It Takes One: Harry Wilks

Stewardship Stories

It Takes One: Harry Wilks

It Takes One: Harry Wilks
Hamilton, OH
United States

I was raised in Hamilton, Ohio and my first encounter with the environment (other than cutting grass for neighbors) was when a high school friend and I purchased a Model A Ford for $40 and planned a road trip between our junior and senior year. We drove Route 66 all the way to Los Angeles and got a job for 7 weeks and then made our journey home through Yosemite, The Dakotas, and, finally, back to Hamilton. I learned to appreciate nature in all of its manifestations because of this trip across our beautiful country. 

Fast forward to 1987, with my family grown and gone, I decided to build a house. I found 40 acres right outside of Hamilton, Ohio, which was scrubland covered with invasive honeysuckle, poison ivy and poison oak, as well as grape vines and fallen trees. I hiked from the highway up the hill hundreds of feet to the top. I eventually hired a few fellows who worked with machetes and got a bulldozer operator to help me build the road to the location where I wanted to build my home. I had to march holding up a helium balloon so he could follow me safely.

I found a ridge after clearing a part of the land which I thought would make the perfect topographical site for an underground home. I went ahead and designed and built Pyramid House, which was featured in Architectural Digest and in two nationally-televised programs. Comprising almost 7000 square feet, it goes in one side of the ridge and comes out the other, making it almost hidden on the site. Only the giant glass pyramid over the center room, which is 2500 square feet, is exposed. While I was planning the first 40 acres, the neighbors offered me their land of 30 to 40 acres and, over time, I accumulated over 200 acres that now makes up Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park.

How would you define a cultural landscape?

I came to understand that the natural features of the land are linked to the types of industry in Hamilton—the great underground aquifer due to the land being a glacial moraine has lead to the location of water-intensive industries like brewing companies and paper manufacturing. We have been voted the best water in terms of taste in the world for two years in a row. We also have the second biggest open mining operation in Ohio due to the gravel mining here. There are large stands of hardwood forests and my land, with its dry hills, is home to stands of oak-hickory forest not found in many other areas. I want people to appreciate the unique assets of this land, how it links to and shapes our life, and understand how to care for and nourish it.

Why did you get involved in the landscape that was threatened in your community?

After I moved in, I invited some friends up to have a drink and maybe fish in the six lakes I built, play tennis or hike. I also started to build my own private golf course with as little disturbance to Mother Nature as possible. A strange thing happened while I was entertaining the men, in that about 12 of them over 8 weeks made me an offer for the land. At no time did I have any sales in mind. But the accumulation of offers went to almost a million dollars. One night I was sitting in my chair, it struck me that if I died that night that my daughters would have to sell and it was that realization that made me understand that I had to do something to save it. I had come to love the land, had learned the names and habits of trees, and other plants and animals. I was always out every morning making new hiking trails or clearing another spot. There was no question that I could not sell these one acre parcels to anyone. Since I learned to love being out on my land beyond anything else, I decided to form a public foundation to save the land from commercialization and destruction.

How did your understanding of this landscape change as a result of your advocacy efforts?

As my appreciation and understanding of the land increased, I decided that instead of soccer fields or other active uses requiring leveling of the land, I would turn the property into a public “Art Park” to feature the beautiful glacial topography of southwestern Ohio. The “natural galleries” of the hills and valleys perfectly feature monumental outdoor sculpture.

As a result, we are a charitable non-profit organization and we do not receive any tax money and must raise our own. We intend to continue to buy any adjacent land before it gets chewed up by development. Our county is one of the fastest growing in Ohio.

Did the understanding of others change as well? If so, how?

The public can now see and appreciate the land and its unique aspects. Every person that visits is amazed by the natural beauty of the place.

What is the message you would like to give our readers that may inspire them to make a difference?

Follow your passion—don’t do the easy thing. Passion gives you energy and keeps you going.