Last updated: December 29, 2022
"Queen of the Prairie"
Born of Greek immigrants, kind and gentle Irene was raised in East Chicago, Indiana. She studied diligently and began work as a research chemist. Nature went from being a hobby to the perpetual forefront of her mind. From 1967-1976 she personally led one of the state’s most politically-difficult preservation battles and saved what many consider Indiana’s highest quality prairie remnant, today’s Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve.
Quote from her:
“Whenever I talk to anyone, I talk prairie.”
-Irene, Indianapolis Star, October 16, 1976
Quote about her:
“Trailblazer for land protection in Indiana”
-John Bacone, Director of the Indiana DNR’s Division of Nature Preserves
Irene Mary Speros was born in Gary, Indiana on April 19, 1921. She was the only daughter of Greek immigrants, and grew up with her parents and younger brother at Indiana Harbor in East Chicago, Indiana. In her youth, Irene participated in Girl Scouts. In 1932 she picnicked with the troop at Wicker Memorial Park in Highland, IN. That July she went with her troop to Winamac, IN where she camped near the Tippecanoe River. Irene’s father was employed with the township’s trustee office, and in May of 1933 he was invited to attend a banquet in honor of the current governor. Mr. Speros brought Irene with him and they spent the Sunday in Indianapolis together.
Later that summer at an event called “Girl Scout Day” in Washington Park, Michigan City, over 150 scouts participated in a day of games and events. A local newspaper highlighted the affair; “Exciting games, closely contested races, the singing of favorite songs and quantities of ice cream all combined to make… a great success… after lunch, ribbons were awarded to the winners of various events…” Irene and her partner won the three-legged race. The next summer she would attend another camping trip with the Girl Scouts, this time for almost two weeks in Syracuse, Indiana.
Irene attended Washington High School in East Chicago, Indiana. In her sophomore year in 1935, she was elected as one of two “councilmen of the Second Ward,” part of the student government association. She was also “assistant chairman” of the health committee that year. That fall, at her brother’s tenth birthday, the Times of Munster reported, “Miss Irene Speros kept the guests amused with games, and later served the group with refreshments.” By December 1935, she represented her high school at the Purdue-Indiana high school debaters’ conference. The next December she was placed on the “honor scholarship roll.” Irene remained active in debate, but also became a reporter for her school’s weekly paper. She became its feature editor. In November of her senior year, Irene and her partner placed first among all affirmative teams in Indiana according to the Times of Hammond.
Miss Speros graduated from Washington Highschool in 1938. She was one of ten students who received a scholarship for a year’s full-tuition to attend Chicago’s “Central YMCA College” of the 154 that applied from over fifty different high schools. Upon graduating, Irene also received a scholarship from a national Hellenic organization, as well as the George H. Lewis gold medal, “one of the highest awards to a girl graduate” at her high school.
During college, Irene became active in the Daughters of Penelope, a philanthropic group with Hellenistic values that promotes education and civic responsibility. In 1939 she was chosen as her chapter’s delegate to the group's conference. In 1941, Irene was elected president of the local chapter. The next year, Irene graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Following graduation, Irene accepted a position with Western Electric to do library research work. She became one of the first women to work in the laboratories of the Lever Plant in Hammond, Indiana.
Irene met chemical engineer Robert Dean Herlocker when she worked for Sinclair Refineries. The fellow chemists married on September 10, 1949. A local newspaper described the scene:
Carrying a bouquet of white roses, orchids, and stephanotis, the bride appeared in a gown of white slipper satin, simply made with a beaded neckline, gathered skirt and short train. Her bonnet-type headpiece of white satin held a veil of silk illusion in place.
Mr. and Mrs. Herlocker lived together in Hammond throughout the 1950s. Irene became active in the American Association of University Women (AAUW) by 1954. Within a few years, she chaired the membership committee. She saw great value in the organization and stated, “Membership… provides an opportunity to join with other college women graduates in a practical, constructive contribution to the functioning of democracy.” Irene also became active in the local League of Women Voters chapter.
