Riveredge Nature Center: Established in 1968

The idea for establishing a nature center was originated by the Whitefish Bay Garden Club in the spring of 1965 during the presidency of Isabel Lillie. It was a “big dream” for such a small group, 25 women, who hoped in the beginning only to create a facility for environmental education for the children of Whitefish Bay. A committee first inspected the site that was to become Riveredge Nature Center in the fall of 1965. In January,1968, the Riveredge Foundation was formed. The immediate goal was to raise the funds necessary to purchase a parcel of land, which, with the aid of area scientists, was identified as filling the needs for a center. The land, the Grady tract, was located near Newburg on the Milwaukee River.

The following editorial appeared in the May 7, 1968 issue of the Milwaukee Journal describing the goal of the nature center: “One price of our galloping urbanization is the blotting out of little patches of untouched beauty and peace within the cities’ shadow-the marshes, the untrammeled river banks, the bits of wild land. There are fine public parks to be sure, manicured and cultivated. But how much wild land? Very little. That is why it is particularly important to set aside 72 acres of wild Ozaukee land along the Milwaukee River near Newburg. A private, non-profit group of citizens, the Riveredge Foundation, hopes to raise the monies to buy and preserve the land as a nature study center for the area’s school children.”

A fund drive was organized and launched in October, 1968. The first major contribution received for the drive came from the Whitefish Bay Women’s Club. The sixth grade class of Richards School staged a “Laugh-In” and raised $11.90 for the Center. Slowly, ever so slowly, reflecting the efforts of hundreds of adults and kids, the funds grew. At the end of October, the Riveredge Board, not without some anxiety, committed $14,500 as down payment on the purchase of the land. In early December,1968, the seed germinated when the land along the river was purchased. A dream became reality.

In January, 1969, the Junior League of Milwaukee, in a magnanimous and farsighted gesture, contributed $33,000 to the center for the development of the educational program. Specifically the funds would permit the center to hire a professional naturalist and educator. Andy Larsen was hired in June and began work on August 1–and the fun began! In an article printed in the second newsletter Andy wrote, “The goal to which Riveredge must dedicate itself is the development of environmentally literate citizens.” This is a goal as vital now as it was in 1968.

An eager, intrepid group of adults arrived at Riveredge on an October day in 1969 to begin their careers as volunteer-teacher naturalists. Throughout the winter of 1969-70 plans were laid for the initiation of educational programs for school classes. Funded through a grant from the Milwaukee Foundation, elementary students from schools in six school districts were chosen to pilot the Center’s programs.

With educational programs underway it was apparent that additional land would be required to accomplish the Center’s twofold mission of environmental education and natural area preservation. Thus in mid-July of 1970 the board of directors voted to purchase 70 acres of the “Sugarline Farm.” At the time many of the fields bore a stubble of corn. The board saw past that stubble and today those fields are alive with prairie plants, insects and curious children. An additional 72 acres of land, including the tamarack swamp, was purchased in 1972, and ponds were dug on the Sugarline Farm.

In the autumn of 1971 alone, over 2,300 students visited the center. By 1972, there were over 8,000 alums and the first in service training of teachers occurred. 1985 found Riveredge Creek recognized for its unique quality as it was designated a state natural area. Also, in that year, an additional 51 acres of land was added to the sanctuary reflecting the board’s awareness of the necessity of size as a component of species preservation.

Designation of the Milwaukee River as a priority watershed focused the Center’s attention to its role as a steward of this waterway. Staff involvement from 1986 onward in the educational efforts necessary to clean up the river led toward a future leadership role in the “Testing the Waters” program.

A concern for the ability of the Center to respond to the growing demands for its services led to the announcement in December 1988, of the intent of the Center to construct an environmental education center and an endowment to support the facility. This was the step that would lead Riveredge into the 90’s and would permit Riveredge to lead in the ’90’s.

Building on its early success, Riveredge now offers curriculum development assistance to schools and teachers, continuing education courses for teachers of all grade levels, an outreach program to serve urban and rural areas, and a wide range of educational enrichment programs for the general public. These programs are offered in addition to the 24 basic school programs for children available at the Center from September to June.

Today, Riveredge programs offer students the opportunity to experience and investigate the natural environment under the guidance of skilled environmental educators. Emphasizing outdoor experiences in all seasons, the Riveredge “style” is characterized by small group learning that encourages inquiry, exploration, and problem-solving. Through the process of science-based, hands-on inquiry, learners build their own answers.

The Riveredge sanctuary, now 379 acres, is a “learning laboratory” that is at the center of its educational opportunities. The biodiversity of the land at Riveredge provides a teaching tool for understanding interconnectedness, development of specific sustainable systems for energy, shelter, food, waste, water, and land management and is integrated into Riveredge’s programming.


  • 1964

    Isabel Lillie learns about schools using forest laboratories to teach science.

  • 1965

    Isabel Lillie, with support from Lorrie Otto, Marge Reisinger and Donna Hodgson begin advocating for a nature center to serve the North Shore area of Milwaukee.

  • 1968

    Riveredge is created as a nature sanctuary with the purchase of 72 acres along the Milwaukee River.

  • 1969

    Naturalist G. Andrew Larsen joins Riveredge to continue development of the Nature Center.

  • 1970

    First environmental education classes begin.

  • 1975

    Riveredge acquires ten acres of land on the south side of Highway Y that include a barn and farmhouse facilities for class space, office area and storage room.

  • 1977

    Ecology conference for adults begins under the name of Eco Focus.

  • 1985

    Most recent land purchase brings total acreage to 351.

  • 1988

    After 20 years, Riveredge is one of the oldest and one of the largest nature centers in southeastern Wisconsin.

  • 1989

    Riveredge launches a $2.5 million capital fund drive, the first in its history.

  • 1991

    Staff and volunteers move into new education/visitor building.

  • 1993

    25th Anniversary is celebrated.

  • 2006

    The Milwaukee River Lake Sturgeon Streamside Rearing Facility is installed near the Sugar Inn and the first volunteers are trained to operate the facility. In fall, 27 imprinted lake sturgeon are released by Riveredge and the Wisconsin DNR into the Milwaukee River.