History of John Muir Park

Honoring John Muir in Marquette County


There is a good chance that if Syl Adrian, the inventor of the X-ray shoe fitting machine, the coin selector used on juke boxes and a gas safety valve for stoves, among other things, hadn’t taken an interest in John Muir’s boyhood home in Marquette County, there would be no physical or geographical recognition of the great naturalist here today. Adrian, owner of Indian Echoes Resort, now River’s Bend, worked tirelessly for decades to gain county, state, and national recognition for the land where the young Scottish lad who became father of our National Parks roamed wild and worked hard, making a home with his family.

Adrian was a self-taught student of Wisconsin history. At his resort, situated on the banks of the Fox River where, for thousands of years, Native Americans camped and hunted, he maintained an extensive collection of Indian artifacts. He began researching John Muir in 1946. In that same year, a paper Adrian had written titled “A Tavern Museum in Muirland,” was read at a meeting of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. In a newspaper article of the time, Adrian said, “I got a kick out of it. All those doctorates represented with a high school dropout.” For years, archeologists regularly met at Adrian’s resort.

The idea of a Muir Park drew other supporters. In 1948 ecologist Aldo Leopold recommended that the Wisconsin conservation Department purchase the Muir farm for a state park. Through Adrian’s efforts, multiple events drew more and more recognition to John Muir and his connection to Marquette County. On May 26, 1949, the Marquette County Tribune reported that a delegation of representatives of the state conservation department made a surprise visit to Marquette County to tour the area for a possible state park. They visited Observatory Hill and Ennis Lake and the Archie Smith farm, site of the Muir Home. Representatives from the Montello area included County Judge K. J. Callahan, District Attorney Andrew P. Cotter, Mayor John Barrett, Syl Adrian, owner of Indian Echoes Resort, and Howard McGwin, boyhood acquaintance of John Muir. McGwin was a grandson of John Ennis who settled on the west side of the lake that the Muirs called Fountain Lake.

The article states that “McGwin stole the show” as he recited a poem printed in the New York Sun after Muir’s death in 1914. McGwin said, “John Muir seemed to shorten the distance between the earth and the heavens.”

Adrian’s years long effort on behalf of Muir’s legacy included, in 1955, having Arbor Day in Wisconsin proclaimed in honor of Muir and having the Department of Public Instruction call attention to John Muir in Wisconsin schools.

Because of Adrian’s work in bringing Muir’s legacy to the attention of elected officials as well as local people, in 1955 Audley Cuff offered to donate part of his Muir Lake frontage as a park. At that time the state considered it as a possible state park, but the parcel was found not big enough and not significant enough to designate it as such. Mr. and Mrs. Charles Robicheau donated another piece of land to combine with Cuff’s to make the county park. Robert Robicheau did much work to build a pier and other facilities. Here are the land transfers recorded in the Register of Deeds office.

30 Jan 1957: Audley and Ellen Cuff transfer 52.7 acres on the west side of Ennis Lake to the County for $550.00, "Together with all riparian rights in and to said Ennis Lake adjoining the property herein conveyed."

31 Jan 1957: Charles and Alice Robicheau sell to the County "All flowage rights in and to Ennis Lake in Sections Fourteen (14) and Twenty-three (23), Township Fourteen North (14N) Range Nine East (9E) and streams tributary hereto now owned by said grantors" for "One dollar ($1.00) less than $100.00."

7 June 1966: Charles and Alice Louise Robicheau sell 12.78 acres in Section 23, south of Ennis Lake, to the County for $3667.

30 June 1967: John and Gladys Koran transfer 62.89 acres on the east side of Ennis Lake to the County for $3,667.

21 January 1986: Dennis O'Connell sells 27.3 acres to The Nature Conservancy of Wisconsin, Inc. for $29,000.00.

In 1955, the County Board voted to rename the lake, known as Ennis Lake, Muir Lake. A sign was put up to that effect.

In the same year, the Wisconsin State Historical Society agreed to place a marker about Muir on Highway 22. (It wasn’t placed until 1969.)

In 1957, Hugh Iltis, Curator of the University of Wisconsin Herbarium published Botanizing on Muir’s Lake in the Wisconsin Academy Review. Although he did not find many of the flowers that Muir wrote about in My Boyhood and Youth, Iltis said, “With his backyard containing such a great diversity of plant life, only a small portion of which is listed above, it is not surprising that young John Muir received the great stimulation that enabled him to become one of the America’s most influential naturalists and conservationists. It is therefore highly fitting to reserve this spot, not only for the inherent richness of the flora, but also as a memorial to a man with much wisdom and vision. The many interested persons and organizations of Marquette County, and all others responsible for setting aside this living monument deserve our sincere thanks.”

Many county residents worked to do a proper dedication for the park. On May 5, 1957 2,000 people gathered to dedicate John Muir Memorial Park. Muir’s grand daughter, Jean Hanna DeLipkau was in attendance. A Montello granite marker was unveiled. It reads, “John Muir/foster son of Wisconsin/born in Scotland April 21, 1838. He came to America as a lad of eleven. He spent his teen years in hard work clearing the farm across this lake and carving out a home in the wilderness. In the sunny woods, overlooking a flowery glacial meadow and a lake rimmed with water lilies, he found an environment that tanned the fire of his zeal and love for all nature, which as a man, drove him to study, afoot, alone, and unafraid, the forests, mountains, and glaciers of the west, to become the most rugged, fervent naturalist America has produced, and the father of the national parks of our country.” Clarence Troost, Sr. and Clarence Troost, Jr. who owned the Montello Granite Company donated, polished and inscribed the Montello Granite marker that still stands at Muir Park. Wakelin McNeel wrote the marker in the park. McNeel was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and had a weekly radio program, Afield with Ranger Mac from 1933 to 1954.

