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The Quad-City Times

Scout leads restoration of environmental pioneer's grave

By John Willard  November 19, 2007

A Davenport teenager has completed an ambitious restoration of the gravesite of Davenport-born environmentalist Ernest Oberholtzer, and he has further plans to recognize the pioneer wilderness preservationist.

The teen is William Schwener, 13, an eighth-grader at Wood Intermediate School. He took on the project as part of the requirements to earn the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest honor in Boy Scouting.

And his work brings renewed attention to Oberholtzer. While largely forgotten in his hometown, “Ober,” as he was known, is credited with saving Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the adjacent Quetico Provincial Park in Canada from industrial development during the 1920s.

In addition to being an environmental hero, Oberholtzer was an early scoutmaster in Davenport, another fact that motivated William to take on the project. “It’s not really work. I’m having fun,” he said.

For several weeks, he led fellow Scouts of Troop 670, Scout leaders and parents in a massive effort to bring dignity back to the Oberholtzer family plot at Oakdale Memorial Gardens, 2501 Eastern Ave., Davenport.

There are buried Oberholtzer, who died at age 93 in 1977; his mother, Rosa; his grandparents, Ernest and Sarah Carl; two children of theirs who died in infancy; and his brother, Frank, who died at age 5.

The work involved removing grave markers, excavating and pouring new foundations for them, resetting the headstones and landscaping the area. Nine small plot marker stones and seven large headstones have been reset.

In addition to restoring the gravesite, William plans to nominate Oberholtzer for inclusion in the Hall of Honor at Davenport Central High School. Oberholtzer graduated from the former Davenport High School in 1902.

William comes from a family of Eagle Scouts. His father, Ron, who helped with the project, is an Eagle Scout, as is the boy’s grandfather, Richard Schwener, who collects Boy Scout memorabilia as a hobby. In fact, it was while going through his grandfather’s collection that he discovered a history of Davenport scouting. It contained a photograph of Oberholtzer with members of a troop organized under his leadership in 1913.

Richard Schwener was familiar with Oberholtzer from newspaper stories. In 2004, the pioneer conservationist was the subject of a Quad-City-wide celebration that featured seminars, appearances by authorities on his life and an exhibition of photos taken by Oberholtzer during his North American adventures.

William had been considering a cemetery project for his Eagle Scout project. When he learned of Oberholtzer’s significance, he visited the family plot at Oakdale and realized immediately that his work was cut out for him. Several markers at the site, perched on a hillside in the 86-acre cemetery’s west-central section, were tilted or sunk in the soil.

“It was just terrible,” William said.

He and his team began their work in late September. Working with a $250 grant he landed from the Ernest Oberholtzer Foundation in Marshall, Minn., along with other donated funds for materials and some equipment furnished by the cemetery, the team removed stones and dug new foundations 42 inches below the frost line to stabilize the markers. The rocky condition of the terrain forced the team to dig the foundations by hand. More than 3,000 pounds of cement were used to make the concrete foundations, with the concrete mixed from water taken out of the cemetery’s lagoon and hauled to the site by wheelbarrow.

William’s project has won praise from Oakdale officials and the Oberholtzer Foundation.

“For an eighth-grader, he bit off a big project,” said Doug Grassle, Oakdale’s sexton.

Deb Williams, the cemetery’s office manager, said the work is welcome. While the cemetery keeps up the grounds, she said, individual graves are the responsibility of plot owners. In the case of the Oberholtzer gravesite, she said, there are no surviving family members to care for it.

“It was a mess. And their work was a major undertaking,” she said.

She said the cemetery has plans to add the Oberholtzer plot to its list of “People of Historic Interest at Oakdale” and may include the site on its Victorian Day cemetery walks.

Jean Sanford Replinger, secretary and office manager of the Oberholtzer Foundation, said that while Oberholtzer’s guardian did some work at the gravesite, William Schwener’s efforts are considerably more extensive.

“We’re delighted. We hope he is as pleased as we are for him doing it,” she said.

Contact the city desk at (563) 383-2245 or [email protected] Comment on this story at qctimes.com.

Who was Ermest Oberholtzer?

Ernest Carl Oberholtzer was an environmental pioneer, Boy Scout leader and an accomplished photographer who took the first pictures of a North American moose.

“Ober” was raised by his mother, Rosa, and his maternal grandparents, Sarah and Ernest Carl, in a house at 6th and Perry Streets in Davenport. After contracting rheumatic fever when he was 17 years old, he was left with a serious heart condition.

As a teenager, he became interested in nature by taking long walks along Duck Creek with his mentor Tom Burke, a gravedigger.

After graduating from Davenport High School in 1902, he went on to graduate from Harvard University. Despite his health problems, he explored more than 3,000 miles of unmapped North American wilderness in a single summer, becoming an accomplished canoeist. He also was an expert on the culture and language of the Ojibwe American Indian tribe.

When a hydroelectric dam project threatened the area known today as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota and Quetico Provincial Park in Canada, he rallied opposition, ultimately winning protection for the vast woodlands and seemingly endless chains of lakes. He also fathered legislation that set aside federal lands as nature preserves.

He lived most of his life on an island in his beloved Boundary Waters region, amassing a collection of violins, pianos, sheet music and thousands of books. He died in 1977 at the age of 93.

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