The Wisconsin Historical Society holds millions of items.
They include Civil War documents, Wisconsin maps, Native American pottery, a carbon fiber Trek bicycle, Holocaust survivor oral histories, children’s clothing from the 1800s and a patch worn into space by Sparta astronaut Deke Slayton on a 1975 Apollo mission.
So when Paul Bourcier, the society’s lead curator, laid out boxes last week filled with wooden contraptions made more than 150 years ago by a Marquette County farm boy, it was clear that the pieces were of importance. Each box was affixed with an orange piece of paper that lets curators quickly know which item out of the massive collection should be saved first in the event of a fire or other calamity.
The boxes held the wooden and metal pieces of a clock fashioned in the shape of a scythe; a wooden barometer and parts to a thermometer made up of wooden sprockets that somehow, it’s not entirely clear, indicated temperature. There was also a less complex dolly jig designed to make a small doll dance.
“He had a very scientific mind,” said Bourcier. “But he also had a sense of humor.”
John Muir may be best known for his environmental activism that led to the creation of national parks and the founding of the Sierra Club, but his time in Wisconsin was consumed with farming and tinkering.
Throughout this year, Muir’s story will be shared in 25 state communities that have agreed to host a traveling exhibit on the man credited with convincing the U.S. government to protect and establish Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and Mount Rainier as national parks.
Michael Edmonds, deputy director of the Historical Society’s library and archives division, made a point of getting the exhibit into northern Wisconsin, home to the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
“The people who live there and care about history, and the local historical societies, often are neglected,” Edmonds said. “The number of exhibits they get asked to host are minuscule.”
“Wisconsin’s John Muir” explores Muir’s youth on two Wisconsin farms, his studies at UW-Madison, his advocacy for national parks and his views on environmental issues such as logging, hunting and climate change in an eight-panel pictorial.
Each community that takes part receives free copies of Muir’s memoir, “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth,” for a book club discussion. The exhibit runs through Tuesday at the W. J. Niederkorn Library in Port Washington before it traipses through the state over the next 11 months.
Muir was born in 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland, and immigrated to Wisconsin with his father 11 years later. They first settled on a 160-acre farmstead they dubbed Fountain Lake Farm (now Ennis Lake and part of John Muir Memorial County Park) between Montello and Portage. This is where Muir’s appreciation for nature began to take root, thanks to woods overlooking a flowery glacial meadow and a lake rimmed with water lilies, according to the Sierra Club.
In his later teens, Muir’s family moved to Hickory Hill Farm near Portage where Muir continued making wooden mechanisms. But because his father was such a harsh disciplinarian, he ordered all of the family to go to bed after chores were completed at dusk. He also had little tolerance for his son’s inventions.
“His father didn’t care what time he got up,” said Matt Blessing, an archivist who has written about Muir. “So what does Muir do? He goes to bed at 8 p.m. and quickly discovers he can get by on four or five hours of sleep. He gets himself up at midnight and goes down into the cellar and (by candle light) begins making inventions he thinks his father will support because they’re going to improve the efficiency of the farm.”
One of his creations was a saw blade out of a women’s corset that he used in a table saw. A Scottish neighbor encouraged Muir to take his inventions to the 1860 Wisconsin State Fair, at that time held near Camp Randall in Madison. This is where Muir is first publicly noted in an article in the Wisconsin State Journal.
That same year, Muir enrolled at UW-Madison where he lived in North Hall and his room became a curiosity.
Muir had a device that at a set time tipped him out of bed and then lit a lamp. He also invented a clockwork desk that automatically dispensed books from a rack below and kept them on the desk for a set period of time before it would switch to another book. The unconventional-looking desk has been on display in the lobby of the Historical Society since the 1920s.
“It’s very famous,” Edmonds said. “You would think the amount of time he put into building it should have been spent on studying.”
In an effort to pay for his education, Muir, during the winter of 1861-62, taught in a small log schoolhouse at the intersection of Storytown Road and Sun Valley Parkway about two miles west of Oregon that would later be home to the Lake Harriet School. One of his students described Muir as having “an ungroomed look with hair reaching to his shoulders, an unkempt bearing, and poor clothes,” according to account by the Oregon Area Historical Society.
Muir left Madison in 1863 for the “University of the Wilderness” as he called it, and spent time in woodworking factories in Canada and Indianapolis and conducting botanical studies in his spare time. In 1867, he was nearly blinded in an industrial accident and bedridden for nearly a month. The traumatic experience led him to devote the rest of his life “to the inventions of God,” and to leave his days of inventing behind.
“It’s travel, it’s natural science, it’s the environment, it’s poetry and a lot of American and European history,” Blessing said.
Muir walked to the Gulf of Mexico, before he sailed to Cuba and then to Panama where he crossed the isthmus of Central America and sailed up the West Coast, landing in San Francisco in 1868, according to his Sierra Club biography. Muir herded sheep in Yosemite and by 1874 had launched a writing career that led to hundreds of articles and several critically acclaimed books.
Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892 and in 1901 wrote “Our National Parks,” a book that drew the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who signed legislation between 1901 and 1909 creating five national parks. In 1916, Congress created the National Park Service that now oversees more than 400 units.
Muir died in 1914 in Los Angeles.
“These are in the crown jewel category for us,” Edmonds said as he surveyed some of Muir’s work, spread out on a conference table in the Sellery Room of the Society’s grand building at State and Park streets and across Langdon Street from Memorial Union.
The walls of the room, named after George Sellery, a former history professor and dean of the UW-Madison College of Letters and Science, are covered with historic images. They include an H.H. Bennett photograph from 1880 of Stand Rock in Wisconsin Dells, a poster from the 1900 Wisconsin State Fair and a painting from 1833 of Nasheakusk, the son of Black Hawk.
John Muir didn’t make the walls of the conference room but his years in Wisconsin are seen as formidable and allow us to claim one of the most influential environmentalists in history as our own.
“We’re trying to make Muir relevant for today,” Edmonds said. “The idea is to take history and use it to inform conversations today.”