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Arnold’s song

LeCenter man’s passion for music, wildlife conservation

In a hectic world full of frantic pace, there is a place of solitude where a haven for waterfowl and wildlife still prevails.

It exists on 230 acres of land created and nurtured for more than 40 years by Arnold Krueger and his beloved wife Erlys in a peaceful rural setting near the south central community of LeCenter.

Each spring a virtual symphony of bird songs can be heard daily outside the elevated back yard deck of his home that overlooks a wetland full of ducks, geese, birds and assorted wildlife who call the sanctuary home.

Arnold’s passion for wildlife can be traced back to his childhood roots where his artistic talents and musical interests were cultivated over 80 years ago on the flat prairie of South Dakota.

Born and raised in Aberdeen, S.D., in 1926, Arnold had ample opportunity to witness great flocks of waterfowl on the James River each time his dad took him to his grandmother’s farm to go hunting as soon as he was old enough to use a shotgun.

The sights, sounds and smells of hunting left an indelible imprint on his personality. Each summer he would spend a lot of time exploring his grandmother’s farm, and he also kept a pen of ducks and chickens in the yard of his home in town despite living only two blocks from main street. Raising his feathered friends provided hours of entertainment and up-close observation of their habits.

Like wildlife, music also moved him and awakened his senses. Krueger’s musical background stemmed from his mother, who started him with singing lessons at age 6. In seventh grade the family received his aunt’s piano, and his mom promptly arranged for him to take lessons.

By eighth grade he was given a violin that belonged to his grandfather, and his musical focus became a career choice as he went on to major in music education at Northern State University along with earning a master’s degree at the MacPhail School of Music.

Soon after, he was hired at the only teaching position he ever held for 50 years from 1950-2000 as the full-time orchestra director at Owatonna High School and later part-time teaching elementary music. He actually came to Owatonna on a fluke of sorts. “The Owatonna School District sent a note to the college asking for an English teacher and at the bottom of the page, in scrawled handwriting, was an afterthought… ‘You don’t happen to have an orchestra director at Northern?’”

Krueger applied and was hired leading to a career that spanned a half century and numerous awards of excellence for Arnold’s students.

During that time he was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame and received Distinguished Alumni recognition at Northern State. Later he also would play violin in the Mankato Symphony for several years.

As he taught music his interest in the outdoors never diminished, and soon he became friends with fellow staff member Barney Anderson. He taught Arnold how to carve wooden duck hunting decoys, and they became lifelong hunting buddies.

Arnold carved hundreds of duck decoys for himself and friends for many years. Using the knowledge he gained from hours of waterfowl observation, Arnold was driven to carve and paint superior decoys. He would attend the International Decoy Carving Contest held each year at the Mississippi Valley Fair in Davenport, Iowa. And, he also carved some wax canvasback heads to use as models for bronze castings that the Delta Waterfowl Research Station issued as gifts to financial supporters.

Acclaimed wildlife artist and friend of 40 years David Maass, also became Arnold’s hunting partner, and he too encouraged Arnold to pursue his duck carving interests. Krueger’s attention to detail led to many of his carvings to be published in several books. Holding one of his prized wood duck decoys Arnold says pine and basswood are the best choices of material to be used in decoy carving.

In 1972, the Krueger’s purchased the property that was perfect for Arnold’s interest in wildlife. The farmland included a 45-acre slough and several adjacent ponds that they restored into prime waterfowl habitat.

Arnold explained that he came across his piece of paradise-on-earth property listed for sale while fox hunting one year. He recognized the potential it had to be part of something significant for wildlife and wasted no time in forming his vision.

“There was no house, no well, no outhouse, no electricity – only an aged barn stood on the place,” recalled Arnold. “We bought the place, but in the beginning; Erlys wasn’t so fond of it until she stood among the few old stately oak trees and looking down from the ridge to a cattail-filled slough she could see why I wanted to restore the farm’s wetland and uplands for wildlife habitat.”

The plan unfolded as together Arnold and Erlys planted a mini forest of 18,000 pine trees around the border of the property and throughout the building site. He also constructed an adjustable log dam across the marsh outlet to increase the water depth and wetland area.