The Herlocker’s moved to Munster, Indiana where expanses of open land were more common and Irene was delighted to find more unique bird species than she was accustomed to. She recalled that sparrows and robins used to be some of the only bird species she saw. Many meetings for AAUW were held in her and Robert’s Munster home. From 1961-1964, Irene served as the AAUW’s Calumet chapter’s president.
In June of 1961, Irene attended the AAUW’s national convention in Washington D.C.. In 1962, the Herlocker home became the headquarters of the “Munster Unit” for the local League of Women Voters and Mrs. Sylvia Troy served as chairman. These two women would forge a friendship that would benefit many natural areas in Indiana. In March of 1963, a few months after the release of “Silent Spring,” Irene wrote in to the local newspaper about the lack of chickadees she’s noticed, “I’m not one of those zealous bird-watchers. I’m just curious and I miss them around the yard. I just have not seen any this year and in other years there were dozens of them around through the winter.”
Irene discovered that some of her neighbors in Munster were those zealous bird-watchers; together, they explored surrounding nature spots. On May 23, 1967, when one such neighbor was moving away to Texas, Irene was asked if she wanted to come to a secret birding spot surrounded by railroad tracks and light industry. Irene eagerly agreed. Her neighbor’s name for the area would not prepare her. “I’ll take you to the Griffith dump,” Mrs. Phyllis Finch told Irene. The introduction changed Irene’s life.
The “dump” was in fact, an expansive prairie habitat with boblinks, meadowlarks, and carpets of rare and unusual wildflowers. Irene recalled, “I was stunned. I couldn’t believe there was something so beautiful only 10 minutes from my home. The ground was covered with flowers…” The dazzling diversity and alluring blooms caused Irene to purchase a wildflower identification book for herself. This was followed by a two volume set, a three volume botany set, and a microscope. Irene began to realize the prairie was a botanical treasure; a piece of remnant Hoosier prairie-land.
Just two years after her first visit, the nearly 400 acre prairie was reduced by 73 acres from the construction of a crude oil tank storage farm. Deeply concerned with the precious land’s fate, Irene began to occasionally mention to experts that she believed she knew the location of a prairie remnant. She was surprised to find out some people knew of the jewel; they cautiously encouraged her to to save it. “Everybody said, ‘Keep it quiet, keep it quiet,’” she recalled. “How do you save 300 acres in Lake County? We didn’t even have a county park.”
Irene continued her work with AAUW. While her previous projects centered around membership and economics, by the early 1970s Irene led discussions on environmental issues. One article read, “Mrs. R. D. Herlocker will head a group studying pollution, conservation and population policy under the topic ‘This Beleaguered Earth.’” In 1970, Irene represented AAUW at the Federal Water Quality Administration's conference on Lake Michigan pollution. She professed her support for thermal pollution standards and pressed Indiana to accept them:
“Most of our members live in Indiana in the Calumet Region. In efforts to do something to clean up our environment, we encounter nothing but excuses and buck-passing between the State and local agencies:
‘We don’t have the manpower to do the job.’
‘We don’t have the monitoring equipment.’
‘We don’t have the money.’
‘These things take time.’
‘The laws aren’t strong enough.’
‘Industry has a timetable.’
We say to you now, and I address myself primarily to the Indiana representatives, all you need is the wisdom, the integrity, and the backbone to accept these recommendations. Remember, you are not servants of the Republican Party, of the Democratic Party, or of industry; you are servants of the people.
Ecclesiastes said: ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.’ This is the time to fill your purpose in the public interest.”
In the meantime, Irene contacted her congressman, Rep. Ray Madden, for support. He told her to get the support of Izaak Walton League and Save the Dunes Council. The Izaak Walton League wanted officially-conducted surveys to show the prairie’s value, so Irene contacted Dr. Robert Betz of Northeastern Illinois University who came and completed the first plant list.
