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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Pat Hitchcock: Land lover
She lives in the park she helped create
Steward of nature.
Hitchcock: Steward of nature.
Credit:David Medaris

Pat Hitchcock is sitting at a red picnic table on the farmstead where she has lived for more than 40 years. Situated in a shallow unglaciated bowl ringed by verdant hills south of Mount Horeb, her home is a 160-acre segment of Donald County Park, one of those idyllic settings that reward the fortunate person who puts down roots in its silty loam.

The Natural Heritage Land Trust recognized Hitchcock's commitment to this landscape early this month, presenting her with one of its annual stewardship awards during festivities at Monona Terrace.

"It was a great evening," she says of the ceremony. She was delighted to find herself among such other recipients as longtime Dane County conservationist Bill Lunney; land trust and Gathering Waters Conservancy founder Bill O'Connor; and Swamplovers, a small alliance of Black Earth Creek valley conservation advocates.

All of them might have been at least as charmed to find themselves in Hitchcock's company. To hear her recount the story of how she came to put down roots here is pure delight.

She grew up on a farm in Connecticut. The older of two sisters, she split wood and killed chickens. Her parents gave her great responsibility, but also great latitude.

She ventured to Wyoming to study dude ranching. The adventurous course of her life had been set. Soon after Wyoming, she bought a motorcycle and, with a friend, rode to Kentucky to see the horses, to the Great Smoky Mountains, to Washington, D.C., and on down to Florida. They were in Key West when they learned the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

"I think traveling helps you a lot," Hitchcock says, "because it helps you understand there are different ways of doing things. It also helped my confidence."

Drawing on that confidence, she would go on to work in an aircraft factory; go to France with the Red Cross at the end of World War II; embark on a 12,000-mile bicycle trip to promote youth hostels; study geology, botany and forestry at the University of Massachusetts; and land a job as one of the first female state park rangers - a job she got "because all the men were at war."

One of them was her future husband, John, who was serving in the Navy. His subsequent academic career would lead the couple to Vermont and UCLA before their 1967 arrival here, where he would distinguish himself as an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin.

Her husband found a real estate agent who was a pilot, Hitchcock remembers. They flew all over, she says, and looked at "thousands of farms."

At last they found this one, belonging to Harold Larson, whose parents had purchased it in 1945. Larson was ready to retire, move into Mount Horeb and spend more time fishing.

"So we got 140 acres and then 20 acres down the road," Hitchcock continues. She raised oats, corn and alfalfa, "and I had a herd of beef cattle and chickens."

In the 1970s, she began working with the Christian outreach program Young Life to organize cross-country skiing, maple sugaring and other activities for area youths. This seeded her vision for the preservation of the farmstead as a public legacy. She donated her farmstead to Dane County in 1996, retaining a lease agreement that lets her live there.

Located in the town of Springdale, Donald Park is the result of a public-private campaign that began in 1993. That year, Delma Donald Woodburn donated 105 acres of her family's land.

The nonprofit Friends of Donald Park was established in 2000, and the park opened to the public two years later. Today, it has grown to 620 acres, and easements bring the total area to about 900 acres.

Situated in the Sugar River watershed, Donald Park's abundant assets include trout streams, pine stands planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps and prairie restoration areas. Dotted with rock outcroppings, the park is populated by coyote, red fox and whitetail deer, as well as feral cats, redtail hawks, pheasants and turkeys. There are lichens, ferns and trees ranging from oak and black cherry to maple and walnut.

At 88, Hitchcock is the park's leading steward. She drives a small pickup truck, and rides what she calls "the neatest bike," a recumbent tricycle with two wheels in front and one in back.

A widow, Hitchcock has outlived two of her three children. Her surviving daughter, who paid a recent visit, has blessed Hitchcock with seven grandchildren.

As volunteer coordinator and natural areas manager for Donald Park, Hitchcock is always "checking to see what there is to do," she says in a strong voice that echoes off the hills.

During breaks in the conversation, the remarkable quiet of this setting become evident. "That's what everyone says," Hitchcock agrees. "It's quiet. I want to keep it like that."

There are times when a certain amount of noise is inevitable. She is expecting 90 third-graders to visit a few days later, and 90 more the day after that. She loves working with kids. Visits by school groups are an opportunity to convey the significance of a place like this.

"I want to stay here as long as I can work," she says.

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