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Eldor Omhahl stands in front of a timber stand he planted.

This Old Farmland

A deer hunter, pond builder, tree planter, and wheat farmer has witnessed decades of conservation changes wrought by his own hands.

By Blane Klemek

I once asked Eldor Omdahl if there were many deer around when he was a boy, and he answered simply, "None."

Eldor Oliver Omdahl, 97, was born Jan. 6, 1910, in Polk County in far northwestern Minnesota. He and his wife, Stella, 88, live on the land where Eldor grew up and later farmed. Throughout their 37-year marriage, they have been stewards of the land. They turned their 800-acre farm into a wildlife refuge by planting trees and creating ponds, waterways, and nature trails. In 1981 their place became the Wetlands, Pines, and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary.

Eldor is amazed at the plentiful deer now on the land. He never would have imagined seeing deer in the days before the Depression. By the 1950s he was noticing deer. Year after year, he saw more and more deer. One day he decided he must begin hunting them because there were more than the land could sustain.

Today, a November deer hunt is a leisurely pursuit for Eldor. He rises early and chooses one of several hunting spots. For many years, he chose an old chair atop a hill he built. From such vantages, Eldor has taken deer on numerous occasions.

I FIRST MET Eldor Omdahl more than seven years ago at the sanctuary near Warren. I was interested in becoming the sanctuary's new manager, and I wanted to meet the man who donated his farm to the local chapter of the Audubon Society.

Parking my truck next to the visitor center, I noticed an elderly gentleman in a nearby woodlot, cutting up a large branch with a chainsaw. Seeing me, he shut down the saw and approached. I introduced myself, and we shook hands.

His firm handshake, cloudy blue eyes, square jaw, and tall, slim physique impressed me. He wore glasses, a long-sleeved button-up shirt, denim pants, and running shoes with Velcro closures. A mesh baseball cap, flecked with sawdust and cocked slightly on his head, covered what appeared to be ample gray hair. He spoke clearly, smiled often, and listened to me intently. I had no idea he was, at the time, 90 years old.

ELDOR'S GRANDFATHER emigrated from Norway in 1893 and homesteaded the 160 acres surrounding today's visitor center. In 1949 Eldor purchased the farm. Over the years, he acquired adjacent properties to expand his farming operation.

Eldor credits his parents for his conservation ethic: "Yes, my dad was a tree planter, and I helped him. We put up birdhouses as a young boy too." Eldor learned from his parents that planting trees helped reduce soil erosion from wind and rain. He saw that trees attracted wild birds, some of which used the birdhouses mounted there. Realizing the conservation value of trees and shrubs, Eldor began to plant them.

The story of the sanctuary unfolds as marvelously as blooming prairie forbs. With lush, grassy fields; shaded hiking trails; and woodlots, wetlands, and waterways teeming with wildlife, the acreage is an oasis of life surrounded by flat Red River valley farmland.

The Omdahls' home, which Eldor designed, stands kitty-corner through the woods from the sanctuary manager's house, which had once been their farmhouse. Black willows, cottonwoods, and other trees planted by Eldor shade their home beside a pond dug by Eldor.

Nearly every morning when I began my workday at the visitor center office, Eldor — sitting atop his four-wheeler — would stop for coffee before departing on his rounds to feed birds and squirrels along the Bluebird Trail, a meandering two-mile loop lined with bluebird houses. During our chats, we often discussed wildlife habitat projects, which usually involved planting trees.

Eldor loves trees, and I often joked with him that he should be living in the forest instead of the prairie. Trees historically were not abundant on the prairie. As settlers replaced sod-forming grassland plants with crop fields and farmsteads, and tried to suppress fires, trees invaded the open landscape. Still, Eldor planted trees and shrubs as well as native grasses and forbs to control erosion, beautify the homestead, and provide food and shelter for wildlife. Eldor's trees and grasslands are living testament to the man's vision, conservation values, and longevity.

Sometimes, as we stood together admiring his mature cottonwoods, I'd find myself gazing at him in wonderment as he devoutly discussed the lofty giants like an adoring father talking about the lives of his grown-up children.

By all accounts, trees are Eldor's children. My old friend never had children of his own. The care he gave each seedling was genuine and rooted in a lifetime of farming knowledge.

A stroll with Eldor on mowed and winding trails beneath the limbs of his beloved trees is a walk from the past into the present. He recalls digging the pond and adjoining canals with a dragline many decades ago. Conversations weave from when the property's productivity was measured by bushels-to-the-acre of wheat to today's grassy fields with nesting bobolinks, meadowlarks, and mallards.

Enormous hills of earth — carefully placed, shaped, and seeded with native grasses by Eldor as he excavated ponds with his tractor and loader — feature benches on each summit. Sitting there, I've often wondered if sanctuary visitors realize just how gifted and generous a man Eldor is: he who returns to nature the land from which he once hauled truckloads of grain.

ELDOR RETREATS to these summits on crisp November mornings to hunt deer. In earlier years of hunting, he was out the door well before sunrise. These days, after a light breakfast of eggs, toast, and coffee, he departs for the woods around 8 a.m. or so. Carrying his .30-caliber rifle and packing sandwiches, Stella's home-baked cookies, and a Thermos of coffee, the seasoned deer hunter ambles slowly to his stand.

After Eldor harvests a deer, he and Stella work together to process the venison. Eldor does the butchering; Stella does the wrapping and canning. Yet I suspect that Eldor's reasons for hunting deer have less to do with securing venison and more to do with seeking solitude and being outdoors to watch wildlife. And, like the late Aldo Leopold, he understands that too many deer on the landscape are harmful to the environment.

I once asked Eldor if he could give a bit of advice to others about how to live a good life. He answered thoughtfully, "Be active in world events and conditions around you." I then asked him what has changed the most during his lifetime. "This was old farmland," he said. "Now it's trees, shrubbery, prairie grass, and ponds."

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