Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Wisconsin Hiking Pioneers:

by Drew Hanson

This is the fifth and final segment in the Wisconsin Hiking Pioneers series.

Fredric “Fritz” Benedict was born in Medford, Wisconsin, in 1914. As a teenager his family moved to Madison.

Benedict went on to study landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) where he was influenced by renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen. UW landscape architecture students of the era were sent to The Clearing, Door County to learn directly from Jensen.

Benedict was active in the Wisconsin Hoofers and elected club president in 1935. His Hoofers experiences brought him under the influence of Harold Bradley.

Benedict's 1938 master’s thesis, Hiking Trails in the Lower Wisconsin River Valley, is a masterpiece in the history of hiking. At its center is a loop trail of approximately 150 miles plus several smaller loops and spurs. More important than the trail route and his detailed description of it is the rigor with which he treats the subject of hiking.

Beginning with broad brush strokes, he states that his thesis is “an attempt to show the needs of hiking in the middle west in general and the Madison area in lower Wisconsin in particular. A detailed study is made of a definite area in Wisconsin and the principles of trail design applied to this area. For some time various individuals in Madison, both in the university and in the city, have felt a need for adequate hiking trails in the interesting driftless area to the west and northwest of Madison. This portion of the lower Wisconsin river basin, with its varied topography, forests, and fields, is as interesting to the hiker as any part of the middle west.”

In deciding the types of uses for which his trail would be designed, Benedict quotes trailblazing conservationists who pointed to humanity's roots: “'The best way to become acquainted with any scenery is to engage in some pursuit in it which harmonizes with it.' — Thoreau. What better way to become harmonized with scenery and the primeval influence than to build a trail and travel along it on foot. Benton Mackaye, originator of the Appalachian Trail, gives an excellent definition of primeval influence: 'Primeval influence is the opposite of machine influence. It is the antidote for over-rapid mechanization. It is getting feet on the ground with eyes toward the sky—not eyes on the ground with feet on the lever. It is feeling what you touch and seeing what you look at. It is the only thing whence first we came and toward which we ultimately live. It is the source of all our knowledge—the open book of which all others are but copies.'”

Not to leave room for interpretation, Benedict provides technical reasons why his southern Wisconsin trail would be primarily for hiking: “No trail built for hiking should be used for horse travel. Horses ordinarily require a wider trail, and they soon ruin the footway and cause an erosional problem in steep sections. It might be possible to use parts of the trail for cross country skiing but in general this sport requires separate trails. Ski trail routes call for more up and down work, elimination of sharp turns and rocky spots, etc.”

One of the photos from Benedict's 1938 master's thesis

Benedict traces the need for hiking trails to the advent of the automobile. As long as there had been roads, people walked them but once automobiles began using the roads, the routes became unpleasant and less safe for pedestrian pursuits. In Benedict’s words, people were “driven off the highways by the automobile.” Add to this the fact that more and more urban dwellers lacked the skills and personal contacts with large rural landowners to take overland walks through the countryside. Thus hiking trails came to be a primary means of providing a primeval influence and physical exercise.

He closes his prophetic introduction by capturing the essence of the hiking problem in the Midwest:
“The biggest hiking seasons are spring and fall. Summer is too hot for many, but some hike all winter. Most hikes are of short duration, a half day or day, with Sundays being the most popular day of the week. In the eastern and western sections of the country are well developed woodland and mountain trails. There are through trails, side trails and connecting trails, resulting in networks that enable hikers to take round trip hikes of practically any duration. Hikers in the middle west are not so fortunate. The few well beaten paths found in our state parks and other scenic areas are usually overcrowded, unplanned and usually too short and unconnected to furnish even a satisfactory half day’s hike. The only way to get off the highways, which are no longer good hiking routes, because of the auto, is to walk through private wood-lots and fields. This method is unsatisfactory for the following reasons: many farmers resent having their lands indiscriminately traveled over; few city people are well enough acquainted with the country to enable them to plan a hike that will lead them through interesting country, past scenic sites, springs, etc.; much of the pleasure of tramping is lost if constant care must be exercised to prevent stumbling over fallen logs and keeping branches out of one’s face. In some places such as on the Baraboo range, it Is possible to hike along logging roads, but these always seem to skirt the high places instead of going right over them.

