Life at the State House: Trout Lake Forestry Headquarters
Wisconsin Historical Society [online] Newsletter, August, 2020, Downloaded 8/11/2020
Wisconsin Historical Society
Original Date

This was published as a photo essay, citing photos from the Wisconsin Historical Society collections. The collections are listed at the end of the essay. Readers may view them online.

  • Bookwood Historical Collection, Star Lake

Life at the State House: Trout Lake Forestry Headquarters Image Gallery Essay

Photo: Two forest rangers on horseback at Trout Lake Station. Wis Hist Soc Image: WHI 229444

Today, visitors to the Northern Highlands-American Legion State Forest marvel at the soaring, pillowy pines. The forest air is clean and crisp. Yet in the early 20th century, stumps and forest slash dominated the northern landscape. Local residents were accustomed to the acrid smell of smoke from forest fires.

In 1903, Governor Robert M. La Follette signed Wisconsin’s first comprehensive forestry bill into law. Edward M. Griffith, trained overseas in German forestry practices, joined the state workforce on his 32nd birthday as the State Forester. The new law instructed Griffith to evaluate trust fund lands in northern Wisconsin, tracts set aside at the time of statehood to support public schools. Lands deemed appropriate for forestry – rather than agriculture – were eligible as state forest reserves. By late 1910, Griffith had acquired 143,000 acres of forest reserves in Iron, Vilas, and Oneida counties.

Photo: Main Bldg: Wisconsin State Forest Reserve, Trout Lake. WHI 107595

Griffith hired Joseph Lucius, an experienced builder of log cabins and wooden canoes, to construct the forest headquarters, situated on Trout Lake in Vilas County. In 1910, Griffith and Lucius designed the 23-room "State House," modeled after a traditional German forstamt (forestry office), with living quarters for the assistant forester's family on one side, and a men's dormitory on the other. Centrally located, a large kitchen serviced a pair of dining rooms—including a lumberjack-style mess for thirty men in their wing of the building. Workers gathered rocks from the nearby shoreline for the fireplace, although an enormous furnace devoured three-foot logs. The most important technology in the State House was a telephone switchboard, linked to four new fire observation towers across the reserve.

Photo: Wisconsin State Forest Reserve, Trout Lake. WHI 107599

Carpenters also constructed a boathouse, ice house, and a three-story barn—suitable for the foresters' horses, some dairy cows, a Model T, and fire-fighting equipment. The four buildings were designed as a matched set, with exterior logs positioned vertically. The boathouse protected a pumping station, essential for both the living quarters and a planned forest nursery. Griffith reported to the state legislature that Trout Lake headquarters cost a total of $8,829.

Refinements in original forest legislation established a State Board of Forestry, chaired by Charles Van Hise, the president of the University of Wisconsin. The Trout Lake region also attracted the attention of several UW faculty members, some constructing nearby summer residences. In 1909, famed frontier historian Frederick Jackson Turner spent six weeks fishing and tramping around the region. Beginning in the 1920s, Edward Birge and Chancy Juday, pioneers of limnology, established a research station on Trout Lake. The octogenarian Birge – another former UW president – was often hard at work in a lakeside laboratory before dawn. A generation later, Aldo Leopold visited Trout Lake to study the burgeoning deer population.

Photo: Limnologist Dr. Edward Birge and Professor Chauncey Juday posing together outdoors. WHI 131160

Elected officials frequently visited the State House. Governor John J. Blaine (1921-1927) enjoyed walking great distances around Trout Lake. Blaine lodged in the comfortable residence of the assistant state forester, but Governor Julius P. Heil (1939-1943) insisted on sleeping in the men’s dormitory, relaxing by "roughing it" in the north country.

With the acquisition of forest reserves underway, E.M. Griffith’s team began planning reforestation efforts. Slash was piled and carefully burned on a tract near the State House. In the spring of 1911, 192,000 seedlings from Michigan Agricultural College (today Michigan State University) were packed and shipped. The Yawkey-Bissell Lumber Company delivered the nursery stock free of charge on the company’s railroad spur. Seeking to quiet skeptics, foresters purchased fast growing Scotch pines from German seed dealers. Seeds were also gathered from a few remnant stands of white and red pines, supplementing the new nursery.

