50th Flashback

It’s a little hard to believe, but Riveredge, the little dream that could, is celebrating 50 years of changing lives through environmental education in 2018! As we enter a big year of 50th anniversary celebrations, we wanted to include a photo spread in our most recent print newsletter of the early history of Riveredge some members may not know about. Of course, limited space meant we had to cut a lot of info on those photos, so here they are in their full glory with even more details. 🙂 


Although the land that would become the foundation of Riveredge was long inhabited by Native American tribes, including the Sauk and Potawatomi, the area was opened to settlers in the early 1830’s after these tribes were (often forcefully) resettled. The parcel that would become Riveredge was first bought in 1835, but it doesn’t appear any of the successive owners actually lived here until Oscar Grady, a reclusive man some in the area took to calling “the hermit”, bought the land in 1929 and moved here permanently in 1935. Grady fell in love with the natural wonder of the area and wanted to share his enjoyment with others, especially young people. He began building recreational facilities on the site out of stone along with an observation tower, several concession stands, and a round platform for dancing and bingo with dreams of throwing year-round festivals and shows, a sort of amusement park of fun. Although this fantasy never materialized in his lifetime, you can still find the remnants of these “Riveredge Ruins” on hikes through the sugar bush standing as testaments to an eccentric dreamer.  


The seeds for what were to become Riveredge were formed at a spring 1965 meeting of the Whitefish Bay Garden Club. This group of 25 forward thinking women, led by their President Isabel Lillie, had a big dream of creating an environmental education facility for the children of Whitefish Bay. As they studied the needs and possible solutions, their big dream kept on growing until it encompassed a place where all residents of metropolitan Milwaukee could experience and be transformed by the natural world and where such a preserve could be established for generations to come. In November of 1968, the “Riveredge Foundation” that formed out of the Garden Club’s initial planning was presented with 72 acres of land along the Milwaukee River by  Dr. Edwin Grady, who now held the land after his brother died in 1965. The Foundation saw its promise, and in November of 1968 gave a $15,000 down payment. Riveredge was born. The audacious and forward thinking dream of the Whitefish Bay Garden Club had become a reality and, fittingly, Oscar Grady’s dream of his land serving as a location for young people to discover nature was realized, too.


Now that the land was secured, more funding and buy-in from the community was needed. Amazingly, it appears Wisconsin Senator and environmental legend, Gaylord Nelson, was a part of these efforts, recording videos to promote a Riveredge membership drive. Senator Nelson would lead the efforts to create the very first Earth Day held just one month after this thank you note was sent. If any long-time Riveredge supporters know more about these tapes or have copies, we’d love to learn more!


After Andy Larsen was hired in 1970 as the first educator at Riveredge, his passion and talent soon became apparent. As Lorrie Otto, one of the most involved early founders, said in a 1991 letter honoring Andy, “The Riveredge Board realized they had hired “one Hell-of-a-teacher” and then “stood aside and allowed Andy Larsen to pioneer teaching methods at this first nature center in southeastern Wisconsin”. As Andy trained the very first group of dedicated volunteer teacher naturalists, the environmental education efforts bloomed. By 1974, over 10,000 students a year were participating in hands-on learning at efforts. As Riveredge grew, so too did the need for more teaching space, and this need grew ever more urgent when a fire destroyed the service building and educational equipment Riveredge had been using. A stroke of luck came in 1975 when the owners of Sugarline Farm offered to sell their ten acres adjoining Riveredge’s land. This sale would allow the barn’s conversion into classrooms and offices and this new land expansion would eventually be the site of the permanent nature center we have today, built in 1991. Above, a view of the new property in 1975 and what the same area looks like today.


Riveredge goes international! Partnering with the the Milwaukee Public Museum, funds were raised to purchase and protect a 750 acre tract of the Costa Rican Rain Forest and to build an educational center there called the Tirimbina Rainforest Center. What were these Southeastern Wisconsin institutions doing in Costa Rica? Both organizations realized nature knows no boundaries and that by creating an incredible new environmental education destination for students, teachers, and eco-tourists around the world while also protecting a virgin tract of rainforest that is home to innumerable species, including many migrating birds from Wisconsin, they could both expand their missions of education, research, and conservation. Although Riveredge gave up its sponsorship stake in 2000, Tirimbina continues strong as a nonprofit educational, scientific and ecotourism destination.

We can’t wait to celebrate 50 years of education, conservation, preservation, and research in 2018. We’ll have lots more features on Riveredge’s history, and we hope you’ll mark your calendars and plan on joining us for the 50th Anniversary Gala on Saturday, September 8. Watch for more special events throughout the year!

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