Superior National Forest partners with the Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps using Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to renovate historic structure on Lake Vermilion, MN.
A historic rustic cabin and surrounding island property on Lake Vermilion within the Superior National Forest and 1854 Ceded Territory are getting facelifts to prepare the location for a future day use and potential overnight recreation opportunity. Superior National Forest Heritage Staff partnered with Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps (NBHPC) crew members to initiate a 5-year plan to stabilize and update the property for public use. Restoration work at the property, which is in the process of being listed to the National Register of Historic Places, followed specifications for historic structure treatments that focused on preserving significant elements of the building and maintaining the original craftmanship. Funding for the Northern Bedrock Crew and associated materials and supplies were secured through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
The two-story cabin was designed by Minneapolis architect, John Jaeger, a Slovenian immigrant and accomplished architect who acquired the patent for the 55-acre island known as "Knotts" or "Wolf Island" in 1906. Historical records document that the cabin was built between 1927-1929 by Jaeger and Finnish American craftsmen from the Tower area. The cabin is a significant and well-preserved example of Northwoods vernacular lake home architecture based on its materials, craftsmanship, location, and design. Jaeger continued to work on trail construction and landscape improvements throughout the island through the decades before passing in 1959.
Jaeger thoroughly enjoyed his time on the island, documenting local history, natural history, drawing maps of the island's historic and geographic features, and recording observations about the 55-acre island's original inhabitants, the Bois Forte Ojibwe, who Jaeger witnessed building canoes on the island during his first visit. In 2015, the USDA Forest Service acquired the land and cabin through the Trust for Public Land from the McPeak family, who acquired the island from Jaeger's widow in 1960.
In July and August 2023, Superior National Forest staff and five Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps crewmembers completed 16 days of restoration and maintenance work on the cabin and surrounding property. Initial work included cleaning the interior and exterior of the cabin, backhauling degraded furniture and excess items, staining the exterior, installing a picnic table and fire grate, and conducting hand-release of balsam around the structure for fire prevention. In August, heavier restoration work occurred by replacing and restoring deteriorated structural logs that had been damaged by water and insects. The cabin was also tested for asbestos. In addition, staff determined a new deck was needed for safety and accessibility. The former deck was from the 1970s and was causing water to infiltrate to the cabin structure. Superior National Forest engineers and heritage staff designed the new deck to be American Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant and moved it away from the cabin.
Lee Johnson, Heritage & Archeology Program Manager for the Superior National Forest, describes the sources of success for the project as:
Our staff, partners, technical experts, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding source were all critical to the success of this project. We had plans on the shelf for the Wolf Island Cabin for several years and everything intersected at the right time, including the weather. We were able to both initiate restoration work to position the cabin and island property for future public use, but also mentor and help young adults learn trade skills in carpentry and historic preservation from skilled technical experts. The project was the highlight of the year for both our staff and the NBHCP corps members we partnered with.
Finally, heritage staff and Northern Bedrock Crew members removed existing hazardous fuels around the cabin structure and stacked them for pile burning. Superior National Forest fire staff burnt approximately one acre of hand piles during October 2023 to further reduce the risk of wildfire to the cabin and island. A proposed day use-site was also established northeast of the cabin with a picnic table and fire grate. Historic hiking trails were also partially cleared and restored. Future work will include constructing a new dock, shoreline stabilization and site work to ensure safer access, an accessibility study, and installing waste receptacles, toilets, and electricity.
The Superior and Northern Historic Preservation Corps will continue to plan future projects to beneficially restore and revive other historical structures on the Forest's landscape, while simultaneously connecting youth with building skills and partnering resources for their future endeavors.
Established in 2011, NBHPC is a 501.3C organization based out of Duluth, Minnesota that works to train young adults in carpentry and preservation trades by working with project hosts and technical experts to provide hands-on learning experiences. The Superior National Forest and NBHPC have partnered on over a dozen restoration projects since 2015, contributing thousands of work person hours to both administrative and publicly accessible historic structures.
The Superior National Forest has worked closely with Tribal elders and staff from the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, 1854 Treaty Authority staff, through the planning and development process of Wolf Island. Bois Forte Tribal elders and Tribal youth have traveled to the island annually for picnics and educational events since 2016, and the Forest hopes to facilitate and support future Tribal use of the island as restoration work continues. The cabin and surrounding area will be managed as a recreational opportunity for day and overnight users after final restoration efforts are completed.