Kids with Guide

Wisconsin’s Oldest Classroom

March 2024

Written by Cal Insight

The Wisconsin Idea

No two tours are ever quite the same at Cave of the Mounds. Each group brings unique people and their questions and interests inside. It shapes the lessons and stories we share with our guests. My constant with every tour is standing at the cave entrance and seeing the Wisconsin Idea in action. 

The general philosophy of the Wisconsin Idea is a notion that classroom boundaries are not classroom walls, but the very boundaries of the state. The earliest definitions of the idea push us to share the best and brightest learning in those classrooms with the entire population. The obvious faces I see at the start of the tour are yours. Young and old, from all corners of a world where limestone is the common geological language. It might be your first time in a cave. You might be a seasoned Keys to the Cave holder. The magic of a learning moment awaits.

WHA radio program Afield with Ranger Mac

The other faces I glance at are a picture on the wall. It shows three young children, Shirley Brechler, Chomingwen Pond, and Peter Brechler as they are being interviewed in the cave for the WHA radio program Afield with Ranger Mac. 

Pond is the daughter of Alonzo Pond, the first manager of Cave of the Mounds. The Brechler kids are the children of Carl Brechler, one of the early visionaries of Cave of the Mounds.

The interview took place March 3, 1941 and it was the main segment on that episode of the Wisconsin School of the Air program. 

Person looking at a photo of historiic WHA radio in cave with Ranger Mac

Ranger Mac was Wakelin McNeel, a 2006 inductee to the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame. 

The Ranger Mac show began in 1933 and ran until 1954. It reached an audience of 700,000 school children across the Badger state. When I look at the picture, I imagine my 

10-year-old father and his classmates at Pipe Lake School in Polk County listening in for the latest science news. Jerry Apps is another one of those Wisconsin kids inspired by McNeel to a lifetime living out the Wisconsin Idea. “I remember it well,” Apps told me. “For several years, when I was attending a one-room country school, Ranger Mac was my hero.” 

In the same manner as John Muir and Aldo Leopold inspire many adults, Ranger Mac found a way to touch the heads and hearts of kids. 

Learn in Wisconsin's Oldest Classroom

“Statistics are dull. Kids prefer down to earth realism,” McNeel once said. “Every creature has some place in the scheme of nature, from the angleworm that buries in the ground to the hawk that swings at anchor in the sky.” The contemporary picture from Cave of the Mounds was shared nationally to the American College Publicity Association and helped McNell earn a Peabody Award the next year for his broadcasting efforts

The school field trip season has begun at Cave of the Mounds. We welcome learners from hundreds of schools in Wisconsin and surrounding states each year. Freed from the boundaries of the classroom lesson, a field trip is a chance for anyone to be inspired by the wonder of cave formations or the excitement of discovery with their very own sluice bag or geode. 

You don’t need to be a school kid to enjoy a field trip at Cave of the Mounds. Bring your excitement, bring your awe. Wisconsin’s oldest classroom awaits.