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The Chiwaukee Story

by Donna Peterson

Al and Karla Krampert As I was preparing Al Krampert’s personal files on his preservation work in
Wisconsin for placement in the archives at UW-Parkside, I came across a copy of his “Chiwaukee Story.” I choose to change the format and edit it, making it easier to read. I did this with Karla Krampert’s blessing since her husband, Al, had passed away in 1994.Al wrote his story five years after the Chiwaukee preservation plan had started. It was written for the Second Midwest Prairie Conference held in Madison, Wisconsin in September of 1970.It has been thirty years since Al and the first prairie lovers started on their
quest for land in order to preserve Chiwaukee Prairie for themselves

future generations.

I hope you enjoy his story and that it inspires you as much as it did me.

As I was preparing Al Krampert’s personal files on his preservation work in Wisconsin for placement in the archives at UW-Parkside, I came across a copy of his “Chiwaukee Story.” I choose to change the format and edit it, making it easier to read. I did this with Karla Krampert’s blessing since her husband, Al, had passed away in 1994.

Al wrote his story five years after the Chiwaukee preservation plan had started. It was written for the Second Midwest Prairie Conference held in Madison, Wisconsin in September of 1970.

It has been thirty years since Al and the first prairie lovers started on their quest for land in order to preserve Chiwaukee Prairie for themselves
BUT MOST OF ALL for future generations.

I hope you enjoy his story and that it inspires you as much as it did me.

by Al Krampert

In May 1965, Phil Sander and I stood in the gathering dusk on the Chicago Northwestern right-of-way overlooking Chiwaukee Prairie struggling with our fears and trying to arrive at an important decision. I was seeking his support and I strongly suspect he was seeking mine. We needed the courage to move in the direction we knew we had to go. We had to make the decision to save Chiwaukee Prairie.

All day long, we had tramped over the prairie, pouring over plat maps, checking on who owned what and for how long. How much had the owners paid for their parcels? What were the possibilities of getting the numerous owners to dispose of their land? Why had they bought it? Why did they hang on to it? What did they want to do with it? Most of all we wondered how was it possible that this virgin prairie could have survived in a growing metropolitan area in the hands of so many owners. It was a miracle that it was still there. Perhaps another miracle might save it.

All of these questions kept running through our heads.
The number of owners involved was the greatest obstacle. They were literally scattered all over the earth. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, four years earlier had turned down the acquisition of the prairie for this very reason. The high cost of land in a metropolitan area, especially along Lake Michigan, was another problem.
It had been a beautiful day. The shooting stars were blooming at their best. We would search the sky for the upland plover to watch it plunge toward earth in its steep dive and thrilled as we heard the winnowing of air through its wings. We heard the incessant chatter of the bobolinks and the trill of the marsh wren.
We thought of all the people we had met in the past 3 ½ months who loved that prairie as much as we did. I recognized their sincerity and their hope that it might be saved.
No attempt had ever been made by a local group to solicit funds from the public in Kenosha and Racine to preserve a natural area. How would they respond? How could we convince them to donate money to preserve what some people considered a patch of noxious weeds?
All of these thoughts were on our minds as Phil and I stood there on the tracks. There was more to this than saving the prairie white-fringed orchid.
It was an awfully hard decision to make.

Finally, Phil turned to me and said, “Al, we’ve got to start somewhere and the only way we’ll ever know if it can be done is by trying.”
“Phil,” I said, “The only real thing we’ve got going for us from a business point of view, is that we’ve got a darn good committee. Without it, we can’t accomplish a thing. We’ll take one step at a time and perhaps with luck we can put the thing together.”

Several months previous, the Wisconsin Chapter of the Nature Conservancy had voted to back our committee for an initial purchase. There were a few on the board who had serious doubts about the project’s successful conclusion because a great deal of luck would have to be with the committee. Anyone in his right mind could see that we would need to have everything going our way if we were going to succeed.
That meeting was the turning point for Chiwaukee Prairie.

Thirty-five years earlier, I was a 12 year old farm boy going to a two-room country school. I used to sneak back into the library which was nothing more than a cubbyhole attached to the main classroom with a lot of good books.

