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In the words of lifelong Rockland resident Joe Oslander, the “Rockland Preserve is a gem, a diamond in the rough, that shines more brightly today than at any time in history.” (Photo by Susan Talpey/The Source | Buy This Photo)
To many people, Rockland is a neighborhood of houses and woods in North Madison. To Joe Oslander, it’s his lifelong home and a natural treasure he is dedicated to preserving for future generations.
On Oct. 19, Joe, along with Don Rankin and Jack and Laurie Heflin, will be honored at the Madison Historical Society Centennial Gala as individuals “who represent the very best of Madison,” and who have contributed “significantly to the betterment of the town.” It was not an accolade he expected.
“I was so surprised,” Joe says. “The Madison Historical Society is a wonderful group, but unfortunately it’s one of the few organizations in town that I haven’t had the time to get involved enough with. I’m very pleased.”
Joe is a lifetime member and former president of the North Madison Volunteer Fire Company and a member of the Representative Policy Board for Madison to the South Central Regional Water Authority. His many past community roles include serving as a board member of Madison Youth Services in the 1990s and a charter member of the Charlotte Evarts Memorial Archives in the 1980s.
However, most local people know Joe Oslander for his work in two very important capacities: his 28 years as an educator and administrator at Daniel Hand High School and as the man who was a driving force behind the creation of the Rockland Preserve.
“The Rockland Preserve is 650 acres of woods. No houses were ever built here and it’s difficult to find pieces of stonewalls, which are an indication that farmers even kept land here. Rather this is the home of turkeys, woodpeckers, coyotes, beaver, fishers, and many wildflowers,” he says.
With looming plans for a condo and golf course development on the site, the people of Madison voted in 1997 to purchase the acreage known as Braemore, now Rockland Preserve.
“Of all the projects I’ve been involved with over the years, Rockland Preserve is the one I feel the best about. It’s to the credit of the townspeople that we saved a parcel of Connecticut’s finest land for local people to enjoy and show to their children.”
In the words of Joe, “Rockland Preserve is a gem, a diamond in the rough, that shines more brightly today than at any time in history.”
Since 2001, Joe has chaired the Rockland Preserve Committee for the Town of Madison and serves as the director and Stewardship Committee chair of the Madison Land Conservation Trust. Out in the woods, Joe’s to-do list includes trimming back and reblazing the trails and checking the signs and the outhouses.
There are 12 miles of hiking trails—including a mile of the New England Scenic Trail—as well as old abandoned town roads that are popular for cross country skiing, mountain biking, horseback riding, trail running, and birding. Local scouts stay at the youth campsite and eagle scouts have completed almost 20 projects including an outdoor classroom, a viewing platform on the handicap accessible trail, a footbridge, an orienteering course and compass training center, and interpretative signs.
“There’s a local troop that comes out and camps overnight before Thanksgiving. The next day their families come out and bring food that they all share. They’ve even cooked the turkey on the fire,” he says.
Every October for the past 10 years, Joe has led field trips for every 3rd grader in Madison. Following an outdoor education lesson on the preserve’s history, animals, plants, and geology, they hike the trails, view the massive glacial erratic rock, and learn about the local charcoal pits. Joe says that for many of the children, it’s a new experience.
“For the children who live south of Route 80, they think that Madison is flat, but here we’re close to 600 feet above sea level. It’s a whole different thing up here,” he says.
“For most kids it’s the first opportunity to get out in the woods, to see a charcoal site or bedrock that’s millions of years old. If people, if children, see it, they will appreciate it—it comes alive for them. Some parents say their children come out here with school and then they return as a family.”
Rooted in Rockland
For Joe, the woods of Rockland were his backyard.
“Growing up in this area, we all lived and played in the woods,” he says, noting that geography historically played a role in forming a Rocklander mindset. “North Madison and Rockland are isolated from the rest of Madison, about 10 or 11 miles, and that was a really long way by horse.”
It wasn’t all fun and games, however—the woods were also a workplace for Joe and his family.
