Presentation focuses on American School of Wildlife Protection, started 100 years ago

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Osborne’s Older, Wiser, Livelier Souls (OWLS) visited the McGregor Historical Museum last week to learn more about the American School of Wildlife Protection. Museum director Diane Malcom offered a short presentation on the school, which was held for the first time 100 years ago. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

The OWLS group made a quick visit to the McGregor Heights, viewing where the Wildlife School’s pavilion and observation tower were once located. They also enjoyed the scenic overlook of the Mississippi River. (Submitted photo)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Osborne’s Older, Wiser, Livelier Souls (OWLS) group visited the McGregor Historical Museum last week to learn more about the American School of Wildlife Protection—a fitting topic considering 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the notable institution on the McGregor Heights.

“The Wildlife School started in 1919, so it’s a landmark year, and it lasted until 1941,” shared museum director Diane Malcom. Similar to today, she noted, “There seemed to be a heightened awareness of how wildlife, green space, preservation and conservation of these beautiful areas was kind of starting to fade because of urban sprawl.”

“Many conservationists,” she added, “also really wanted to see a national park, which we eventually got, established on the Upper Mississippi River because of birding. They thought there were many rare species of birds coming through here, and we had a lot of rare foliage.”

The first session was five days long, growing out of the Iowa Conservation Association’s 1918 summer meeting. Among the founders were doctors Louis Pammel and G.B. MacDonald from Iowa State College and Bohumil Shimek and Thomas McBride of the State University of Iowa.

Malcom said organizers originally considered convening at the Swift Tower, in nearby National. 

“Althea Sherman said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to work here in National because the birds aren’t that prolific in the middle of the summer,’” Malcom detailed, and that’s when the group wanted to meet.

The McGregor Citizens Association helped organize the event and later pooled money to build the pavilion, only the foundation of which exists today. They also started making small cottages. Eventually, the Heights Hotel was constructed, as were two separate observation towers.

“The first tower was built in the same time frame as the pavilion, but it was torn down and they used the lumber to build more cottages,” said Malcom. “The owner of the Heights Hotel constructed the second tower—an even taller tower—and he claimed, from the top of the tower, you could see three states. That, too, was eventually torn down.”

 After the first, five-day conference, Malcom said proceeding years’ conferences lasted longer—up to two weeks. Each conference began with a trip on the Mississippi River, likely in canoes, along with a fish fry and slide presentation.

People of all ages attended the Wildlife School, staying in the cottages or tents on the Heights, or in hotels or homes in McGregor.

Topics covered included Indian lore, botany, geology, forestry, entomology and ornithology. Teachers and scientists came from colleges in Iowa and the rest of Midwest, as well as state and federal conservation agencies. Although it was termed a “school,” no textbooks or tests were ever involved; it was all for the fun of being outdoors and learning about conservation.

The American School of Wildlife Protection was the first of its kind in the United States. The last session was held in 1941, brought to a close by gas rationing and the pressure of World War II.

Those who would like to learn more about the Wildlife School and view photos and postcards can visit the McGregor Historical Museum. Malcom said many artifacts from that period are also in the archives at Iowa State University.

“There are glass slides with photos, as well as transcripts, biographies of some of the presenters and other pertinent information,” she remarked.

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