Irene also contacted the Nature Conservancy for assistance. They asked her how much money her committee could raise. “What committee?” she responded. Will Barnes, director of the Indiana Division of Natural Preserves encouraged Irene to form an informal group of local experts that were interested in preserving the special prairie. Irene gathered her support and they decided to name the land “Hoosier Prairie.” Irene formed the Hoosier Prairie Committee of which both Dr. Robert Betz and Sylvia Troy of Save the Dunes Council became members. The committee concluded that the best way to protect the prairie island was to get it into the ongoing efforts for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore expansion. Sylvia appointed Irene to the Save the Dunes Council committee that was to select the new areas for the expansion bill.
The family that owned Hoosier Prairie became sympathetic; they did not donate the property but agreed not to sell it to development for the time being. It was time to stop being quiet and publicize; the conservationists needed to raise funds and spread the word. The committee mobilized and used local press, radio, and television to alert the public to the prairie’s rareness and fragility. Hoosier Prairie’s first publicity was at a 1972 town hall meeting where the towns of Highland, Griffith, and Schererville all pledged their support towards preserving the prairie. Press referred to it as, “The last patch of virgin prairie in Indiana.” Mrs. Herlocker told a reporter of the land’s charm; “The prairie grows on you and I began to visit it again and again.” Irene also had the support of her husband, Robert, who was active in the Hoosier Prairie Committee, Save the Dunes Council, Nature Conservancy, and National Audubon Society.
On May 9, 1972, The Times of Munster reported that Irene, Sylvia Troy and Mrs. Helen Bieker of the Indiana Division of the AAUW met privately with county commissioners about the land’s protection. In February of 1973, Irene spoke to the Calumet Area Branch of AAUW to advocate preserving Hoosier Prairie. At that time she was noted for being a member of the Save the Dunes Council, Izaak Walton League, and Audubon Society.
In January of 1973, an expansion bill for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was introduced, but there was not a consensus to include Hoosier Prairie. The Times of Munster reported on June 8, 1973 that oak savanna habitat bordering the prairie was bulldozed as a part of the expansion of an adjacent crude oil storage tank area. This destroyed about 13 acres. The pressure to preserve the prairie was on, but the federal outlook seemed unfavorable. The Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Nathaniel Reed said that the prairie remnant would be a “natural for the Nature Conservancy,” and recommended not to include it because of its separation from the rest of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Irene called the president of the Nature Conservancy and secured his pledge to facilitate acquisition if it were included in the Dunes bill.
By chance, Irene ran into old schoolmate and State Senator Ralph Potesta at a university luncheon in Gary in November of 1973. Her conversation would spark movement on the state’s preservation front. Senator Potesta submitted a resolution that urged the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to acquire Hoosier Prairie, and a feasibility study was authorized. Through her connections to Save the Dunes, Irene knew that even after the park was authorized, the land was not instantaneously protected. “We know we are in for a fight,” she told a reporter in December of 1973.
On February 3, 1974; the Times of Munster reported that Irene said “since a recent proposal to expand the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore did not call for the acquisition of the prairie, the decision was made to persuade the state to buy the land.” She had testified to the House Natural Resources Committee that unanimously passed a resolution calling for a feasibility study.
But Irene did not give up pressure on saving the prairie federally. On June 17, 1974, Irene and her Hoosier Prairie Committee, along with other organizations went to Washington D.C. for the hearings supporting the National Lakeshore’s expansion bill. Studies to determine Hoosier Prairie’s significance led to its successful nomination as a National Natural Landmark in September of 1974. Although the designation reaffirmed its value, it did not provide protection. On September 27, 1974, it was reported that Irene was to testify before the senate subcommittee in support of including Hoosier Prairie in the expansion bill. She was joined by the Hoosier Prairie Committee, Nature Conservancy, Indiana University Northwest and the Governor’s office. “You really need good shoes to walk in those marble halls,” Irene said.
