What you'll find in this website

The website expands access to the riches of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Gaylord Nelson Collection. Donated by the Nelson Family, the Collection contains thousands of personal and official papers for the years 1954-2006 of former Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, founder of Earth Day and Counselor of The Wilderness Society. Accessibility on the web continues a Gaylord Nelson focus of making environmental knowledge freely available to all citizens so that local and national decisions could be informed, collaborative, and effective.

the Nelson Collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society

The Nelson Collection offers a fascinating window into the making of modern environmentalism.

Two entwined stories

The website's subtitle, "The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement," reflects the two entwined stories of this website. The first tells of Gaylord Nelson's central role in helping transform the conservation movement of the early twentieth century into the environmental movement as we know it today. Whereas earlier conservationists focused mainly on eliminating waste and using natural resources wisely, Nelson's environmentalist vision placed even greater emphasis on reducing pollution, regulating resource use, and broadening environmental politics to build a more just and sustainable society. Nelson's home state of Wisconsin is revealed in this first story to be an early leader in environmental education, resource planning, and broad citizen commitment to environmental protection.

The second story we tell is that of Earth Day, founded by Gaylord Nelson after years of fighting for a national environmental agenda with little effect. An astonishingly successful grassroots effort engaged millions of Americans in creating what Nelson envisioned as an "environmental teach-in" that awakened politicians to the urgent environmental concerns in their own constituencies. Nelson believed that the annual observance of Earth Week can be an opportunity for people to assess environmental progress and to renew their commitment to community-based environmental education. Nelson's political legacy of grassroots action and governmental protection endures in the modern environmental movement: millions of citizens worldwide who each year imagine what the celebration of Earth Day might accomplish in their own communities—and who work to make that vision a reality.

How to use this site

The two major stories "Meet Gaylord Nelson" and "Discover Earth Day" can be read in a linear fashion. Start with the first menu item in each story, and then use the "next" button on each page to move to the next section.

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Learn more about the Nelson Collection

The Nelson Collection, preserved in the Archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society, offer an unprecedented look into the creation and legacy of Earth Day, the political battles of 1960s and 1970s environmentalism, and the heyday of postwar liberalism.

Opened to researchers in 2008, the Nelson Collection contains mroe than 250 boxes of material from Gaylord Nelson's career in the Senate, his subsequent tenure as counselor of The Wilderness Society, and as one of the most prominent environmentalists in the United States.

The Archives are also the home of Nelson's official gubernatorial papers, detailing his role in reviving Wisconsin's Democratic Party and his mobilization of the state government to face an expanding array of social and environmental challenges. Together these collections capture the voices of Nelson and his staff as they corresponded and worked with an extensive cast of presidents, politicians, and leading environmentalists. The papers also store a chorus of impassioned letter writers from all corners of Wisconsin and the nation.

Interested in visiting the Archives in Madison? Start with viewing the Nelson Collection's official finding aid, a description and list of materials in the collection.

Home page sources and credits:

Document: Green Thumb document, Wisconsin Historical Society, Nelson Collection, mss1020 ph3764 box 6 folder 10

Photographs: Source: Wisconsin Historical Society, Nelson Collection mss1020 ph3764. Nelson handshake with constituent: box 3 folder 7, Earth Day globe:box 6 folder 1, Nelson among river canoers:box 5 folder 15

Design: Melanie McCalmont, September 2009