In 1998 the Luverne Chamber of Commerce approached Jim and Judy Brandenburg with the idea of opening a Brandenburg Gallery in Luverne, MN. The Brandenburgs agreed, but insisted it be a non-profit prairie gallery with all proceeds going to promote Southwest Minnesota and its prairies. The Gallery opened in 1999.
With the Gallery in place, the Brandenburg Prairie Foundation (BPF) was established as a 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization in 1999 with the Mission to “Educate, Promote, Preserve, and Expand Native Prairie in Southwest Minnesota.”
Over 120 species of native grasses and forbes have been identified on Touch the Sky Prairie, including federally threatened and endangered species.
A short list of rare sightings:
- Western Prairie Fringed Orchid
- Topeka Shiner
- Pygmy Weed
- Mud Plantain
- Water Starwort
In the first months of operation, Ron Cole, a US Fish and Wildlife Service employee in charge of the new Northern Tallgrass Prairie Refuge Initiative, visited the Gallery. Several of the BPF board showed Ron what became our first acquisition: a piece of heavily grazed land that Jim Brandenburg had always dreamed of acquiring to bring back to a native prairie. Ron toured the property—his eyes were filled with tears. He remarked it was exactly what the Fish & Wildlife had in mind, and would immediately proceed in preliminary negotiations with the landowner.
In 2001, 355 acres of unplowed land was purchased in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and a grant from WM Foundation. Another 237 adjoining acres were purchased in 2002. Three more acquisitions followed, bringing up the total acres preserved to 1000 acres—forming “Touch the Sky Prairie.” The US Fish and Wildlife facilitated the additional purchases with the help of grants from the Blandin Foundation and the Southwest Minnesota Foundation. To date, the BPF has provided over $86,000 for prairie restoration on “Touch the Sky Prairie.” The US Fish and Wildlife matches our restoration funds, along with funds used from the Blandin and Southwest Minnesota Foundation grants. BPF’s average yearly budget for the minimum commitment of matching funds is approximately $15,000.
“Touch the Sky Prairie” is northwest of Luverne, one mile from where Jim Brandenburg was born, and two miles from where his ancestors broke sod. The high rolling terrain has a 360-degree view with vistas that reach as far as 20 miles, giving its name. Among its many features is a Sioux quartzite ridgeline running over a mile. Historically, buffalo rubbed against these rocks creating smooth, glassy finishes on some of the quartzite out-croppings. The Beaver Creek runs through the refuge and over layered rock forming a small series of waterfalls. The Topeka Shiner, a minnow listed as Federally Endangered by US Fish and Wildlife, was found in the creek. In 2009 the Federally Endangered Western Prairie Fringed Orchid was also found on the preserve.
The “Touch the Sky” dedication ceremony was honored with the presence of a visiting Lakota Tribal Elder who pointed out a Native American vision quest site to Jim. The dedication included a Pipe Ceremony, during which the members of the Foundation board were invited to join in the smoking of the pipe—an extremely high honor. The ceremony also included a drum dance provided by other Tribal members. The highest Native American elder there stated, “We wanted to be here to give the prairie our blessing. It is seldom that ‘white man’ gives anything back.” This was his ancestral land. The ceremony was probably the first Native American celebration in Rock County in 150 years!
Working in partnership with the Fish and Wildlife, all fences have been removed along with non-native trees and the buildings from two farmsteads. Extensive weed control is conducted every year. After the first spring burn, prairie seeds are harvested in autumn to plant on the adjacent cropland, continuing the local gene base. Currently, mowed paths and interpretive signs are in the process of being installed, so that everyone may “Touch the Sky.”
Ben Van der Kooi