“It was the politics of it that made it hard,” Jones said.

Ron Coleman, vice president of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, said it took the donation from Pat and Ted Jones to get the trail open.

“Their very generous contribution was an incentive to develop the trail,” Coleman said.

After nearly two years of fighting with the state to get the trail opened, Ted and Pat’s dream was finally realized in 1990. Today, the trail stretches 240 miles across Missouri and is the largest right-of-way trail in the country. It attracts an estimated 400,000 visitors annually.

Life in Williamsburg

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Pat Jones, Amber Edwards and Jamie Coe survey a burned portion of prairie at Prairie Fork Conservation Area.

Jones still lives in the home she built with Ted in 1953 in Williamsburg. It sits next door to the education building, where Missouri Department of Conservation employees work during the week. Jones’ caretaker, Jamie Coe, visits her every day and helps her with her daily tasks: picking up mail at the post office in Williamsburg and stopping at Crane’s General Store for groceries.

“If Crane’s doesn’t have it, you probably really don’t need it,” Coe said. He also picks up Jones’ daily newspapers there: one copy each of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Fulton Sun.

Coe, a self-employed forester, started working for Jones almost 20 years ago. When he first started, he would come once a week. Now, he spends all day with Jones, driving her to Williamsburg and keeping her calendar. They often frequent Marlene’s, Williamsburg’s only restaurant, and everyone who stops in says hello to Pat and Jamie.

These days, Jones is moving more slowly and is less hands-on with her conservation efforts. But she said that doesn’t stop her from continuing to make a difference.

“I just think about things to tell people to do,” she said.

Jones has a lot of hobbies, and most are related to her love of ecology. She likes gardening and planting trees, she said. She pointed out a large burr oak in her front yard.

“I brought that home in my pocket,” she said, remembering the acorn it grew from over 60 years ago.

Trees are an important topic for Jones. She said she contacted the city of St. Louis about the new Gateway Arch grounds project, urging them to diversify the species of trees they plant around the area.

She also is working on an idea for sustainable energy that would generate electricity using wind farms placed over salt water. In her vision, a chemical process would split hydrogen and oxygen molecules in the water, resulting in fuel for hydrogen fuel cells and drinkable water in the form of steam. The hydrogen would be piped all over the country, providing a clean fuel source.

This process has even been realized in research labs, such as Purdue University, where students were able to achieve a result similar to Jones’ idea. She tells anyone who will listen about her plan, and her HYDRGN license plate on her Toyota Prius is her billboard.

Education

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Jamie Coe show Prairie Fork education coordinator Amber Edwards a scrapbook in the seed barn. The Missouri Department of Conservation collects seeds from native grasses to plant on the prairie.

Jones had three goals in mind for Prairie Fork: prairie restoration, conservation education and research.

The prairie restoration occurs year-round. In early March, on one-third of the land was burned to encourage growth of indigenous species and kill vegetation that is not native to the prairie. Coe and Jones toured the charred grounds, hopping onto a John Deere Gator along with Amber Edwards, Prairie Fork outreach and education coordinator.

Controlled burns are an important part of the restoration, Coe said. Department of Conservation employees burn a portion of the land to encourage growth of indigenous species, killing vegetation that is not native to the prairie.

“What survives should be here, and what doesn’t shouldn’t be,” he said. “Our goal is to get back to pre-settlement vegetation. That might take a really long time.”

The burns occur several times during the year.

“If you burn at different times of the year, you’ll get different results,” Edwards said.

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Pat Jones’ dog runs along a portion of the prairie along the border where the land was burned during a controlled burn in March.

The ride around the conservation area passed through three habitats: the pond, the prairie and the forest. When children visit Prairie Fork, they spend time exploring each habitat.

“They’re getting an opportunity to be immersed in a habitat,” Edwards said.

Children get to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and practice it at Prairie Fork. In the forest, a natural divot fills with rain in the spring, forming “Pat’s Wetland,” a home to many amphibious species for kids to discover.

Mary Masek, a first-grade teacher at Jonesburg Elementary School in Jonesburg, Mo., has been bringing her students to Prairie Fork for 11 years.

“It’s great for the kids to go out and have a day outside and they can learn about nature,” she said. “A lot of the kids don’t get to go outside and play in the woods. We don’t want to lose that with our kids.”

Out in the prairie, the Prairie Fork weather station takes real-time weather readings. Kids can take their own weather readings and compare them to the station’s readings, which are updated online.

Edwards said Jones wants children to take what they learn about conservation at Prairie Fork and apply it to future wildlife restoration. By exposing them to the outdoors early on, they might become life-long conservationists, Edwards said.

“If you don’t understand it, it’s kind of hard to have a passion for it,” Edwards said.

Edwards stopped many times on the tour to take photos of the burned land. She credits Jones for her passion to further the goals of the area.

“It’s her goal and it’s her love,” she said. “We’re just here to fulfill those goals.”

Updated 5/14/14

*A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Katy Trail connected St. Louis and Kansas City. 

**A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the National Trails System Act was passed in 1983. 

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  1. Pingback: Wednesday Quick Hits : Expeditions of Elise

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