The story begins with a St. Paul, Minnesota-based family named the Griggs. In the 19th century, the family made a fortune in the lumber industry, allowing the Griggs to acquire a 872-acre estate in Northern Wisconsin, called Forest Lodge.
The Griggs’s enjoyment of their oasis on the shores of Lake Namekagon stretched across three generations. In 1999, the Lodge’s final direct heir, Mary Griggs Burke, donated the estate to The Trust for Public Land.
Her wish was that Forest Lodge become a hands-on environmental center.
Jessica Griggs Vanderklipp – a second cousin, once removed, or some variation thereof - remembers sweet summer days at Forest Lodge.
“Aunts, uncles, cousins. Tennis matches were out here all the time with tea and lemonade. And Mary Burke sitting out here watching it go,” Vanderklipp recalls.
There were certain rules. “We were seen and not heard. We had to dress for dinner - if we were invited to eat in the main house, quiet and finger bowls and nice china,” she recalls, “But it was canoing and sailboating and bowling on the green!”
Jessica’s dad, Toby Griggs, says he started bringing his daughter to Forest Lodge “since she was knee-high to a toad. It get’s sunk into your heart when you’re a little kid.”
Griggs has his own formative childhood memories, including when he got to help the estate’s dairy man. The barn was called the Cow Palace.
“I was like four years old and we’d move the cows up across the road to what used to be a pasture. I’d have my shovel and Tony would have his shovel. When the cows would defecate in the road we had to shovel the manure off into the ditch because Aunt Mary didn’t want the manure on the roads,” Griggs says. “That was my first introduction to farming and today I raise grass-fed beef up near Ashland.”
The compound included a magnificent two-story boathouse - boat slips below, sun filled playroom above. It looks out at Champagne Island – that’s part of the lodge’s 872 acres.
"This was our favorite lunch place when we were visiting. Me and the boys would jump off the balcony out into the lake, until Mary Burke found out we were doing it and she said ‘you will do that no more!,’” Griggs says.
He points across the water. “Have you seen the hemlock grove? It is awesome! It is one of the last remaining virgin hemlock groves in America. And they used to harvest them for ship masts,” Griggs says.
Jason Maloney, program manager with the US Forest Service, is juggling Forest Lodge’s historic preservation and future. Maloney is unwavering in his determination to follow Mary Grigg Burke’s wishes.
She loved the hemlock grove, which Burke called Fairy Land.
“She came up here as a young girl and would frolic in there as a young girl and maybe believed there were fairies,” Maloney says. “But it’s also the place she got her first connection to the natural world and that may ultimately have led to her benevolence and gifting this to the American people.”
Nearby, Northland College is partnering to help cultivate science and conversation around freshwater and other environmental issues.
Maloney sees Mary Grigg Burke’s vision unfolding, not just because of that partnership, or the sheer beauty of the lodge, but also its location. Lake Namekagon is one of the headwaters of the Mississippi Basin.
“The Northland College campus is just 45 minutes north in the Lake Superior Basin. So the Burke Center actually straddles two of the most important freshwater systems on the face of the earth,” he says.
Before programs can be launched in earnest, the place needed some tending to.
“Every one of the buildings has major challenges. Bat guano in the walls, which we’ll have to address. In the case of the main lodge, we have problems in the way it was built. The beams used on the larger rooms and the roof structure were not large enough, so the building is not able to support snow load,” Maloney says.
Maloney says workers, in particular a Denver-based group called Historicorps, along with students and veterans have flocked to help bring structures back to life.
Maloney shows me a space he believes will be central to Forest Lodge’s future – the sun-drenched great hall in what was originally guest quarters.
“When I’m leading tours I usually ask people to keep their eyes open and make a 360 degree turn and that makes them go through the experience of looking out all of these beautiful high windows. You’re looking at out this beautiful lush forest,” Maloney says.
He says many people don’t realize the forest is composed of second growth trees.
“And so what it means is that human interaction with the environment does not have to be negative. The other amazing thing about this room is that these windows welcome nature in. Most rooms we inhabit during the course of our lives are designed to keep nature out,” Maloney adds.“So this amazing space will be a place where discoveries are discussed, where agreements on the way humans are going to live together on the face of the earth are hammered out.”
He is convinced visitors will go through changes as they spent time in Forest Lodge’s building. “The amazing buildings will make them susceptible to that teachable moment where the natural world can again touch their soul,” Maloney says.
Peter Annin shares a slightly more clinical take of what could happen at Forest Lodge. Annin is a seasoned journalist and co-directs Northland College’s Center for Freshwater Innovation.
“We have a whole slew of things students are already doing out here, both terrestrially, testing waters and all sorts of things not only for them to learn science but also value-added for the Forest Service and others,” Annin says.
Northland College intends to use Forest Lodge as a venue for Camp David-like retreats.
“We plan to hold annual water summits about a key water issue. And then we’ll grab about two dozen thought leaders on a specific water topic and we will cloister them here with an agenda and from 9 o’clock to 4 o’clock we’re just going to hammer out white papers,” Annin says. “Those will be shared with the public and key policymakers."
The first summit will unfold at the end of this month. Its topic is the future of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Denis Macon wasn’t particularly interested in the summit at that moment. After a long day as Historicorps crew leader, he was looking forward to jumping in the lake.
It was Macon’s second summer at Forest Lodge. He helped breathe life into its green and gatehouse. When asks how he feels about the place, Macon warms to the subject.
“I’m not religious by any means but there is something spiritual about it. Maybe not at high noon when you’re sweating on a roof, but when it’s 6 or 7 o’clock and it’s cooling off. When you see the sun set on the boathouse in particular it’s pretty stunning.” Macon continues, “And then if you get to walk just up that road and you approach the backside of the guest house, everything is so lush. It’s verdant and gorgeous.”
At the time, Macon was restoring a shed next to the Forest Lodge gatehouse.
“These places usually get developed. This little shed, that would have been bulldozed. But we put $2,000 into it and a lot of sweat and it will be here for another 100 years,” Macon says.