For the foregoing reasons it is apparent that if the sport of hiking is to prosper and if hikers are to receive fullest enjoyment from their journeys into the out-of-doors, we must build a network of trails such as has been done in the eastern and western parts of our country.”
Trail designers of today might be surprised to discover the technical knowledge that Benedict had amassed in 1938. He describes how, for instance, “Excessive gradient (over 18%) sometimes causes an erosional problem if the trail bed is heavily traveled.” He also shows a sensitivity toward rural landowners that is key to the success of trails in the East and Midwest.

As for the West, he states, “The Pacific Crest Trail system running from Canada and Sierra Nevada ranges for 2,300 miles is routed mainly through national, state, and county parks and forests. For this reason and because of the type of country through which the trail passes, their experience is not so valuable a precedent for us in the middle west as the eastern activity… The long trunk trails have proved most popular in the east, and it is apparent that with the immense objective of a trunk trail, it is much easier to gain enthusiasm and publicity.”

Benedict's 1938 general trail map

Benedict’s proposed trail route includes areas along today’s Ice Age Trail: Cross Plains Reserve, Gibraltar Rock to Merrimac and Devils Lake. In the 1930s, Harold Bradley and others created segments of Benedict's trail through the Baraboo Hills. Most segments, however, were not built. In some cases, such as where Benedict's trail would pass Skillet Creek Falls or a ridge paralleling Madison’s Old Sauk Road, the land has been developed with private homes.

Shortly after earning his master’s degree, Benedict accepted the invitation of eminent architect Frank Lloyd Wright to be head gardener at Taliesen, near Spring Green, Wisconsin. But Benedict’s interest in Wright’s philosophy of the integration of architecture and landscape led him to study design at both Taliesen and Taliesen West in Phoenix, Arizona for the next three years.

Benedict and Frank Lloyd Wright
In 1941, during one of his trips between Taliesen and Taliesen West, Benedict visited Aspen, Colorado for the National Skiing Championships. Less than a year later, he was drafted into the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army and trained at nearby Leadville. After seeing active duty in Italy, he returned to Aspen in 1945 and with other ski troopers became the nucleus for the Colorado ski industry. In the ensuing decades he designed over 200 buildings in the Aspen area and three of the nation’s premier ski areas—Vail, Snowmass and Breckenridge as well as additions to Aspen and Steamboat Springs.

Late in life, Benedict was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. The nomination stated that he “left a legendary influence on design and construction in the Rocky Mountain West...(creating) classics of the mountain vernacular.” In 1989 his alma mater bestowed on him its Outstanding Alumnus award.

Significant to the Wisconsin Hiking Pioneers series, another of Benedict’s achievements was his founding of a trail system that was created and exists today. In what must have been an exuberant application of his UW master’s thesis, in 1980 Benedict founded the 10th Mountain Hut and Trail System. Utilizing vast public lands of Colorado, the trail system has grown to include 34 backcountry huts connected by 350 miles of trails.


For thousands of years, long-distance trails, like the ancient trail between Prairie du Chien and Milwaukee, kept us in step with part of our humanity. John Wesley Powell’s hike across Wisconsin and John Muir’s thousand-mile trek to the Gulf of Mexico continued the tradition. It is an experience Ray Zillmer wanted to preserve when he championed the Ice Age National Park and Trail. But such inspiring treks will be possible in the future only if the land needed to complete long-distance trails is in the public trust.

More than three-quarters of a century after Benedict predicted “a need for adequate hiking trails,” it remains very difficult to find high-quality, half-day to multi-day hiking trails in southern Wisconsin and more broadly anywhere within three hours of Chicago.

A visionary plan was not enough to allow Benedict's proposed trail to become reality. The Appalachian Trail and nearly every trail in the West prove that having the land needed to construct a trail is more important to its success than plans.


“Aspen’s 20th Century Architecture: Modernism,”

“Conservation Pioneers: Jens Jensen and The Friends of our Native Landscape,” by William H. Tishler and Erik M. Ghenoiu, Wisconsin Magazine of History, Summer, 2003, p 12.

The Milwaukee Journal, Nov. 10, 1935, section VII., p 2.

The Denver Post, Joanne Ditmer, “Aspen Hall of Fame”.

“Hiking Trails in the Lower Wisconsin River Valley,” by Fredric Allen Benedict, master of science thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1938.

“Hoofer Sailing Club History,”

“Hoofers, A History,”

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