In Your Backyard: Big Woods

Aerial photo of Big Woods by Bill Cronon.

By Bryn Scriver, Lakeshore Nature Preserve Volunteer & Outreach Coordinator

Big Woods is circled in blue in this aerial view, taken sometime between 1948 and 1952. Just to the left of the circle is University Housing. Note that agricultural plots continue to be cultivated in the former Pharmaceutical Gardens in the southeast corner of the woods. (UW-Archives, box 123, series 8/8, CLP-A0160)
Big Woods is circled in blue in this aerial view, taken sometime between 1948 and 1952. Just to the left of the circle is University Housing. Note that agricultural plots continue to be cultivated in the former Pharmaceutical Gardens in the southeast corner of the woods. (UW-Archives, box 123, series 8/8, CLP-A0160)

Big Woods, the parcel of woods between University Houses and the Eagle Heights buildings, is just a small part of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, but it has an interesting story. Its story begins with the native peoples who lived and visited here. While Big Woods has not been included in any systematic archeological surveys; the parcel of land immediately east of here has yielded artifacts from several ancient cultures—including material from the Paleo-Indian culture some 12,000 years ago.

The first European-American to settle here was Anna Jansen who secured a lease in 1851 on a 40-acre parcel of land that included Big Woods. She was reported to have lived in a one-story, dirt-floored log cabin near the corner of present-day Haight Road and University Bay Drive. Little is known about Jansen except that she raised livestock and farmed.

In 1895, John Olin purchased Jansen’s property and used part of it (likely the flatter ground closer to the corner of Lake Mendota Drive and University Bay Drive), for a plant nursery. At the time, Olin was the president of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association and he was directing major tree and shrub planting programs along many of the new parks and roads managed by the group. One such planting project was for Bay Road—currently part of the Howard Temin Lakeshore Path.

The university purchased the property sometime around 1910 and in 1913 developed a first-of-its-kind pharmaceutical garden, dedicated to propagating and investigating plants with possible medicinal effects. The garden was situated where the 100 group of apartments is now located.

With the conclusion of World War II, demand for faculty and student housing resulted in several new residential developments. Between 1946 and 1952, the University Houses complex was built on the west flank of Big Woods. Then, in 1957, on land formerly used for the Pharmaceutical Gardens, the first Eagle Heights Apartment buildings (the 100s) were constructed—closing in the southeast edge of Big Woods. Finally, during 1958, additional Eagle Heights buildings (the 200s) were constructed on the northern uphill edge of the woods.

It would appear that topography played a key role in preserving what remains of Big Woods. Although the land was not exceedingly steep, construction on this site would have required greater expense for clearing and leveling.

Big Woods is unique in the Preserve due to its relatively intact canopy and undisturbed understory. The tree

Close-up of a great waterleaf plant. Photo by Bryn Scriver.
Close-up of a great waterleaf plant. Photo by Bryn Scriver.

canopy is dominated by large white and red oak, sugar maple, basswood, black cherry, and hackberry. In the spring, one can find an abundance of woodland wildflowers including wild ginger, Dutchman’s breeches, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and wild geranium. The most unusual wildflower species is great waterleaf, which is a Wisconsin Special Concern plant.

Raptors—including great horned and screech owls and Cooper’s and red-tailed hawks—hunt and sometimes nest in Big Woods. Many other birds use this woodland as a haven for their fledglings because of the lack of human disturbance. Occasionally deer use the woodland, and raccoons, opossums, squirrels, chipmunks and many smaller mammals reside here as well.

You can enjoy the woods from its margins or via the sidewalk that runs through the center of the woods from apartment building 203 on the north to the western side of apartment building, 107 on the south.