Two years later, members of Griffith’s staff and faculty at the University of Wisconsin began offering coursework in forestry. Following several weeks in the classroom, undergraduates traveled to Trout Lake for a month of fieldwork—earning $40 and room & board at the State House. Dean Henry Russell visited to observe the field assignment, along with Charles Van Hise. Governor Francis E. McGovern (1911-1915) made multiple trips to inspect the emerging operation. Work responsibilities aside, anyone who has visited the region understands the appealing nature of the Trout Lake region.

Photo: Feeding Deer in the Deer Corral at Trout Lake. WHI 107607

Forestry staff also developed a game farm. Griffith reminded state legislators that the state had propagated fish for decades, but lagged in terms of game. In 1914, workers fenced 300 acres along Allequash Creek, northeast of the headquarters. Within a few years the local deer population expanded to the point where foresters observed over-browsing in the surrounding woods.

Extirpated from Wisconsin by the late 1880s, foresters also attempted to reintroduce elk to northern Wisconsin. Thirty animals were shipped from the national elk reserve in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to Vilas County. Just two of the 600 pound ungulates survived. A year later, a larger shipment of elk fared somewhat better, thanks in part to a veterinarian who oversaw their care. Of limited success, a few of the animals survived until the early 1930s. A variety of state-operated game farms emerged across the state in the coming decades, yet a half century passed before public interest forced the DNR to reintroduce elk in northern Wisconsin.

Photo: Elk at Trout Lake. WHI 145606

Fire prevention was at the heart of the original forestry law. Studies by the DNR suggest that approximately 2,500 fires occurred annually in Wisconsin between 1870 and 1930. Farmers routinely employed fire to clear forest slash, often resulting in uncontrolled conflagrations. For decades, it was common for 500,000 acres of Wisconsin lands to burn annually. Although a state law prohibited burning woods and prairies between August and December, enforcing the law in remote parts of the state was always challenging.

Developing a fire detection system across the forest reserves required a major outlay of Griffith’s annual budget, which included construction of steel-framed fire lookout towers, new roads, and the stringing of telephone lines to the headquarters building. Any opportunity to reduce costs and improve operations would have been attractive.

Photo: Curtiss Flying Boat at Trout Lake. WHI 107427

In June of 1915 Logan "Jack" Vilas brought his Curtiss Model F hydro aeroplane to Manitowish Resort on Trout Lake. The affluent Chicagoan grasped the practical potential of his hobby. He’d been flying for just two years, but Vilas had quickly emerged as a respected pilot, becoming the first person to fly the 63 miles across Lake Michigan. After buzzing the Trout Lake headquarters for two weeks, Vilas invited an assistant forester for a flight around the region. A few days later, Griffith climbed into Vilas' passenger seat. Ascending to 1600’, the pair easily located a forest fire—six miles distant. Throughout July and August, Vilas worked as the nation’s first aviator commissioned as a forest fire ranger.

Wisconsin’s fledgling forestry program suffered a severe setback in 1915 when the state supreme court ruled that the 1903 legislation was unconstitutional, citing a clause in the Wisconsin constitution that forbade the state from participating in improvement projects. E.M. Griffith retired to Connecticut and cut all connections to the forestry profession. In the 1920s, Wisconsin voters passed a constitutional amendment, effectively reinstituting the state forestry program and leading to the continued development of Wisconsin’s public forests. Unfortunately, the log headquarters complex at Trout Lake gradually fell into disrepair. The State House was apparently demolished in the 1960s.

This image gallery features photographs selected from across the Society’s collections, but especially the Peter Christensen Family Photo Collection and the Cornelius (Neal) L. Harrington Collection. Peter Christensen worked as the assistant state forester at Trout Lake until his death in 1937. Neal Harrington began his distinguished career in conservation in 1910, working at Trout Lake while an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. Harrington later led Wisconsin’s forestry and parks department from 1923 until his retirement in 1958. Recognizing the importance of history, he assisted oral historians from the Wisconsin Historical Society in efforts to document the early history of conservation in Wisconsin.