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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

August 1998

WCD booth at the Wisconsin State Fair. © DNR Photo

A fair to remember

For Wisconsin's centennial celebration, a tiny corner of West Allis was transformed into the Great Northwoods.

Harold A. Steinke

WCD booth at the Wisconsin State Fair.

© DNR Photo

The Sesquicentennial is bringing its fair share of parties and parades, but back in 1948, the Centennial brought property! To celebrate 100 years of statehood, the old Wisconsin Conservation Department (WCD) bought a small parcel of land within State Fair Park in West Allis and developed it into a relaxing nature area. It's the same green oasis fair visitors enjoy today.

As a reminder of our pioneer past, the state built a large lumberjack cabin and a split-rail fence near the entrance of the WCD park area. In the large cabin, WCD staff simulated the life of the early loggers. This cabin had a mess hall and bunkhouse divided by a public walk-through.

The east half of the building housed the kitchen and mess hall. A lumber camp cook prepared all of the meals for the WCD crews. This cookie was normally employed to feed the fisheries crews that each spring and summer collected spawning fish for hatcheries and forage fish to feed the hatchery-raised fish, and removed rough fish from lakes. He was accustomed to putting on a feed for a hungry crowd. The men ate their meals while visitors passed through the cabin.

The west half was furnished with bunks, benches, and an old cast iron stove. A screen partition separated the area from the public walkway. The cabin was closed each night at 11 p.m. so the men could retire to the bunkhouse.

As people passed through the cabin, they entered a well planned world of nature we called the Centennial Garden. A meandering stream channel had been created within the grounds and a rock waterfall surrounded by shrubs was constructed near the entrance. Pathways bordered the stream. Native trees, bushes and flowers were planted to show our natural heritage and create a setting for an eye-pleasing adventure.

The meandering stream at the exhibit.
The meandering Northwoods stream built in the WCD Centennial Garden at the fair.

© DNR Photo

Hidden pipelines carried Milwaukee city water into the WCD park. It was aerated as it cascaded down a waterfall into a pool that contained live panfish and a sturgeon. The artificial stream was stocked with trout and northern pike. The lower portion of the stream flowed through a fenced area where two fawns and a mother deer lived and shared their home site with several beavers.

Downstream, the artificial brook flowed under a footbridge and entered a muskrat pond. As it left the pond, it continued on to the east side of the park and exited into a city drain.

The visitors could walk along the wide, graveled footpath bordered by a split-rail fence to view fish in the adjacent stream. The path turned away from the stream, and passed between a woven-wire enclosure for the deer on one side, and a grassy park on the other. The path turned again and crossed over the stream by way of a foot bridge near the beaver dam. As it continued on, the path went past the muskrat pond and a series of large wire cages containing fox, mink, raccoon and badgers. Following the path, visitors would return to the waterfall and pool, completing the visit to the Centennial Garden.

Norbert "Nibbs" Damaske and I were chosen to manage the site for half of the celebration month. It was our duty to feed and care for the live animals in the park area and also act as full-time docents, helping fairgoers enjoy their visit. Two men from the Wild Rose Fish Hatchery fed and cared for the fish; personnel from Kettle Moraine Forest maintained the landscaping and policed the park. They also supplied cut green popple trees for beaver food and dam material. Conservation wardens joined our staff to meet the visitors and answer questions. It was a fine, relaxing display and we all enjoyed working together during Wisconsin's Centennial Celebration.

I remember that the beaver and the deer particularly interested our visitors. It was in Milwaukee that I first observed beaver gnawing a tree down and constructing a dam. And it happened every evening under bright floodlights.

River beavers usually dig a tunnel in a streambank below the water line. The tunnel extends for a short distance under water and then turns upward to the nest area, which is above the water level. To keep the tunnel entrance hidden, the animals must create a pool by constructing a dam to hold water at a higher level.

In our Centennial Park the beavers built a dam across the stream about 20 feet from the public footpath. Each day we would remove a small part of the dam they had restored the previous night. This lowered the water level in the pool above the dam and exposed the den entrance. Then, we would dig a post-hole on high land near the water's edge and set a 10-foot-tall popple tree firmly in the ground.

Each evening shortly after sunset, the beavers would come out of the den. Since the water level had dropped below the den entrance, they would go immediately to the dam. They would inspect the opening where the water was rushing through. Looking around, they would see the live popple tree standing above the streambank, and they set to work.

The overhead flood lights and the large group of people did not frighten the animals. We had prepared the fence for this daily crowd by fastening a wooden rail along the top of the wire fence.

After checking the hole in the dam, the beavers would go to the tree, sit upright and start gnawing on the tree trunk. In a short time, the trunk of the tree was severed and the tree would fall, always toward the stream. Now the beavers could enjoy a meal of fresh popple leaves, twigs, and tender green bark. The freshly cut green popple trees are vital food for the animals; their incisors or fore teeth continue to grow daily and the beavers control their tooth growth by gnawing on wood. The inner side of beavers' incisors are composed of a softer tooth material and the gnawing process wears it away, leaving a sharp front edge of harder tooth surface, useful for chiseling into tree wood.

A short time later the animals would gnaw the tree trunk into baseball-bat size pieces and tug or push them to the water. After the pieces were in the water, the beavers floated them to the gap in the dam. Small limbs were wedged into the water opening and then sealed with mud. The beavers carried the mud to the dam by holding it against their chests with their forefeet while swimming or walking upright.

Once again the dam was sealed, and the water level slowly rose to hide the den entrance at the base of the streambank.

During the day, visitors were charmed by the friendly deer fawns that came to the fence to nuzzle the children.

There were times when we had a people problem. Occasionally some boys would pick up stones from the gravel path and throw them at the beavers. Our major concern was to prevent some of the visitors from giving candy, snacks and even cigarettes to the deer. The fawns would eat anything that was offered to them, and we could not permit this. Feeding could get out of control and injure the animals' health.

I remember the weather was sunny and warm for most of my two-week stay – ideal for enjoying the many outdoor events, concerts, dances and exhibits held during the Wisconsin State Centennial month at the State Fair grounds. It was an outstanding celebration for our 100 years of statehood, and I was really glad to be part of it.

Harold A. Steinke was a Wisconsin Conservation Department game manager from 1938 through 1974. He's retired and living in Oshkosh.