The rough gray tree trunks soar into the blue sky above, straight columns some six feet in diameter. The limbs don’t start until maybe 50 feet up, holding bristling bright green bunches of needles. Each tree is separated by a low understory of brush, including young white pines awaiting their chance to see the sun. It’s airy and open. The giant pines are impossible pillars of wood in a natural edifice.
These trees were probably planted more than 100 years ago by Soren and Kristine Uhrenholdt. Their former farm in Seeley, Wis., on the banks of the Namekagon River, is today a special piece of public land. It memorializes a revolution in thinking about the post-logging cutover country, farm economics, and early conceptions of conservation.
The Uhrenholdt legacy is summarized in the verse that Soren famously recited through life:
“Where the plough can’t go,
And the scythe can’t sing,
A tree should grow.”
– Hans Bjerregard
The Uhrenholdts were Danish immigrants who became known around Wisconsin for their progressive practices. Part of their Seeley farm is today preserved as the Uhrenholdt Memorial Demonstration Forest, owned by the people of Wisconsin. It is open to the public, with trails that let anyone experience the legacy of this forward-thinking family.
The land offers not only the cathedral of carefully managed white pine forest, but also a sanctuary of old trees, untouched for more than a century, dark and tangled. At the request of Soren upon his passing in 1946, this stand still offers silence and wildness.
A recent article in the Wisconsin Magazine of History by writer Matt Blessing detailed the Uhrenholdts’ lives and legacy. They were just two of the hundreds of thousands of Danes who left their native land in the nineteenth century. Their early lives were marked by social and economic limitations, their journey to the banks of the Namekagon River was long and laborious, and their influence on Wisconsin was ultimately significant.
Soren Uhrenholdt first came to Wisconsin in 1882, briefly returning to Denmark six years later to marry his beloved Christine. They first farmed near Waupaca for more than a decade, but lost the farm in bankruptcy. They next headed north to lands Soren had seen while working winters in lumber camps.
“Uhrenholdt’s decades in Sawyer County, Wisconsin, mirrored the experiences of thousands of small farmers across the northern Great Lakes cutover region, where vast tracts of white pine were replaced by fields of stumps during the late nineteenth century. The farmers endured hardship and privation, a taste of prosperity during the Great War, and then the long agricultural depression of the interwar years. Many of the region’s farms ultimately failed, but Uhrenholdt’s deft stewardship of field and forest made his homestead prosper.”A Northern Farm Cradled in Pines, Wisconsin Magazine of History, Spring 2022
What set Soren’s farming apart was his belief that every good farm needed some trees. He probably brought the idea with him from Denmark, where he had for a time studied in a folk school. That’s where he likely learned of the work of Hans Bjerregard, who advocated for planting trees along Denmark’s harsh coast to improve the windswept lands for agriculture.
By the turn of the twentieth century, northern Wisconsin was also deforested. In some sixty years, timber companies had cut down the vast forests of white pine and floated them down the Namekagon to Hayward or on to the St. Croix and ultimately Stillwater. As the rich prairies and other prime farmland were claimed by homesteaders, “cutover country” beckoned late-comers.
The Uhrenholdts moved to Seeley in 1899, and attempted to show that farming could work here, despite sandy soil and a short growing season.
Pursuing potato prosperity
The Namekagon River flows past Seeley swiftly. The stream is narrow and winding here, punctuated by rocks and riffles, and peaceful paddling past wild banks. It is part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, protected in 1968 by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Some 80 miles downstream, the Namekagon joins the St. Croix, its largest tributary.
Next to the river is the Sawmill Saloon, a sprawling building with restaurant, bar, cafe, and more. Across the highway is the actual sawmill, today operated by the Vortanz Lumber Company. The past 150 years have seen a lot of logging around here.
The Uhrenholdts’ first expertise was in removing the massive white pine stumps that remained. It took horses, machinery, and quite a bit of dynamite. Soren’s son Jens ended up teaching their method for blowing stumps through the University of Wisconsin Extension service.
Luckily, potatoes could also be grown in between the stumps, so the family produced crops while slowly expanding their tillable acres. Many settlers in northern Wisconsin grew potatoes on their farms for decades. The tough tuber could be shipped far and wide on the region’s burgeoning railroad network.
Potatoes were particularly important during World War I, when they were grown to replace wheat, which was needed for the overseas “doughboys.” When the United States entered the war in 1917, Uhrenholdt had developed high-grade strains, and his seeds were “crucial” as the nation planted an extra 700,000 acres of the crop to feed civilians on the homefront.
War was personal for the Uhrenholdts. In their youth, Germany had invaded their homeland, seizing the southern regions. Then, their son Andrew died of influenza while overseas fighting in World War I. Later, their grandson Andrew Curtis died on the U.S.S. Arizona in the attack on Pearl Harbor of Dec. 7, 1941. The memorial forest is dedicated to both young men.
Soren sometimes hired students from Northland College in Ashland to work on his farm over the summer. In 1919, one of the recruits was named Sigurd Olson, who hit it off with Soren and Kristine’s daughter Elizabeth. The couple eventually married and made a life together in Ely, Minn. Sigurd eventually became a beloved author and wilderness advocate.
Despite his deep ties to what is today the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Olson always loved his in-laws’ farm in Seeley. He and Elizabeth visited as often as possible and they are even buried in her family’s plot at Riverside Cemetery, the Namekagon slipping past just a few yards away.
Officials from the state of Wisconsin soon recognized Soren’s ground-breaking farm practices. He was invited to teach numerous seminars at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and held up as an example of the modern farmer. Nonetheless, it was always tough to make a living in the cutover, and the Uhrenholdts struggled after the Great War.
Sigurd and Elizabeth Olson were two of the family members who helped Soren stay on the farm until his death in 1946 (Kristine died in 1931). The farm was still mortgaged and much of it was slowly sold off to pay off debt. But the core pine forest was protected.
In 1947, the forest was sold to the state of Wisconsin and became the first of a dozen timber demonstration forests. It served to highlight the latest practices in silviculture and forestry.
Sigurd wrote occasionally of Soren and the Seeley farm in his popular essays and books. He once recounted a conversation with Soren about his thoughts on arriving in the cutover.
“The big timber was gone, but when I saw those young trees, I knew that someday they would be tall and straight,” Olson recalled Soren saying. “Other crops grow quickly, and when they’re harvested, the soil lays bare. Trees are different, grow more beautiful with the years.”
A visit to Uhrenholdt Forest today gives good reason to be grateful for his vision. The trees are living art crafted by nature’s hand, with help from a family of foresters.
Read the full article about the Uhrenholdts in the Wisconsin Magazine of History. I was fortunate to contribute a photo of the forest for the article.