Planting Trees Saved Star Lake in Vilas County

Jun 5, 2019

Star Lake near Eagle River is a popular summertime destination today.

As Gary Entz tells us for this week's A Northwoods Moment in History though, it used to be considered a wasteland.

With the summer season upon us, year-round residents and visitors alike will be heading out to enjoy the natural beauty of the Northwoods.  One of the places people will go to enjoy the outdoors is Star Lake near Eagle River in Vilas County.  Star Lake is a horseshoe-shaped lake with a large peninsula dividing it in half.  This peninsula is the site of the Star Lake Nature Trail, which is a popular destination for hikers, trail runners, and even cross-country skiing in the winter months.  Much of the shoreline remains undeveloped and it is justifiably a popular summertime destination.  But it wasn’t always this way.

At the turn of the twentieth century, after the loggers had finished clear-cutting the area, the peninsula at Star Lake was so completely denuded that people living in the area referred to it as a “wasteland.”  What happened at Star Lake to alter the landscape from a wasteland to a popular tourist destination is a good example of Progressive Era conservationism.  In 1912, after the timber companies had stripped the land bare and left the cutover behind, the state stepped in and took ownership of land no one wanted.  State officials proposed an experiment where they would reforest a tract of 150 acres on the peninsula running out into Star Lake.

1948 outdoor view looking down a road towards several buildings and a lake.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID: 38596, wisconsinhistory.org

It was an ambitious plan and the first time it was tried anywhere in the state.  Jay B. Cook was hired to take charge of planting new trees.  Cook hired twelve workers to help him, and together they went out to the peninsula and planted scotch, white, Norway, and yellow western pine seedlings that were no more than four to six inches in height.  The seedlings, which came from the old Trout Lake Nursery, were planted six feet apart. At the time of planting there was a heavy tangle of undergrowth and quack grass, which made breaking the ground difficult.  The work was challenging, but nonetheless successful as about 1000 trees per acre were planted.  Cook continued looking after the trees for a number of years afterward, and most of them survived.  After Cook resigned his position and moved to Eagle River to open a service garage, Paul Smith took over as caretaker.  Smith, as Cook had done before him, took great care in keeping the area clear by trimming underbrush and lower branches in order to minimize the danger of fire.

By 1929 those little seedlings had grown to trees standing 16 to 20 feet high.  The project was so successful that the state began contemplating planting tree seedlings on another 15,000 acres.  Today the Star Lake Nature Trail winds through the trees planted in 1913.  Hikers can walk over land that once had been pasture for horses that hauled logs from the surrounding woods to the Star Lake Mill.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photos above are used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here, here, and here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.