Story by Anne Morrissy | Photography by Kayla Ermer
About two years ago, Karen Yancey, Kevin M. Brunner and Mark Bromley were hiking through an area of Bromley Woods on Greening Road in La Grange, east of Whitewater, when Yancey stopped in her tracks. “On a hickory tree, we looked up and saw about three dozen small red-headed woodpeckers feeding off the tree at once,” she marvels. “You’re usually lucky if you see one.” The birds, once quite prevalent in the area, are now listed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as a species of “special concern” due to their declining population. Yancey, the executive director of the Geneva Lake Conservancy (GLC) in Fontana, and Brunner, the organization’s chairman of the board of directors, immediately realized how important the preservation of this habitat could be for these endangered birds.
In fact, Yancey, Brunner and Bromley were hiking the woods that day because the Bromley family — Mark, his four sisters and his brother’s widow — had approached the Conservancy to inquire about preserving the land, which has played host to seven generations of their family and includes more than 80 acres of pristine natural woods in the heart of a heavily glaciated area that also includes the Kettle Moraine State Forest.
“We at the Conservancy had known about the property for about eight to 10 years, because it was on the DNR’s list of important lands to be preserved,” Brunner explains. “The DNR likes to work with nonprofits like the GLC to acquire them, and Bromley Woods was really their No. 1 property in southeastern Wisconsin for preservation.”
So the team at the GLC applied for a state- funded grant through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program, which bestows matching grants to help nonprofits acquire and maintain parcels of land around the state. The program began in 1989 and was named for two former Wisconsin governors who were committed to the preservation of the natural environment: Warren Knowles and Gaylord Nelson.
After securing the Knowles-Nelson matching grant, the GLC began a round of successful fundraising that allowed the organization to purchase the first 32 acres of Bromley Woods in the fall of 2019. That parcel contains several miles of wooded trails around a picturesque, 10-acre kettle pond. At the same time, the Bromley family donated an additional 8-acre parcel of adjacent oak savanna, containing 200- to 300-year-old oak trees. “Preservation of this property is particularly significant because oak forests and savannas have become one of the rarest landscapes on the planet,” Brunner explains.
TOPOGRAPHY TELLS ITS HISTORY
As the oak trees demonstrate, the land that makes up Bromley Woods has a long and fascinating history. The glacial activity that created the varied topography of the area occurred approximately 15,000 to 18,000 years ago as the receding glacier melted and deposited water and sediment to create the familiar landscape we know today. (In geologic terms, the pot-shaped depressions in the land are called kettles and the deposited debris — rocks, silt and boulders — that accumulated are called moraines, hence the name of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, which abuts Bromley Woods.)
By the early 1800s, the Potawatomi tribe of Native Americans lived in the area, and according to Bromley, they left behind numerous artifacts and arrowheads in the earth around the woods.
STEWARDS OF THE LAND FOR OVER 175 YEARS
In 1844, Mark Bromley’s great-great- grandfather, William Bromley, arrived in Walworth County from New Hartford, New York, east of Syracuse. Born in Yorkshire, England, in 1808, William Bromley had been trained as a “boss cotton weaver” in his home country. In 1836, he married Martha Taylor in Yorkshire, and three years later, they immigrated to America. He worked in the cotton trade in New York for five years before heading west again to what was then the Northwest Territory, where he purchased 220 acres of land in La Grange from the United States government. After selling off about half of that acreage to his neighbor, Bromley began farming the land. Four years later, Wisconsin became the 30th state.
The Bromley family has owned and lived on the property since purchasing it in 1844. Mark Bromley and his siblings grew up among the woods, where they would drag their sleds from hollow to hollow in the winter to find the best sledding hill, or grab their rifles and head out squirrel hunting in warmer weather. But as the Bromleys began to look to the future of the property, they realized that the years of family ownership might be coming to an end. “About five years ago, we started talking among the family about the long-term ownership and what it should be, particularly of the forest,” he said. “We consulted the sixth generation to ask them what their preferences would be, and they felt that we — the fifth generation — should make the decision. And we wanted to ensure the long-term protection of the land.”
IN ITS NATURAL STATE FOR PERPETUITY
So the Bromleys approached the GLC about their wishes. The Conservancy was founded in 1977 as the Committee to Save Geneva Lake and has since grown to encompass a mission to “preserve and advocate for Walworth County waterways, natural areas and working lands.” One of the methods the Geneva Lake Conservancy employs to achieve this mission is to facilitate the sale or donation of land through conservation easements intended to keep land in its natural state rather than allow for modern development. With the addition of Bromley Woods, the Geneva Lake Conservancy now counts more than 3,000 acres of stewardship holdings across six properties in Walworth County, including the popular White River County Park and the Helen Rohner Children’s Fishing Pond.
According to Yancey, the Conservancy was excited to add Bromley Woods to their stewardship portfolio. “The fact that the family was such good caretakers of the property for so many years really demonstrates how much they loved and cared for it,” she says. “We wish all landowners would be as respectful of the natural elements of their property as the Bromleys have been.”
A small ceremony in May marked Bromley Woods’ official public opening. Brunner says the Conservancy has placed temporary signage on the site as it awaits more permanent signs. A gravel parking area and informational kiosk and map were part of the spring upgrades as well.
A HIKER’S AND BIRDER’S PARADISE
The site contains what Brunner describes as “several miles” of hiking trails, the most striking of which descends about 80 feet to the kettle pond and continues around its banks. (A portion of the pond is located on land that makes up the Kettle Moraine State Forest, connecting the two hiking areas.) “That’s a pretty good, rigorous hike,” he says. “The pond is just spectacular.” A separate path to the oak savanna presents a less demanding hike and is arguably the better option for families with younger children.
Visitors can expect to see a wide variety of wildlife, but Yancey says that the site has proved to be particularly interesting to birders, especially during the migration seasons in the spring and fall. “Bromley Woods has been identified by the DNR as a conservation area of global importance for birds,” she explains.
Brunner says the GLC hosted a birdwatching event in the spring of 2019 in conjunction with the Wisconsin Audubon Council. “Several of the people who came out for that event were just amazed at how many species of birds there were out here,” he adds. In addition to the diverse population of birds, Bromley says he has spotted coyote, beaver, muskrats, turtles and frogs.
Following the successful opening of the first 40 acres of Bromley Woods last spring, the GLC has been working on new grants this year with the hope of adding 40 more acres of the Bromleys’ property to the site, eventually making a total of 80 acres available to the public. According to Brunner, they received another Knowles-Nelson grant in August that will allow them to execute the next phase of the plan by purchasing 20 acres that are immediately adjacent to the current parcel, once they successfully raise the matching funds. The last phase will involve seeking grants to add 20 acres on the south side of Greening Road as well.
It is a goal that Brunner and Yancey say is within reach thanks to the cooperation of the Bromley family. “One of the things that makes this site so special, in my opinion, is the history of the place,” Brunner explains. “The Bromleys have been stewards of this property since 1844, and they have been very gracious people to work with to preserve it for future generations.”
For his part, Bromley says the relationship with the GLC has been a positive one for the family as well. “By placing it in conservancy, we’re getting the long-term protection of the land that the family was looking for.”
For more information about Bromley Woods, visit genevalakeconservancy.org.