HistoriCorps- A Hands On Volunteer Experience

In early May we (hubby and I) will be in Wyoming volunteering with HistoriCorps on the Centennial Work Center.  This is the first time my hubby will be working with me on a HistoriCorps project.  We are looking forward to the long drive across the great plains from Minnesota to Wyoming. This will be the first trip across the great plains for my Dutch hubby.

My first HistoriCorps volunteer project was in 2014 at Forest Lodge in Cable, Wisconsin.  All meals, and lodging (camping) was provided free of charge.  Sounded too good to be true.  But, I had heard about HistoriCorps projects through a National Public Radio broadcast earlier that summer and the idea of repairing and restoring historically important buildings was something that appealed to me.

I had not volunteered for anything for years.  I was really having issues deciding to participate or not.  Still not believing the brochure I called the main HistoriCorps headquarters in Denver, CO, asked several questions. I wanted to completely understand what I was getting signed up for if I decided to volunteer.  I asked if I could drive to the project site and see the project before I made my final decision.

Cable, is a small town located on the Namakagon River in North Central Wisconsin.  The home of the American Birkebeiner (aka the Birkie) a 50km cross country ski race that is run each year. Just outside this small former lumber town is the former vacation home of St Paul residents, Livingston/Griggs/Burke. The related multi generational families used the property for about 100 years. They built a group of cedar log houses and outbuildings to accommodate their affluent friends from St Paul while they vacationed at this remote area located on Lake Namakagon the source of the Namakagon River.  The family vacation home/resort was called Forest Lodge.

Gatekeepers house at Forest Lodge

Gatekeepers house at Forest Lodge

The first time I drove onto the Forest Lodge gated vacation compound, my senses were first shocked and then surprised at the beauty of the place.  The first building that greets the visitor is a large two story log house (gate keepers residence) with wonderful wood window flower boxes under the first floor windows.  The narrow driveway drops down towards Lake Namakagon, on one side of the drive a small native rock wall and two large rock pillars mark the entrance to another driveway leading off to the right to the main house complex.

The entire property is shadowed with tall towering mature maple, oak, and many species of pine.  It instantly had a very natural, rustic, and wild feel. Time seemed to have stood still at this location and with its century old buildings.

Cow Palace HistoriCorps 2014 project

Cow Palace at Forest Lodge 2014 project. Camping on site, work trailer and dining tent.

At the end of the driveway was a long building with three cupola’s on the roof and large open carriage doors. Workers were busy on the roof and around the back of the building with ladders and ropes.  I spent a couple of hours looking at the project and asking questions. I was told that the name of this building was the Cow Palace and was the former cattle barn with an attached living area for the farm manager.  The project supervisor asked if I wanted to stay and help out.  I still wasn’t ready to commit to volunteering.

Then I walked down to the water and saw the lake and all the possible area I could kayak when I wasn’t working on the project.  Now seeing the lake, my heart told me I had to volunteer just to be able to have the access to this wonderful expanse of water for one week.

The building I worked on that first year, along with several other volunteers, was the Cow Palace.  This wonderful log cattle barn had been a HistoriCorps project for two seasons, the first year the volunteers replaced the cedar shake roof.  That year we repaired and replaced the cedar siding that had been damaged from the years of improper rain fall drainage.  We also repaired bird/animal damage on the cupola’s.

We learned how to cut lower sections of the logs off, matched newer cedar sections and then carefully replaced the siding.  I learned so much that first week that I volunteered to stay another week. That week I was busy learning how to repair the cupola’s

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I was so interested in the prior owners after working on this project that I spent hundreds of hours of my personal time researching the family and the history of the location.  I poured through public records in St Paul, Minnesota, contacted gardeners who had worked at the facility and visited local historical museums to fill in missing details about the lives of these former owners.

Photo of Mary Griggs Burke

Photo of Mary Griggs Burke on display at the Forest Lodge Library in Cable Wisconsin.

Forest Lodge and its lake front will be preserved due to the foresight of Mrs. Mary Griggs Burke who donated the entire 872 acres she owned to the US Forest Service. Her hope was to protect the natural beauty of the location and establish an environmental retreat for future generations.  Now with the yearly help of HistoriCorps volunteers,  Ashland College, the US Forest Service, and a sizeable trust that was established by Mary Griggs Burke the wonderful log construction of those buildings will continued to be preserved and used as she envisioned.

Lake Namakagon from Garmish Resort

Lake Namakagon from Garmish Resort looking towards Forest Lodge

HistoriCorps has about a dozen projects listed for the 2018 season and they are located all across the United States. If you think you would enjoy a hands on working vacation, I would encourage you to volunteer for one of these projects.  The skills you can learn, the places you see and the help you provide to restore these buildings is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The work you complete will stand as proof to future generations that a connection to the early history of the United States, the buildings, and the people who built these structures is important for all generations to enjoy and treasure.

Lake Namakagon

Lake Namakagon a lone kayaker (me)