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Mice in the Freezer, Owls on the Porch

The Lives of Naturalists Frederick and Francis Hamerstrom

Helen M. Corneli

Publication Year: 2002

    Mice in the Freezer, Owls on the Porch is in many ways a love story—about a quiet scientist and his flamboyant wife, but also about their passions for hunting, for wild lands, and for the grouse and raptor species that they were instrumental in saving from destruction.
    From the papers and letters of Frederick and Frances Hamerstrom, the reminiscences of contemporaries, and her own long friendship with this extraordinary couple who were her neighbors, Helen Corneli draws an intimate picture of Fran and "Hammy" from childhood through the genesis and maturation of a romantic, creative, and scientific relationship. Following the Hamerstroms as they give up a life of sophisticated convention and comfort for the more "civilized" (as Aldo Leopold would have it) pleasures of living and conducting on-the-spot research into diminishing species, Corneli captures the spirit of the Hamerstroms, their profession, and the natural and human environments in which they worked. A nuanced account of the labors, adventures, and achievements that distinguished the Hamerstroms over the years—and that inspired a generation of naturalists—this book also provides a dramatic account of conservation history over the course of the twentieth century, particularly in Wisconsin during the eventful years from the 1920s through the 1970s.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

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pp. xi-xiv

In this compelling book, Helen Corneli salutes two of America’s most fascinating and accomplished field naturalists, Frances and Frederick Hamerstrom. It’s a heartwarming account, full of unpublished stories and insights about two people who are well known in both scientific and popular literature of...


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pp. xv-xvi

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1 Prologue

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pp. 3-12

Well before dawn on a marrow-chilling morning in April 1961 I found myself with a reporter friend, kneeling in a four-by-four-by-six-foot canvas box in a central Wisconsin marsh and peering out of the vision slit on one side. I was shivering and ruefully remembered my husband’s stern words of the evening before...

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2 The Complexities of Childhood

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pp. 13-33

What inquirer can discover the hidden country of childhood? Hammy was silent about his, but Fran mined her memories and arranged them in My Double Life, a book that invites reflection.1 The saying, “It’s all true, even if it didn’t happen,” applies, for her selective, dramatic account of the life of a poor little rich girl and its themes of rejection and rebellion became her...

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3 Self-Discovery and Love

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pp. 34-52

Two young men boarded the Boston & Maine Railroad’s Montreal Express from the station in Winchester, Massachusetts, in September 1927. The slight one, Thad Smith1 carried a suitcase and a tennis racquet and within the day was to become the roommate of the tall, handsome, and raven-haired one...

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4 Students, Teachers, and New Horizons

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pp. 53-66

Two entranced young people sit side by side before an old barn, gazing into each other’s eyes. His wavy black hair rises above a broad forehead, his chin is down, his hands clasped firmly between his knees. She tilts her classic, smiling profile toward him, an expression of teasing yet triumphant joy on...

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5 Conservation Beginnings in a Midwestern Appalachia

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pp. 67-87

On a brilliant early autumn day in 1935, loiterers on the unpaved streets of the shabby village of Necedah, Wisconsin suddenly came to attention.1 A jaunty tan Essex roadster was moving slowly down the somnolent street, its open rumble seat piled high with boxes topped by a roped-in plant press...

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6 Enter Leopold and the Chickens

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pp. 88-109

Aldo Leopold, whose profound effect on the practices of conservation and game management continues to this day, believed in a “new social concept toward which conservation is groping.”1 Ethics, he declared, must guide our dealings with nature—an idea that was new to most Americans of the time and...

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7 An Interruption: World War II

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pp. 110-118

Hammy, with one small child and one on the way, had watched the coming strife in Europe in deep concern. He had always been against involvement in war, as his letter from Iowa reporting a California Supreme Court judgment indicates. Two clergymen’s sons were expelled from college for refusing...

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8 The Action: Postwar Scientific Solidarity

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pp. 119-131

After the war, thousands of Americans responded to the desperate circumstances of German and other European civilians. The Hamerstroms brought special skills and sensitivities to that task. In December 1946 a letter from Joe Hickey and naturalist Margaret Morse Nice passed on troubling news from Ernst Mayr, Harvard’s famous evolutionary biologist. European...

