A legacy of hard work
At the dawn of the greatest challenge ever to face the western world, Sigurd Rudorf and Dolores Duehning (affectionately known as “Sig” and “Sparky”) wed. It was 1940. As a young bride, Sparky was already accustomed to hard work. She was the oldest of 14 children and had grown up in Slinger during the Great Depression. “It wasn’t easy,” she recalled. “There was always at least one child that needed a diaper or something and as the oldest, I did a great deal of work.” Sig attended school in Slinger but had been raised near Big Cedar Lake. He grew up in the “Sunbeam” cottage ( a name given to the one-room kit by the dwelling’s manufacturer) on Boettcher Drive with his mother and father who were employed by August Tews. This was an unexpected but welcome opportunity for Sig’s parents. They had left Germany with their 10-year-old son in 1928 in search of a better life in the United States of America.
Heinz Rudorf, Sig’s father, was a character actor. Their first home in the new country was a temporary stay with relatives in Hoboken, New Jersey. Although his mother, Wilhemine Friedel (“Minny”), found steady work cleaning houses along the Hudson River, it was clear that this area would not be fruitful grounds in which to pursue an acting career. German-speaking character actors were not in very high demand during this country’s attempts to recover from the height of the Great Depression. Still, Minny understood instinctively that things would turn for the worse in Germany and that they should continue to make their lives here. News of thriving German language productions at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin inspired Minny to convince Heinz to move westward. Once in Milwaukee, even the Pabst Theater could not provide steady and reliable work. But August Tews, a patron of the theater, admired the ambitious couple. He offered both of them an opportunity to live in a cottage and work at his property on Big Cedar Lake. Once there, Heinz took care of the grounds while Minny attended to the housekeeping.
Learning a Love for the Land
Young Sig, although still struggling to learn English, set out to explore the boundless surrounding nature in his new environment. Sig always remained grateful to young men he met here for helping him to grasp his new language. He remembered watching George and Leonard Tews and marveling at the fact that they knew how to master any task. “Their short phrases and direct manner of speaking accelerated my ability to understand English,” Sig recalled.
Sig’s sharp mind recorded every detail of what he observed outdoors. He learned to look closely in order to understand nature from his father’s example. At the age of about 12 or 13, he observed the practices of farmers and was influenced by grown men who had set about forming the Sanitary District, the first of its kind in Wisconsin, and a precursor to what legislation later made possible, our current Lake Protection and Rehabilitation Districts.
These organizations, not unlike the Property Owners’ Association, were born out of interest and concern for the long-term health of this area’s lakes, streams and natural environment. Bentley Courtenay delivered the legal expertise necessary to form the District, which Sig eventually served as Chairman.
Much maligned farmers have always done much more for the land than what meets the eye. At that time, there were no government departments or agencies looking after the environment. Building was a “free-for-all” — there was little conscience exercised for the land by some of the farmers. One, for example, had a sluiceway pouring manure directly into the lake.
Farmers interested in what was good for the environment began to collaborate in order to promote good practices. Distinctions were easy to make because the work of farmers is interdependent — nobody could afford all of their machinery. This condition made it possible to judge character. It was evident which farmers practiced methods that were both effective and conscientious by witnessing the various results that were achieved.
The First Home
After Sig and Sparky wed, they joined Sig’s parents in the Sunbeam until 1942, when they acquired the home just across the road. Sig described the home’s condition at the time of purchase: “It had no water, no well, no electricity, no heat — it was hardly even a house — it was a perpendicular pile of firewood.”
Among the obstacles to comfortable living was an unplayable piano. It was trapped behind a door that prevented its removal. They chopped it up and sent it out to the yard. Sounds from the harp of the piano, portions of which had remained intact, surprised Sig and Sparky one evening when area squirrels decided there was music waiting to be played in the neglected instrument. Gusting winds and falling branches provided accompaniment to future performances.
Another project of considerable priority was the construction of an outhouse. Ingenuity made quick work of the billet when a crate used for shipping caskets was tipped on end to serve as the facility’s structure. Woven cane seating stripped from an odd kitchen chair proved intolerable during prolonged visits to the hasty improvement and was quickly replaced. The entire home was systematically rebuilt, complete with additions, according to Sig’s precise specifications.
Eventually, Sig and Sparky’s family became four. Paul was the firstborn, followed by Sylvia three years later. Sig’s intellect was put to service by the Allis Chalmers Corporation as an engineer. During the war, Sig recalled, life was difficult but many people worked willingly for little pay out of a sense of patriotism, which he both shared and admired.
When Fred Mackie left the Allis Chalmers Corporation to form the A.O. Smith Corporation, he took Sig was him as his Vice President of Manufacturing and Engineering. They became fast friends.