After a geologist spoke with the committee, Irene asked if she would get to say anything as chairman of the Hoosier Prairie Committee. A condescending Senator Bible responded “you sure will.” After Irene made a correction to one of his numbers, he said, “Are we going to have any of these pretty girls say anything?”
Irene spoke next, and bickering with Senator Bible continued. When Irene tried to speak on her history with the prairie, Senator Bible continuously brought her off-topic, asking her why the Nature Conservancy would not purchase the prairie if it was so significant. Eventually he asked Irene:
BIBLE: What would I see there that would be so unique and unusual?
IRENE: I will tell you. I have lived in Lake County all of my life. I did not know anything like this existed until a friend took me there in 1967. I practically fell over.
BIBLE: Why did you almost fall over?
IRENE: It is so beautiful.
BIBLE: Why is it so beautiful?
IRENE: May 23, 1967, the ground was covered with birchwood, violets, blue grass, yellow star grass. My husband has photographed over 200 native plants through the seasons. A prairie is not like a woodland.
BIBLE: We have a prairie. We have the one out in Kansas. Not in my State, but in Kansas.
IRENE: Many people have never seen a prairie. A third of the United States used to be prairie and it is practically all gone. This is the largest prairie in Illinois and Indiana…
BIBLE: You are in love with it and think it should be preserved.
IRENE: It is beautiful. Scientifically, ecologically, botanical—it is very rare. If a passenger pigeon came back, would we let it disappear again because we did not have the funds? Or would we have to wait for the next year or next year? Here this prairie we thought was all gone, and now we have the prairie. If we do not save it now it will be gone again. We are having our second chance.”
In her prepared statement, Irene wrote:
We believe the Hoosier Prairie should be part of an expanded Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore because it is an integral part of the ecology of the Dunes, as part of the ancient bed of glacial Lake Chicago, and because of its national significance as the last large tract of prairie near the eastern border of the ‘Prairie Peninsula.’
…I wish to emphasize that we know of no opposition to the efforts to preserve the Hoosier Prairie. This priceless remnant of our vanishing landscape has miraculously survived in the highly industrialized, urbanized, Calumet area, but it will be doomed to destruction unless you act soon to save it.
To the Hoosier Prairie Committee’s dismay, the bill died at session's end.
The State’s feasibility study was completed in 1975 and it concluded the State should acquire the property. On February 3, 1975, it was reported that Senator Ralph Potesta introduced a bill calling for the appropriation of just over $1 million to purchase the 331 acres.
On March 20, 1975, a Dunes expansion bill was introduced to the House that included Hoosier Prairie. At a hearing for the subcommittee on public lands, Irene spoke to the House members; “We are not playing games with the Prairie. It doesn’t matter who gets it. The important thing is that it has to be acquired before it disappears, and we are trying everything.”
A few months later, in the last minutes of the session, the Indiana General Assembly reinserted funds to purchase the Hoosier Prairie. Because of its national significance, the State Budget Committee agreed to authorize the allocation of money for the prairie’s purchase if the federal government contributed to half of the required funds. The Nature Conservancy, who had already been negotiating with the property owners, began to arrange the purchase. Because of their interest in conservation, the property owners agreed to sell significantly less than the cost estimated by the park service.
The Nature Conservancy led the efforts to secure an unusually large $450,000 federal grant that provided for the funding needed to purchase the prairie. By May of 1976, the grant was secured. Although its protection by the State appeared forthcoming, Irene still testified to protect Hoosier Prairie through the National Park Service:
It is our position that in spite of its imminent acquisition by the State, Hosier Prairie should be included within the boundaries of the Lakeshore. This tract is geologically and botanically an important part of the story of the Indiana Dunes.
