Trout Lake Nursery and Reforestation

Feb 24, 2021

The first forestry building at Trout Lake Headquarters.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

In the nineteenth century, people believed Wisconsin’s forests to be inexhaustible.  Lumber production proceeded at an unsustainable pace, but few cared as it was assumed that farming would naturally follow.  Successful farming never came on a large scale, and the damaged land needed repairing.  This is where the Trout Lake Nursery comes in.  

Frederick G. Wilson was born in October 1887 in Red Oak, Iowa.  At the age of two, Wilson’s family moved to Milwaukee, and then to Sheboygan.  Wilson loved the outdoors and wanted to learn as much as he could about the natural environment.  Unfortunately, at the turn of the century the University of Wisconsin had no program in forestry, so Wilson went to Michigan to obtain a forestry degree.  He graduated from the Michigan Agricultural College in 1911.

In March 1911, Wilson was hired as a Forest Ranger for the State Board of Forestry under Edward Merriam Griffith, Wisconsin’s first State Forester.  He was assigned to the new Trout Lake Forestry Headquarters in Vilas County and was part of a team that began one of Wisconsin’s most significant tree nurseries and reforestation projects.  Work began at Trout Lake and in an old cattle pasture west of Star Lake.

At the time, people in the Northwoods laughed at Wilson’s dream to plant trees.  Logging activities had declined a bit by 1911 but were still going strong.  The belief in the inexhaustible forest still held firm in people’s minds.  Besides, most people just assumed that the plow would follow the axe and that former forest land would become productive farmland.

While many people did try farming the cutover lands, the soil was too poor and the growing season too short.  Plus, the detritus left behind by loggers led to frequent wildfires.  It was a heavily scarred and burned landscape that Wilson faced as he began his reforestation project.

In 1911, 192,000 seedlings were obtained from Michigan and planted at the Trout Lake Tree Nursery.  In 1912, another 18,000 trees were purchased and planted.  In 1913, the nursery’s first production of 68,500 trees were sent to state plantations.  The years between 1911 and 1915 were incredibly successful ones for the nursery.  In 1914, the nursery expanded with an output of half a million trees.

Despite the obvious benefits, there were many people opposed to reforestation.  A lawsuit was filed to stop the project, and in 1915 the State Supreme Court ruled that reforestation was illegal and in conflict with the state constitution.  Fredrick Wilson was devastated by the decision and left the country.  He moved to Canada and became a forestry engineer in British Columbia.

More people wanted reforestation than opposed it, and by 1924 an overwhelming majority of voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that made reforestation legal in the state.  The Trout Lake Tree Nursery resumed its useful work and planted a million trees in 1926.

Fredrick Wilson also returned home and became the University of Wisconsin’s first Extension Forester.  He crusaded unpopular ideas like land use zoning and kept at it until Northwoods and other counties had zoned five million acres of land for forestry and wildlife.  He retired in 1952, but in 1977 at 90 years of age Wilson returned to Trout Lake to plant the nursery’s one-billionth tree.

Today, thousands of acres of towering pines grown by state foresters stand because of the pioneering efforts of early environmentalists like Fredrick Wilson.