A few years before the turn of the 20th Century, a young man named Max McGraw became a horse-riding delivery boy for the Journal and Tribune newspapers of Sioux City, Iowa.
His boss – the only one he ever would have in an illustrious business career that spanned more than 65 years – was the circulation manager, J.N. “Ding” Darling. Ding Darling went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and one of the most influential conservationists in American history.
His protégé Max McGraw became founder of the McGraw-Edison Co., which manufactured electrical and mechanical products under such brand names as Toastmaster and Speed Queen.
Mr. McGraw also was a staunch conservationist, drawing in part on lessons learned from Darling, and in 1962 he established the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation to conduct research and offer educational programs to advance and sustain conservation in the United States. For more than 60 years, the Foundation has promoted groundbreaking wildlife and fisheries research, and in recent years has emerged as a national thought leader in conservation.
Mr. McGraw began it all in the 1930s, working at his farm in Dundee, Illinois, about 40 miles northwest of Chicago. He first directed research into the breeding of gamebirds and fish, based on the contemporary thought that naturally occurring populations would be wiped out in due time. His team soon developed a strain of ringneck pheasant especially well-suited for hunting. Those birds were sent as far away as the fabled shooting estates of Great Britain, and provided the brood stock for many commercial game farms across the United States.
The McGraw team also bred and raised mallards, wood ducks, partridge, even wild turkey. A state-of-the-art hatchery produced game fish such as walleye and largemouth bass, which were released into a series of fishing lakes Mr. McGraw built on his property, fueled by a pristine artesian well. Meanwhile, Mr. McGraw was busy building his farm into a showpiece of modern land management. He planted some 700,000 trees and designed fields for upland bird hunting. Eventually his farm became one of the first shooting preserves in the Midwest, and the inspiration for hundreds of others.
Mr. McGraw died in 1964 while on a duck hunting trip in Utah, but the Foundation became a training ground for wildlife scientists, who used the 1,250-acre property as laboratory and home base. A conservation education program introduced thousands of children to nature, including city children who never before had walked on grass. Research into the production of game fish and birds continued, and the hunting and fishing programs that Mr. McGraw established evolved into a world-class outdoor recreational facility enjoyed by the Foundation’s members and supporters from across the country.
Yet like Mr. McGraw, the Foundation that bears his name never is content with the status quo. Over time, the Foundation launched and nurtured numerous programs, influencing conservation across the country. For example:
- The Urban Coyote Research Project, begun in 2000, is the longest continuous study of urban coyote behavior. Acclaimed worldwide, the project focuses on the coyote’s interaction with man.
- Conservation Leaders for Tomorrow has over the past 15 years trained more than 2,000 university students and professionals in the natural resources about hunting and its role as the driver of American conservation.
- McGraw’s fisheries managers are learning how to grow hardier gamefish in aquaponics systems, a project with the potential to influence fisheries and agriculture everywhere.
- McGraw is also the nation’s leading advocate for economic efficiency and innovation. Recent projects include a blueprint for a model state natural resource agency, the advancement of online hunter education in Illinois, a white paper that led to the only completely new conservation program in the 2018 Farm Bill, and wrote a study that helped build support for the permanent authorization of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Another study, this one focused on the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, was the impetus for the groundbreaking IMAX 3D film “Wings Over Water,” which opened to exceptional reviews in early 2022. Led by McGraw in partnership with Ducks Unlimited and the National Audubon Society, the film calls attention to discuss the looming crisis facing the continent’s wetlands and the wildlife that relies upon them.
What would Mr. McGraw think of it all? He certainly would shake his head at the plight of the wetlands and marvel at the technology that brings three-dimensional moving images to the giant screen. Above all he would recognize the entrepreneurial spirit that still drives his Foundation and is the force that led to the film’s creation, summed up in his motto: “There’s a way to do it – better find it.”