story by Allison Bender photos by Heidi Hodges
Just from that short list of activities, it might already be obvious: Madden’s classes didn’t always exist within the four walls of a school building.
Madden, 67, spent 35 years teaching fourth- and fifth-grade at Sevastopol School, where regular field trips and experiential learning opportunities were part of his self-described “independent teaching techniques.” Fifteen summers as a naturalist at The Ridges Sanctuary and a few summers at Whitefish Dunes State Park round out his career as an educator. “My support network values education,” he stresses, “Education and nature.”
Although Madden retired from teaching 11 years ago, he still finds himself educating—all the time. He can be found giving tours around the county, teaching and serving both children and adults alike. He is still heavily involved with the schools and regularly volunteers with the Door County Land Trust; several state parks; Loaves & Fishes, a community meal program; and the Door County Historical Society.
Madden also invests in the community through his work as a grant assessor at the Raibrook Foundation where he works part-time. His Raibrook office holds mementos of his interests—a beaver skin on the wall, many texts including a children’s book about Native American structures and a photo album of all of his class pictures dating back to his first year of teaching.
Madden’s wife, Barb (Urban), was also a teacher. Another Door County local, they met at the Door-Kewaunee County Teachers’ College in Algoma. An avid gardener, Barb had a large role in uncovering Madden’s love of nature, teaching him names of plants they’d pass on walks through the woods. This interest in and value of nature stretches to their extended family.
“When some families get together they talk about sports or politics,” Madden reflects, “but we talk about nature. Things like, ‘You should have seen the pileated woodpecker this morning!’”
Madden owns 38 acres of woods in his hometown of Jacksonport. A stream shaded by mature hardwood trees runs through the property. This land, purchased in the 1980s, has served as a place of rest and relaxation for the family, particularly for Madden’s son, Luke, who passed away in 2007 after a lifetime struggle with hydranencephaly.
Madden acquired a log cabin and considered relocating it to the Jacksonport property. That didn’t end up happening.
“My wife wants it to be just woods,” Madden grins almost sheepishly, “no buildings, no Internet.”
Today they enjoy walking on the trails they’ve built throughout the woods. “It is our favorite place to be,” he says.
Madden found another use for the cabin, however. It now rests at Heritage Village at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay as the Madden Tool Museum—a true family affair. Alongside four of his brothers and other volunteers, Madden has meticulously reconstructed the log cabin and plans to finish the last projects, a porch and the interior displays, by the end of this summer. With their own collections and community donations, the brothers will fill the museum with hand-operated tools dating from the late 1800s through the 1920s.
This latest venture began in 2014, but the Maddens’ interest in tools and rural history started long before. “We never had a lot of tools at home growing up, so we really appreciate them,” Madden explains.
For many years, Madden housed a “mini-museum” on the back wall of his classroom where he kept antique kitchen and farming tools. He read Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder to his students and strove to collect every tool mentioned in the book in order to show them to the kids. With the opening of the museum, everybody can experience a glimpse into his classroom.
Hundreds of students have passed through Madden’s classrooms—in the school and in the woods, but despite the numbers, he has a notable ability to keep in touch with, and keep track of, his students, often mentioning their accomplishments and the numerous ways in which he is proud of them.
The only rule Madden posted in his classroom was to “do the right thing” And that meant, in large part, teaching respect and appreciation for the natural world.
Coming full circle
Madden’s first memories of the land now Whitefish Dunes State Park consist of riding in the family car from the town of Jacksonport through the dunes to Whitefish Bay.
“The car, packed with all six siblings, would often get stuck in the sandy road,” Madden laughs. That road is now the most popular trail at the park, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary.
In the years since the Door County Board narrowly voted ‘yes’ to the establishment of Whitefish Dunes, the park has been marked with tangible evidence of Madden—products of summers spent as an assistant naturalist and years of volunteering—not just sandy ruts from stuck vehicles.
In 1992, Madden and his wife were among a group of volunteers under the leadership of archaeologist Victoria Dirst, who unearthed evidence of people living at Whitefish Dunes as early as 100 B.C.
“I never realized how exciting it could be,” he says of the dig. “There was so much learning to do!”
Madden remembers he and the others, “mostly found fish bones.” But they also uncovered rocks reddened from fire, thick pottery shards and a charred corn cake—evidence early people farmed the land and that somebody forgot to take breakfast out of the heated rock “oven” soon enough! This corn cake and other artifacts can be seen in the Nature Center at the park today.
Lake Michigan’s water level is higher than average this year, but in the summers of 1994 and 1995, the water was so high the park’s beach access was closed. Management was looking for new developments to offer visitors, since they were unable to spend time at the water. That’s when Madden and his ability to create and educate stepped in. He developed and wrote the brochure for the self-guided accessible Brachiopod Trail throughout the summer of 1994.
In 1995, inspired by his Sevastopol students’ enthusiasm for learning about Native Americans, Madden researched and constructed the demonstration Indian Village, building wigwams and replicas of ancient fishing equipment. He compared the project to making a shoe box diorama—an activity he might lead in his classroom—only this time life-sized. “My students’ interests directed my interests in many ways,” he says with a smile.
On the same troublesome sandy road of Madden’s childhood, visitors to the park now can walk through the demonstration village and imagine themselves living centuries past, the granola bar in their backpack a modern descendant of the corn cake.
Every few years when a structure needs repair or a scene could use an upgrade, Madden returns bringing birch bark for roofing, stories and encouragement for others.