On September 29, 1976, the first Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore expansion bill finally passed. It included Hoosier Prairie. That October, the Indianapolis Star reported the success and said that Irene was a retired chemist, amateaur naturalist, and “non-stop prairie enthusiast.” “It’s a very complicated story. I talked to everybody,” Irene told the reporter. That same month she led a hike:
Gene Coleman, president of the Dunes Calumet Audubon Society chapter, follows Mrs. Herlocker through the prairie, flower book in hand and tiny daughter, Amanda, riding his shoulders. The child can identify some of the flowers.
‘She’ll be leading her own nature hikes by the time she’s 12,’ Coleman proudly proclaims.
‘We’ll leave something for you, honey,’ Mrs. Herlocker promises.
‘It’s fun, in a gruesome sort of way,’ she reflects, recalling her frantic campaign of the last six years. ‘It’s my life.’
On January 14, 1977, the State of Indiana purchased Hoosier Prairie for permanent protection. Over nine years after Irene’s first walk in the prairie, it was finally saved and afforded a double layer of protection as a Indiana State Nature Preserve and part of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. That September, her husband Robert died suddenly at age 66. Irene insisted on guiding a group in the prairie the following day. In 1980, the Indiana DNR’s Annual Report stated that Irene “has been working as an interpretive naturalist at the prairie during the summer months.” In honor of her conservation efforts, in 1986, Indiana DNR’s Outdoor Indiana magazine spoke of Irene’s triumphs and referred to her as the “Queen of the Prairie.”
Over a decade passed as Irene continued to guide hikes and lead lectures on the prairie. In 1985, Irene went on a three week group trip to China where she met Hansi (John) Meyer of Beverly Shores. Their relationship grew and they married on January 2, 1988. Irene moved into the home John had designed on the lakeshore. “It has a great view,” Irene said of the house shortly after their marriage, “the lake looks different every day.” Today, their home still stands in Beverly Shores as a historic resource within Indiana Dunes National Park, and it is occasionally toured during the spring “Logs to Lustrons” program.
On March 25, 1994, Irene, along with Charlotte Read, Barbara Plampin, Kay Franklin, and Irene Herlocker-Meyer gave a program entitled “Women of Dunes” at the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center on Emma Pitcher, Dorothy Buell, Bess Sheehan and others. Nicole Barker, former Executive Director of Save the Dunes spoke of Irene’s devotion, “Her ‘never-give-up’ spirit is a model for us all.”
Irene was a life trustee for both Shirley Heinz Land Trust and the Save the Dunes Council. In Irene’s final years, she lived just a few miles from the prairie in an assisted-living facility in Munster. She would visit the prairie occasionally even in her 90s. Irene’s car was easy to spot; it had the iconic rear license plate that read, “PRAIRIE.”
Irene Speros Herlocker-Meyer died on September 21, 2014. Kris Krouse, Executive Director of Shirley Heinz Land Trust said of the prairie protector, “Irene has left a real legacy for those of us involved in land conservation… We have so many more partners and funding sources to work with today. Irene literally had to invent a way to achieve her goals.” John Bacone, Director of the Indiana DNR’s Division of Nature Preserves said that she was a “trailblazer for land protection in Indiana… There weren’t a lot of examples for her to follow. She had to feel her way around, every step of the way, and use every tool and contact she could find.”
The roughly 300 acre core of Hoosier Prairie has grown to an over 1,500 acre mosaic of black oak savanna, dry sand prairie, mesic sand prairie, wet sand prairie, sedge meadow and marsh habitats. Over 120 bird species use the site, and it is home to over 350 plant species of which at least 43 are considered rare in the state. Its unique, double protection by the State of Indiana and the National Park Service reaffirms the prairie’s irreplaceable character and tells of the limitless extent that Irene went to protecting it.
The content for this article was written by Joseph Gruzalski, a researcher with Indiana Dunes National Park. Funds were made possible by a National Park Foundation grant.
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