When people ask me what the best state park in Wisconsin is, I unequivocally say “Rock Island.” With its remote location, beautiful natural and manmade features, and breathtaking views, it’s an easy answer. Incredibly, what became the state park was once owned by a man named Chester Thordarson. A noted inventor, industrialist, and bibliophile, Thordarson developed much of what still dominates the landscape on Rock Island, including the boathouse / Viking Hall, water tower, and “pagoda,” while maintaining the beautiful natural resources the Island has to offer.
Rock Island also once housed Thordarson’s rare and historic book collection, including double-elephant folios of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. While Thordarson’s books now reside in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries’ Special Collections, two of the double-elephant folios were recently on display in the exhibition Seeing Audubon: Robert Havell, Jr., and The Birds of America at the Chazen Museum of Art on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
A few weeks ago, I traveled with Museum director Kathy Foley, curator of collections Amalia Wojciechowski, and curator of exhibitions Shannon Pueschner, to view Seeing Audubon. The exhibition, now closed, highlighted the relationship between artist and ornithologist John James Audubon and the man who completed the prints of his illustrations, Robert Havell, Jr. Although a road trip to Madison is always fun, I was particularly interested in seeing the exhibition because of the Audubon works that once belonged to Chester Thordarson.
Since it is just a short distance from my hometown of Washington Island, I have a few personal connections to Rock Island. During summers in college, I worked on the passenger ferry that runs between the two islands; my uncle was the Park Manager for Rock Island State Park for fourteen years; and a great-great grandfather was the head carpenter for many of the interior fixtures in the historic and imposing boathouse / Viking Hall, which greets visitors to the island.
Seeing Thordarson’s books and artworks that were once on Rock Island was a special moment. With the subjects in Seeing Audubon relevant to the Woodson Art Museum’s collection, the worlds of my personal and professional life converged. Viewing the exhibition reminded me how lucky I am to work in a place and come from a place that appreciate the natural world and artistic representations thereof.