Interview with Susan Tupper
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why did you decide to write "The Hamerstrom Biography?”
The Hamerstrom story is a great story for kids and for adults. It’s a story about two hard-working people, who left a wealthy, comfortable lifestyle to come to Wisconsin and work tirelessly for 30 years to save one species, the prairie chicken. It’s inspirational, entertaining, and contains a lot of historical and scientific material about Wisconsin conservation. It would be a great resource to use when teaching about ecology and wildlife conservation.
WHS Press: What do you want your readers to learn from this book?
I want the reader to understand and appreciate our conservation history. The Hamerstrom story is the story about the beginnings of ecology and conservation in the state and the country because they were a part of getting it all going. Wisconsin is the home of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Gaylord Nelson. We’re the home of the International Crane Foundation, the only place of it’s kind in the world. We have beautiful wildlife refuges at the Horicon marsh and at Necedah and other places that we can visit and see wildlife.
WHS Press: What do you find most fascinating about the Hamerstroms (together and/or individually)?
Both Fran and Frederick gave up an easy life on the East Coast where they were born, to come to Wisconsin and live in very difficult circumstances. They lived in old, cold houses with no indoor plumbing. They were never well-off, but they were both passionate about wildlife and nature and that became their focus for their entire lives. Along with their friend, Aldo Leopold, they taught new ways to care for our land and plants and animals. They invited people from all walks of life to join them in observing prairie chickens in the spring. They believed in hands-on experiences with nature and because of that, they left a strong impression and love of nature.
Also, their personalities were very different, but that made their partnership even stronger. Fran was adventurous and exuberant and determined to break out of the traditional female roles, which she did over and over throughout her whole life. Frederick was calm and methodical, though he also enjoyed a good time. Frederick did a lot of the scientific research and writing, while Fran wrote articles for the newspapers that were easier for the layperson to understand. They were a husband and wife publicity team. Fran even went on the David Letterman show.
WHS Press: How can this book serve as a guide to Wisconsin history, environmental history?
In order to understand the importance of the Hamerstrom accomplishments, the reader needs to first understand what Wisconsin was like in the 1930s when Fran and Frederick first arrived on the scene. Wisconsin was recovering from a devastating depression, land was totally depleted by poor conservation practices, whole species of animals like the passenger pigeons were dying out. Aldo Leopold realized this needed to change and the Hamerstroms helped him teach others how to go about making those changes.
WHS Press: What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learned from writing this book?
One of the most interesting aspects of their story is the way they inspired young people. Every summer they invited a few young people, often students, who were interested in wildlife to come and apprentice with them. The gabboons did all kinds of things: they put up kestrel houses, counted voles, fixed things around the yard, trapped birds, and anything else that needed to get done around the house. Many of the gabboons went on to prestigious careers as scientists and biologists around the world. That is how the Hamerstroms helped strengthen the future of conservation
WHS Press: What are the ways in which this biography is a uniquely Wisconsin story? In what ways does it tell a Midwestern or national story?
There is so much Wisconsin history in this book, especially the history of Central Wisconsin, but it does also tie into the greater national story of the 1930s through the 1970s. Most of us know a little bit about how the Depression affected the entire country, but I actually did not know as much about the Depression right here in Central Wisconsin; how poor farmers were, how little they had to eat, and how they survived. The vision of Aldo Leopold and the Hamerstroms was that you can’t deplete all your natural resources and survive very well. It took years of educating others to the importance of taking care of our entire community: land, water, air, people, animals, and food. That’s still a national issue and an ongoing issue.
WHS Press: Were there any photos not featured in this book that you wish you could have included?
There’s a photo that I would have loved to include in the first chapter. In that chapter, I write about the Buena Vista marsh and how students and people from all over the state still go there in the spring to count prairie chickens. The photo shows two third grade students sitting in a blind filling in a data sheet. To me, that photo is what the book is all about. The Hamerstroms started an amazing experience to teach people how to care about their environment.
Fran’s daughter, Elva, went through all the family photos to contribute to this book. We spent a month sharing photos back and forth and I had so many great photos to choose from.
WHS Press: How was writing this book a personal experience?
My first draft of the Hamerstrom story was a straightforward chronological biography. The final product has evolved into so much more. The more I read about the Hamerstroms and their accomplishments, the more I wanted to spread the same message; hopefully to the younger generation. We have to take care of our natural resources. We keep fighting the same battles over and over and we’re going to have to keep on fighting those battles. I’m hoping the Hamerstrom story will inspire some of the next generation to understand the importance of conservation.
WHS Press: What is one of your favorite stories about the Hamerstroms?
After Frederick died, Fran decided to start doing things on her own that Frederick would not have enjoyed doing when they were together. When she was 86, she took a trip to Peru and traveled down the Amazon River in a dugout canoe. She broke her hip on that trip and had to be airlifted out. But she went back the following year.
WHS Press: What is the future of the prairie chickens today here in Wisconsin?
Unfortunately, here in Wisconsin, things are not looking great for the prairie chicken. We have the same problem now that we have always had—a shortage of prairie. The prairie chicken population is dwindling and now is at a historic low point, about 500-600 birds. They live mainly on the Buena Vista marsh and there is too much inbreeding going on which means genetically they are not as strong as they would be if they could breed with birds from other areas. In order to save them here in Wisconsin, scientists want to set aside more prairie that is attached to the Buena Vista marsh and bring in more birds from other areas for them to breed with. If we don’t do this, they may not survive here in Wisconsin.