In the summer of 1994, a number of individuals with homes or summer cabins near Cable, Wisconsin, received a card in the mail. A small piece of gray paper with four pine trees etched in green was glued to front of the cream-colored card, and inside crisp, green text invited recipients of the card to attend an informal buffet dinner at Forest Lodge on Lake Namekagon with Bob Parsonage, the president of Northland College, and Kate Lidfors, the director of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. The invitation to the dinner was from Mrs. Mary Griggs Burke.
Mary Griggs Burke was a supporter of Northland College, and in 1971, she had also been the serendipitous catalyst for the founding of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, for it was Mary who invited Robert Matteson to attend an environmental conference at Northland College, an experience that inspired Matteson’s proposal to establish the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute.
The typescript for Kate Lidfors’ address at the 1994 Forest Lodge dinner describes the dinner as a “cultivation event” for the Institute, and Lidfors begins her address by highlighting connections between the Institute’s mission and the qualities of Forest Lodge. “Forest Lodge,” she began, “embodies so many of the qualities evident when humans live in harmony with their environment. Buildings which blend with their natural surroundings and yet encourage human society—conversations, recreation, a common table. An intimate human scale in a beautiful natural setting—inviting solitude and reflection; human craft with nature’s materials; art and gardens blended with forest and lake; civilization nourished by nature.”
What was not publicly known at the time of this dinner was that Mary had been exploring with Bob Parsonage the possibility of using Forest Lodge to support the mission and programs of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. Archival documents at the Institute include a draft letter from Parsonage to Mary’s attorney Marvin Pertzik dated March 24, 1992. In this letter, Parsonage indicates that he is responding to a question that Pertzik posed in a February meeting: “How might Forest Lodge eventually be used for a worthy public purpose?”
Parsonage goes on in his letter to Pertzik to identify as a critical question for the region: how can we “have both a vital economy and a sustainable environment in the Lake Superior region in the 21st century?” And Parsonage suggests that if “Forest Lodge were to be made available as a center or setting for the study of north country issues” and was operated in collaboration with the Institute that “it could have an enormous impact on the future of the region.” Additional archival documents show that by November of 1994, Lidfors had worked with the staff of the Institute to prepare a preliminary proposal “to move the Institute’s base of operations to Forest Lodge.”
Parsonage’s and Lidfors’ proposals for Forest Lodge were not realized at the time they were presented, and instead Mary Griggs Burke donated Forest Lodge to the United States Forest Service in 1999. Mary retained exclusive use of the property until her death in 2012, at which time the Forest Service took full responsibility for the property.
And then, in 2017, the Forest Service entered into a precedent setting, sixty-year historic preservation lease with Northland College. Under the terms of the lease, the College is responsible for the daily operation of Forest Lodge and for providing educational programs, making experiences on the property available to the public, and ensuring the preservation of the historic buildings on the site. The Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, although it has not moved its base of operations to Forest Lodge as Lidfors proposed, is responsible for the execution of the lease and for developing and delivering educational programs at Forest Lodge.
Programs of the Institute at Forest Lodge include loon pontons and presentations by LoonWatch in the spring, weekly tours of the property during the summer months, and wolf howls and wolf ecology workshops by the Timber Wolf Alliance in the late summer. The Institute also sponsors a number of programs focused on ecology and aquatic research, as well as workshops and retreats focused on art and wellness. As Kate Lidfors observed nearly thirty years ago, Forest Lodge is a truly intimate facility in a natural setting that encourages human society, invites solitude and reflection, and demonstrates how civilization might be nourished by nature.
For additional information about Forest Lodge and to view a photo gallery of the property and its buildings, see the Institute’s Forest Lodge web page.