In addition to the books by Altsheler and Zane Grey, it had several by Hamlin Garland. I became so fascinated with his beautiful descriptive writings, such as Boy Life on the Prairie and Son of the Middle Border, that I neglected to do my school work.

About the same time that I was becoming engrossed with Hamlin Garland, the stocks of the major and minor corporations in this country came tumbling down. This soon became known as the Great Depression. Edith Rockefeller-McCormick’ s dreams for Edithton Beach, a model city, came tumbling down also. Since her city was to have been built where the Chiwaukee Prairie is now located the prairie received a a new lease on life, for the time being at least.

Much had happened to me between 1930 and May of 1965. I became an insurance salesman intrigued with motivating people to do the right thing.
However, Garland, Altsheler and Grey had done their job well. As a young boy they had left a lasting impression on my mind and, as result, I never lost my love for nature and the “great out-of-doors.”

After our marriage, my wife, Karla, and I made numerous trips to the West which brought us in contact with acres of wildflowers in the high meadow country. We became enthused with the study of wildflowers. If only we could have these places close to home, but the virgin prairie was gone.

Garland had stated this in his writings. He looked for it in his later years, but it was gone. You can imagine our surprise when on Memorial Day, 1961, while traveling south on Lake Shore Drive in Kenosha County we turned the corner onto Tobin Road, and we saw millions of shooting stars, orange puccoon, yellow star grass, lousewort and birdsfoot violets stretching toward the horizon as far as the eye could see. We got out of the car and walked through the fields.
Karla”, I exclaimed, “this has to be virgin prairie.” I didn’t think any of this existed anymore.”

More then thirty years after reading Hamlin Garland, I experienced what he had written about. You might laugh at this, but I became so excited about the prairie that I went to the library and dug out all of his books and read them over again.

So there we were, in May, 1965, Phil Sander and I standing on the railroad track, overlooking this gorgeous hunk of prairie, feeling unsure of ourselves. We recalled the meeting that had taken place in the Kenosha County Court House three months earlier.

It was a regular Kenosha County Board meeting, and the board was to vote on whether to rezone part of Chiwaukee Prairie from residential and agricultural, to commercial. A corporation, Pompei on the Lake, wanted to dredge a channel and basin and develop Chiwaukee Prairie into a huge marina. Letters pro and con had appeared in the local papers s “Voice of the People” column on the proposed rezoning.

It snowed hard the day of the meeting and toward evening the wind began to blow and drifts were starting to appear in the streets. I didn’t even know if I could drive the 2 ½ miles from my home to the court house.

When I got there, the room was packed with people, most of whom, I didn’t know. Dr. Darnell from Marquette University spoke against the rezoning. Mr. Krueshke, from the Milwaukee Museum, and Kenneth Dearolf from the Kenosha Museum also spoke in opposition.

Long after the meeting started, in came Dr. One Loucks and Dr. Hugh Iltis, who had driven in a blinding snowstorm all the way from Madison to speak out against the proposed marina. “Gosh, I thought to myself, “These are really dedicated men to drive all the way from Madison and poor me worrying about only 2 ½ miles.”

There was Louise Erickson, Dr. Von Jarchow and Dorothea Kuehnl, who had brought down a group from Racine, a drive of more than 10 miles.

I’ll never forget Hugh Iltis standing there looking like a skinny Santa Claus with a black beard covered with half-melted snow pleading with the county board not to rezone in these words. “You are rezoning land in Pleasant Prairie Township. Your children will ask, “What is a pleasant prairie?’ and you will have no answer – for you will have destroyed it.”

I got my two bits worth in by telling the board, “We would be as bad as the book burners and would have to account for it some day.” It didn’t do any good.
Judge Morton, representing the marina, talked glowingly of how the new marina would spend 12 million dollars, perhaps even 20 million. John Estabrook, who owned a considerable tract of land in the area, and would profit greatly, talked about building houses and adding to the tax base. The dollar sign carried the day and things looked very dark, indeed, for the conservationists.

A meeting was hastily called in the corridor of the court house. Louise Erickson managed to get a pad and had everyone write down their name, address and telephone number. Dr. James Olson, from the University of Wisconsin, Kenosha Center, said we could hold meetings in his laboratory. Hugh Iltis stuck a big fat file on Chiwaukee Prairie in my hands and said, “Here, it’s up to you people locally to save that prairie.”

