Sanctuary Woods: Restoring an old growth forest with ‘historical roots’
By Jonathan Piel
The historic woodland, recently added to County Grounds Park, has been loved and then neglected and now loved again. In the past two decades since the Milwaukee County Grounds was declared “surplus” by then County Executive Ament, who threatened to sell it for development, the community has rallied to its defense many times. Unfortunately, during this same period of reawakening to the value of the land a creeping blight has slowly engulfed portions of it in the form of invasive buckthorn. Sanctuary Woods has been especially hard hit. With the leadership of newly formed Friends of County Grounds Park that blight is finally being tackled.
Under the supervision of Milwaukee County Parks, several Milwaukee organizations came together on Saturday, Sept. 19 to help improve the park, as well as to provide development opportunities for Boy Scouts. Hoppe Tree Service, a local, family-owned business, donated the time of their trained staff and board-certified master arborist Freddy Hoppe, and brought in special equipment to remove and dispose of a high volume of buckthorn. Additional support was provided by The Park People of Milwaukee – Weed Out® Program.
The four-hour event was organized by an Eagle Scout candidate from Boy Scout Troop 68. The scouts who participated, while clearing a prodigious amount of buckthorn, also learned about civic engagement, natural resource stewardship, tool use, teamwork, and safety. This event was planned well before the COVID-19 crisis began and while many other park-related events have been cancelled, all parties coordinated to maximize safety while supporting parks and scouting.
The 55-acre County Grounds Park, featuring rolling prairie and wetlands, was established in 2007. Located north of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, it is accessible from 87th Street and along Discovery Parkway. In 2019, the 58 adjacent acres known as “Sanctuary Woods” was re-zoned to Conservation Status and annexed to the park, which now totals over 110 acres. In response to the rezoning, Friends of County Grounds Park was formed in January 2020 under the sponsorship of the Park People.
To leverage the momentum associated with the new group, a buckthorn remediation event was held in March (pre-COVID-19 shutdown). This event included 20 volunteers, also including Boy Scouts, with additional equipment and support provided by Ken Solis of The Park People of Milwaukee – Weed Out® Program.
According to first-hand accounts, the buckthorn in this area was intentionally planted in the early 1980’s when it was considered a desirable, fast-growing ornamental plant, in an attempt to better define the paths and reduce social trails. 30 years later buckthorn covers over 20 acres, clearly revealing its invasive nature. The buckthorn in Sanctuary Woods has been described by parks staff as among the densest infestations they have seen. Removal will revive the natural ecology and has some added benefits because of the history of the area.
In 1880 a mental health hospital was built near this site. A mature oak forest adjacent to the hospital was designated into men’s and women’s groves specifically for the recreation and rehabilitation of the patients. This was a significant improvement over the previous hospital environment where patients’ only outdoor experience was a 14’x14’ yard in the rear of the hospital building enclosed by a 12-foot high board fence. “This is the only place for their recreation and is innocent of any tree, shrub or flower,” said Dr. Fisk Holbrook Day in 1865.
That old growth oak forest remains in 2020, featuring dozens of 100- to 300-year-old oaks, although there are nearly no younger oaks. The clearing of buckthorn will help restore the forest’s lifecycle.
Over 80 years, patients of the hospital engaged in, and were compensated for, “work therapy” (modern day physical therapy and occupational therapy). This included using their talents to further beautify the expansive grounds including, “A pavilion of split-boulder construction has been erected in the men’s grove. This is not only a substantial, but very ornamental structure and will prove valuable in case of a sudden storm arising while the patients are in the grove.” (Dr. Moses J. White – 1916.) That pavilion was a post-and-beam style with a full shingled roof.
That “Men’s Pavilion” remained intact through the 1950s, and remnants of the 3’ high split-boulder foundation can still be found today. For modern visitors who seek these “Sanctuary Woods” for connecting with nature, the remains of the pavilion are still a popular destination, although limited by the incursion of thick buckthorn. The current remediation event will help free up access to this century-old structure.
The Friends of County Grounds Park have started up with other strong inertia too. Even during Covid, they have been offering a series of “outdoor classrooms”. These are several tours every month, with masked groups of 10 or fewer to provide education on history, botany, hydrology, cemeteries, butterflies, and dog-coyote safety events. A photo blog can be found on Milwaukee’s Wealth of Nature site at: https://awealthofnature.org/an-historic-tour-of-sanctuary-woods/.
There is a recognition that the buckthorn management will be a decades-long project not only to address all the connected acres, but also for repeated retreatment. All this investment in 2020 lays a strong foundation that is anticipated to last for years to come. 2020 is a difficult year to organize any new group, but all this activity also provided positive media coverage. County Grounds Park / Sanctuary Woods was recently featured in CBS 58 Sunday Morning, “Around the Corner with John McGivern” episode 911, and has its own entry in Michelle Madden’s “111 Places in Milwaukee That You Must Not Miss.” If interested in learning more about the history, education, or land-stewardship initiatives, visit www.countygroundsfriends.org or follow online at www.facebook.com/friendsofcountygroundspark. This includes an interactive map that can be used on a mobile device for a “Do-It-Yourself” tour ideal for completing with members of the same household unit.
Click here for related stories about Sanctuary Woods.
Jonathan Piel is an amateur historian and founding president of Friends of County Grounds Park (FOCGP). Except as noted, all photography is by Eddee Daniel, who is a board member of FOCGP as well as Preserve Our Parks.