Monday Morning Blogging: Ray Zillmer and the Ice Age Trail

This is one of a series of posts about conservation losses in Wisconsin in 2015.  It looks at the loss of state funding for a dozen or more conservation non-profit organizations. This is my attempt to learn more about each of the organizations, and to write about their history, their programs and services, – what they do for the state of Wisconsin.

Not too long ago I found an “old friend” I thought was missing – it was a book – 50 Hikes in Wisconsin by John and Ellen Morgan! It fell open in my hands to the dedication page: “To the Ice Age Park and Trail Alliance and its army of unwavering volunteers . . . .”  It ends with “In Memory of Ray Zillmer.” I was instantly reminded that yes, I did want to write about the Ice Age Trail Alliance.

I wanted to write about them, in part, because they are one of the conservation-minded groups to lose state support in 2015, but also because they are derived directly from the single-minded perseverance of one man with an idea. And single-minded though he could be, in pursuit of an idea, that man – Raymond T. Zillmer (1887-1960) – left more than one story to be told.

A National Park Service outline of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

A National Park Service outline of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Zillmer was a lifelong Milwaukeean – except for his student years at Madison and one at Harvard – and an intrepid adventurer. He was a husband and father, and active in civic organizations and the state and local Bar Associations. No doubt though, it was his involvement with the Izaak Walton League that best reflected what drove Ray Zillmer: a passion to get outdoors. And not just to hike or camp.

Zillmer went mountaineering, and exploring, and trekked through unmapped parts of British Columbia for 2 and 3 weeks at a time, year after year in the 1930s through the mid-40s. Then he published long accounts of these trips, such as “The Exploration of the Source of the Thompson River in British Columbia,” in American Alpine Journal, and others in the Canadian Alpine Journal. At the end of his life the American Alpine Journal said this about Zillmer:

“Exploration and elucidation of new country were more important in his eyes than mere climbing, and he carried out punishing journeys at an age when many another would have sought easier activity.”

As intense as those experiences must have been, Zillmer is also credited by the Morgans (in Fifty Hikes,) and others, with a deep appreciation for the natural wonders of the world wherever he could find them.  “In particular,” write the Morgans, ” Zillmer was intensely enamored with the rambling hilly area just west of Milwaukee where he would go on weekends with his family for adventuring.” This favorite haunt of Ray Zillmer’s would become the southern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest

The Kettle Moraine State Forest, Southern Unit; the sign face north.

The Kettle Moraine State Forest, Southern Unit; the sign face north.

As early as 1933, Zillmer was named “Man of the Year,” by the state chapter of the Izaak Walton League for his work in the development of the Kettle Moraine State Park.   From 1941-49 he was chairman of the Kettle Moraine Committee for the Izaak Walton League of Milwaukee  and from 1954-58 he held the same role for the state chapter.

There is much in those years that is covered extensively by another blogger, Drew Hanson, (also a hiker, formerly of the IATA staff) at Pedestrian View. Hanson writes:  “During the 1940s-1950s, Ray Zillmer hounded Wisconsin governors and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources . . . to focus more resources on land acquisition of a corridor of land in the Kettle Moraine. . . .(Zillmer) was considered an authority on the subject and a persuasive advocate.”

As one gets to know more about Zillmer, it becomes obvious that during those years he also began to see the conservation of the Kettle Moraine as the most important work of his life. He said exactly this in a letter, July 1, 1948, to Acting Governor Oscar Rennenbohm, Again, from Drew Hanson’s blog, Pedestrian View:

In the Northern Kettle Moraine, October 2013. (A "Badger & Whooping Crane" photo)

In the Northern Kettle Moraine, October 2013. (A “Badger & Whooping Crane” photo)

“Zillmer introduced himself and the Kettle Moraine State Forest: ‘I have given a great deal of my time to the Kettle Moraine project. . . . I would like you to give consideration to extending the purchase area so that the northern and southern areas are connected to form a line 100 miles long. As far as the State of Wisconsin is concerned this will be one of your most important acts.  I consider my own efforts in the promotion of this project the most important contribution in my life’. “

Sometime in the next decade, Zillmer’s personal vision for the Kettle Moraine began to grow into something larger. Instead of just a state project he began to hope for the creation of a national park – the Kettle Moraine as its nucleus – that would include a long, 500-mile hiking trail tracing the outline of the presence of the glaciers as they receded from the land. In December of 1958, Zillmer founded the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation – the forerunner of the Ice Age Trail Alliance of today.

A snowy ski trail in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. (photo by the WI DNR)

A snowy ski trail in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. (photo by the WI DNR)

Of course he couldn’t have known then, but in that action he was passing the torch to the future. Zillmer was dead two years later, and from that day to this, the story of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail has grown by many chapters, including detours and delays, but with the torch always being carried forward by the board members of the IATA, by its staff, and by the volunteers and hikers by the millions.

With Zillmer’s death, the Milwaukee Journal reminded the people of Wisconsin and those in the conservation movement nationally that they were “deeply indebted to Mr. Zillmer. His boundless energy and his dogged determination in behalf of worthy causes . . .” had become legend.

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