RICE LAKE — Evidence of northern Wisconsin’s proud lumbering heritage can be found throughout the region. Look no further than the street signs in the city of Rice Lake, many which bear the familiar surnames of prominent lumber barons such as Knapp, Stout, Tainter and Wilson.
Indeed, few industries have played as big a role in developing communities here as the forestry and logging industries, yet the area has been sorely lacking a place to publicly and properly display this history.
A small but ambitious group in Rice Lake is working to remedy that. For several years, they’ve been raising funds to open the Great Lakes Forestry Museum at the National Lumbering Hall of Fame Park in downtown Rice Lake.
At least $10,000 still is needed in order to begin relocation of an 1864 log cabin to the site, according to Heinz Eller of the Great Lakes Forestry Museum Committee. The cabin will serve as a temporary museum until a more permanent structure can be built.
“Having a temporary home will show the public that something is actually happening,” he said. “If we become successful and are able to build a permanent home, that temporary log cabin home will remain as a permanent exhibit.”
Eller said they hope to open the museum later this year and eventually partner with area lumber and wood manufacturing companies and educational institutions such as UW-Stevens Point, with its strong forestry program. The site could become a venue for hosting industry and conservation gatherings.
Eller said it’s important that people understand the heritage of the area: “You should develop a certain amount of pride in the history of the place you’re living in.”
To that end, the museum will share interesting tidbits about the industry, such as the fact that it took only four massive virgin white pines to build a three-bedroom house in the late-19th century.
Eller, an active retiree who also sits on the Friends of the Library board for the Rice Lake Public Library and drives school bus, said the group initially formed in an effort to open a National Lumbering Hall of Fame in Barron County’s biggest city. Four years ago, they decided to open a Great Lakes Forestry Museum that would include a hall of fame.
Two years ago, they were tipped off to the availability of a more than 150-year-old log cabin on Nancy Yeager’s property about five miles west of town. Yeager donated the two-story cabin, constructed of popple logs by a Norwegian immigrant, to the museum. It was dismantled in 2017, and the logs are being stored in the yard at Rice Lake Utilities until the committee can reassemble the cabin at the park, on the peninsula south of the dam. Because some low-quality logs had to be discarded, it will be resurrected as a one-story structure.
Finding that cabin was “a stroke of luck,” Eller said, and if all goes well, they hope to begin re-assembling it this spring and summer.
Through baked potato dinners, brat feeds at Louie’s Finer Meats in Cumberland and membership drives, they’ve been busy raising funds for the relocation of the cabin, which will temporarily house artifacts salvaged from northern Wisconsin’s lumbering era.
Eller said they hope that having a structure and artifacts prominently on display will kick the project into a higher gear, setting wheels in motion for a more substantial fundraising push leading to construction of a permanent facility. Some in-kind donations have come in from local companies, but more is needed.
The park also features 21 indigenous tree varieties that remain important to the region’s logging industry, which really began in earnest in the early 1800s. The trees will be accompanied by educational information for self-guided tours.
“The trees were planted before the museum idea even was born,” Eller said.
Wisconsin’s forestry industry is the second largest employer in the state, and businesses around the state still produce a variety of paper products, quality veneer and saw logs. Around the turn of the century, before the forests were cleared for farmland and the lumber industry began moving west, Rice Lake was home to the largest lumber mill in the world, Eller said. The city still has several wood product businesses, including American Excelsior and Mastercraft Industries.
Eller said they hope the museum will be a boon for downtown Rice Lake, which has seen diminishing traffic in recent years as development in the city — considered a regional shopping destination — has been focused primarily on the south end.
“The museum would be one more reason for people to come and visit downtown Rice Lake,” he said.
Visitors to the National Lumbering Hall of Fame Park on Stein Street also can see a series of stone pillars — all that remain of the old monorail system that helped transport lumber throughout the city until it was shut down in the 1930s. There is a boat landing and a couple accessible fishing piers, and a fishing identification kiosk is in the works.
“We’ve got some work to do yet,” Eller said, adding that no admission will be charged, but donations will be welcomed.
For more information, contact the Rice Lake Chamber of Commerce at 715-234-2126 or search for “Great Lakes Forestry Museum & National Lumbering Hall of Fame” on Facebook.