By: Leslie Covell Hershberger
There are few organizations in the Dodge County area that have accomplished as much as the Friends of Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center. Their accomplishments have greatly impacted not only the popularity of Horicon Marsh and the wildlife education program there, but with the building of a state of the art Education Center and soon to open “Explorium,” their efforts have and will continue to make a positive impact on the local economy in Dodge County and beyond. Hundreds of thousands of people have come to visit the Education Center and Horicon Marsh, and the direct spending by those visitors at local businesses has undeniably made a difference. Here is the story of the Friends.
Background and History
Horicon Marsh is a 33,000-acre wetland and the largest cattail marsh in the United States. The Ramsar Convention has formally recognized it as a Wetland of International Importance. The marsh was also recently named one of the “Seven Wonders of Wisconsin” and chosen to be the most significant natural area to see in the state by CNN.
The Wildlife Education Program at Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area has been conducted since the mid-1980s. The program focuses on the abundant wildlife resources of the marsh, their ecology, and applied management. For many years, public naturalist programs, special events and school education programs were developed to complement in-class curricula. The wildlife education curriculum was designed to connect people with wildlife and their environment by providing outdoor education programs. However, due to a lack of facilities, this education program relied almost entirely on the trail system at Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area. A downstairs meeting room in the old building on Palmatory Street in Horicon occasionally served as the only classroom available for indoor lessons, workshops, and a place to escape during inclement weather. In spite of these constraints, the Horicon Marsh Wildlife Education Program was successful in providing educational experiences for thousands of people. However, the growing demand for education services required a larger facility to be able to expand programming. As a result, a goal was established to develop a new education center.
In 1992 a group of businessmen from the Mayville and Horicon area along with staff from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) began to talk about the idea of a new education center on Horicon Marsh. As the discussion progressed, they began to look at a property that had housed the Flyway Medical Clinic. The doctors that were using the building had decided to sell the facility and approached the DNR about purchasing the building. The building was purchased by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that year. The 16,000 square foot building was located along Hwy 28 between Horicon and Mayville. Only the upper floor of the facility had actually been developed. This served as the DNR’s Service Center in the Horicon Marsh area and tentative plans were drawn up to expand this to also serve as an education facility. This was the beginning of something great that would be built in Horicon, Wisconsin, right on the edge of Horicon Marsh!
The non-profit organization, Friends of Horicon Marsh International Education Center, was formed to develop the property into a first class Education Center. Their purpose and mission was to perpetuate and promote the work of natural resources, wildlife and conservation education. In the beginning, the Friends primary goal was to fundraise to build the Education Center. Following a long campaign, sufficient funds were eventually raised to allow hiring of an architect to develop the final construction plans. This provided both blueprints and a project budget, which helped drive the final phase of fundraising. In the end, the Friends group reached its goal of raising $1.9 million. The State of Wisconsin also contributed through the Building Commission establishing a $4.8 million project, which provided funding to remodel the offices as well as design an 18,865 square foot addition to the building. Construction began in November of 2007. Much of the original building was kept and after 18 months the new Education Center was completed in late March 2009. Due to its international significance, and the fact that scientists from around the world have traveled here for professional training to improve conservation programs in their own countries, this facility was originally named the International Education Center. In 2013, the building was renamed Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center to more clearly reflect the mission of why it is here. The Friends are now known as Friends of Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center.
The Education Center is under construction again. The latest project is a $3.8m interpretive center, which is called the Explorium. It is stage 2 of the building and will have its grand opening on August 22. This project has had six years of planning and fundraising to bring it to fruition.
About the Explorium
This summer, guests will have a unique opportunity to travel through time as they explore some of the exciting new features on display. Long before Horicon Marsh achieved international status as an important bird and wildlife area and a destination for outdoor recreation, glaciers carved a basin where a wetland would one day form. Today, guests of Horicon Marsh’s Explorium can get a glimpse of life at Horicon Marsh thousands of years before European settlement and witness how the current wetland came to be. Narrating the experience, a Clovis point arrowhead keeps visitors company throughout the journey as they view, listen to, touch, and even smell exhibits that document the changes to the marsh over time.
