How did Schlitz Audubon Nature Center come to be?
Our living museum is integrally tied to Milwaukee’s fascinating brewing legacy. It is quite the story of which highlights include:
- The Center is located on what was once known as Nine Mile Farm — in the 1800’s. The Uihlein family and the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company consolidated several farm parcels to create the existing stretch of land along Lake Michigan.
- The name, Nine Mile Farm, originated from its distance of 9 miles to/from the Schlitz Brewery. The open fields were used for resting the brewery’s draft horses.
- Once horse drawn carriages became obsolete, the land became the Uihlein family recreational area and remained in a relatively natural state.
- In 1952, Nine Mile Farm was conveyed to the Schlitz Foundation. For many years alternate uses for development of the land were considered as a means to fund the foundation’s philanthropic initiatives. Residents of the Village of Bayside took legal action to block the required zoning change for such developments.
- By 1960, a nature center movement was gaining momentum through the efforts of organizations such as the National Audubon Society. Dorothy Kopmeier Vallier, a Bayside resident and nature-enthusiast, proposed the Nine Mile Farm be preserved as a nature education center. She was initially turned down but repeated her efforts for several years and never gave up.
- In 1969, Dorothy joined forces with a group of Bayside citizens – Citizens for Nine Mile Farm. Among other activities, they polled Bayside residents and results showed that 75% of the citizens favored a nature center.
- Finally, in 1971, the project won the support of Joseph Uihlein and was unanimously approved by the Schlitz Foundation directors.
- Negotiations with National Audubon resulted in their agreement to accept responsibility for the nature center if an endowment of at least one million dollars for operating costs, as well as funds to cover the initial capital requirements, were provided.
- Dorothy offered one-million dollars as her endowment gift, and Joseph Uihlein and his friend John Cleaver pledged $450,000 for capital improvements. The offer was accepted by National Audubon and an agreement was drawn up to indicate that the Center would be operated exclusively as a nature center for at least 20 years.
- In 1974, local Center supporters persuaded National Audubon to transfer management of the endowment to a locally owned and managed bank, First Wisconsin Trust Company.
- Between 1971 and 1974 it became apparent that the endowment could not fully support the Center’s ambitious educational program agenda and, therefore, the Friends of Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, a volunteer fundraising organization, was created and incorporated in 1975. In less than six years, Center membership grew to over 1,000 and Friends of Schlitz Audubon Nature Center was contributing more than $100,000 annually to Center operations.
- In 1982, the Friends of Schlitz Audubon Nature Center was given primary responsibility for fundraising, as well as management oversight. They committed to National Audubon to raise funds sufficient to cover any Center operating deficit over and above earned revenues and endowment income.
- In 2014, the Friends of Schlitz Audubon Nature Center negotiated a new agreement with National Audubon Society effective July 1, 2014. Under this agreement National Audubon continues to own the land and buildings, which are operated and maintained by the Friends of Schlitz Audubon Nature Center under a 25 year grounds lease and management agreement. The Friends of Schlitz Audubon Nature Center ensures the funding and resources for the Center’s operations and improvements. The staff members are now employees of the Friends of Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, rather than National Audubon. We continue to be proud partners with National Audubon, working together in the areas of education and avian conservation.
We treasure our storied history and today the Center’s programs and influence have far surpassed the expectations of its founders. Each year, the Center serves over 145,000 visitors and nearly 27,000 children participate in nature science programs. In addition, 142 preschoolers are enrolled throughout the school year in our nationally recognized nature preschool program.
The Schlitz Audubon Nature Center was founded by people with a great love of nature and a strong land ethic. These values have been passed down through the years by all who have been involved with the Center. Because of these shared values, the Center continues to thrive and grow and be an active contributor to the quality of life in the Milwaukee community.