You Can’t Be Around for 83 Years and Not Have a Good Story. Here’s Ours.
The Folk School Tradition
According to Jens Jensen, “Instruction at The Clearing is non-competitive – there are no credits, no grades, no degrees, no pitting of one student against another.” This method of teaching is what the Danes called “The Living Word.” Discussion, conversation, nature study and hands-on work are emphasized, rather than learning just in the classroom, through reading and writing. The folk school experience at The Clearing is a unique combination of learning, history, tradition, social interaction and quiet reflection.
Before founding The Clearing, Jensen achieved international recognition for designing many of Chicago’s parks, along with the private estates of Armour, Florsheim, Henry and Edsel Ford and many other important Midwestern industrialists. He was a driving force in establishing the Illinois State Parks system and the system of Cook County Forest Preserves. He founded the Friends of Our Native Landscape, an organization that raised awareness about land conservation and advocated for the preservation of many important natural areas in the Midwest.
Jensen began acquiring the property that would become The Clearing in 1919 for use as a summer vacation home. Then, in 1935, at age 75, after retiring from his Chicago business, he achieved his longtime dream of establishing The Clearing. Foreseeing the effects of the automobile and the vast development of cities, Jensen founded The Clearing as a place where city people could renew their contact with the “soil” as a basis for life values. Today, many people come to The Clearing for this same sense of renewal and to be able to better manage the stresses and strains of everyday life in a complex and fast-paced world.
Jensen believed that environments have a profound effect on people and that an understanding of one’s own regional ecology and culture is fundamental to all “clear” thinking. These precepts continue to guide the programs at The Clearing. Classes involve direct experience with nature, creative expression, thoughtful study and contemplation.
After Jensen’s death in 1951, his long time associate, Mertha Fulkerson, sought financial support from the Wisconsin Farm Bureau to help continue to develop Jensen’s ideas. For 35 years, the Farm Bureau, along with the Friends of The Clearing, provided support for The Clearing’s continuing development. In 1988, the Friends of The Clearing, with the approval of the Farm Bureau, completed a successful fund raising campaign that allowed The Clearing to become an independent, non-profit corporation.
Today, The Clearing offers classes in natural sciences, fine arts, skilled crafts and humanities. These programs fulfill Jens Jensen’s dream of a year-round folk school in a natural setting.
Jens Jensen was born near Dybbol in Slesvig, Denmark, in 1860, to a wealthy farming family. For the first nineteen years of his life he lived on his family’s farm, which cultivated his love for the natural environment. When he was four years old, during the second war of Schleswig in 1864, Jensen watched the Prussians invade his town, and burn his family’s farm buildings. This invasion, which annexed the land into Prussia, left a deep influence on how Jensen viewed the world of man. He attended the Tune Agricultural School in Jutland, afterwards undertaking mandatory service in the Prussian Army. During these three years he sketched parks in the English and French character in Berlin and other German cities. By 1884, his military service over, Jensen was engaged to Anne Marie Hansen. Coupled with his wish to escape the family farm, this led to his decision to emigrate to the United States that year.
Initially Jensen worked in Florida, and then at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, before moving to Chicago and taking a job as a laborer for the West Park Commission. He was soon promoted to a foreman. During this time he was allowed to design and plant a garden of exotic flowers. When the garden withered and died, he traveled into the surrounding prairie and transplanted native wildflowers. Jensen transplanted the wildflowers into a corner of Union Park, creating what became the American Garden in 1888.
Working his way through the park system, Jensen was appointed superintendent of the 200 acre Humboldt Park in 1895. By the late 1890s, the West Park Commission was entrenched in corruption. After refusing to participate in political graft, Jensen was ousted by a dishonest park board in 1900. He was eventually reinstated and by 1905 he was general superintendent of the entire West Park System in Chicago. His design work for the city can be seen at Lincoln Park, Douglas Park, and Columbus Park.
In the 1910s, Jensen played a role in building support for the preservation of part of the Indiana Dunes sand dune ecosystem, also near Chicago.
In his maturity, Jensen designed Lincoln Memorial Gardens in Springfield, Illinois. This plan was completed in 1935 and planted in 1936-1939.
In 1920 he retired from the park system and started his own landscape architecture practice. He worked on private estates and municipal parks throughout the U.S. He was commissioned by Eleanor and Edsel Ford for four residences, three in Michigan and one in Maine, between 1922 and 1935.
A major landscape project, with Edsel Ford, was for ‘Gaukler Point’, the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House designed by architect Albert Kahn in 1929, on the shores of Lake St. Clair in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan for Edsel Ford and his wife. Jensen did the master plan and designed the estate’s gardens. He employed his traditional ‘long view,’ giving visitors a glimpse of the residence down the long meadow after passing the entry gates, then only brief partial views along the long drive, and only at the end revealing the entire house and another view back up the long meadow. The ‘Gaukler Point’ gardens and residence are now a public historical landscape and house museum and on the National Register of Historic Places.
He also designed the gardens for Edsel and Eleanor’s summer estate ‘Skylands’ in Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island in Maine (1922). Jensen did design work for their two other Michigan residences, one being ‘Haven Hill,’ between 1922 and 1935. ‘Haven Hill’, now within the Highland Recreation Area near White Lake Township in southeastern Michigan, is designated as both a Michigan State Historical Landmark and State Natural Preserve. Jensen’s landscape elements, with the diversity of tree, plant and animal life, combine aesthetics, history and nature.
