By Don Corrigan
Newly-elected state Rep. Bruce Sassmann, R-Bland, was recently appointed to the Missouri House Committee on Conservation and Natural Resources. He brings unrivaled credentials to this work to be done under the dome in Jefferson City.
Sassmann and his wife, Jan, have taken a family farm and converted it into what they call the Prairie Star Restoration Farm. They give tours of the prairie site, where they have built replicas of the outdoor shelters of Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and also a site for John Muir.
Thoreau, Leopold and Muir are praised by Sassmann as the “holy trinity of conservation.” But Sassman has brought his own brand of conservation to the farm, where he gives educational tours of the restored farm’s indigenous flora and fauna.
“We hired a botanist to survey the farm and to create for us an inventory of plants,” explained Sassmann. “Native plants scored highest. Invasive and exotic plant degraded the value of our restoration efforts. We learned of species richness and floristic values.
“And we also learned about the true relationships between living things,” Sassmann added. “We decided to use prescribed fires as a land management tools and we celebrated the new life from the ashes.
Bruce and Jan Sassmann have thrived on bringing visitors to the farm for some outdoor education. They also have enjoyed showing off the replica sites of Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and John Muir and talking about the accomplishments of these early conservationists.
“As a retired funeral director, I just started thinking: Why can’t we bring these three men back to life? Resurrecting these men from the dead was not as hard as you might think,” laughed Sassmann. “A little internet search and a few phone calls and I learned Thoreau, Muir and Leopold had been back in the world of the living for quite some time.”
Conservationists Take The Stage
Sassmann found that Muir had been living in body of Lee Stetson in Yosemite for nearly 35 years. Lee was an actor and performer who had taken on the persona of Muir. The spirit of Muir never left Stetson and after four decades of performances. It’s nearly impossible to tell them apart.
“For 20 years, Richard Smith has lived the character of Henry David Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts,” noted Sassman. “The marriage of Smith and Thoreau was the perfect union. And in more recent times, Jim Pfister, found the life of Aldo Leopold more interesting than his own. He looked like Aldo and had the same mannerisms. Pfister may be Leopold incarnate.”
Sassmann made a phone call to these three men and asked if they would like to come to the farm for a gathering. They agreed. A Chautauqua-style tent, stage and chairs were put up on the farm. A two-day event called “America’s Holy Trinity of Conservation” was planned for June 2016 and 600 people showed up.
The audience experienced a once-in-a-lifetime reunion of three American giants of conservation. Thoreau was an early environmentalist, Muir a preservationist and Leopold the nation’s first ecologist. They were a holy trinity, indeed.
Stetson (or was it Muir?) suggested an encore with Teddy Roosevelt for another gathering. This time it would be just Muir and Roosevelt, the tramp and the rough rider. A two-man play would tell the story of a 1904 camping trip in the High Sierras. Muir and Roosevelt would begin to hash out the beginnings of the national parks and a national public land movement.
Another two-day event in the spring of 2017 entertained hundreds of people. But, there was something happening, something larger than a single event. Conservationists of our country’s past were coming to life and more wanted to be resurrected.
A March 2018 evening event, about the life of Rachel Carson, was on stage at the Performing Arts Center in Jefferson City. Two months later Tom Milligan would take on the character of conservation legend Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling. His one-man play, “The Art of Conservation,” was performed in May in five cities across the state of Missouri.
The re-enactment events drew crowds, but they were never self-supporting. Another problem was that Legends of Conservation was running out of actors. No one had considered investing their lives into the characters of Big Hugh Bennett, John Burroughs, George Perkins Marsh, Pinchot, Grinnell, Douglas, Hornaday, Murie or other notables.
“We needed all of the legends to be recognized for their achievements and their contributions,” said Sassmann. “We needed a way to tell the conservation story from the perspective of all of the giants. With every challenge there is a new opportunity.”
Cut Out For Conservation Education
A committee behind the organization started brainstorming. What if a photograph of Big Hugh Bennett, the father of soil conservation, could be enlarged and printed to create a life-size cutout of the historic figure? Folks could stare into his eyes, put their arm around him, take a selfie, wonder about his existence.
What if a virtual army of cardboard cutouts could be created to provide visual evidence of the existence of all of our American conservation giants? What if? Sassmann asked, along with his colleagues.
They called on the talents of St. Louis water color artist Sophie Binder. The stars started lining up. A collection of conservationists were masterfully recreated and printed as a display of 20 life-size cutouts of American Legends of Conservation.
“We took advantage of an NRCS Grant opportunity to pay for our army of conservation cutouts,” said Sassmann. “They were a good-looking bunch of heroes of American conservation history and we were anxious to tell their story. A booklet of biographies was written and these legends were ready to go on tour.”
It had been a year of planning and implementation. The display debuted in late January 2020 at the Missouri Department of Conservation headquarters in Jefferson City. In early March, the phalanx of conservationists stood guard over participants at the Conservation Federation of Missouri’s annual convention.
By late March, tour dates for the legends started cancelling. It was the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown. The stars in the sky were falling. A pandemic was interrupting conservation’s march. In 2021, the legends are on hold, awaiting their recall for another day.
“The legends have escaped confinement a time or two during this pandemic. We are waiting to do more,” said Sassmann. “The Legends of Conservation are the foundation of our conservation history and history loves company.”
Jan and Bruce Sassmann also hope to have visitors to the their Prairie Star Restoration Farm later in 2021. Some of those visitors may wander in from the new Rock Island Trail, a 140-mile length of state park for recreation which is being developed south of the Sassmann farm.
“Travelers on a trail across this landscape may suffer an unintentional lesson in land management,” noted Sassmann. “Without knowing, every traveler will compare one farm to the next. Abuse will be easily recognized.
“Pretty farms will be most attractive to the Puritan,” Sassmann observed. “But there will be some landscapes, natural and unspoiled, that may cause an unhurried traveler to take pause.”
Sassmann draws on an observation from John Muir: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
The Rock Island Trail may bring people in proximity of the Prairie Star Restoration Farm. A few may stop by and the Sassmanns may provide a conservation tour and some wise words from the legends of conservation.
“If the travelers stop by, I hope they leave richer,” said Sassmann. “And I hope that if they come to the farm, they visit in the spirit of Thoreau … ‘to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I (they) could not learn what it had to teach.’”
Rep. Bruce Sassmann is now advocating for conservation in the Missouri House. He can be reached at: 201 West Capitol Ave., Room 203-C; Jefferson City, Mo. 65101. Phone: 573-751-1344. E-Mail: Bruce.Sassmann@house.mo