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Joseph Sherburne Elfner


Joseph Sherburne Elfner, known as Sherb to his family, was a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.  According to my father, Eliot Elfner, Sherb spent some time every spring redoing the yard of their home on Manitou Way in Nakoma, a suburb of Madison.  Here he is, in the spring of 1955, preparing for a new season.

He married 'Dit', Zylpha Mary Wadsworth, in 1939.  They initially lived in South Bend, Indiana, where Sherb worked for the parks department, but moved to Madison in the early 1940s.  Here's a picture from their wedding of an unidentified maid of honor, best man Eliot Wadsworth, Sherb and Dit.

Sherb and Dit had two children, Eliot and Richard.  Uncle Rick died very young in 1974.  Eliot has been a professor of Business Administration at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin for over 35 years, and is the proud grandfather of eight.  It is pretty awesome that today my kids know all four of their grandparents, whereas when I was a child, it was pretty common to have only one or two.

Sherb served in the army during World War II.  My understanding is that he was an Army officer serving on a transport ship that ferried allied soldiers to the appropriate theaters and German prisoners back.  The family story is that since our name, Elfner, originates in Alsace-Lorraine, a territory France and Germany have disputed for centuries, he was able to connect with the French soldiers and the German prisoners who were passengers on his ship.  I asked my Dad to make a request to the military archives for Sherb's service record.  Although his original documents were destroyed in the 1973 file, they compiled this record showing that he enlisted on October 5, 1942, accepted a commission as an officer on April 29, 1943 and was honorably relieved from active duty as a First Lieutenant after the war on November 19, 1945.  This photo is from May 1943, just after he accepted his commission as an officer.

While doing a search for 'Elfner' on Amazon.com, I found some articles written by Joe Elfner for the UW Extension.  I got on UW's library site and found out where they were housed.  My library was able to request them and I was able to get a copy of his Master's Thesis from 1949, an article from 1950 on Landscaping your Grounds and a pamphlet from 1951 about Outdoor Fireplaces.

Unfortunately he passed away in 1957 when he was only 50, so I never got to meet him.  We Elfners owe him and Dit a debt of gratitude for purchasing our cottage in 1954.  They purchased the land in 1954 and brought a surplus trailer home from UW-Madison to the land.  In 1955, Sherb built the porch (which remains relatively unchanged today.)  He had the cottage built in 1956, which has been changed quite a lot.  It's a great place for our family to get together in the summer and a wonderful legacy he left for us.

In October 2012, on the way back from Florida, I searched the name Elfner in google books and and found a reference to 'Joseph S. Elfner - A Biographical Minute' in the journal, Landscape Architecture from January 1958.  It was written by his boss, George William Longnecker.  It is a nice memorial and provides us with some details we didn't have before, such as his professional positions and that he was a Transportation Commander in the European Theater in World War II.  Thanks to the fine people at UW's Steenbock Library who were kind enough to send me a scan of this article.

Eric Elfner
March 2007
October 2010 - Added a Letter Sherb wrote to his niece Ellen in 1944.  He told her to make sure her Mom saved it.  Evidently she did and Ellen or her parents got it back to my folks.  Very cool.
October 2012 - Added the 1958 article from Landscape Architecture.