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Meet Minnesota’s Sixth and Newest Literary Landmark

Next summer, the Minnesota Association of Library Friends (MALF) and Listening Point Foundation – in partnership with the Friends of the Ely Public Library, the Ely-Winton Historical Society, and Vermilion Community College – will dedicate Vermillion Community College, the academic home of conservationist Sigurd Olson, as Minnesota’s newest “Literary Landmark.”

Literary Landmark programLiterary Landmarks are sites with a strong historical connection to prominent American authors and recognized through a joint partnership between United for Libraries’ Literary Landmarks Association and local affiliates. To date, there are over 150 such sites across the country, and Minnesota is home to five. (These include the boyhood homestead of Sinclair Lewis in Sauk Centreand the Jon Hassler Library in Brainerd, dedicated by MALF in 2013 and 2014.)

The Sigurd Olson dedication ceremony will be held Friday, June 5, 2015, on the grounds of Vermillion Community College. The event is free, open to the public, and will begin at 4 p.m. Light refreshments will be available courtesy of the Friends of the Ely Public Library.

In conjunction with the dedication ceremony, the Listening Point Foundation will conduct tours of Olson’s cabin retreat on June 6, and the Ely Winton Historical Society (conveniently located on the Vermillion Community College campus) will host a small exhibit on the author’s life and work.

Stay tuned! Other exciting tie-in activities are still in the works. Further program details will be available in early spring 2015.

Who is Sigurd Olson?

The Midwest boasts more than its fair share of environmentalist luminaries and famous nature writers. While household names like Aldo Leopold, Gaylord Nelson, and John Muir rank near the top of that list, none has left a more indelible mark on Minnesota than native son Sigurd Olson.

Olson is best remembered today for championing nature conservation through nine bestselling books, beginning with The Singing Wilderness in 1956 and his seminalListening Point in 1958. The latter is named for Olson’s personal retreat, located on scenic Burntside Lake just outside of Ely, Minnesota. Olson and wife Elizabeth lived in the Ely area most of their adult lives.

Sigurd Olson’s corpus of work struck a chord with the American public thanks to his approachable, unpretentious writing style, coupled with an ability to speak from a position of authority. Olson held advanced degrees in geology, botany and agriculture, and taught for many years at Vermilion Community College. He rounded out his academic career with stints as science department chair and dean of that Ely institution, before retiring from academia to write full time in 1947.

In truth, retirement proved something of a misnomer, as Olson took the opportunity to redouble his conservation efforts. He served as vice-president and then president of the National Parks Association (1951-1959), as vice-president and then president of the Wilderness Society (1963-1971), and as a special advisor to both the Secretary of the Interior and the National Park Service (1959-1971). His efforts played a role in the establishment of national preserves ranging from the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to Point Reyes National Seashore in Calif.

Closer to home, Olson’s advocacy also proved instrumental to the legislation that created Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.

Olson’s tireless efforts garnered him national praise and honors in his lifetime, including the highest award bestowed by four of the five leading conservation organizations in the U.S. He died in 1982, but his legacy lives on at Listening Point – now on the National Register of Historic Places and managed by a wilderness education foundation of the same name.