In November 1921, a fearless Englishman named Thomas G. Winter camped on a piece of land in Lake County that took his breath away. Around him was a thick stand of old-growth forest, heavy with white pine, cedar, birch, balsam and spruce. On either side stood grand, sweeping cliffs. In the valley between ran a cold trout stream that tumbled into a 40-foot waterfall. Half a mile farther down the river was another 20-foot plunge. Winter followed the water as it danced over a series of rock ledges before emptying into a bulrush swamp and then finally out to Lake Superior.
Winter was so overtaken by the beauty of the place he immediately posted a letter to some friends. “Through this magnificent woods flows Encampment River, a beautiful trout stream cascading through a rocky gorge, leaping in several falls down the hillside, with here and there deep pools where the trout lie,” he wrote enthusiastically. “There are many partridges, and wildlife abounds, including deer and moose.”
He wasn’t the only one who had noted the particularly stunning tract of land. In 1925, geological surveyor Dr. George Schwartz wrote in his report that the piece of Lake County had “the best stand of trees along the coast of Lake Superior.”
The land was owned by the county attorney, John Olson, but Winter was determined to raise the money to purchase it. He started a furious letter-writing campaign to his most monied friends: civil engineer Francis Shenehon, bank president Edward Decker, Edina developer Sam Thorpe, manufacturing magnate Edwin Elwell, insurance executive Walter Leach, lawyer Joseph Kingman, architect Edwin Hewitt, Minnesota State Bar President H. V. Mercer, surgeon Arthur Strachauer, St. Paul Academy Founder Charles W. Ames and 14 others. Knowing full well the land was out of his price range, Winter, a midlevel grain dealer, proposed a kind of cooperative, where each man (and one woman) would put in roughly $1,000, and the rest would be borrowed from the bank. In just a few short months, the deal was done. In 1929, the group paid $27,500 for 1,575 acres.
In a way, it was kind of a miracle the land existed at all. Commercial loggers had been working over Minnesota’s old-growth forests since 1839. By 1900, the year of peak production, more than 2.3 billion board feet of lumber were cut from the state’s forests, and an estimated 20,000 lumberjacks had their axes in full swing. Today, there’s not a single state park in Minnesota that can claim it’s never been logged. But this chunk of land was saved, first by the towering cliffs that protected it, second by the county attorney who never sold the lumbering rights and lastly by the wealthy investors, who named their little forested enclave “Encampment” after the crisp river that runs through it.
The new owners set up the Encampment Forest Association to dictate strict rules about cabin sizes and how many guests could visit each summer. Almost immediately, an air of hushed secrecy surrounded the place. From the first, the owners suspected that they might have stumbled in their good luck on the last old-growth forest tract in all of Minnesota. Today, that is almost certainly the case.
Which is precisely why just north of Two Harbors travelers on U.S. Highway 61 — which bisects the Encampment property — will see no fewer than six large “No Trespassing” signs along the roadway. Outdoors enthusiasts on the Superior Hiking Trail headed toward Castle Danger are treated to a full mile of these signs, which openly threaten prosecution by the Lake County Sheriff. At some points, the warnings of “Private Property” and “Stay on the Trail” are staked, literally, on both sides of the path.
The owners at Encampment use more than just signage to protect their little slice of forested heaven. Cabins for sale are never listed on the open market; instead, news travels by word of mouth through a small network of wealthy friends and privileged real-estate agents. New owners are put through a rigorous approval process by the Encampment Forest Association. In 93 years, just a handful of owners have been admitted who are not related by blood or marriage to the original 25 investors. (Over the years, the main families have intermarried and now are virtually all connected by blood, marriage or business.) At least 16 current owners go back three generations, and a handful are now fourth- and fifth-generation owners. The exceptions are exceptional. Win Wallin, the late Medtronic executive, managed to get a cabin without the right family tree. So did George McClintock, the late managing partner at Faegre & Benson.
But for all their protectiveness, the owners at Encampment can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to writing about their wooded getaway. Charles Pillsbury published a 55-stanza poem about the place. No fewer than five books have been penned about the community, all of which are housed in the permanent collection at the Minnesota Historical Society. In 1971, Myrtle Penner published The Hub of the Forest, detailing the naturalistic wealth of the place: the 26 varieties of trees, the 15 species of fern, the 100 varieties of delicate wildflowers. It reads like a menu for a Michelin four-star that accepts no dinner guests and no reservations.
Yet another book on Encampment has page after page of family snapshots, none of them captioned. There are families lounging on the pristine basalt-rock beach, fishing in Encampment River, communing together at Cathedral Grove, the community’s natural “cathedral” with its intimate semicircle formed by massive, old-growth pines and its rock “pulpit.” (This is the sacred place where Winter and a number of others have had their funerals.)
Nearly a century after that fateful purchase in 1921, the Encampment owners are holding tight to their exclusive plot and working to assure themselves of a pristine wooded view well into the future. In 2010, Encampment members, working through the Minnesota Land Trust, secured a conservation easement (a no-development agreement) on 88 acres that border Encampment property to the northwest. This January, they paid more than $800,000 to secure more easements on 997 forested acres owned by businessmen Butch and Milt Wittlief.
Says one Lake County real-estate agent who asked not to be named: “What I find amazing is how many people on the North Shore, even right in Two Harbors, have no idea that this place exists.” And thus remains the elusive, exclusive Encampment.
A Short List of Illustrious Encampment Insiders
David Percy Jones, founder
Minneapolis city councilman, Minneapolis mayor in the 1910s
Edward Williams Decker, founder
President from 1912 to 1934 of Northwestern National Bank (later called Norwest, then merged into Wells Fargo), president of Minnesota Loan & Trust
Joseph Chapman, member
Vice president of L.S. Donaldson department store, vice president of Nicollet Hotel Co., executive at Wilbur B. Foshay Co., trustee at Soo Line Railroad, president at Citizens Utility Co.
John Marshall Budd, member
President of the Great Northern Railway, completed one of the largest railroad mergers in U.S. history to create Burlington Northern Railway
George Draper Dayton Jr., member
Vice president of Dayton Hudson Corp., founding trustee of KTCA-TV (now Twin Cities Public Television), board chair at Macalester College
James Cornish Otis Jr., member
Minnesota Supreme Court Justice for 21 years, helped found Hamline School of Law
Philip Sheridan “Phil” Duff Jr., member
State senator from 1951 to 1954, publisher of the Red Wing Republican Eagle, co-founder of the Minnesota News Council
David Heide Preus, member
Daredevil World War II fighter pilot; founding partner at Bowen, Bowen, Preus & Farrell; president at Cottonwood Land Company; son of Encampment founder and prominent lawyer Wilhelm Christian Preus
Robert P. Mairs, member
Former commissioner of the Metropolitan Transit Commission
Molly (Duff) Woehrlin, member
One of the first female county commissioners in Rice County, noted philanthropist