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Leopold Shack with blooming lilacs
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Living With the Land

Thank you for joining us for the 2nd installment of our virtual Shack tour. In our last post, we explored how Aldo Leopold’s experiences before arriving at the fateful worn-out property contributed to the formation of his land ethic and molded him into one of the most influential conservationists of all time. This time, we’ll explore how the Leopold family transformed an ordinary chicken coop into a National Historic Landmark which attracts thousands of environmentalists each year. In turn, we will explore how they were transformed by their experiences in this beautiful landscape.

From their fateful first day at the Shack, located on a worn-out farm in central Wisconsin, the Leopold’s conducted some much-needed Shack improvement projects. However, the family spent much more time outdoors rather than inside when they were in the Sand Counties. The family enjoyed the landscape and tended to the health of the land they so treasured as opposed to whiling away the hours cooped up in the Shack. Nina Leopold Bradley (Aldo and Estella’s oldest daughter) described the importance of the Shack by saying,

“The shack was as close to nothing as you could get and still it was everything. It’s where we learned to work, learned to be together and to sing. It just pulled the family together.”

View of Aldo Leopold's Shack, the building has a white door, brick chimney, and addition to a small cottage-like structure

The renovated Shack as of Spring 2020.

To improve the building, the Leopolds added a door, windows, a fireplace, and the whole left addition (affectionately called the West Wing).

Small building with three people making repairs.

This is the earliest picture we have of the Shack. Notice the size of the building as well as the lack of a chimney.

Luna Leopold (Aldo and Estella’s second oldest) was tasked by Aldo with building the fireplace. He used local rocks to build the majority of the fireplace, but the massive stone on the mantel is actually a piece of limestone from Madison. The Leopolds hauled it up to the Shack and actually had to roll it in on logs it was so heavy.

Large fireplace with a limestone mantle and a large soot stain

The Shack fireplace today, notice the large soot stain.

To get the mantle into place, they all went to one side and lifted while someone put a log underneath. They then all went to the other side and repeated the process, log by log, until the stone was at the appropriate height. They then pushed it into place. If you’ve ever played Jenga, this is basically the world’s scariest game of Jenga! Looking at the picture of the completed fireplace above, you’ll notice a huge soot stain on the mantle; that is there because, despite Luna’s best efforts, the fireplace never really drafted correctly.

Luna with fireplace

Luna installing the fireplace mantle (1936). If you look at the way the stone is held up, you can notice the Jenga pattern!

Luna wasn’t the only Leopold child tasked with leading a Shack improvement project. Starker Leopold (the oldest) was put in charge of building the outhouse. It became a competition between the two brothers to see who could build the better structure, and one day Starker came into the Shack and proclaimed that,

“The privy is so beautiful, it’s grander than the Parthenon!”

The name stuck, and the family has called it that ever since.

Starker working on the framing of the outhouse

Starker Leopold building the Parthenon (1935).

Estella Leopold Jr. hadn’t been through world history when Starker made his proclamation. One afternoon she came home from school and told the family that there was another Parthenon and that it looked nothing like theirs!

Both the fireplace formation and the Parthenon production are examples of how Aldo would provide his children with important tasks in order to teach them necessary skills. The children mentioned how after completion of a project their father would praise them profusely, regardless of whether or not the task was perfectly completed. They later realized that he was working to build their confidence and provide them with a sense of pride in their work.

With a family of 7 and the Leopold family’s fondness for inviting up family, friends, and grad students, the original Shack structure was not nearly big enough to accommodate all those people, so the family added an addition to the Shack. The “West Wing,” as they called it, was outfitted with bunks that stretched the entirety of the addition. Since then, a middle portion has been removed to make 4 roughly twin-sized bed spaces.

To make the beds, the family would go across the street to the marsh where they would gather the hay to use as mattresses and would bring that back to the Shack (in true Leopold fashion, by strapping it to the back of the car).

A black and white picture of a 1930s era car with a sheet attached to the side and top holding hay

Carl Leopold strapping marsh hay to the car (1936)

When we move inside the Shack, if you look around you’ll notice a variety of features not common in your everyday home. The Leopold family created fun fixtures to perfectly fit every tool, function, and need they could have. In addition to the creative household fixtures, the family also had fun furry friends to join them at the Shack.

Fun features of the Shack and family facts:

The dark, wooden rods above the beds were used to swing into the top bunks. You grab the bar and kick your legs up and back to get into bed at night.

A wooden nub protruding from a beam. The nub has a ring of rope around the circumference.

The wooden nub with a rope around it is a perch for Carl Leopold’s birds; in addition to being the family photographer, Carl was also was an amateur falconer.

Estella Leopold Jr. with a shovel across her shoulders and a squirrel on her head

The Leopold family had many pets, including several dogs named Flick, a few crows, an owl, and a squirrel who helped out with pine plantings!

Since Aldo’s time, we’ve changed as few things as possible while still maintaining and preserving the building. In 2009, the Shack was designated a National Historic Landmark, which means it has been determined to be exceptional in its ability to illustrate U.S. heritage (National Park Service). Thousands of visitors flock to the historic Leopold Shack and Farm every year to witness the natural beauty that so captivated Aldo Leopold. Over time, we’ve had to replace the front door, re-shingle above the West Wing, put in a root barrier around the Shack, and replace the chimney. As part of Shack maintenance, we had a chimney sweep come out, and they told us that the chimney was crumbling from within. If we were to have safe fires and keep the building protected, we’d need to replace the chimney, so we did.

The family’s time spent in Baraboo, WI at the Shack was, and still is, cherished in the minds of all who have visited. As Estella Leopold Jr. said in her book, Stories from the Leopold Shack,

“In each person’s life a particular place may stand out—a place where one spent a lot of time, a place one grew to love and recall for so many happy memories. Such a place for me was the Shack, on the floodplain of the Wisconsin River.”

Being on the land, Aldo and Estella taught their children about ecological restoration by practicing it with them, showed them how to fix things for themselves and problem solve, and instilled in them how to love and care for the land, cultivating a land ethic in each of their children. The transformation of the Shack is but one example of the many transformations that occurred on the property. In our 3rd and final installment of the tour, we’ll explore together how the Leopold family transformed the land from a worn-out farm to the healthy prairie and pines you can find today.


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