Gaylord Nelson spent his youth steeped in the political and natural landscape of northern Wisconsin. His paternal grandparents emigrated from Christiana, Norway, and claimed a homestead allotment in Polk County in 1878, supplementing their farm income with work at a local timber mill.
Nelson, born June 4, 1916, had the county’s many lakeshores for a playground. His mother, a homemaker and trained nurse, taught him about the region’s flora and fauna, while his father, a widely known doctor and prominent Progressive Party agitator, administered Gaylord’s political education.
Growing Up in Clear Lake
Poverty and pollution marred the Nelson’s hometown of Clear Lake. The region’s vast white pine forest fell under the axes of Nelson’s grandparents’ generation, leaving a tattered landscape vulnerable to fire and repellent to capital investment.
The Great Depression brought itinerant laborers to the Nelsons’ doorstep and stirred up radicalism in the county’s farmers, some of whom went on strike in 1933, closing down the local creamery. The Works Progress Administration launched projects in the region, building roads, draining wetlands, and constructing the town’s first sewer system.
Nelson took a job shoveling stone on a WPA crew after graduating from high school in 1934, and he would later regret the destruction of natural habitats and degradation of fresh water he helped bring about in the name of progress.
Drawn to Politics
Hard labor convinced Nelson to go to college. He followed his older sisters to San José State University, majoring in economics. While taking time to explore the diverse regions of California, Nelson returned to Clear Lake each summer to work in a cannery.
After finishing his degree, he headed to study law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Captivated more by politics than legal precedent, he spent most of his energy serving as president of the university’s Young Progressives and volunteering on political campaigns.
His own political career was forestalled by World War II. In 1942 he was drafted directly out of law school into the Army, where he made first lieutenant, trained as a medical technician, commanded a segregated black company, and spent the balance of the war stationed in Okinawa, where he met his future wife, a nurse named Carrie Lee Dotson.