(Photos courtesy Heartwood Resort and Conference Center)
A historic Wisconsin resort that was recently the center of some controversy over plans to open an RV campground is now being sold to a group that previously planned to purchase Wilder Forest in May Township, Minnesota. The Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership (MCYP) plans to open an “Extreme Faith Camp” for young people at the site during summer, and open it up to adult retreats and conferences during the rest of the year.
“A nonprofit group of private donors in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has signed a purchase agreement to buy a property on 700 acres in northwestern Wisconsin to be used for a Catholic summer camp for middle schoolers and for conferences, retreats and faith and science camps used by parishes and schools in fall, winter and spring,” the Catholic Spirit reports.
Heartwood Resort and Conference Center was last purchased in 2019 by Mark Wallskog of Prior Lake, Minn., who owns other hospitality businesses in northwest Wisconsin. The business raised concerns in the community earlier this year when Wallskog proposed to develop up to nearly 300 campsites for recreational vehicles, with an emphasis on facilities for ATV users. Neighbors worried about traffic, septic systems, noise, and more. River advocates were concerned about such dense development a stone’s throw from the Wild and Scenic River. Heartwood’s application to the county was rejected as incomplete in April.
”When you kayak or canoe this incredibly beautiful stretch of the river, it feels like you are in an undeveloped wilderness,” wrote Wild Rivers Conservancy executive director Deb Ryun to a county committee. “Allowing a 140-unit RV campground here, the equivalent of creating a small town of 280-560 people or more on the edge of this national park, does not make sense for so many reasons.”
Now, Heartwood’s sale to MCYP is expected to close in January, with summer camps starting up next season. Until a couple months ago, MCYP was seeking to purchase Wilder Forest, a former camp and retreat near Square Lake in Washington County, Minnesota. The proposal was opposed by community members concerned about impacts on sensitive resources (disclosure: as a May Township resident, I shared those concerns). On August 31, the group withdrew their purchase offer. Shortly after, the Manitou Fund agreed to buy Wilder Forest.
According to the Catholic Spirit, MCYP is now partnering with a program of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, “Extreme Faith Camp.” This initiative has not had a permanent home since it was founded in 2000, rather hosting summer camps at various other sites around Minnesota each year.
“I am grateful and humbled that Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership chose a ministry that I helped start and have seen amazing fruit not only in my parish, but many parishes throughout the archdiocese,” said Extreme Faith Camp founder John O’Sullivan, according to the Catholic Spirit.
In previous fundraising materials for the proposed camp, the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership described its plans:
At our camp, youth will pray, hear talks challenging them to respond to God’s calling, see skits that inspire, sing inspirational songs, spend time before the Blessed Sacrament and feel God’s grace through the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Holy Mass, and learn to reflect on their experience in small groups with their peers.
To round out the camp experience, the campers will engage in high-adventure activities that not only enhance the joy in the experience, but also provide more opportunities to encounter God by testing their limits, surrounded by natural beauty. High ropes, archery tag and water activities all help youth embrace the camp environment, break down “walls” and build trust among the youth, counselors, and each other.
Heartwood has a long and interesting history, according to Business North. It was first founded about 100 years ago as a private estate by a couple from Chicago. After their death, it became the Paradise Sportsman’s Club, catering to visitors from Chicago. In the early 1960s, it became notorious for an owner who triple-sold cabin leases for the property, and then fled to Mexico with the proceeds.
After that, it became a Boy Scout Camp for 15 years, then other private owners, operating as The Briar Patch and the Schwan Center, among other names. In 2005, financial services nonprofit Thrivent Financial for Lutherans purchased it and made significant investments in the buildings. Finally, in December 2019, Wallskog purchased it from Thrivent.