Around that time, Big Cedar Lake began facing one of its most serious threats. A rolling hillside farm just west of Highway 144, was being sought after by mining companies. Unless a competitive offer could be made, the eastern crest of the sub-continental divide would become a gaping gravel pit. Should this happen, the long esker that formed a natural protective frame for the watershed of Big Cedar Lake would become forever scarred.
Saving the Land
Sig’s mathematical mind took no time to calculate potential lasting consequences. He engaged in an effort to prolong any closing on the property for a mining operation by leading a group of property owners to demand a plan for restoring the hillside after gravel extraction. The length, size and position of the hill had already convinced Sig that an effective plan was impossible to develop.
“Once they dug into that hill, there would be no natural or logical place for them to stop digging,” he explained.
Although he had created a window of opportunity with a demand for restoration plans, as a young husband and father he was not able to make an offer to the current property owner, Arnold Schultz. Sig called on his friend, Fred Mackie, for help. Out of an act of friendship that is too often found only in historic accounts, Fred Mackie bought a farm that he didn’t need or want. Sig Rudorf, although not named in the chain of title, was offered a verbal right of first refusal.
Soon after, lingering stomach cancer began to take its toll on Mr. Mackie. Time was of the essence and once again a gravel mining company was preparing to make an offer on the property. Sig and Sparky bought the farm. It was 1962.
From that day forward, the Rudorf family spent nearly every ounce of energy and second of daylight creating a masterpiece nature preserve. Sparky removed granite rocks from fields and built graceful stone hedges. Sig marked his favorite points and established inviting trails. Paul, now almost 20, was an able and efficient farm machine operator, while Sylvia tended to lighter tasks. Geese once acted as watchdogs, reporting any unusual behavior to the Rudorf family, who continued to live within earshot on Boettcher Drive.
Sig remains a legend in the area for his tireless contributions to the community. Only Sparky could have kept up with his interests and intellect. And she did so with ease. In addition to planting trees and building hedges, she worked in tandem to build the shed, kept the home tidy and kept Sig well fed. Nearly every dog on the western shore of Big Cedar Lake was kept equally happy by Sparky. Fresh sausage slices were kept on hand for four-legged visitors who made sneaking off to the Rudorf home a regular morning beat.
Preservation of the property was the Rudorfs’ constant intention and their friendship with Geoff Maclay spanned most of their adult lives. Through Mr. Maclay, the Rudorfs became involved with the Cedar Lake Conservation Foundation and became convinced that care in perpetuity for their very special farm was the best form of permanent protection for the watershed. Two smaller parcels were first gifted to the Foundation by the Rudorfs: 3.5 acres in the late 1980s and 13 acres in 1994. In 1999, Sig and Sparky voluntarily removed a field from cultivation to allow the Washington County Land Conservation Department and Cedar Lakes Conservation Foundation an opportunity to install storm water control basins that further protect Big Cedar Lake. Over time, and in a spirit of brotherhood as strong as Mr. Mackie’s, Sig and Sparky’s detailed intentions were carefully explained to their trusted friend, Mr. Maclay. On February 23, 2000, the Cedar Lakes Conservation Foundation purchased the 80-acre parcel for $365,800. Every penny of the purchase price was raised from the contributions of private citizens who support the Foundation because they share the conviction of Sig and Sparky.
Today, wildflowers decorate paths that connect fields farmed by the neighboring Dornacher family. Thousands of trees that stood two foot tall when planted now thrive as majestic 100-foot pillars. Norway pines were the first planted. They were followed by just about every other conifer known to Wisconsin. Later, Maples and Ashes were added to the landscape.
Each trail is named for a family member and marked with wooden signs purchased at a Slinger Fair exhibit. Even the family dog is honored by “Beagle Boulevard.” Benches greet weary guests at scenic intervals. Views from this rescued hillside could replace many published texts describing the riches of Washington County. On a clear day, from the highest point of the property, the beauty of this region presents itself to visitors in a form that resembles a virtual map of the kettle moraine.
Sig was once quoted in an A.O. Smith Corporation newsletter as follows: “I want to see something besides ‘progress’ when I look out the window. I want to see trees on the hill — not some damned developer’s creation.” When pressed regarding a potential conflict regarding his then “future oriented job” (as a prodigious engineer) and “past oriented pursuits” (as a conservationist), he responded as follows:
“On the contrary, there is no conflict. Industry, in fact, has a history of inventing the same thing over and over again — and I think that knowing where you’ve been is a good indication of where you may be going in the future.”
Visitors to Rudorf Farm will always be thankful for the remarkable foresight of the remarkable team of Sig and Sparky Rudorf.