“When I was a child, I would come out with my father and my uncle and collect the witch hazel, which we’d take to the Dickinson plant in Essex. Back then, Connecticut was the leading producer of witch hazel in the world,’ he says.
Joe’s family history is rooted in Rockland. Both his father and mother attended the town’s one-room school houses in 1920s and 30s and, like many young men, when his father completed 6th grade he went to work in the family business. For the Oslander boys, work was out in the woods making charcoal for the family’s blacksmith shop.
“My grandfather had his blacksmith shop behind the family home on County Road, but it was quite isolated, so he moved to the shop next to Tuxis Pond, behind the firehouse in Madison. Then World War I broke out and being German was not a popular thing. My grandfather’s business was boycotted, so he went to work in a factory in New York.”
In Rockland Preserve, a replica of an open pit charcoal site with a collier’s hearth (colliers were those who made charcoal) and a frame of a shelter is located on one of 20 sites where charcoaling took place in the 18th to early 20th centuries.
“Charcoal was a major industry, made right here and exported to other towns that couldn’t make it themselves. By 1965, there were just four commercial companies in Connecticut making charcoal and my uncle was one,” Joe says.
“Making charcoal in a pit took nine weeks and being a collier was dirty and dangerous job. First, you had to cut 40 cord of wood with axes and handsaws, and then you had to build the pit. You had to stay overnight for two weeks while it burned, tending the fire and cooking all your meals here. If you had a good burn, that would make 1,000 bushel of coal—and you were doing well.”
Forging a New Trail
Joe says that “working with my father convinced me to go to college.” It was a path that became a circle, as Joe began his education in Madison schools and returned years later as an educator.
“Back then we went to the Academy School for our whole schooling. You went in the front door to kindergarten and graduated as a senior out the back door. My graduating class had 40 students,” he says.
Joe graduated from the University of Connecticut with a bachelor of arts degree in history, and later completed a master’s degree in history and then a sixth-year professional diploma at Southern Connecticut State University. He taught social studies at Sheridan Middle School in New Haven from 1962 to 1970 before taking up a position teaching history at Daniel Hand High School. Over the next 28 years, his roles included department head, assistant principal, and principal.
“I was the principal of Daniel Hand High School for three or four years in the 1980s, but I missed the kids and teaching so I stepped back to the assistant principal job,” he says. “I loved that position because I was able to teach and also hire new teachers, work with curriculum, and introduce new courses.”
When Joe was in junior high, he helped out in his maternal grandfather’s antique furniture shop, Hilgert, and for more than 20 summers, he worked at Chatfield Hollow in Killingworth, picking up trash and caring for the trails. It was there he met his wife of 55 years, Florence.
“I was working at Chatfield Hollow and Florence would come with her family for Sunday picnics. I didn’t have pick-up duty on the weekend, my job was to police the park, so I had a badge and a fancy shirt when I saw her. We were more information than enforcement, but we looked important,” he smiles.
Joe and Florence raised their son Sepherson and daughter Suzanne in Rockland, the same small community where Joe was born and raised, and now spends his days.
“Anytime I’m in New York City, I don’t hesitate to come back home. Life is a little slower here,” he says.
“As a teacher of history, there’s the story of Juan Ponce de León who went to Florida to find the fountain of youth but it’s not there – it’s right here. For me, it was teaching and my home here in Rockland that I have enjoyed, that have made my life worthwhile. I’ve been very fortunate.”
Entry to Rockland Preserve is free and the preserve is open every day during daylight hours. The entry to the Preserve is located at the end of Renee’s Way—from Madison, take Route 79, turn left into Dorset Lane, and follow the green Preserve signs.
The Madison Historical Society will honor Jack and Laurie Heflin, Joe Oslander, and Don Rankin at its centennial gala on Thursday, Oct. 19 from 6 to 11 p.m. at the Madison Beach Hotel. Tickets are $125. For more information, visit madisonhistory.org/cenntennial.