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Jens Jensen: His Life & Legacy


If you’ve ever taken a class at The Clearing Folk School, visited a local nature preserve or nature center, stopped to appreciate the bluffs of Northern Door, or enjoyed the twists and turns of the “the windy road” on the far end of Highway 42, you have local legend Jens Jensen to thank.

Who was Jens Jensen?

Jens Jensen was a landscape architect and conservationist who designed more than 600 parks and advocated for the preservation of endangered ecosystems throughout the Midwest.

He was also responsible for founding The Clearing Folk School in Ellison Bay, helping establish The Ridges Sanctuary, and working to preserve Ellison Bluff and the Door Bluff Headlands.

What was his background?

Born in Denmark in 1860, Jensen was a believer that environment and atmosphere have a profound effect on people’s wellness and intellectual development. The parks, preserves, schools, and residential properties he designed were intended to help people escape from the rigors of work and industrial society and reconnect with the natural world in a quiet, egalitarian, and creatively stimulating environment.

Throughout his career, Jensen won many awards and achieved international acclaim, making him one of the most recognizable names in the landscape architecture world.

What’s his Door County connection?

Although Jensen was born in Dybbøl, Denmark, established his career in Chicago, and designed parks and outdoor spaces all over the United States, it was Ellison Bay in Northern Door County that captured his heart in his later years.

Jensen poses pensively on The Clearing property.

In 1935, after the death of his wife, Jensen moved to this small community in the northeast pocket of the Door Peninsula to start a folk school to train future landscape architects and help visitors reconnect to nature and enjoy creative pursuits in a quiet, rustic setting.

Jensen is also known for his long-time friendship with Mertha Fulkerson and his collaborations with conservationist Emma Toft.

What was his impact on Door County?

In addition to being an advocate for conservation and preservation in Door County, Jensen is famous for designing two notable landmarks: The Clearing Folk School and the famous “Curvy Road” in Northern Door.

The Clearing Folk School is located on the property that Jensen called home before his death in 1951. It was his long-held dream to establish a folk school in the spirit of “the living word,” the Danish concept that education need not be competitive or achievement driven but focus on personal and creative development.

To this day students attend 1- or 2-day workshops, week-long programs, or months-long classes in all kinds of creative pursuits, from poetry, philosophy, and birding to woodworking, weaving, photography, and, of course, landscape design. All classes are taught in a laid-back style that promotes learning and growth over testing and grades.

Perhaps even more famous than The Clearing is Door County’s famous “Curvy Road,” seen in countless photographs and Instagram posts. It’s one of the region’s most-photographed spots and a popular strip of highway for scenic drives, especially in fall. The road is notable not only for its fun factor but for the way it meanders through the forest, lengthens the amount of time it takes to drive it, and forces drivers to slow down and appreciate the nature views while they mind the road’s curves.

More than any one thing or place, Jensen left behind a legacy of nature appreciation and conservation still found in Door County today. 

Jensen sits on a stone bench surrounded by nature.

The spirit of stewardship that he espoused can be seen in local movements like Care for Door County, the growing voluntourism movement, or in the dozens of nature preserves and protected natural sites throughout the county.

All historical photos provided by The Clearing Folk School.

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