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Earth Day History | BIG History | Wisconsin Historical Society

Earth Day History | BIG History

Earth Day Anniversary History Month

Celebrating Big Moments: Earth Day and Leaders of Land Ethics in Wisconsin

April 22, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. While decades later Earth Day is celebrated around the world, this annual event has humble beginnings right here in Wisconsin, as the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson. In 2020, the Society is celebrating BIG moments in Wisconsin history, including the significant impact that individuals like Nelson, those interested in environmental conservation, have had on the history of the state. Learn about this impact through the articles, artifacts, and other important items below that help tell these compelling stories.

First and Foremost Stewards

As we celebrate Earth Day, we recognize Indigenous peoples as the first and foremost original stewards dedicated to caring for the environment and the Native Nations who continue to work tirelessly to protect the land and its resources—from a depth of nearly 14,000 years through today. We honor and thank the 12 contemporary Native Nations of Wisconsin for their ongoing contributions and efforts to protect this shared place that we all call home.

Traditional Oil Painting Portrait of Gaylord Nelson

A Champion of our Earth

In 1969, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson came up with an idea that would become his lasting legacy. Nelson suggested a full day dedicated to teaching and learning about the environment, believing that if people only knew more about the environment, they would demand better protection. See how Nelson’s efforts led to the first Earth Day by reading the article below.

Learn More

The Gaylord Nelson Historical Collection

Gaylord Nelson

Gaylord Nelson Gallery

Nelson papers edits

Earth Day Documents

Gaylord Nelson's speech notes

Environmental Speeches

Nelson Newsletter edits

Nelson Newsletter

Explore More History

Learn more about the history of environmental conservation in Wisconsin and beyond through the historical essays below.

Man in flannel bottle feeding a baby deer

The Modern Environmental Movement

Belle Case La Follet

Aldo Leopold

John Muir

John Muir

Map of Wisconsin

Physical Geography of Wisconsin

More Historical Essays

Conservation in Wisconsin | Increase Lapham | Jerry Apps | The Birth of Lake Delton | School Forests

Fascinating Items from Our Historical Collections

The Society has thousands of items related to environmental conservatons available to explore in our online collections, and these collections are always growing. Explore some of these amazing items and the stories behind them below.

John Muir's clock inner-workings

John Muir Clock

Open Conservation Corps Trunk with articles from the corps

Civilian Conservation Corps Trunk

beautifully illustrated landscape view of map

Maps & Atlas Collection

Burt's solar compass

Burt's Solar Compass

More Historical Items

Increase Lapham Papers | Earth Day Art | 25th Anniversary of Earth Day menu | Earth Day advertisement | Civilian Conservation Corps Poster

Compelling Images from the Our Historical Collections

Cute illustration of the earth, looks like a kid's drawing

Earth Day

Man examining a potted plant in a greenhouse, black and white older photo


Women Working


More Historical Images

Northwoods | H.H. Bennett Photos | Bees & Beekeepers | The Great Outdoors

Human impact on our environment

It is important to understand the impact that humans have had on our environment. View items from our collections below related to this impact.

Man holding gun next to a bunch of strung up dead ducks, older black and white photo

Giant Punt Gun

Blitz Fog Pesticide Packaging photo

Blitz Fog Pesticide

A black beaver top hat

Beaver Top Hat

a cute little passenger pigeon, black and white photo

The Exinction of Passenger Pigeons

More Human Impact Information

Anti-Pollution Cartoon | Anti-DDT Bumper Sticker

Read more through the Wisconsin Society Press

You can find Wisconsin Historical Society Press books at your favorite book retailer or library.

Jerry Apps' The Land Still Lives Book Cover

The Land Still Lives

Gaylord Nelson: Champion for Our Earth Book Cover

Gaylord Nelson: Champion for Our Earth

Seventh Generation Earth Ethics: Native Voices of Wisconsin Book Cover

Seventh Generation Earth Ethics: Native Voices of Wisconsin

Banning DDT Book Cover

Banning DDT: How Citizen Activists in Wisconsin Led the Way

More Historical Press Books

Jens Jensen: Writings Inspired by Nature | The Civilian Conservation Corps in Wisconsin: Nature's Army at Work | Great Lakes Chronicle: Essays on Coastal Wisconsin | Every Root an Anchor: Wisconsin's Famous and Historic Trees | Beyond the Trees: Stories of Wisconsin Forests

Visit the Society to Explore More

The items featured on this page, and those available to explore online, are just a fraction of the Society’s extensive collections on this and many other topics. The Society archives preserves the papers of many influential environmentalists, including Sigurd F. Olson, Spencer Black, Lorrie Otto, Harold “Bud” Jordahl, the records of the Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter, and much, much more. The Society’s library and archives are free and open to the public, and we encourage you to visit and explore them. Click here to learn more about searching the library collections and planning your visit to the Society.

Support the Preservation of Wisconsin's History

Make a big impact

Make a BIG impact by supporting the Society's efforts to continue to collect, preserve, and share stories about environmental conservation, and all Wisconsin history.

Explore Wisconsin's History

You can find out more about our history in these pages focusing on other monthly celebrations!

Explore Black History in Wisconsin

Black History

Explore Women's History in Wisconsin

Women's History

Explore WHS's Response to COVID-19

History Is Happening

Explore Pride Month History in Wisconsin

Pride History

Explore the Women's Suffrage Centennial History in Wisconsin

Women's Suffrage Centennial

Explore the Wisconsin's History during WWII

Wisconsin During WWII

Explore the Wisconsin's Political History

Political History

Explore Hispanic Heritage Historyin Wisconsin

Hispanic Heritage History


History is a story with many voices, always growing and evolving — a story we tell together.

Let us know if there are ways we could improve!