Lee Swanson ’60: Possessed by the prairie

In 1987 Lee Swanson ’60 and two partners purchased 640 acres of land at the edge of the Driftless Area in southwestern Wisconsin for hunting and recreation. They put the land into the USDA’s conservation reserve program and began planting prairie on what was once cornfields and dairy farms.

And then a new purpose for the land unveiled itself.

“Each time we cleared out the honeysuckle and junk plants, here would come these beautiful plants. We began to uncover native plants like pale purple coneflower, and with some research we discovered it was all prairie. It revealed itself to us, even in those fields that had been planted in corn for years,” Swanson says of the site near Cross Plains, Wisconsin, where he was a banker for over 40 years. “These were plants that were living here when the settlers came in 1850.”

They soon began hiring help and applying for grants to speed up the restoration of the property, which came to be known as the Swamplovers Preserve. In the years since, they have uncovered 200 native species and transformed the land into a biodiversity hotspot with wetland, a trout stream, and bur and white oak savanna in addition to prairie.

Swanson’s work has been recognized with a 2010 Conservationist of the Year award from the Dane County Conservation League, a 2012 State of Wisconsin certificate of appreciation for natural resource landowners, and the 2014 Leopold Restoration Award, to name a few. The Ice Age Trail, a 1,000-mile footpath that highlights glacially sculpted landscapes across Wisconsin, runs for 1.5 miles through the preserve.

“It’s hard to believe we’ve been able to make this impact on this piece of land,” Swanson says. “We started out so modestly. Then we got possessed. And now we’re getting thousands of visitors to see the farm, going through some of the most beautifully restored land that we have. The farm owns us, we don’t own the farm.”

Swanson and his wife, honorary Cornell alumna Jacqui Swanson, built their home on the prairie 18 years ago and from that setting Swanson has continued his lifelong practice of walking early each morning. Most days his black labrador is at his side.

Swanson, 83, is a Cornell Life Trustee and was the inspiration behind the Beta Omicron Distinguished Alumni Visitors Program. He retired at age 72 as president and chairman of the board of State Bank of Cross Plains, a community-based bank in Wisconsin.

He came to Cornell after Coach Jim Dutcher and Lowell Reed ’46 from Admissions visited his home in Elgin, Illinois, and “convinced my mother that they would take care of me and offered enough grants and aid to make it possible, as we were quite poor.” He and Jacqui were married his senior year. Their eldest son, the late Mike Swanson ’83, graduated from Cornell too.

Swanson remains actively engaged in weeding and collecting seeds on the prairie with the Ice Age Trail Alliance, and he no longer worries about the future of the property in rapidly developing Dane County. On Nov. 24, 2020, the ownership and management responsibilities of the remaining 433 acres of Swamplovers Preserve transferred to the Alliance, ensuring that the preserve Swanson and his partners worked so hard to restore will be protected as a sanctuary forever. The Swansons will continue to live there. 

Photo by Amanda Van Gorden