1. From the Bend of a Beautiful River to the Alcatraz of Conscientious Objector Camps
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6 The Rock River rises in Wisconsin’s Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s largest freshwater cattail marsh. It flows south into Winnebago County, Illinois, through a gently rolling landscape sculpted by the outwash of its glacial-era forebear. About halfway along its southwestern course to the Mississippi River, its riverbed bites into limestone. This provided early pioneers a “rock ford” to cross the shallow river and, eventually, a name for the settlement they established astride its banks in 1835. Less than a century after the founding of Rockford, a young boy named George Fell often stood with his bare toes in the water and looked west across the river at a rising tide of homes and businesses. Turning away, he let his feet follow his eyes across a landscape that still harbored large swaths of riparian forests dotted with gravel hill prairies. Thus, the Rock River afforded a sharp distinction between two worlds for the young Fell: on one side was intensive development, and on the other were the remnant natural lands he would devote his life to protecting. Fell’s passion for natural lands was sparked by his father’s botanical passions, but his success as a preservationist was fueled by an uncompromising pursuit of his ideals. These twin spurs were born of a solitary childhood and tempered by the travails of his academic years and nearly half a decade as a conscript in a series of Civilian Public Service camps. Finding Companionship in Nature Like most preservationists, George Brady Fell developed his love for nature at an early age. Born on September 27, 1916, in Elgin, Illinois, he spent his formative 1 From the Bend of a Beautiful River to the Alcatraz of Conscientious Objector Camps From the Bend of a Beautiful River 7 years—from age seven through sixteen—some fifty miles to the northwest, in Rockford. There, he lived with his family at the Wilgus Sanitarium, where his father worked as a psychiatrist. Established in 1913, the sanitarium was located three miles by dirt road from downtown, “on a bend of the beautiful Rock [River] . . . in a virgin grove with living springs under great oaks, caressed by the sun and the breeze.”1 Beyond the sanitarium grounds, development on the leeward side of the river was spotty at the time, leaving lots of woods, wetlands, and prairies for a young boy to explore. Why nature so captured the heart of only one of the three Fell children was likely the result of a young boy’s loneliness. According to Fell’s sister, Olive Elizabeth Carter, she and their older brother, William, were not particularly close to their little brother. Six and nine years older, respectively, Bessie and Bill preferred the company of friends their own age without the burden of a little brother tagging along. With few neighbors, Fell frequently turned to the sanitarium ’s maintenance staff, which indulged the young boy by teaching him how to repair and maintain various machinery, motors, and other equipment. Otherwise, as Bessie recalled, “George used to spend a lot of time on his own.”2 In an interview Fell gave a few months before he passed away, he confessed himself “a loner” as a child.3 Fell found some comfort in his mother, Olive Brady Fell, who cultivated in him a deep appreciation for the arts. An accomplished musician, for many years she was the organist and choir director at various Rockford-area churches. Fell recalled that she read Shakespeare aloud to him and was “a seeker of truth,” who “spent a good deal of her life delving into religions” before converting late in life to Catholicism.4 Bessie remembered their mother more for her mercurial temper. “I almost still resent it. Bill and I got whipped with sticks off the trees when we were naughty. The last time she switched me, I was starting into high school, and I had these welts all over my back.” Years later, following a complaint from a neighbor whose son had been “knocked down” by Bill for not staying off the front lawn, Mrs. Fell lamented, “It seems a person can’t lay hands on anyone’s children no matter how big a nuisance they are.”5 As far as Bessie knew, however, their mother spared the rod with her youngest. “I don’t think she ever [switched] George. He was her little darling. The apple of her eye.”6 Fell may have been his mother’s favorite, but it...


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Subject Headings

  • Fell, George B.
  • Nature Conservancy (U.S.) -- History.
  • Natural Areas Association (U.S.) -- History.
  • Illinois Nature Preserves Commission -- History.
  • Natural Land Institute (Rockford, Ill.) -- History.
  • Natural areas -- Illinois -- History.
  • Nature conservation -- Illinois -- History.
  • Conservationists -- Illinois -- Biography.
  • Natural areas -- United States -- History.
  • Nature conservation -- United States -- History.
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