Richard Proenneke Museum – Donnellson, Iowa - Atlas Obscura

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Richard Proenneke Museum

Donnellson, Iowa

A replica of the self-taught naturalist's iconic cabin stands inside a library near his hometown. 

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Inside a public library in Donnellson, Iowa, you can find an unusual structure: a 12-foot by 16-foot cabin built out of round logs, with a moss-covered roof and a stone fireplace. It’s a replica of the cabin that Richard Proenneke built in the Alaskan Bush during the summers of 1967 and 1968, and lived in for the next three decades while documenting the wilderness around him. 

Proenneke (pronounced “prin-ecky”) was a native of the town of Primrose in Lee County, Iowa. He received little formal education, he tended the family farm, and later moved to Heppner, Oregon, to work as a ranch hand on the Wilkinson Ranch. The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he joined the Navy, and after the war, he moved to Portland, Oregon, where he became a diesel mechanic and large equipment operator.

Later he moved to Alaska, where he worked at a number of different jobs developing a reputation as a skilled general contractor in large commercial machinery as well as a craftsman. In 1967, at the age of 51, he moved to the remote area of Twin Lakes in Alaska, where he built a log cabin with his own hands. He would remain in the Twin Lakes region for the next 30 years, meticulously documenting his life in the wild through journals, photographs, and films, which were turned into books and documentaries that eventually made him famous.

Proenneke became an inspiration for survivalists and conservationists alike, and a symbol of the ultimate self-sustaining outdoor lifestyle. During his stay in the Twin Lakes region, it became first a National Monument and then a National Park (Lake Clark National Park). When Proenneke was eventually unable to keep living on his own, he gifted his cabin to the park, and it is now in the National Registry of Historic Places.

The Donnellson Public Library, which is located not far from Proenneke’s birthplace in Primrose, built a remarkable one-room museum to honor the naturalist’s life and legacy. It features a life-sized replica of Proenneke’s log cabin along with original artifacts and replicas of many of the items he used, as well as photographs that he took, writings he made, and copies of books based on his journals and documentaries about his life. When you visit, imagine yourself living in the Alaskan wilderness in this cabin with no electricity or running water, foraging for food, and surviving the Alaskan winter not just one year, but 30. This will give you an idea of the ingenuity, skill, and strength of this amazing man.

Know Before You Go

The town of Donnellson in Iowa is right next to US highway 218. Take the exit to State Highway 2 into town and turn right onto Main Street. The library is after the third block to your right. The library’s hours of operation are from Monday - Friday, 11:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m, and Saturday, 10 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.

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