Since 1855, on the National Register of Historic Places. Now celebrating 165 years.
The Donald Farm Transitions Into Dane County Donald Park
The genesis of Donald County Park was created when Dane County acquired large portions of two farm properties straddling State Highway 92, between Mt. Vernon and Mt. Horeb–the Donald farm and the Hitchcock farm.
The land that became the nucleus of Donald County Park was settled in 1855 by the Rev. James Donald, a Presbyterian minister, and his family. The Donalds lived in a log home on the north side of what is now Highway 92, while they were building a two-story wood-fame house. The farmhouse, completed in 1859, has been continuously preserved and is still in like-new condition, standing across the road from the park on the only remaining 25 acres of family property on the original site of the Donald Farm.
James Donald’s grandson, John Sweet Donald, eventually took over the family farm operation, which had expanded due to the acquisition of the adjacent farms that became known as the Sweet Farm, and the Rock Farm (see Donald Rock below). John and his wife Vona became involved in progressive politics, and he served in the Wisconsin State Senate and as Secretary of State. Eventually, John joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture, while continuing to help manage the farms.
Delma Donald, John and Vona’s daughter, earned a B.A. in Economics from the University of Wisconsin in 1921. She later married James Woodburn, an engineering professor, whose job took the family to several states and to Germany. Nevertheless, Delma remained deeply interested in the history of her family and of Donald Farm.
In 1993, the Woodburn family donated 105 acres of the Donald property to Dane County Parks, the nucleus of what is now known as Donald County Park. Over the next fourteen years, the County acquired an additional 475 acres of the family’s property through a combination of purchases, easements, and donations.
Delma Donald Woodburn died in 2001 at the age of 102. Her family continued to be enthusiastic supporters of the Park, and preservers of the original farm. In 2018 Delma's granddaughter, Mary Woodburn Stennes, continues the next generation of family ownership with continued restoration and preservation of Donald Farm.
Donald Rock: Donald County Park is in the “driftless area” of Wisconsin that was never covered by later glaciers. Water and wind erosion have sculpted this landscape into the hills and valleys that we see today. Donald Rock is an erosion-resistant block of St. Peter Sandstone that became isolated as the softer sandstone around it eroded, after the continental seas retreated 450 million years ago. The rock was an important landmark to native cultures, especially the Ho Chunk, who visited the valley in pre-European settlement times.In 1952, the family of Delma Donald Woodburn donated the rock, then known as “picture rock,” and two surrounding acres to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, to serve as a scenic wayside. The rock was renamed Donald Rock in recognition of the family’s gift. The rock has been called the “Preacher’s Cap,” a name that was used by settlers in the 1800s.
Donald County Park has a diverse environmental and cultural history, with artifacts found dating back 13,000 years. The park was established in 1993 with a gift of 105 acres from Delma Donald Woodburn’s family and in 1996, Dane County acquired the Hitchcock property. Pat Hitchcock was one of many Friends of Donald Park volunteers with cultural ties to the land that makes up the park, and she worked tirelessly as a volunteer. The park now covers more than 800 acres and is truly a shining star in the Dane County Park system.
Natural History of Donald County Park: Throughout the four seasons, the slow geologic processes of erosion and weathering silently sculpt the rolling hills and valleys of the Mount Vernon countryside, as they have without interruption for the past 450 million years. Unlike much of the remainder of Dane County and Wisconsin, whose landscapes and soils were profoundly altered by continental ice sheets (glaciers) that periodically advanced south from the Hudson Bay region over the past 2.5 million years, Donald County Park has been shaped by largely non-glacial processes. Donald County Park lies near the edge of the “Driftless Area,” which is a ~10,000 square mile island in southern Wisconsin that has by chance never been overrun by glaciers. As a result, the Donald County Park area lacks the deep deposits of glacially transported sediments and glacial landforms so characteristic of other areas in the state. The geologic evolution of the Donald County Park must instead be studied in a non-glacial context, one whose origins date back to the Cambrian period approximately 500 million years ago. View a map of glaciated Wisconsin HERE
Between 550 and 450 million years ago, shallow continental seas advanced and retreated five times across much of the central United States, including southern Wisconsin. After each regression of the sea, flat lying marine sediments such as sandstones and dolomites were left behind. When seas retreated for the final time, over 100 feet of sandstones, dolomites, and shales (mud-based rock) had been deposited in the park. The final retreat of the seas left behind a largely flat continental landscape that gradually took shape through the everyday processes of water and wind erosion. Stream valleys and ridges in southern Wisconsin began evolving into their present state, and soils formed through the mechanical and chemical weathering of the rock surfaces. Deer Creek, Fryes Feeder, and Mount Vernon Creek all eroded down through the upper, younger rock layers, and the Platteville and Galena dolomites into the older St. Peters Sandstone beneath. Donald Rock, near the intersection of Town Hall Road and Highway 92, is an erosion-resistant block of St. Peters Sandstone that became isolated as more erodible surrounding sandstone was carried away by water action over many millions of years.
Since 2.5 million years ago, when the edges of large continental glaciers approached the Mount Vernon area, the two most profound influences on the landscape of the Mount Vernon area have been humans and glaciers, in that order. Before ~13,500 years ago, the local environment was nearly identical to that in northern Alaska today. The ground was permanently frozen several feet down. The upper soil layer thawed only for a few weeks each year and tended to slide down slopes rapidly due to its muddy character. The local ice sheet dammed the outlets of nearby streams, leading to small glacial lakes that backed up into the valley of Mount Vernon creek and its tributaries. In some instances a several inch thick layer of light-grey clay was deposited at the bottoms of these lakes and can still be found several feet beneath the valley floors. Plant pollen samples recovered from lake sediments in Dane County indicate that plant life consisted mainly of a treeless tundra with low shrubs and grasses. Since ~13,500 years ago, the local vegetation evolved to a spruce forest as the ice sheet retreated. The bones of woolly mammoths, mastodons, giant beavers, and other large mammals indicate that the local environment supported a rich wildlife population.
After man arrived in central North America some 11,500 years ago, large mammals became extinct, presumably due to overly efficient hunting techniques. The local vegetation evolved to a mixture of prairie and oak woodlands by 10,000 years ago, at which point the continental ice sheet had retreated to the southern edge of Lake Superior. The Donald County Park landscape had almost certainly assumed its present form by this time. (Submitted by Chuck DeMets, Professor of Geology and Geophysics, University of Wisconsin–Madison)
Early Settlers and Farming: The Mount Horeb Area Historical Society has a wealth of information about this time period.
The first government surveyors in this region during the early 1830s made maps showing that the lands which make up Donald County Park were predominately prairies with oak forests on the hills. John Mullet was the 1883 government surveyor who recorded land features and created the early maps for this part of Dane County.
Download the 1833 map of Donald County Park HERE
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