Frederick Errington and his wife, Deborah Gewertz, search through a 1908 volume of The Brookings Register, looking for clues about the their family’s life in the community. The Erringtons recently donated their family farm at Oakwood Lakes State Park to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The 292-acre tract will become a prairie preserve. Photo by Ken Curley/Register
/ Brookings County native Paul Errington, shown here in 1961, a year before his death, is regarded as one of the country’s most important naturalists. In his youth he hunted, fished and trapped at Oakwood Lakes. Photo courtesy Iowa State University
• Naturalist Paul Errington’s family donates lakeside farm as grassland preserve
BROOKINGS – “We’ve created something, so that what was once prairie returns to prairie.”
That’s how the son of Paul Errington explains his family’s gift of their Brookings County farm.
The 292 acres bordering the Oakwood Lakes are to become prairie once again, honoring the Brookings trapper who left the marshes near his Oakwood home to become one of nation’s leading naturalists.
The land that stretches along the shores of Johnson Lake, Oakwood’s westernmost lake, has been in the family for more than 130 years. Earlier this year, in January, it officially became the property of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and a permanent monument to Errington’s life and work.
Now partly under cultivation, the land will ultimately be restored to prairie grasslands, never to be plowed again.
“Our mother insisted the two of us (her sons) give the land, the farm, to the Fish & Wildlife Service,” Frederick Errington said the past week. “That was her wish. She was a strong conservationist, and my father was a strong conservationist as well.”
Brookings-born Carolyn Storm Errington died last year at 102.
According to their mother’s wishes, the brothers, Frederick, now living in Massachusetts and Peter of Washington, D.C., completed the gift. Frederick and his wife, Deborah Gewertz, have traveled to Brookings this summer, spending some time researching the family history and gathering material for a future book.
“We really needed to know more about this place,” Fredrick said. “It has real significance for our family.” He and his wife, both well-known anthropologists, have spent time talking to the men who have farmed the land for the family and to Fish & Wildlife officials, trying to piece together a history of the farm.
Neither the Fish & Wildlife Service nor the family disclosed the actual value of the gift, but at current land prices in Brookings County, the Errington property would bring well over a million dollars.
“This is a unique and special gift,” said Tom Tornow, who originally worked with Mrs. Errington to create the new prairie preserve. Tornow, now retired and living in Wentworth, is the former project leader for the Madison Wetland Management District of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“Errington wrote ‘Of Men and Marshes’ in the 1950s, and what he was putting to pen as an ecologist back then is still true today – it’s about taking care of the land, of being true stewards,” Tornow said.
Tornow said Errington’s books were often mandatory reading in wildlife and fisheries classes at South Dakota State University, and students and researchers alike spent time at the lake where the famous ecologist got his start.
Tornow said he “exchanged a lot of letters” with Carolyn Errington over the years. “This is a great gift to wildlife students, and to the state itself,” Tornow says.
In fact, the gift has had an even greater value for the region’s prairie restoration project –beyond its worth as real estate. Tornow used the anticipated donation to secure matching federal funds, and last year won a $1 million grant for the Harvey Dunn Grassland Preservation Project. The funding helped pay, in part, for the purchase of the Dunn family’s original homestead near Manchester, also being restored as prairie grassland.
Carolyn Storm, born in Brookings in 1908, was a conservatory-trained musician, a lawyer and a university English teacher, but according to a memorial at her death, “she found her calling when she met and married Dr. Paul Errington.”
“(At Iowa State University) she joined him in his field research. She not only helped to collect data (largely about predation within Midwestern marshes), but also to edit manuscripts.”
In fact, after her huband’s death in 1962, Carolyn brought two of his books to publication from the notes and essays he left.
There are two marshes named for Errington, the first at Moe Slough in Brookings County, a few miles north of the family farm. Carolyn attended the dedication of a bronze plaque there in the 1970s, and a few years later brought her two sons and their families to the site.
“It gave her immense gratification,” Frederick recalls.
In 2000, Iowa State University honored its famed professor again, dedicating the newly created Errington Marsh in Story County, Iowa. At that ceremony, Carolyn remarked: "Paul had two distinguishing personal qualities that made his professional career practically inevitable. He was intensely curious about free-living wild creatures, and he was extraordinarily sensitive to beauty in the out-of-doors."
Son Peter Errington is a retired economist who worked for Defense Logistics in Washington, D.C., and Frederick is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Emeritus who taught at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
Like his father, Frederick is a field researcher, and he and his wife have been collaborators on several books on urban and village populations in Papua, New Guinea. Deborah Gewertz is the G. Henry Whitcomb Professor of Anthropology at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass.
Although Frederick is retired from his post at Trinity, he and Deborah continue to collaborate on dietary and food studies.
Contact Ken Curley at email@example.com.