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Fountain Lake Farm: John Muir's Boyhood Home

In 1849, a family from Scotland homesteaded 160 acres in what is now Marquette County, Wisconsin. Fountain Lake Farm, they called it. They raised a house and several outbuildings, planted lilacs and maple trees, and wrung a meager living from the thin, sandy soil. Seven years later, the family - Muir was their name - moved to a new, more fertile acreage.

But for young John Muir, the worth of Fountain Lake Farm was not measured by its crops (or by their lack). Instead, in its "sunny woods, overlooking a flowery glacial meadow and a lake rimmed with water lilies," he developed a profound love for nature and an abiding respect for things wild, the values that shaped the course of his entire life. Muir became America's most eloquent, impassioned spokesman for the preservation of wilderness. He was the "father" of the National Parks, and the founder of the Sierra Club. And while he spent countless hours exploring the spectacular mountains, canyons and glaciers of California and Alaska, his thoughts returned again and again to his boyhood at Fountain Lake Farm. Those who study John Muir say that Fountain Lake Farm was to him what Walden Pond was to Thoreau .

In fact, Muir tried to buy the farm on at least three occasions, seeking to create, as his spiritual heir Aldo Leopold put it, "a sanctuary for the wildflowers that had gladdened his youth." He was unsuccessful - his brother, who owned the property then, refused to sell - but at least it appears that Fountain Lake Farm will receive the recognition it deserves.

The parcel known as the "home 80," including John Muir Memorial County Park, was recently designated a National Historic Landmark. The National Park Service, in cooperation with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Marquette County, and ecologist and landscape architect Erik Brynildson, whose house stands on the site of the original Muir home, are putting together a long-term plan for the area. Preserving and interpreting its natural history will be an emphasis, along with taking advantage of the farm's potential as a classroom for environmental education.

"This is the first place," observes Brynildson, "that any American conceived the notion of preserving nature for its own sake. We're used to thinking of historical significance in terms of architecture - Victorians and Queen Annes. Here, it's the living ingredients of the landscape that are important." Two of those ingredients are the lilacs and maples that John Muir helped plant, still rooted in that sandy soil. Another, rooted even more securely, is Muir's spirit.

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