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9 The Return: Deer and a Decision

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pp. 132-141

What they found at the George Reserve was far from satisfactory. In his first year (1941) as manager of the 1,260-acre biological study site for faculty and students from the University of Michigan, Hammy had reduced the deer herd from over two hundred to about 50 head. In his absence, numbers had again increased; he had to start over. He was required to preserve the maximum amount...

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10 The Setting, the Task

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pp. 142-156

As head of the WCD’s Grouse Project in 1949, Hammy undertook administrative and supervisory responsibilities managing ruffed grouse and sharp-tail, members of the grouse family elsewhere in the state. The major emphasis, however, was on prairie chickens—especially in Portage County, home of the great Buena Vista...

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11 Booming Chickens and a Land Boom

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pp. 157-180

It seemed they had everything—commitment from the WCD, two salaries, an ideal home and field station, and a research-ripe situation with prairie chickens before them. Fran, promoted to Conservation Aide on a 60 percent time appointment, was paid almost $200 a month, with the bonus of health insurance for a deduction...

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12 The Prairie Chicken War

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pp. 181-193

In 1954, when conflicts about conservation were less widely publicized than today, saving the Wisconsin prairie chickens was seen locally as a David-and-Goliath battle: the state against the little person. The Goliaths, powerful DNR bureaucrats from Madison, wealthy outsiders, and those peculiar Hamerstroms, were the villains. Against them stood the champions of the little...

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13 Hamerstroms’ Kingdom: The Complexities of Success

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pp. 194-207

Hammy’s reputation was by now secure. His early papers were called classic; his reputation among colleagues was secure, and a growing recognition came from academics. One later summed it up: Hamerstrom has been the epitome of the crack game biologist. His research has been spread over ring-necked pheasants, bobwhite quail, gray partridge, white-tailed deer, muskrats, horned...

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14 A Naturalist Family

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pp. 208-226

Meanwhile, there were the children. Although critics were quick to characterize the Hamerstrom approach to child rearing as too casual, the singularity of their parents may have had more effect on them than the actual family style. In a small conformist community, difference— an unpainted house, peculiar occupations...

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15 Of Hawks, Humans, and Freedom

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pp. 227-247

Hammy and Fran sometimes had to choose between their responsibilities to their jobs, which Hammy could not countenance, and the demands of their current enthusiasms and interests. Their semi-official activities in support of prairie chicken–directed organizations—the Society, the Prairie Chicken Foundation, and the Prairie Grouse Technical Council—brought them...

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16 Free at Last

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pp. 248-264

Their routine appeared to be about the same. The back door was always open; Fran would be sitting on the bench by the long black trestle table in her office, typing. He would be at his desk behind piles of folders and papers. They still lived with owls, went to meetings, traveled in the fall, and disappeared in the...

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17 The Making of a Legend

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pp. 265-281

Through all those years, the Hamerstroms were doing more than saving the prairie chicken and studying raptors. They were creating a legend, one based on solid scientific achievements, their work with prairie chickens and birds of prey, his classic early papers, and the public awareness built by their hospitality and her books. His generosity in advising, editing, and organizing, and her...

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18 Death of a Biologist

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pp. 282-289

We missed seeing Fran and Hammy the summer of 1989, and they went to Guatemala that fall. I called them after Thanksgiving. “Fran! do come to dinner Saturday—we haven’t seen you for ages.” There was a long pause. “Hammy’s had the punies, Helen, ever since we came back from Guatemala. Why don’t...

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19 Fran

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pp. 290-299

The Hamerstroms remained somewhat aloof from activities on the marsh after they left the DNR. Fran maintained that “It was simply too painful for us to abandon the project.” Yet in 1990 she wrote to represent Hammy’s concerns as she saw them to Jim Keir, the manager of the Buena Vista, Leola, and Paul Olson...

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20 A Postscript

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pp. 300-308

Considering this question today requires a wider point of view than when Leopold asked it. We live in a different world. Today, “sustainability” is becoming an accepted concept; national television outlets feature programs on both positive and negative environmental developments; conservation curriculums...


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pp. 309-339


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pp. 341-347

E-ISBN-13: 9780299180935
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299180942

Publication Year: 2002