For Clara and Henry Ford Jensen employed his ‘delayed view’ approach in designing the arrival at the residence of their estate, Fair Lane, in Dearborn, Michigan. Instead of proceeding straight to the house or even seeing it, the entrance drive leads visitors through the estate’s dense woodland areas. Bends in the drive, planted on the curves’ inside arc with large trees give a feeling of a natural reason for the turn, and obscure any long view. Suddenly, the visitor is propelled out of the forest and in the open space where the residence is presented fully in view in front of them. This idea of wandering was one which Jens put forth in almost all of his designs. Expansive meadows and gardens make up the larger landscape, with naturalistic massings of flowers surrounding the house. The largest axial meadow, the “Path of the Setting Sun” is aligned so that on the summer solstice the setting sun glows through a precise parting of the trees at meadow’s end. The boathouse, with stonework cliffs designed by Jensen, allowed Henry Ford to travel on the Rouge River in his electric boat. Currently 72 acres of the original estate are preserved as a historic landscape and with the house are a museum, and a National Historic Landmark.
Jensen did other projects for Henry Ford including: The Dearborn Inn, Dearborn, Michigan, in 1931 (architect Albert Kahn, the first airport hotel in the country and National Historic Landmark); the Henry Ford Hospital; the Greenfield Village historic re-creation and its Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn; and the ‘Ford Pavilion’ at the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition. In 1923 he designed Lincoln High School in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, on a 19-acre area on Lake Michigan. A number of projects with Jensen designed landscapes are listed on the National Register of Historic Places including The Jens Jensen House and Studio, Rosewood Park, the May Theilgaard Watts House (architect; John S. Van Bergen), The A.G. Becker Property (architect; Howard Van Doren Shaw), The Samuel Holmes House (architect; Robert Seyfarth) and the Harold Florshiem estate (architect; Ernest Grunsfeld), all of which are located in Highland Park, Illinois where Jensen lived.
In 1935, after the death of his wife, Jensen moved from Highland Park, Illinois to Ellison Bay, Wisconsin where he established “The Clearing”, which he called a “school of the soil” to train future landscape architects. It’s now preserved open space and an education center in the ‘folk school tradition’. In the course of his long career he worked with many well known architects including Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Albert Kahn. Jens Jensen died at his home, “The Clearing,” on October 1, 1951, at the age of 91.
Mertha Fulkerson dedicated her life to Jens Jensen and The Clearing. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Mertha, The Clearing would not exist today. She literally “refused” to let The Clearing die during the dark weeks and months that followed Jensen’s death in 1951.
Mertha was born in La Paz, Indiana on May 3, 1905 to Edwin and Bertha Fulkerson. The family moved to Anderson, Indiana in 1909, then to the north Chicago suburb of Highland Park in 1917. Jens Jensen also lived and worked in Highland Park at this time—his home and studio were in Ravinia—and was already a wellknown landscape architect, park planner and conservationist. Jensen hired Mertha to be his secretary in 1924. She would work for him for the rest of his life, until he died in 1951, and for his ideals and philosophies for the rest of her life.
Jens Jensen moved to Ellison Bay to establish The Clearing in 1935, following the death of his wife, Anna Marie, the previous year. The Jensen family had used their Door County property for summer vacations since 1919, when Jensen started purchasing the land that would eventually become The Clearing, but it wasn’t until Anna Marie died that he decided to move to Door County full time to start The Clearing. He asked Mertha to come along to help start the school. She was hesitant, but agreed to come up for one year. She stayed for 34 years!
When Jensen died in 1951, it fell upon Mertha and the two other members of the Board of Directors to keep The Clearing going. But there was little money, and there were no students. Jens Jensen had been the main reason young landscape architecture students and others had come to The Clearing for the previous 16 years. He was now gone. With no students and little money, The Clearing’s situation was precarious. In the spring of 1953, Mertha met with a representative of the Audubon Society, a national organization that was interested in purchasing the property for use as a summer bird camp. Then Sid Telfer Sr., a good friend and neighbor, and by then a member of The Clearing’s Board, suggested to Mertha that the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation might be interested in operating The Clearing. Negotiations began, and resulted in the Farm Bureau assuming operation of The Clearing in the summer of 1953. Mertha was hired by the Farm Bureau to be The Clearing’s Resident Manager, a position she would hold for the next 16 years.
1953 was a watershed year for The Clearing for another reason as well. Mertha and the Board realized that, in order for The Clearing to survive, there had to be a new program, one that would appeal to a broader audience than the young students who had come to study with and learn from Jens Jensen. With help from some members of the University of Chicago faculty, along with others, Mertha developed a curriculum of study for The Clearing—classes in the arts and fine crafts, humanities and natural sciences. The new program started in 1954 and continues to this day.
Mertha spent the rest of the 1950s and the 1960s establishing a solid foundation for The Clearing as a school for adults and as a place to teach and promote Jens Jensen’s ideals. To those who came to The Clearing during this period, Mertha was The Clearing. From spring through fall, she was here, overseeing all aspects of the program, facility and service. During winter, Mertha was in Madison, working out of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s office, where she planned the next year’s Clearing class schedule.
Mertha retired at the end of the 1969 season. She spent her last season training her hand-picked successors, Claire and Dorothy Johnson, who had been students at The Clearing frequently during the 1960s. Mertha moved to a house north of Green Bay, along with her sister, Grace Richardson. The house sat high on a hill, with a view of the water and the setting sun—just like at The Clearing. Mertha died in January of 1971, a little more than a year after retiring.
Maps & Directions
Located near the tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, The Clearing is situated on the Niagara Escarpment, a limestone cliff that rises out of Lake Michigan’s Green Bay and defines the western edge of Door County. The Clearing’s physical assets — beautiful views of the water and the setting sun, historic stone and log buildings and hiking trails that wind through the property’s 128 acres of forest and meadow – combine to create one of Door County’s great cultural and natural treasures.