Forest History Center

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Discover the past, present and future of Minnesota's forests through guided tours of a 1900s era logging camp and hands-on environmental learning programs. Board the moored river "wanigan," a floating cook shack, take a seat on the porch of a 1930s Minnesota Forest Service patrolman's cabin, climb a 100-foot fire tower and explore the site's self-guided trails.


This turn-of-the-century logging camp explores the past, present and future of the northern forests of Minnesota through costumed characters and museum exhibits. Visitors can board the moored river "wanigan," a floating cook shack, take a seat on the porch of a 1930s Minnesota Forest Service patrolman's cabin, climb a 100-foot fire tower or hike along the site's self-guided trails.

The site is filled with living-history characters who acquaint visitors with life in a 1900 logging camp. The camp cook and cook's assistants (called cookees), the company clerk, bullcook (camp janitor), saw filer, lumberjacks, barn boss (who cares for the draft horses), the blacksmith and "wood butcher" (carpenter), perform the duties of actual logging camp workers. Visitors can ask questions and can often assist them in their work.

The 1901 "wanigan," a barge-like boat used on log drives, floats on the Mississippi River awaiting the next drive downstream, as the crew of "river pigs" (log drivers) push and prod the huge pine logs from the pineries up north into the river for transport to the waiting sawmills in river towns.

The Forest Patrolman explains the importance of protecting the forest from fire at the 1934 Forest Service cabin. Visitors can keep watch over the forest by climbing the state's only 100-foot fire tower, which features a live daily interpretive program.

The Forest History Center opened to the public in 1978. More than 5,000 square feet of new exhibits and a renovated visitor center, completed in 2004, look at ecology and conservation, forest products, fire, timber harvesting, population growth, the future of the forest and how visitors can impact decisions about how forests are managed and cared for. Highlights include the "EcoLog," an interactive, full scale log that visitors can crawl through to discover the flora, fauna and animals of the forest; a John Deere/TimberJack selective harvest simulator, where visitors can sit in an actual Harvester Cab and practice virtual timber harvesting in a sustainable selective manner; films on logging transportation and timber processing; a multimedia display using contemporary voices to explore the many sides of "Who Owns the Forest?"; a porch from a log home in an area looking at recreation, population and disturbances in the northern forests; and a virtual timeline looking back at Minnesota's forests thousands of years ago and forward to forecast what the forests may look like in the future.

At learning stations along a half-mile of renovated trails, visitors can see forest management techniques put into practice and take part in decision-making opportunities about forest management.

The forests of northern Minnesota have had great impact on the lives of their inhabitants for many centuries. This relationship between people and the land has evolved from those who relied on the forests to provide sustenance, through the cutting of forests to provide the timber that helped to build a growing America, to today's recreational escape from our urbanized society. The Forest History Center tells the story of these changing relationships.

The site connects people to forests through entertaining, meaningful experiences so they appreciate and understand the importance of forests - past and future - to their lives.

Fun Facts
  • The Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota is the largest federal forest in the lower 48 states. Dotted with over 2,000 sparkling lakes, the remainder of the landscape is blanketed by dense northern forests of pine, spruce, aspen, birch, cedar and tamarack. Nearly one-third of the National Forest is contained within the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
  • Draft horses, often weighing over a ton apiece, provided most of the power necessary to haul logs, move logging sleighs and tote firewood. The Forest History Center's draft horses and oxen are often on hand to greet visitors.
  • Early Minnesota loggers left behind a legacy of tall tales and folklore, including the snow snake, a white snake which awakens from hibernation only with the presence of snow; Agropelter, Minnesota's answer to Big Foot; Jack the Horse, a logging camp foreman who took over hauling logs when one of his horses died in harness; and Hungry Mike Sullivan, a 300-pound man with an astonishing appetite.
  • The Forest History Center opened to the public in 1978 and has served more than 600,000 visitors from all 50 states and over a dozen foreign countries. It serves over 4,000 school children from throughout Minnesota annually.
  • Nature trails at the site become cross-country ski trails in the winter months and are some of the most highly used trails in Itasca County.
  • Visitors are asked to "pitch-in" with the work at the logging camp, wanigan and 1934 Minnesota Forest Service cabin. Travelers back in time may find themselves hauling water, cutting fire wood with a cross-cut saw, working the bellows of the blacksmith's forge, bringing in firewood, spotting forest fires and calling in a fire attack crew.
  • The Center's 100-foot fire tower is Minnesota's only tower where visitors can climb and talk to a live interpreter who can explain this once common event. Successful climbers receive a "Squirrel Card" signed by the "Tower Man," proving they made the climb.
  • Itasca County is the birthplace of Judy Garland and home to more than 1,000 lakes, over 3,000 miles of snowmobile trails, more than 200 miles of cross-country ski trails, is trail head for both the Mesabi and Taconite Trails and is the gateway to the Chippewa National Forest.
  • Every tree commonly found in northern Minnesota is found on the site's trails, with interpretive signs and brochures helping to identify trees and discuss their benefits to the environment and industrial uses.

1800s When Euro-Americans began to settle Minnesota in the early 1820s, they found about 19.5 million acres in natural prairie systems and about 31.5 million in forests. Fewer than 200 years later, only about 0.3 percent of the natural prairie remains. And forests have shrunk to fewer than 18 million acres. The vast pine stands have been harvested and replaced with aspen and birch hardwoods. Climatic shifts that changed boreal forests to prairies and back again were macro changes in the forests. The changes brought on by modern Minnesotans may be just as drastic.

