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Aldo Leopold’s Family Shack and Farm

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By Thomas J. Straka


Photography by Patricia A. Straka

 

The Aldo Leopold family shack.

This travel destination is little more than a shack.  Not even a nice shack.  It was remodeled out of an abandoned chicken coup!  In 1935, when the Dust Bowl drought was still teaching homesteaders the dangers of cultivating marginal croplands, Aldo Leopold, a forester and wildlife professor from the University of Wisconsin, bought a worn out farm along the Wisconsin River for a weekend family retreat.  This farm served as the main inspiration for the conservation/environmental classic Sand County Almanac.

A wooden bench in the style used at the shack. 
There is much fancy woodwork on display at the center.
     A wooden bench more of the quality actually used at the shack.     

On weekends and school breaks, Leopold, his wife, and five children attempted to mend the farm.  They planted pines and hardwoods.  The drought killed much of the early plantings, but eventually the farm was restored to woodlands that served as a classroom illustrating ecological relationships for the family.  Leopold’s experiences on the farm shaped his philosophy on man’s relationship to the land, a sort of land ethics. It is one of the foundations of Sand County Almanac and modern conservation theory.    

Much of the quality time at the Shack will be spent on the
trail system that meanders the property. Here the shack is
visible in the distance from one of the trails.

The shack is well-known to anyone who is familiar with conservation or environmental literature.  There is a good chance your child has read it. It forms the foundation for modern conservation thinking. In terms of environmental literature it has the same standing as  Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.  It is a National Historic Landmark due to its impact on conservation, land ethics, and the environmental movement.

There is no real Sand County.  The term is used to describe a group of sandy Central Wisconsin counties that used to be the bed of Glacial Lake Wisconsin.  The farm and shack are in Sauk County, near Baraboo, Wisconsin.   The property is now owned by the Aldo Leopold Foundation.  There is a sign at the exit on the nearby interstate 90/94.  The foundation has protected the property and built an interpretative and education center near the shack, the Leopold Center. It is a “green building” and interesting just for its design and timber structure.  They brag it is one of the greenest buildings in the world.  The building is full of Leopold displays and information.

The farm and shack are part of the property.  As the material Leopold used to develop Sand County Almanac, it is intended to serve to “inspires many to re-discover their connections to the natural world” and allows thousands of visitors annually to be “inspired through reflection in the same landscape that deeply moved Leopold.” Make no mistake, if you have not read and been influenced by Sand County Almanac , you likely won’t get much from the experience of the farm and shack.   But, if you have experienced the book and philosophy, the shack and the emotional experience of being places described in the book will prove fascinating.

The trail system makes it way down to the Wisconsin River.
Leopold must have done much pondering from this spot.
The site is complete and remains it was.
 Even the “plumbing” is still functional.

There is a Wisconsin historical marker that explains Leopold:

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” For those who cannot, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac helps reveal the unsuspected natural riches hidden in these sand counties of Wisconsin.  At the core of Aldo Leopold’s writing is the concept of a land ethic in which love and respect for the land are the guiding principles. He believed that public conservation efforts had little chance of success unless private individuals felt a strong personal responsibility for the health of the land.

In 1935, driven to action by this philosophy, Leopold purchased a Sand County farm “worn out and then abandoned by our bigger-and-better society” and “selected for its lack of goodness and its lack of highway.” There the Leopold family spent twelve years of time and effort changing their 80 acres of desolation into a showpiece of native Wisconsin habitat complete with abundant wildlife and restored natural landscape. In so doing, Aldo Leopold left us an inspiring example of the land ethic in action.

 

Authors:  Tom Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina.  His wife, Pat, is a consulting forester.  Both have a keen interest in history.

  

For more info:

Aldo Leopold Foundation: http://www.aldoleopold.org 

Aldo Leopold Foundation – The Aldo Leopold Family Shack and Farm http://www.aldoleopold.org/programs/shack.shtml   

Aldo Leopold Foundation – Aldo Leopold http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/sites/default/files/AldoLeopold.pdf  

Aldo Leopold Foundation – Visit the Leopold Center  http://www.aldoleopold.org/visit/index.shtml    

Excerpts from the Works of Aldo Leopold http://gargravarr.cc.utexas.edu/chrisj/leopold-quotes.html 



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