Thanks to the vision and persistence of Laura DeGolier, Fond du Lac now boasts what has until recently been a secret of sorts – a nature area of neatly kept 24 acres located in the middle of the city – the Greenway Arboretum.
Located just north of Culver’s, Pick ‘n Save and Pioneer Road, the Greenway features paths for walking, a prairie loop filled with new tree plantings, heavy woods which can be explored by trails and a “back to nature” feel just yards from businesses, restaurants and homes. The scenic East Branch of the Fond du Lac River forms the western border of the Greenway and one trail extends nearly a third mile along the waterway.
“The Greenway is a great place to escape and return to nature right here in the city,” said DeGolier.” You can walk up there, cross the railroad tracks and you are in a whole other world. Sometimes you could imagine yourself in the north woods. There is incredible natural beauty there when the frost falls on the plants or the soft winter snows come that cling to everything. It’s quiet; the river provides beauty and attraction for wildlife.”
The main entrance of the Greenway Arboretum is located between Pick ‘n Save and the Salvation Army Thrift Shop. Signage is located in an opening of a fence that was erected last fall to keep motorized vehicles (ATVs, snowmobiles, etc.) off of a newly seeded two-acre field that will eventually become a savanna with grasses, trees and plants that were native to this area before development.
Another access point is on the north end and connects a former railroad bed now turned into a walking path, from 12th Street. There are more than five trails in the Greenway plus several loops so that one can spend hours traversing the property.
DeGolier and several others, including Diana Beck, were instrumental in getting this city land turned into the greenway nature preserve that it is today. She had spoken to several people (Beck, Ruth Dauterman, Gerda Strupp, Christine Kaup, Margie Winter and Sid and Carol Knight were big supporters) about the importance of the property.
She explained that “a very small group of about six people had been meeting and doing some studies on parks. One of the speakers was from the East Central WI Planning Commission and he taught us that we should not try to change existing parks, but look to celebrate all the wonderful water that makes its way through Fond du Lac. My friends convinced me I should take action.” The result was a letter, dated Sept. 27, 2004, to Fond du Lac Parks Director John Kiefer.
After a meeting with Kiefer, DeGolier talked with the FDL League of Women Voters and other friends in the FDL Audubon Society and told them she asked the city for maps of the city’s open spaces. “I was told that no list existed and no maps existed to show the location. Finally in the summer of 2005, I told (City Manager) Wayne Rollin that I was going to put in a Freedom of Information request. Finally, in August of 2005, we got three copies of maps of the city with the open spaces outlined in red.”
DeGolier and Beck decided to explore the area that is now the Greenway Arboretum because it was one of the sizable pieces, and DeGolier likes its location because it was near her home. What they found out is that the property, once home to a house, had been turned into a dumping ground. Huge slabs of cement dumped there many years ago are still visible on the northeast edge of the property along the seldom used railroad tracks which serve as the east boundary of the greenway.
At that time that land was owned by Phil Majerus and he used it as a land fill, according to DeGolier. “There were heavy duty sewer pipes and other items with value in the area. We had a meeting with Mark Lentz, FDL Public Works Director, and Rollin and talked about this piece, mostly about the junk and metal items. The city sent the zoning officer and he suggested Majerus clean up the property (in 2006). He then promptly asked the city to buy it from him.”
The city was happy to do that, noted DeGolier, because cities can assess developers a fee or land when they do a new development for the purpose of creating a park. The city had money in such a fund in 2006 and the legislature was not happy with those who were sitting on such funds and not using the money. Rollin used $25,000 on 4.5 acres and in 2006 acquired the prairie area.
DeGolier, Beck and others soon found out that turning the property into a greenway would be a monumental task.
“The buckthorn was so thick that one had to crawl through in some parts. The garlic mustard grew in many places and was harder to reach through the briars,” said DeGolier. “We hauled out bags and bags of the mustard for the city to pick up.”
She also noted a local landscaper had huge piles of dirt in the open spaces piled 15 to 20 feet high. During rains, soil washed down through the Greenway to the river. It took volunteers several years to get the city to have the landscaper change his ways.
Today, a host of volunteers (many who have formed an informal group called Park Watch of Fond du Lac) have made great headway in the Greenway Arboretum. Those who walk it will notice huge brush piles of cut buckthorn limbs as well as piles of wood ready for the furnace or campfire. It is estimated that there are over three miles of trails in the property and more are being developed each week, especially now that spring has arrived.
She said the DNR early on gave some help and encouragement and some herbicides. “The City of Fond du Lac has always been incredibly helpful. They do some of the really big things that no one else can do like burning brush piles. There are two sections of trail that their summer crews built under the guidance of Mack Whitmore who has become a trained crew leader for the purpose of building trails.”
Also, Fond du Lac County and Consultants Lab provided the funds for the trees on the prairie – there are about 25 plants. Marian University under Dr. John Morris started very early in the greenway’s history to bring students to pull garlic mustard and work on buckthorn removal. Margie Winter continues his tradition. Fond du Lac Noon Kiwanis has gotten involved in the past year and the Community Service Officers of the FDL Police Department have taken a real interest in the Greenway. In 2014, DeGolier received a grant from the Fond du Lac Area Foundation to assist with the oak/hickory savanna restoration.
DeGolier is a Sheboygan County native and did not move to FDL until 1982. She started in the insurance profession as an agent with Thrivent Financial (AAL at the time) in December of 1979 and changed companies to Northwestern Mutual in 1983. On Feb. 1, 1999, she was appointed by Gov. Thompson to be the executive secretary of the Wisconsin Conservation Corps. Her term ended at the end of 2002 and the subsequent budget under Gov. Jim Doyle terminated the WCC. When DeGolier returned to Fond du Lac full time in 2003, she continued in the insurance business.
Her love of the outdoors led her to working on land restoration with The Nature Conservancy and the Greenway Arboretum.
To learn more about the Greenway Arboretum, contact Laura DeGolier at 920-921-4191 or 920-948-8041(cell).