Nolen Saw State Parks as Way to Refresh, Renew Tired People

For an Easterner, John Nolen left a very big mark on Wisconsin. In addition to being the official landscape architect of the City of Madison, where a major thoroughfare is named for him, Nolen was asked to help the State of Wisconsin define, justify and designate a state park system.

Nolen began his landscape architect business in Cambridge, Mass., and quickly added urban planning to his services, which was a relatively new profession at the time. Nolen’s reputation grew to national prominence by the time he was hired to consult on a state park system in 1909.

“State Parks, like other parks, have definite purposes to serve and therefore should have definite requirements. Their main purpose is to refresh and strengthen and renew tired people, to fit them for the common round of daily life…” Nolen wrote in his landmark 1909 report State Parks for Wisconsin.

State park systems were still a new concept, inspired by the recent birth of the national park system during the term (1901-09) of the “conservation president,” Theodore Roosevelt, who established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 18 national monuments, 5 national parks, 4 national game preserves, amounting to approximately 230 million acres of public land.

Those involved in the report knew there must also be solid justification for establishing a parks system. Penny-pinching naysayers are always around to question and squelch initiatives. So Nolen’s report began with a section titled “Justification of State Parks,” that began: “No question before the American people today is of greater importance than the conservation of our natural resources and the preservation of all those means of health and happiness which through selfishness or thoughtlessness are so likely to be destroyed. ‘We declare our firm conviction,’ said the Governors of the States in the recent White House Conference, ‘that this conservation of our natural resources is a subject of transcendent importance, which should engage unremittingly the attention of the Nation, the States and the People in earnest cooperation.’”

Nolen also felt it necessary to provide ammunition for why state parks are necessary. In the appendix of his report, he included letters of support from Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University; from the president of the American Civic Association For a Better and More Beautiful America; Charles Van Hise, president of the University of Wisconsin; former Wisconsin Governor W.D. Hoard, who writes that he “was but slightly prepared for the revelation of natural scenic beauty and the possibilities that lay within the proposed Door County park”; as well as social reformer/slum photographer Jacob Riis, who wrote to Nolen, “Anything that shows the government, whether state, nation or municipality, to be aroused to the needs which parks and people’s playgrounds represent in the people’s life, I hail as a long step forward…”

The report included a letter to Gov. James O. Davidson from the three-member parks board, dated Jan. 13, 1909, supporting Nolen’s report.

“The park board have attempted to sound the sentiment of the people of the state in regard to the establishment of state parks and find, among all classes of people, a strong, abiding sentiment in favor of the state establishing parks and thus preserving the great natural beauties with which this state has been endowed, from commercial vandalism or private ownership.

“We believe that the state should act while the property desired can be purchased at a reasonable figure and at a price which would prove an excellent investment from a purely money standpoint, and that if action is postponed, it will be more difficult each year to acquire these beauty spots that are already beginning to attract the attention of wealthy lovers of nature all over the world.”

Nolen warns several times in the report of encroaching urban areas and the loss of wilderness: “The population is steadily increasing; attractive open spaces are as steadily decreasing in number and increasing in value; therefore, unless action is taken in time, there is a grave danger of what may be called physical and moral suffocation.”

To meet the purpose of a state park as stated by Nolen, a proposed state park must meet these five requirements:

  1. They should be large…at least 2,000 to 3,000 acres, although 5,000 would be ideal.
  2. Accessible, meaning being within reasonable time and expense.
  3. The air and climate of sections within which State Parks are located should be salubrious, and the situation healthful….
  4. Cost of property should be reasonable, and it should be a “natural” park of such intrinsic beauty that it would require little infrastructure.
  5. Finally, the site “should, above all, have a decidedly uncommon charm and beauty, a distinction among landscapes, an irresistible appeal to the Nature lover. Here there should be no room for doubt, for failure in this point means complete failure; and on no other point, nor on all other points together, can justification rest. State Parks must be unmistakably beautiful; they must present to the enjoyment of all some consistent, unspoiled type of landscape; they must offer freely the glory of lake or mountain, the picturesqueness of shore or bluff, the beauty of hill and vale.”

Thus, Nolen presented for the state’s consideration four available sites that met all those requirements.

  1. Wisconsin Dells: “Indeed, a vote either of the people at large or of park experts could hardly fail to pronounce in favor of the Dells, as Wisconsin’s most characteristic and precious possession in the form of natural scenery. They are unique.”
  2. Devil’s Lake: “The bluffs rise impressively from the shores of the lake and afford broad and beautiful views of the Baraboo valley, the refreshing and soul-renewing value of which cannot easily be over-estimated.”
  3. Door County: “Beyond all question the climate is healthful, invigorating and tonic, quickly bracing tired bodies and nerves. Door County is not an altogether unknown resort. Discriminating people, numbering now at least a thousand a year, have discovered its charms and become familiar with its attractions. But fortunately for the State and for the people at large, this movement to occupy Door County with private summer places has not yet assumed large proportions.

“Finally – taking the last point in the requirements for State parks – Door County has unmistakable and not easily destroyed landscape beauty. It is wild and as yet unspoiled, with alternating interests of woodland and cliff, bay and land. Reminding one constantly of the coast of Maine, the shore with its many graceful indentations is a never-ending delight. It sweeps from point to point, here a beach of fine sand, there of gravel, then, in contrast, precipitous limestone bluffs, rising to a height of a hundred feet or more and covered with a heavy growth of native trees and shrubs, mostly evergreen. The vegetation is rich and varied. Extensive forests of pine, cedar, balsam, maple, basswood and birch, covering large tracts, with every now and then a pleasant opening in the more fertile, level land.

“Birds are numerous, as might be expected, and wild flowers abound.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the broad beauty of the scenery of this section is not surpassed in Wisconsin. Indeed, one of the undeniable claims of Door County to selection is that this type of scenery does not exist elsewhere in the State…. this Door County region under State control might easily become a famous pleasure resort of the highest order. The Michigan State Park at Mackinac Island is not one whit more attractive than the proposed Door County park might easily be. Yet the Mackinac Island Park, comprising but a thousand acres, is now valued at two million dollars and is visited annually by two hundred thousand persons. Would it not be worthwhile for Wisconsin to have a State Park with such a record and to secure such a tangible return?”

  1. Wyalusing State Park: “It appears to be the best Wisconsin site on the Mississippi for park purposes because of its large and well preserved groves of native trees and because the land required to form an accessible park is practically in the possession of one man…. Judged by the point of scenery alone it is equal to any site under consideration.”

11th Sustainability Issue

Check out our complete coverage of the issues facing Door County’s state parks, the people stepping in to support them, and learn about the history of the parks in our 11th annual Sustainability Issue.

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