Conservation with the Fiskes
Wide-open lands and natural preservation made possible by dynamic duo Ken and Darlene Fiske.
Ken and Darlene Fiske have been stewards of Earth and protectors of natural resources for more than 55 years. Their passion turned into an ongoing commitment to foster a grander and healthier environment as close to home as our county and as far away as Hawaii. Nationwide, many sustainable and green benchmarks are due in no small part to the Fiskes.
From Illinois to Florida and from Hawaii to your backyard, greener environments and shored-up sustainability efforts have been garnered due to their influences and expertise.
With longtime roots in Woodstock, they both originated from the South Side of Chicago. Ken and Darlene connected as children; their families were friends.
As a young boy, in the 1930s Ken had an interest in farming and animals and built a small barn at his city home located at his grandmother’s farm.
Ken’s father wanted to get back to his farm roots, so he came out to Bull Valley in 1936 and purchased 160 acres of land.
“It was beautiful,” reflects Ken. “This field right ahead of us was all red clover. We have a combination of woods and two fens back there now.”
The farm was the family’s weekend retreat until Ken graduated from the United States Merchant Marine Academy. Upon graduating, he came home to the farm, attended the University of Wisconsin and focused on agricultural engineering.
While Ken was in the service, his mother took over the farm—the tractors, plowing, tree planting—everything.
“In fact, she planted the pine trees that are in the corner near our home now as well as trees all over this whole county,” says Ken. “They are still here today.”
To take his knowledge to a wider audience, Ken proposed a farm program to NBC. He started a television show called “Out On The Farm.” “At the local NBC office, I saw a redhead sitting behind the desk; it was Dolly [Darlene] Sharp,” he says. “We became reacquainted at that stage of the game.”
One of the episodes featured Darlene’s family’s involvement in rehabilitating farms during the Dust Bowl days in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.
They married in 1954. Ken’s father purchased a schoolhouse that had closed in 1946 at an auction. Darlene and Ken later renovated it and made it their home. Fifty-five years later, love is still in the Bull Valley air.
“When my dad originally purchased our family’s land, it was being farmed, but it was all eroding down into Boone Creek,” says Ken. “There were ditches up on the hills that were 6 to 7 feet deep, with no soil conservation at all.”
That’s when Ken’s soil conservation ideas began. In 1952, he was selected as the Illinois Conservation Farmer of the Year.
“And, from that point, I was dedicated to the whole conservation cause,” he says.
While Ken was knee-deep in conservation, Darlene had been pursuing her lifelong passion for birds and native plants. She was vice president of the Illinois Audubon Society and established chapters all over Illinois, including McHenry County.
In 1969, Ken fronted the movement to bring together a natural resource team and created the Northeast Illinois Natural Resource Service Center, a precursor of today’s Chicago Wilderness.
The computer age tiptoed into Ken’s world of conservation.
“My secretary suggested we be progressive and evolve along with newly emerging computer technology,” he says. “We worked with the computer systems at the University of Illinois to match soils and determine soil types in different locations. We had to use cards to start out.”
The Department of Agriculture became interested in the computerized natural resource information system.
“The Secretary of Agriculture piloted his own plane to Chicago and brought his cronies, like head of Soil Conservation and state conservationists, to see for themselves that the system actually worked,” says Ken. “It worked like a gem.”
Keep in mind that McHenry County was still mostly agricultural at this time. Ken sharpened his vision of the future and began to design programs for sustainability. The newly created McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD) was searching for its first executive director. And, in 1971, Ken stepped in to serve through 1985. Acquiring and preserving the open lands of McHenry County were at the forefront of Ken’s mission.
After serving the MCCD for 10 years, a close friend—who knew that Ken had wanted to learn the Hawaiian language—surprised Ken and Darlene with an offer. Bob Becker, who was a dentist in town, and his wife, who was one of the founders of the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County, planned a trip to Hawaii for them. While there, people from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nature Conservancy were their hosts.
He developed research centers related to conservation for a chemical company; invented a machine to apply chemicals in a more conservation-friendly way; served on the McHenry County Soil and Water board in the early 1960s; was the first director of the McHenry County Conservation District in 1971; served as a board member of Openlands; chaired Illinois Nature Preserves Commission; helped found the McHenry County Conservation Foundation; and in 2004, was inducted into the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame by the Illinois Conservation Foundation.
The dynamic duo was determined, once again, to help.
“We went back twice a year to work as volunteers,” says Ken. “We built dog pens and painted roofs.”
Darlene continued doing her census of birds. Ken eradicated non-native plants. He was then honing his skills at interpreting aerial photography for soil and tree quality. They did work on four islands and trekked into Kalaupapa, the leper colony, to help out.
Since the same invasive plants that they found in Florida were the same as those in Hawaii, Ken and Darlene realized they could go to Florida in December and get the results in time to go to Hawaii in January and February. The plan worked great.
Ken’s current consulting business, Conservation Services, focuses on engineering, survey, environmental and government firms. Over many decades, Ken has made close and valued connections at the local municipal level up to the federal level and all throughout community and environmental organizations.
Ken has not remained still for long during his illustrious conservation-focused career. He developed research centers related to conservation for a chemical company, invented a machine to apply chemicals in a more conservation-friendly way, served on the McHenry County Soil and Water board in the early 1960s, was the first director of the McHenry County Conservation District in 1971, served as a board member of Openlands, chaired Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, helped found the McHenry County Conservation Foundation and in 2004, was inducted into the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame by the Illinois Conservation Foundation. Both Ken and Darlene were honored as Volunteers of the Year for the Nature Conservancy in 1987 and paid tribute with the 2004 Refuge Volunteers of the Year by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Ken and Darlene have made valuable, powerful contributions to McHenry County and our country’s environment. Our community is a place of wide open lands and natural spaces thanks to their dedication.