With the added water he was able to eliminate some of the choking cattails and dramatically increase open water in the slough for waterfowl. The edge of the ponds still retain cattails for good nesting opportunities.

By 1982 they built a house overlooking Arnold’s precious wetlands, and it didn’t take long before he became recognized as an authority on wood ducks. He began building nesting boxes for the numerous wood ducks and mergansers who became regular visitors to the Krueger’s property.

According to the Wood Duck Society of Minnesota, the wood duck is the state’s most colorful duck, and they nest throughout the state. Biologists believe more than 100,000 “woodies” breed in Minnesota each spring. From nearly 60 wood nesting boxes that Arnold built and attached to his yard trees, house, garage and other buildings, he estimates that up to 25,000 ducks have hatched and taken flight from his property.

Each spring Arnold monitors the ducks, keeps meticulous records and reports information to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He makes weekly checks on the ducks during nesting season in his houses and records how many eggs the hens lay – usually 12 to 14 eggs to each box – and the ones that successfully hatch.

Over the years he’s monitored what the ducks need in order to successfully hatch their eggs. Every spring he cleans out boxes and applies a fresh bed of wood chips for nesting. There have been some problems with predators at times, mostly from raccoons who like to raid his tree-mounted boxes. But with 20 of his boxes now attached on buildings, including nine on his own house, he’s been able to reduce losses of ducks.

Some of the nesting boxes have been equipped with in-box mini cameras for video research by recording behavior patterns of hens and newly hatched ducklings. Some of that video has appeared on Ron Schara’s Minnesota Bound outdoor television program.

Since the 1990s Arnold has worked closely with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials on a project to band his incubating hens and document the numbers of eggs hatched, predations of eggs, chicks’ and hens’ nest abandonment and other notes of interest.

He’s been able to disprove a misconception while handling eggs in the nest box for counting. “The common belief is that a wood duck hen won’t come back to the nest if the eggs have been touched, but I found that to be incorrect,” explained Arnold. “The hen usually buries the eggs in the wood chip nest so they stay insulated when she’s out. When I carefully dig them out for counting and cover them with wood chips again she will always come back to eventually get them hatched,” he said.

A separate cabin-like structure where the Krueger’s first lived before building the main portion of the house now doubles as a facility for guests and Arnold’s art studio, a workshop and where he stores the equipment once used when he was a beekeeper. He still splits firewood for his wood burning stove and uses the wood chips for his wood duck nests.

The studio also served as a place for him to practice his treasured violin. “… to give my wife a little peace in the house,” he joked. After 60 years of marriage, Erlys died four years ago, so now his studio mainly serves as his place to do rosemaling painting projects. He even has used the nine house-mounted wood duck boxes as a canvas for rosemaling to honor his late wife who Arnold says “was very proud to be 100 percent Norwegian.”

Krueger enjoys sharing his devotion to the outdoors with neighbors and visitors. Every year he and a few friends gather at his house and Krueger hosts a duck feed. They usually sample the wine he makes and stores each year in his nearly bottle- filled wine cellar. One of the labels on a bottle accurately describes Arnold as it reads: “Old Hunter’s Black Berry Wine.”

It takes a lot of hard work to maintain his place, but Arnold continues to do most of it himself through his commitment and dedication to wildlife. The Minnesota Waterfowl Hall of Fame acknowledged Arnold’s lifetime of efforts involving wood duck conservation on his land when he was added to the organization’s hall of fame last year.

Over the years he’s always followed his priorities which included family first, violin and music second and ducks, decoys and hunting third. But as he’s watched a decline in duck numbers and at 86 years of age, he doesn’t hunt as much anymore. Still he enjoys getting out in the slough blind now and then with his shotgun and decoys.

Arnold says that to be a good outdoorsman “you have to be an overall sensitive person to your surroundings, a steward to wildlife, plants and things that are beautiful…my place is not for anything but the birds and animals,” he stated.

Musical notes may pour from Arnold’s violin, but long ago he composed his own song of life.

“Music means a lot to me, but the song of my life has been the sound of birds coming back in the spring,” he commented. “What a joyful time of year to hear them talking to each other as they return home to a place we helped provide for them.”

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