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Gaylord Nelson at the Apostle Islands, 1967. WHS Image ID 56854

Gaylord Nelson at the Apostle Islands, Photograph by Frank Wallick, 1967. WHI 56854

An Earth Day Gallery in Gaylord Nelson's Honor

In 1969 Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin conceived the idea of a national teach-in to increase public awareness of the rampant environmental problems of the times. On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated, and today the Society is proud to announce the completion of the first phase of the Gaylord Nelson Papers processing project. In celebration of both the project and Nelson's Earth Day legacy, this featured gallery comprises a selection of Nelson images.

Nelson donated a portion of his senatorial papers to the Society in 1974; the rest of the materials arrived in 1980 upon Nelson's defeat in the Senate. These two accessions constituted the bulk of the Nelson collection, totaling 1,040 boxes of paper, audio recordings, films, photographs, scrapbooks and video recordings. The papers remained unprocessed, however, until 2006 when the Society received a generous grant from the Evjue Foundation. In addition to the grant, the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been a major financial contributor to the project. Since then, the work to identify, organize and describe the materials in the collection has been ongoing. And now the most significant portion of the collection has been preserved, organized and, lastly, described in a finding aid now available online through the Society's website. The Society also holds Nelson's official papers as governor of Wisconsin (1959-1963).

The collection spans the years 1954-2006, covering Nelson's senatorial career and his post-senatorial activities, and documents his greatest legislative achievements including, the establishment of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore; the preservation of the Appalachian Trail; the incorporation of the St. Croix, Namekagon, and Wolf rivers into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System; and the organization of the first national Earth Day Teach-In. Nelson also contributed to the development of the Environmental Education Act; and aided in the passage of the Menominee Restoration Act and the establishment of the Upper Great Lakes Regional Commission.

Nelson may be less well known as one of only three senators opposed to the war in Vietnam; for his strong advocacy of civil rights; for his efforts to combat poverty; for his fight against the tire and automobile industry to adopt new safety standards; and for opening up the discourse on the problems and abuses of the pharmaceutical industry. It was said by his colleagues that Nelson was the conscience of the Senate and he was well known for his bipartisan leadership.

The photographs in this gallery document his early life in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, and his career as Governor of Wisconsin, U.S. Senator, founder of Earth Day, and staunch environmentalist. Several images show Nelson with prominent people, many of whom were his close personal friends. You can read more about Nelson and the environmental movement in Wisconsin in our online collection, Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

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View the Gallery

Suggestions for Further Reading

Finding Aid: Gaylord Nelson Papers, 1954-2006

Turning Points: Gaylord Nelson seeks to bring the environment into the classroom, 1969

Turning Points: An Overview of Earth Day, 1970

Turning Points: The Modern Environmental Movement

Turning Points: Selections from Gaylord Nelson's Earth Day files, 1970

Turning Points: Gaylord Nelson's early environmental speeches, 1962-1971

Dictionary Term: Nelson, Gaylord A. 1916-2005

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