But Adrian wasn’t finished. In 1965 The County Board gave Syl Adrian the authority to negotiate with a Mr. Koran for the 80 acres of land where the first Muir homestead was located north east of the lake as well as another strip of land owned by Charles Robicheau along the south side of Muir Lake. This would put the entire lake in the park.

Syl Adrian wrote to Edward Harriman, the railroad magnate who had helped Muir in the passage of the bill making Sierra Valley a national park. Harriman corresponded with Adrian and made a bequest of $4600 toward the purchase of the land for Muir Park. In 1965 with $5,000 from the county, $5,000 from the state, and the Harriman donation, only $400 more had to be raised to purchase the land. (Another report states that the county earmarked $10,000.) After navigating some bumps, like the stalled surveying of the land by the state and the upping of the price of the Koran land, the purchases were made.

During the same time, 1965, Adrian failed in his attempt to have Muir Park declared part of an Ice Age Reserve by the White House. Confusion over the required size necessary to be included resulted in its being excluded.

Interest in the park was growing, though, and in 1965 Joseph J. Jopek, Jr, under the guidance of Professor Howard Weaver of the Department of Recreation and Municipal Park Administration of the University of Illinois wrote his thesis on Muir Park. It included ideas that would be used in subsequent reports and plans.

In 1965 the park was included on the Wisconsin’s Hiawatha Pioneer Trail and markers were located at the north and south end of the park.

Four years later, a historical marker was placed on Hwy 22 at a state wayside. It reads:

It was over this road that John Muir traveled to such early settlements as Kingston and Pardeeville. Muir was eleven when he came here from Scotland with his father, brother and sister in 1849. His mother arrived with her other children atfer a home had been carved out of the wilderness. They settled west of here at “Fountain Lake” at what is now John Muir Memorial Park. Here, surrounded by the beauties of nature, began his love of wild animals, flowers, trees and waters. Later, the family moved five miles east to the Hickory Hill farm. Muir’s early education began at home. His mechanical skill was demonstrated by many ingenious inventions. He entered the University of Wisconsin but left without completing his studies to travel throughout the West on foot. While hiking through the Sierra Nevadas, he found his real inspiration and life work. His many and persistent articles and letters persuaded Congress to pass the National Park Act in 1890. This was the beginning of the formal national park movement. “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread; places to play in and places to pray in, where nature may heal and cheer, and give strength to body and soul alike.”John Muir

Also, in 1969, the DNR department of fish management petitioned to have the Wisconsin Geographic Names Council rename the lake to Muir Lake, but failed on the grounds that longstanding local usage and all the maps referred to the lake as Ennis Lake. In 1970 the County Board was informed that the name of Ennis Lake was approved by the US Board of Geographic Names.

In 1972, the state legislature declared 65 acres of Muir Park a state scientific area (we know them today as state natural areas). In 1973, Syl Adrian was featured in a story on John Muir in the National Geographic. He is described as a man “who has made Muir’s Wisconsin years his life’s avocation.”

In 1975 Sam Ennis, descendent of John Ennis, an Irish emigrant who settled on land on the other side of the same lake as the Muirs about the same time, fought the initiative to name the lake Muir Lake. He was successful in his argument that the county could not change the name of the lake and that it had been informed of this in 1970. The Ennis family stayed in Marquette County, unlike the Muirs, and many descendents still live there, he asserted. The County Board agreed to take down the Muir Lake sign.

In 1986 the Marquette County Board passed a resolution supporting the nomination of the park to the National Register of Historic Places. It would be designated such in 1990. Also, in the 1980s, local writer Millie Stanley, who would research Muir for years, published several articles about the naturalist, inviting more interest in his boyhood home.

To coincide with the 150th anniversary of John Muir’s birth (1838), the Madison chapter of the Sierra Club under the leadership of John Rindle, raised $32,000 to purchase the north west 27.3 acres to add to the park. The Nature Conservancy held the land until it was turned over to the county. During the time the conservancy owned the land in 1987 they granted the DNR a perpetual easement on 27 acres of the land for a State Natural Area.

In 1988, on the 150th anniversary of John Muir’s birth, the John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club erected a sign in Muir Park that is still there. It reads, John Muir, the father of American’s National Parks, lived on the northeast side of this lake from 1849 to 1855. Although he travelled all over the world, Muir never forgot this land, and tried several times to buy and preserve parts of it, remarking “…even if I should never see it again, the beauty of its lilies and orchids is so pressed into my mind I shall always enjoy looking back at them in imagination, even across seas and continents, and perhaps after I am dead.

The Mecan River Youth Conservation Corps cut red cedars to restore prairie and removed barb wire fences in 1988. Also, during the late 1980s, Joseph Passineau, Associate Professor at South Dakota State University and Erik Brynildson, then a student in landscape architecture, promoted the idea of Muir Park being designated as a National Historic Site to environmental groups and members of Congress.

In 1990, the US Department of the Interior National Park Service developed a Management Options plan for Muir Park. This is the same year that Millie Stanley’s book about Muir, The Heart of John Muir’s World, was published.

Today, Syl Adrian’s dream of honoring the boyhood home of John Muir is still a work in progress. John Muir Park is owned by Marquette County, but managed and cared for by the DNR, Marquette County Ice Age Trail, Prairie Enthusiasts, and county workers. A 2.3 mile loop circles Ennis Lake, cared for by the Ice Age Trail. It takes you through tall prairie plants, a wet sedge meadow, and woodlands. Part of the land is protected State Natural Area and part is county park with picnic tables, bathroom, and small shelter. The Marquette County Ice Age Trail installed a kiosk that explains the terrain, vegetation, and tells about John Muir. Conversations continue about how best to preserve and honor the legacy of the great naturalist in Marquette County.