A Short History of Brickyard Creek
Featured in the Boreal Forest Citizen Fall/Winter 2006/7 Vol. 1
Sitting very comfortably in the trade winds at my Caribbean home, I was struggling to envision the North woods. Bob, who was on St. John to work with me on an eco-tour resort, was describing land he had been purchasing near Bayfield. All I really knew from my geography books was that Bayfield was somewhere near the tundra, or on Lake Superior, or something like that. As Bob talked, I was picturing the quintessential small cottage nestled beneath the canopy of giant pines, surrounded with wild flowers, bear, and wolves – kind of like Little Red Riding Hood’s place. I was also wondering why most of his working trips to the tropics were in the winter. I didn’t give the North woods much thought after that, happy to be living in a place that never, in the darkest night in the middle of winter, saw a temperature reading below 63 F. – ever. Little did I know that two kids later, and with a lot of pressure from my now ex- wife, I would be moving back to America, where, after 15 years in the Caribbean, I landed in Northern Virginia with boxes of flip-flops and other useless tropical artifacts.
It wasn’t too long before Bob invited me to Bayfield to help him figure out what to do with all of those “North woods” properties he had purchased. I was looking forward to seeing this part of the world for the first time, but I was worried about the cold. Not having experienced winter in America for 15 years, I bought boots and a coat and headed to Minneapolis, where I was picked up at the heated airport in a heated car, parked in a heated garage and walked into a heated house. That was easy. The next day we started driving to Bayfield. I had always thought April was a relatively warm month. Not here. We stopped on the way and replaced my new boots and coat with newer boots and a warmer coat.
We drove through Duluth, where I got my first view of the largest lake in the world. There was ice in it. We traveled through a few small villages that seemed ready to be swallowed by either Lake Superior or the North woods, depending on which side of the highway you were on, and finally got to Bayfield. The trip left me a little puzzled. Some things were missing from my long held vision of the North woods. I turned to Bob and asked where all of the bear were.
- They are still sleeping.
- Where are the wild flowers?
- It’s too early in the year.
- Where is Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s cottage?
- I don’t know.
After a brief tour of Madeline Island and the Bayfield area, I started the first of a hundred walks through the Brickyard Creek forest. I’m glad I bought the new boots. Fortunately, spring turned to summer and I started to feel right at home – with the mosquitoes; though they were thicker and more persistent here than I had ever seen in the Caribbean. I guess when you only have three or four months to do your thing; you are certainly going to be hell bound for glory to do it. I had a great time exploring the forest alone, and was only chased out twice, once by a mother bear, and the other time by a mother partridge.
Bob had just finished a marina – almost, and he had put up a new industrial looking building where the employees of the National Park Service were happily going about their business of maintaining the nearby islands – well, that’s not quite true either, they didn’t seem happy. The land around the marina was at issue. What could be done with it? Should anything be done with it? It didn’t take a seasoned developer or a highly educated environmentalist to see that this land was obviously very unique. Lots of wild flowers, lots of bear, a great tree canopy – well, except for the meadow. A past associate of Bob’s had prematurely cut two large swaths through the forest south of the creek assuming, I guess, that he would need a storage area for all of the boats in the new marina. We later cleared all of the felled trees and decided to call our new open space, “The Meadow”. It seemed that the easiest thing to do with Brickyard would be to sub-divide the whole thing. The lakeshore lots would sell, but what about second and third tier lots. And what would happen to the trees and the wildlife in a conventional sub- division? As I spent more and more time walking the land, I kept coming back to the vision I had had when first hearing about this property. Though the “cottage” idea had not hit home yet, I did see several areas where, if properly sited, a cottage could be built to look as though it was born there.
Unsure what to do, I decided to travel around the region to see what other developments in the North woods looked like. Throughout Northern Wisconsin and the North Shore of Minnesota I saw the standard fare of town homes, strip centers, and the ubiquitous plastic sided suburban homes sitting proudly just inches from the closest roadway. I was afraid that my vision of the quintessential “Cottage in the North woods” was busted.
