Get a hint of the Shack experience from the three features below! In this first Shack feature, four of Aldo and Estella Leopold’s children – Luna, Nina, Carl, and Estella Jr. – share stories about Shack activities.
[Estella] Well, he did a lot of writing at the office in the morning, I gather, and at home. And the essays, as I recall, were not things that he worked on here. He got his ideas here. But then he’d go down to the office and, and in the early morning-
[Nina] This was a place of action. It’s just like our school books. We always brought our school books but we never looked at them. There was too much action.
[Estella] Well here, here on this bench where we’re sitting at the end there was an arm piece that stuck out, and that was a place where we would help Dad sharpen the shovels that we used for planting pines. And the hoe, but mostly shovels. And he would take great pride in getting one of these big rasps and metal files and sharpen those things to a fairly well. And I think it was sharpened every morning, wasn’t it? Before we went out to plant. So they were razor sharp. And at the end of the day, we’d carefully clean the shovels off with grass and even wash them off and hang them up. And this, he said, was the way to treat tools. I think that was a great lesson for us. One which we teach our own gardeners.
[Estella continued] The Shack really has been a lot like a sheepherders cabin. We had two Dutch ovens – well, we had a fireplace, which you wouldn’t find. We had a minimum of silverware. We had two or three camping kettles.
[Carl] Be careful about the silverware.
[Estella] Well, “silverware.”
[Carl] Those are tin forks.
[Estella] Utensils, utensils.
[Carl] Yes, that’s better.
[Estella] Um, some cups. And you remember who – which of you made this cabinet in which we keep the-
[Nina] The cherry cabinet!
[Estella] Plates? I thought Carl?
[Carl] No, I think Dad did.
[Estella Okay. That nice little cabinet was very simple. Just a few plates and a few cups. That was it.
[Nina] I look at the Shack in my old age, and I think it was a wonderful exercise in frugality. I really like it. We were completely comfortable, but we had nothing we didn’t absolutely need. And it became a very comfortable feeling.
In this audio of an interview from 2004, Nina Leopold Bradley and Estella Leopold Jr. talk about what made the Shack experience so special.
[Nina] I think as we got involved first in restoring or trying to make this little shack a little more habitable, uh, as soon as we got involved, we were completely hooked. I can’t tell you exactly why, we just fell right into it. And in repairing this whole building, Dad didn’t go to the lumber yard to get whatever necessary materials we could use, but we went to the river, which is behind the Shack, picking up any old pieces of lumber, two-by-fours, bridge pilings or what have you. And that is what we used to restore the building. Dad went to the dump and picked up the door and the windows. I have often thought I would love to have watched him going through the dump looking for what would be usable. But in his, in his Sand County Almanac he said, my own farm was selected for its lack of goodness and its lack of highway. And I’ve thought that was almost an understatement.
[Estella] There’s a certain aspect of life here at the Shack that we ought to bring out, and that is as Luna, our brother Luna says it was a place that we learned to use our hands. We did a lot of carpentry and fixing. And a place to be more sensitive to nature, to appreciate our environment, and to make music. And we did a lot of that in the evenings. It was great fun. But this we call the Shack experience. Now we look back on our times here and it was kind of special. It certainly was.
[Nina] This whole project has become a metaphor for, first of all, the delights of simplicity in your life. There was not room for a lot of stuff. And when we came to the Shack, Dad would say, “Don’t bring anything you don’t have to have.” Well, it sort of becomes a theme. You don’t need a lot of paraphernalia in your life. But I think the whole idea of restoration certainly began in Wisconsin, both at the Wisconsin Arboretum and here at the Shack. The science of land health was yet to be discovered, it was all trial and error. But I think the whole principle of what happened here has become a metaphor not only for science, but for its simplicity of living.
Listen or read along as Estella Leopold Jr. sings “La Casita,” one of the many songs that used to be shared between friends and family at the Shack.
*Note that the Leopolds sometimes learned new folk songs by ear, and lyrics may have accidentally changed over time. Some of the lyrics in this version of the song may not have a clear meaning.
Qué de adonde amiga vengo
De una casita que tengo
Más abajo del trigal
Una casita chiquita
Para una mujer bonita
Que me quiera acompañar
Tiene el frente unas parras
Donde cantan ‘Las cigarras’
Y se hace polvito el sol
Un portal—hay mmm en la frente
En el jardín una fuente
En el fuente un caracol
Hiedras la tienen cubierta
Y un jasmin hay en la huerta
Que las bardas ya cubrió
En el portal una hamaca
En el corral una vaca
Y adentro mi perro y yo
Si usted quiere la corrido
A que visite este hido
Y ensillamos a lucero
Un portal hay en la frente
En la jardín un fuente
En la fuente un caracol
The development of this self-guided tour was funded in part by:
The Community Foundation of South Central Wisconsin
Sauk County Extension Education, Arts & Culture Committee and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin
Wisconsin Humanities, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Wisconsin Humanities strengthens our democracy through educational and cultural programs that build connections and understanding among people of all backgrounds and beliefs throughout the state.