We met several weeks later at the University Center, formed our committee and voted to ask the Nature Conservancy to help us. We attended a board meeting of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Nature Conservancy in March and presented our case. Chairman of the Board, Paul Olson, was willing to take a chance on us. Our committee was an unknown quantity, but he was willing to gamble with us and he convinced the other board members to accept the project.

Our committee had proposed the acquisition of a mile long strip in the prairie 100’ wide, which broadened out to 300’ wide at one point. It was an oddly shaped piece that was intended, at one time, to serve as an electric line right-of-way with a passenger station at the midway point of the strip. We thought we could get this piece for $5,500 and then try to make additions to it. If we failed to raise the money, the Wisconsin Chapter would be out the money and would own a 100’ wide strip of prairie, one mile long.
The offer to purchase had been prepared and the check for earnest money had been drawn. The members of our committee had told us they would back us to the hilt. They would work hard to raise the funds and they would help with publicity to encourage the public’s interest.

Phil and I knew that more than the initial purchase was involved. We needed more than this strip and there was no way of knowing whether we would ever be able to acquire anymore. The 100’ wide strip has proved to be the most strategic purchase we made. Events may prove that this purchase may be the death knell of the marina. It appears that the marina owners didn’t even know that this strip existed in the southern half of the prairie. The plat books don’t show it. It was this initial purchase that put our foot into the entire prairie.

The first purchase of 15 acres has now grown to 83 acres which is, in itself, a beautiful self -sustaining unit. The marina owns another 43 acres which would be a desirable addition to the prairie, when that is acquired it will be possible to get the entire 200 acres of the project area.
Purchases to date, have involved 62 separate parcels of land at a cost of over $50,000. While this amount of money may seem paltry compared to the cost of Goose Lake Prairie, it is never the less true that with the exception of $18,500 which was furnished by Human Urban Development (HUD) all of the remainder came as donations from individual people, and every penny was used for land purchase.

All legal work has been given gratis and very willingly by William Sieker of Madison and Duane Shauffer and Conrad Shearer of Kenosha. Any incidental expenses such as postage, telephone calls and trips involved for land acquisition have been cheerfully borne by members of the committee. Even signs to help protect the prairie have been furnished at personal expense.

However, this is the very thing that has made the Chiwaukee story possible. It is dedicated people, who become greatly excited every time a new addition is made to Chiwaukee Prairie even though it is a 60’ X 130’ lot, just 1/6 of an acre. Every time you look at a lot and see what’s on it, you become convinced all over again that regardless of the effort required to save land, it is well worth it.

Every time our committee has a field trip to Chiwaukee Prairie, it’s the same old story. The members exclaim, “Gee, Al, we’ve just got to save this piece over here, and that one over there.” And so it goes.

It has gotten to be a game – patiently waiting, anticipating, negotiating and finally another piece of the puzzle falls into place.

There are still around 250 additional separate parcels that should be acquired to round out the 200 acres. It sounds impossible to acquire this by negotiation. Looking back, it also would sound impossible to negotiate for 62 separate parcels, but it has been done.
All of the people who owned the land in Chiwaukee Prairie purchased it for speculation or to build a retirement home someday. Of all the purchases made to date, only two owners lived in Wisconsin and both of these lived over 200 miles from the prairie.

All of the land purchased to date has been at a loss to the sellers with the exception of land which had been owned by the Henry George School of Social Science. They had acquired their land as a gift.

I would be taking too much of your time to tell you the entire Chiwaukee story. Its final chapter may not be written, perhaps for 15 or 20 years from now.
A whole book could be written about the hopes and dreams of all the people who owned and still own land in Chiwaukee Prairie. That is what makes the Chiwaukee story so fascinating and exciting. It isn’t a one shot purchase where you make your deal and it’s all over. There are hundreds of people involved.

As incredible as it may sound to you, I think there will be a little sad feeling among the preservation committee members when that glorious day does finally arrive and the exciting quest for land has ended. The game will then come to its historic conclusion.