Back in Bayfield, I suggested to Bob that we might have an opportunity to develop a world class “Cottage” resort on the land behind the marina. With some arm-twisting and after a lot of explanation, he agreed. The planning of Brickyard Creek had officially started. After a lot of tweaking, the “Cottage Resort” idea evolved into a low-impact cottage neighborhood to be marketed as second (or third) homes. We were starting to get pretty excited about this project. We imported some of the concepts from our past eco resort project, invented a few more, hired an architect who was well versed in vernacular design, printed up some nice brochures, and waited for the buyers. Nothing happened. The locals and the people who were hanging around the new Marina thought we were nuts. I remember a conversation I had with one of them. It went something like this -
We are going to build “turn of the century” style cottages in the forest behind the marina. What about the mosquitoes?
We will clear an area just large enough for the footprint of the cottage and chip up the felled trees to create nature trails to the beach. What about the mosquitoes?
We will create a set of legal documents that will allow for the forest surrounding each cottage to be preserved an even enhanced. We won’t allow lawns, clear cutting, traditionally designed foundations, or any other environmentally destructive convention. What about the mosquitoes?
Mosquitoes? We will use bacillus thuringinsis. What’s that? It is a soil bacterium that kills mosquito larvae naturally. What will the bats eat?
Things were pretty slow around here in the beginning. We had no buyers, but we did have a lot of head-scratching tire kickers who, once they learned about this crazy scheme, would go home to pack up their family and friends and bring them along just to see the circus. Encouraged, we decided to build a model cottage. We built a Creekside design just across the creek from the marina. We didn’t have a bridge so I placed a couple of logs over the creek for access to the model from our office at the marina. My contention was that anybody who couldn’t cross the creek on the logs without falling in shouldn’t own a cottage in the North woods. Bob didn’t agree. So, armed with a brand new vehicular bridge and our brand new Creekside Cottage, we prepared for the onslaught of eager buyers. Nothing happened.
One could have assumed that we were definitely way out on the fringe if compared to conventional projects. As I look back I am starting to realize that not only were we no where near the fringe, we weren’t even on the same planet. We didn’t clear lots. We only cut roads that were needed to access the few cottage sites we were offering for sale at the time. We planted native prairie grass in the meadow. We created several hundred feet of wood- chipped nature trails. We hoped that our prospective buyers would get to see a bear while looking at cottage sites and not run all the way home to Minneapolis. We actually condominiumized the cottages so that the land around the cottages would be protected through recorded restrictions. We designed a pier system that kept the cottages above the land so the foundations would not alter existing drainage patterns. We voluntarily reduced our allowed densities. We frowned upon turning the forest into a park- like setting. Trees that fell in the forest stay to add nutrients for the next generation. We didn’t even have a sign. Bob once commented to me that, “We are the best secret project in the state”.
We were stuck scratching our heads and wondering what else we could do to make this thing work. It is difficult to walk a prospective buyer onto a heavily wooded cottage site and show them the exact spot where their kitchen sink will be located. Not that we didn’t know where it was to be located, we did; or I did (Bob was still a bit behind the eight ball). It’s just that most people cannot envision a cottage when a cottage isn’t there. Bob asked me what we should do. After considerable thought, I concluded that I didn’t know. While still scratching, and to our surprise, a few very brave buyers started showing up and signing up for cottages. We were finally able to build a microcosm of the proposed project, which made envisioning cottages, and sales, a lot easier.
A few of you bought into this concept early on. Some have just recently come aboard. But you were all obviously attracted to something here, and it wasn’t just our good looks. After all, even though we are developers, we refused to be looked upon as sex symbols. Whatever the attraction – the Lake, the meadow, the wildlife, the creek, the trails, the speed bump – let’s hope that we can preserve it far into the future so that our children and their children will be able to spend time at Brickyard Creek and enjoy the same things we have had the great opportunity to experience.
- Dave Culberson