Havenwoods State Forest in Milwaukee is the result of 'healing' after a military past
In early July, a group of about 20 first and second graders from Milwaukee's Atonement Lutheran School took a walk through a forest.
"Today, since we're talking about animals, we'll be looking at animal homes, animal tracks," their guide, Alex Olson told them. "You’ll probably see some squirrels and birds out there."
The students got most excited when they spotted a big spider, squealing and commenting on how it's camouflaged to its surroundings.
The school group was hiking in a 237-acre nature preserve, and they only had to travel a couple miles to find it.
Havenwoods State Forest, at Silver Spring Drive and Sherman Boulevard in Milwaukee, is the only urban state forest in Wisconsin. It’s an oasis of trees, prairie and wetland that is home to deer, turkeys, hawks, coyotes, snakes, turtles and frogs.
A Bubbler Talk listener sent us a question asking why Havenwoods was created.
A military past
With the help of the Milwaukee Public Library's Daniel Lee, we dug into the archives to look at Havenwoods' past. The history of the forest is one of punishment and war.
In the 1800s, much of what is now Havenwoods was farmland owned by the Zautcke family, who were German immigrants. Milwaukee County bought the Zautcke land and some other parcels in the early 1900s, and built a House of Correction there.
At the time, the area around Havenwoods was rural Granville township — it hadn't yet consolidated with Milwaukee.
The Army seized the House of Correction property in 1945 to use as disciplinary barracks. It held military prisoners, and briefly prisoners of war. The last prisoners left the barracks in 1950.
Between 1956-63, during the Cold War, it was one of eight Nike anti-aircraft missile sites in the Milwaukee area.
By the time Gaylord Yost moved to the Havenwoods neighborhood in 1975, the disciplinary barracks were empty and the property had fallen into disrepair.
"It was really a sort of a lost part of the city is what it was," says Yost, now an 89-year-old retired forester. "It was just a roughly abandoned property. There was an old farm building down on the southeast corner of it. Mostly it was grassed over, trees, brush."
As the city tried to figure out what to do with the old disciplinary barracks site, Milwaukee Alderman Ted Stude held a renaming contest in 1974. Custer High School student Lisbeth Sealy's entry of "Havenwoods" won.
In the 1970s, a group of residents calling themselves "Friends of Havenwoods" rallied to turn the blighted city property into a nature preserve. Yost joined the group, which was led by environmentalist Cari Backes.
"Cari Backes wanted it as a gem in the northwest corner — an environmental inspiration to the area of what can happen to a well-used abandoned property," Yost says.
There were others who wanted housing or factories on the site. The Milwaukee Tenants Union occupied the vacant barracks between 1969-71 to house evicted families.
Restoring the forest
But the environmentalists got the attention of politicians, including Wisconsin Gov. Martin Schreiber. He offered for the Department of Natural Resources to take over the property from the city.
The transfer happened in 1978, and since then, DNR has been working to restore the forest.
"It’s a healing process," says Milwaukee State Parks Superintendent Angela Vickio. "This is now decades worth of restoration, revegetation projects."
Vickio says people use the six miles of trails here for hiking, dog walking and birdwatching. Last year, it had over 100,000 visitors.
Havenwoods has an education mission. Families are invited to animal feedings at its nature center, which houses turtles and snakes. School groups frequently visit for field trips.
"We are doing something positive where this didn’t necessarily have a highly positive past," Vickio says. "There were a lot of things that were controversial in it. And you know, I think it’s to our benefit to ensure this continues to be a positive place for people to come."
The forest sits in a predominately Black community, and Vickio says there is work to be done to better engage those neighbors.
One group already doing that work is Nearby Nature, led by Steven Hunter. He brings schoolchildren to Havenwoods as part of a nature education class.
"Bringing kids out here — it’s a perfect place," Hunter says. "We’re Nearby Nature. We hear from our white counterparts, 'Oh we went to Door County, we went to these places.' And I’m like, OK, those are access conversations. But Havenwoods provides that same level of access right here in the city."
DNR Secretary Preston Cole is putting more emphasis on green spaces located in diverse areas. For the first time in years, Havenwoods is getting a full-time educator to expand outreach.
Vickio hopes more people get to experience the mental health benefits of being in nature.
"One of the things that I like to do with groups when we’re outside is to take some time and purposely be quiet," says Vickio. "You hear birds chirping, you hear crickets, you hear animals moving around, you hear the wind moving between the leaves on the trees. And just to spend time to quiet your mind can really be useful in urban areas."
After decades serving military and punitive purposes, Havenwoods is now a quiet sanctuary — a haven.
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