1830s Lumbermen entered Minnesota (then part of Wisconsin Territory) along the St. Croix River and to harvest pines along the river banks. The tree of choice was the white pine.

1839 A group of New England businessmen headed by Orange Walker and L.S. Judd started the Marine Lumber Company, the first sawmill in Minnesota, along the St. Croix, and soon a community, Marine on St. Croix, formed around the mill.

1840 A second commercial mill was erected at Stillwater and Minnesota's lumbering boom had begun.

1860s The saw-milling center moved from the St. Croix River to the new city of Minneapolis at St. Anthony Falls, using the vast white pine forests of the Mississippi River Valley.

1870s Steam power was introduced into saw milling, replacing the need for water power and allowing saw mills to move away from St. Anthony Falls to other Mississippi River towns. Steam power and new, faster circular saws enabled logging camps to increase production.

1880s With increased commercial railroad building in the state, larger sawmill steam engines and the invention of the band saw (a belt of steel that worked faster and left less wood waste), sawmills increased in size and expanded around the state. Brainerd, Little Falls, Crookston, Cloquet, Duluth, and International Falls became saw-milling towns.

1890s to 1910 The golden era of lumbering in Minnesota. Logging railroads reached deep into the woods as steam power became the mover of logs. Over 20,000 lumberjacks and half that number of draft horses were working in the northern pineries of the state. An equal number of men worked in the state's sawmills and another 20,000 people worked in related wood-production factories. Yet, dark clouds emerged on the lumbering skyline; catastrophic forest fires fueled by logging operations leaving dry tree tops called "slash" swept the landscape and devastated many northern communities-Hinckley in 1894, Chisholm in 1908, Baudette in 1910 and Cloquet-Moose Lake in 1918.

1900 The peak year of white pine logging with over 2.3 billion board feet of lumber, about 4.7 million cords, cut from the state's forests. From that year alone, Minnesota pine could build over 600,000 two-story homes or a boardwalk nine feet wide encircling the earth at the equator. In each of the next 10 years, nearly equal cuts of pines were made in the state.

1910 The annual cut of Minnesota pine began to drop and sawmills began to close their doors around the state. With the industry in decline, lumber companies began to look to the Pacific Northwest and the South for timber.

1911 Seeing a need to begin conservation measures and fight the growing danger of forest fires the state created the Minnesota Forest Service (MFS), a forerunner to the Department of Natural Resources. With a small but dedicated force of foresters and forest firefighters they enforced new and stricter laws governing slash removal, regulated railroads to prevent sparks from locomotives, requiring burning permits and created Forest Ranger Districts throughout the North Woods.

1929 The Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company, in Virginia, Minn. - the largest white pine lumber company in the world - closed its doors, signaling the end of the big-pine logging era in the state. In less than 100 years, the industry had logged over 68 billion board feet of pine from the state's forests, enough lumber to fill boxcars stretching from the earth to the moon and halfway back again.

1930s Lumber companies that remained in Minnesota shifted production from saw logs to pulp, paper, matchsticks and manufactured building materials. The work force was reduced to less than 20,000 men statewide and the annual cut dropped to less than a half-million cords of timber. The last log drive in Minnesota occurred on the Little Fork River in 1937.

1940s The war years of WWII increased the state's timber output and expanded its workforce. However, it was clear that the era of the lumber industry had vanished. The state invested in the Minnesota Forest Service, renaming it the Conservation Department in an effort to rebuild the state's natural resources.

1950s The state's forest industries remained a minor factor in the state's economy with an annual harvest of less than one million cords and less than 10,000 people employed in the entire industry.

1960s The state witnessed a small increase in forest industry growth with annual harvest levels reaching one million cords and a statewide work force of 20,000.

1970s Timber harvest inches upward to 1.5 million cords.

1980s Minnesota's timber industry enters its "Second Forest Revolution." Changes in the wood fiber industry such as manufactured building materials, improvements in paper production and increases in the nationwide print industry fuel the industry. A dozen major pulp, paper, waferboard, oriented strand board, specialty wood plants and sawmills expand in the state. Capital investments in mills, which were less than 600 million between 1975 and 1985, exploded to nearly 1 billion dollars in the five years between 1985 and 1990. Wood-fiber based employment jumps from 30,000 in 1980 to 52,000 in 1985. Harvest increases from 2.2 to 3.7 million cords in the same era.

1990s The state's forest industries continue to expand, becoming the third-largest manufacturing industry with over 8 billion dollars in wages. Annual harvests reached nearly 4 million cords. With the increases in harvest and forest utilization, some Minnesotans became concerned about the supply of trees and the overall health of the state's forests. In 1993, the state completed a comprehensive study of the state's forest and timber harvest-the Generic Environmental Impact Statement on Timber Harvest. The study provided direction to the state in managing its forest-based ecological resources. It also resulted in the passing of the 1995 Sustainable Forest Resources Act and created a taskforce - the Minnesota Forest Resources Council - to recommend policies and practices to protect and provide sustainable management for the state's forests.


Forest History Center Images

Forest History Center Images

Forest History Center bunk house

Forest History Center bunk house

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Forest History Center fire tower

Forest History Center fire tower

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Early 1900s Forest Cook Shack, photo by William F. Roleff

Early 1900s Forest Cook Shack, photo by William F. Roleff

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Grand Rapids logging camp, 1903

Grand Rapids logging camp, 1903

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