When Edward Kemp looked over his newly purchased property back in the 1890s, he had a vision. Located on a wide peninsula, his land consisted of a virgin hemlock forest, never touched by the axes and saws of lumberjacks and pine barons. It bordered Lake Tomahawk and its serene beauty was a balm to this businessman who was owner of the Wabash Screen Door Company in Wabash, Indiana.
An avid outdoorsman, Edward envisioned a fishing camp, fashioned after the logging camps that were so much a part of the northern Wisconsin landscape during that time. On this breathtaking piece of property he would build structures made from the giant trees that dotted the 250 acres and his wife Minnie and daughter Frances could escape from the city to this secluded spot, where the shade was deep and cool, and the lake teemed with fish of every species.
Edward’s dream of a fishing camp would eventually come true, but he would never live to see it. It would be his wife, Minnie, who would turn his vision into reality. And while this was almost unheard of for a woman back at the turn of the last century, their grandchildren, Susan and Sally, would allow this property to serve all of Wisconsin, and even the world, through a gift so precious that today it continues to give back 100-fold from its former use as a family getaway.
Tom Steele knows this story better than almost anyone and he’s proud to share it. Tom, who is a forester, has been the director of the Kemp Natural Resources Station in Woodruff for the last 23 years and not only has this property been his workplace, it’s also been his home. He lives at Kemp Station year round and, along with his wife Sarah, has raised two daughters here. “I feel so fortunate to have spent the majority of my career at Kemp Station,” he says. “It has been a real privilege.”
Listening to Tom tell the tale of how Kemp Station came to be and what it provides researchers, teachers, scientists and students today, you get a deep sense of pride for this wondrous place that is one of 11 research stations throughout the state owned by the University of Wisconsin. “There are three things that make the Kemp Station so unique,” he says. “Number one is its history. Number two is the setting it is in and number three is what we do here.”
The history part of the equation is indeed truly remarkable. Edward Kemp came to Wisconsin in the mid-1890s lured by the plentiful lumber that was being harvested from northern Wisconsin’s forests. This lumber was just what he was looking for to expand his screen door business. He first built a factory and then his home in Rhinelander (Kemp St. today bears his name) and in 1900 he purchased 250 acres between Woodruff and Rhinelander, envisioning a peaceful place to engage in his favorite hobbies-hunting and fishing.
But tragedy struck and his screen door factory burned down soon after he purchased his land, and then he became ill and died. Minnie and his daughter Frances were devastated, but also determined that their husband and father’s vision would be realized.
Many of the buildings at Kemp Station today were built by Minnie and Frances back in the early 1900s. Minnie would oversee the construction of numerous enclosures that would include a boathouse, a kitchen and dining area, a small cottage, a caretaker’s house and barn, spacious living quarters for family, visitors and friends, and various other buildings to house equipment and for storage. Every building would be carefully set among the huge pines or overlook the lake. This would be the family’s vacation getaway, and sometimes they would stay there for weeks on end.
Frances eventually married Egbert Spencer and had two daughters, Susan and Sally. When Minnie died, she naturally left her estate to Frances. And then Frances, when she passed on, left it to Susan and Sally, who are living in Arizona today.
However, as the two sisters married and raised their families, they came less and less to their retreat on Lake Tomahawk, so they decided to donate the buildings and 135 acres to the University of Wisconsin in 1960. In 1998, another 100 acres was donated. “It was really a godsend that these women gave this property to the university,” says Tom. “Before that there were no research stations in northern Wisconsin and no station was dedicated to studying natural resources, and that’s especially important now because there is such a demand on our natural resources.”
Today scientists, researchers, teachers and even lay people come to Kemp Station to study flying squirrels, bats, musky spawning, algae, and air emissions given off by trees and even the soil, to name a few subjects. Sometimes there are up to 50 research projects going on at one time as scientists and researchers come and go throughout the year.
Kemp Station has everything these people need to accomplish their goals. There are rooms lined with microscopes, ovens, chemistry equipment and laptops. There are places where scientists can dissect logs, ship out samples and conduct their research as if they were in their own laboratories.
In addition, they have accommodations in all the original log buildings that Minnie and Frances built. The kitchen and dining hall have the same creaky floor and lots of the original sinks and faucets, and even the smell of the place takes one back to coffee percolating on the stove and the weathered scent of pine in the air. The buildings that were used for the family’s sleeping quarters remain for that use today, only bunk beds are the norm to accommodate more people. A wide and expansive screened porch overlooking the lake provides a peaceful sleeping haven. The original lodge houses Tom’s office and that of his assistant, Karla Ortman, and the living room has been turned into a conference room. The room above the boathouse, that once rang out with the Kemp family’s laughter as they played games there or held dances, is now a classroom. There’s even an outdoor classroom where teachers and their students can sit around a campfire while listening to loons calling in the background and birds twittering in the trees above.
One of Tom’s favorite spots at Kemp Station is the beautiful walking trail that winds through the property. It borders Lake Tomahawk and takes hikers through a forest that has never been logged, where giant pines loom large and majestically into the sky. There are spots where research goes on even here with a bat station that records bat calls and an area that has been fenced off to see what the landscape would look like if deer weren’t allowed to eat the vegetation. “We don’t manage this forest per se,” says Tom. “We leave it just the way it is. This property is included in the two percent of the land that was never logged off in Wisconsin and it is exactly the way it was before Europeans settled here. It’s like taking a step back in time. That alone makes it special not only today but in the future as well. Generations to come will be able to see what northern Wisconsin looked like many years ago and that in itself is a rare gift.”
Note: To find out more about the Kemp Natural Resources Station or the programs offered there, check out the website at kemp.wisc.edu or call (715) 358-5667.
Mary Ann Doyle is the associate editor of the Star Journal.