The Gordon Fire Tower on the banks of the St. Croix River was only days away from demolition when Brian Finstad made a very important phone call.
The tower was decommissioned in 2015 along with all the other towers operated by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Most wildfire watching is done from airplanes today.
“I was aware of this and one day began wondering what would happen with the Gordon Fire Tower,” Finstad said. “One day I did some Google searching and found the contact info for the lady who was in charge of the disposition of the fire towers, Kristine Bucholtz. That was a Tuesday and she told me that it was to go out to bid as scrap metal that Thursday!”
Bucholtz delayed the disposition while local residents figured out if they could acquire it, saving the local landmark. Now a group is busy raising funds to purchase the tower from the DNR and the property from the county, and pay for insurance and required fencing of the site.
They hope to not only save it from demolition, but create a campsite with the fire tower as a unique amenity. The local nonprofit group Friends of the Bird Sanctuary, stepped in to help the project. Once the tower is acquired, they plan to create a new nonprofit to manage it.
In the future, people from around the world might be able to rent the tower on a site like AirBnB.
“It would be great for bird watching, a writer’s retreat,” Finstad said. “Or because it is just plain cool. The tower is unique also in that the view of the tower is somewhat iconic to downtown Gordon and that stretch of the St. Croix River (not to mention the views of both from the tower).”
From the small cab atop the tower, an observer can see up to about 12 miles.
If the tower is made available for rent, Finstad believes it would be the first such project east of the Rocky Mountains.
100 feet and 83 years
The Gordon tower is 100 feet tall, tied for tallest in the state. It was built in 1935, hosting summer fire-spotters for decades.
Overlooking the fire-dependent “Northwest Sands” ecosystem, the tower played a key role in significant Wisconsin wildfires, such as the Five Mile Fire of 1977 and the Germann Road fire in 2013.
Finstad grew up near the tower, and said it’s long been an icon of the community and the upper St. Croix.
“When we were kids, there would be signs at the base that said ‘No Climbing,'” he said. “But once you made it to the top, there would be a guest book.”
While many towers used a ladder for access, the Gordon tower has stairs. A ladder probably would have made it impossible to repurpose the Gordon tower.
The tower is technically a Aermotor, probably an MC-39 model. It features a U.S. Forest Service-style stairway, with wooden steps that were upgraded to steel at some point.
Many parties to the process
The tower is owned by the DNR and is on Douglas County Forestry land. There is an easement for the tower to be on the land and an easement across a private land owner’s property to get to the tower. (The landowner happens to be Finstad’s mom.)
After a land exchange to transfer the tower and the land it sits on to the citizen group proved too complicated, they decided to pursue a sale outright.
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So far, the DNR, the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary, the Douglas County Forestry Committee, and the Douglas County Board have all approved of the plan. The county and the group have designed and surveyed a parcel of county land that could be sold off — it’s big enough to encompass the tower if it falls down.
The proposal is currently being reviewed at DNR headquarters in Madison, a process which may take six months, and give the group time to find funding.
All told, the group needs to raise about $25,000 to bring their plans to reality.
The county is asking $4,230 for the 1.1-acre parcel, which is double the fair market value, to ensure the public is protected. Annual insurance is expected to be about $5,000, and fencing off the site will be about $10,000. There are also taxes and some other expenses to cover.
The initiative got a boost earlier this month at Gordon Good Neighbor Days, as the group sold out of t-shirts and raised money with a dunk tank and bake sale.
Individuals can also sponsor a part of the tower with a donation. Sponsorship levels are $100 for one stair, $500 for a landing, and $1,000 for the observation cab. Tax-deductible donations can be made via PayPal or by check mailed to FOTBS, P.O. Box 116, Gordon, WI 54838. Please write “Save the Fire Tower” in PayPal’s “special instructions to seller” area or in your check’s memo line.