Videos and interactive displays greet guests at every turn, encouraging audiences of any age to learn more about the history and ecology of Horicon Marsh. A wooly mammoth replica that children are free to touch and climb on represents wildlife that roamed the land during the Ice Age and also served as an important food source for early Native Americans. Relics from the age of European settlement, as well as modern hunting and trapping equipment illustrate the marsh’s popularity as a waterfowl hunting site. Games encourage visitors to learn about wildlife identification. Viewers can also gain a singularly thrilling perspective on the management and conservation activities currently occurring on the marsh before heading out to enjoy it for themselves. These exhibits are just a taste of the many educational themes the new Explorium will feature. It is designed to be interesting and fun for children and adults. It has that wow factor that you want when you go to see something new. Information about the Explorium is available at www.horiconmarsh.org.
About the Friends
The Friends of Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center have been in existence for 21 years. Besides the two major projects described above, the Friends have provided leadership and funding to contribute signage, a 1400 foot boardwalk, parking areas, large outdoor binoculars and stand for viewing the marsh, a new audio visual system for the auditorium, picnic tables, supplies for the wildlife education program, interpretive kiosks on the marsh and much more. Throughout their existence, they have continuously helped fund the wildlife education program and events at the Education Center. The Friends have also provided countless hours of volunteer assistance to the education program and center. They have a volunteer pool of over 200 people. The 18,865 square foot Education Center addition and the new 4500 square foot Explorium illustrate the Friends’ vision and commitment to environmental education and to the local communities.
Wildlife Supervisor Bret Owsley has great things to say about the Friends. “The Friends of Horicon Marsh provide an opportunity for people to become more involved with what is occurring at the Education and Visitor Center and at Horicon Marsh. Starting in August, members of the Friends Group will receive discounted prices on admission fees to the Horicon Marsh Explorium.” The Friends and DNR work together to provide great opportunities for the visitors at Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area and the Education Center. Bret added, “My hope is that when people come to visit Wisconsin, one of their first stops will be the Horicon Marsh Explorium and anytime you have people coming to the area, I think the local communities will be able to take advantage of that increased visitation because of the opportunity for more revenue in their businesses.”
Past president Fred C. Schwertfeger of Wauwatosa reflects on his time on the Friends Board of Directors. “I have been part of the Friends group for about six years. Past president Jerry Voy asked me to join considering my background with exhibitions. The best experiences have been the planning process for these upcoming interpretive displays. Other highlights have been the great turnouts for the annual candlelight hikes which last year drew over 3000 people. I recommend that everyone become a member of the Friends group. People can enjoy invitations to different and interesting events and get newsletter updates. They also can be satisfied knowing they are contributing to the preservation of the Horicon Marsh and promoting its programming which in turn boosts the local communities.”
The DNR Wildlife Education staff in cooperation with the Friends group at Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center plans and executes quality programming throughout the year. There are some great programs/events that are repeated every year. One is the Candlelight Snowshoe/Hike event in January. Over two miles of trails are lighted with luminaries and there is big bonfire, stargazing, owl talks, crafts and snacks. It requires over 55 volunteers and staff members to put it on every year. Some other every year events include the Nest Box Seminar in March, and Tour De Marsh and Paddle Horicon Marsh that are both in June. In addition, the Wildlife Education staff provides programs for school groups, scout troops, and other groups by request. There is some sort of program offered at the Education Center nearly every week.
The Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center is located at N7725 Hwy 28, Horicon, Wisconsin. To join the Friends of Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center or to become a volunteer, go to www.horiconmarsh.org or call 920-387-7890. More information about programs and events can also be found on the website.
Past president Jerry Voy of Horicon says, “I’ve been a Friends member for over 20 years, having served as a charter officer who helped draft the original by-laws. The best and most rewarding experience was serving as President during construction and the opening of the Center, which required lots of coordination with the DNR as our operating partner and lots of respect/friendship for DNR employees! I believe our natural resources are our lifeline and the Friends offer an opportunity of ownership in that process . . . It also provides an opportunity for many to enrich their lives by serving as a volunteer. I’d recommend that everyone become a Friends member and consider becoming a volunteer too!
“My personal experience of the Horicon Marsh centers around family. My grandparents owned the property known as “Conservation Hill” where the Palmatory Field Office is located. My personal residence for over 40 years neighbors the SE corner of the State Wildlife Area. My son Ryan operated a personal tour service (Horicon Marsh Excursions) and currently serves as officer of Horicon Marsh Wounded Warriors, a 3-day marsh experience for our military. My wife Betty earned 2010 Volunteer of Year. The recreation opportunities of the Horicon Marsh have provided my family many fun experiences – birding, hiking, biking, canoeing, and of course, hunting and fishing.”