Memories are made at the Gordon fire tower.
"I think just about everybody that I’ve talked to about it from the local community has a story about going up the tower," said Jesse Smith of Gordon. Some have been up it 100 times, others have left their initials on the underside of the cab.
"There’s somebody visiting tomorrow that got engaged on it," said Smith, a member of the nonprofit Friends of the Bird Sanctuary group. "Everybody has a story like that. On our Facebook page, every time we put a picture on there, most of the comments are like memories like that. There’s a lot of them on there."
“Here’s a fun fact,” said Judy Aspling, president of the friends group. “At the bottom, there was always a sign that said ‘no climbing.’ At the top there’s always been a guest book.”
Wednesday, the tower offered a clear view of waterways, wildlife, green trees and the spring sky. A turkey vulture flew past the cab; a formation of geese flew over the water below; a dragonfly sat sunning on a strut; an eagle searched for dinner from the top of a tree. Exploring the cab, 100 feet above the ground, turned up everyday items — sunscreen, aspirin, two decks of cards, aluminum foil, puzzle books — as well as the tools of the fire-spotting trade.
The tower has been a fixture on the town of Gordon landscape since 1935. The fact that it was still standing Wednesday, May 26, is due to a timely connection, a nonprofit that made a commitment, cooperation at the state, county and local levels, and an outpouring of support from the community.
"I think that community support was huge, that's why we were able to save it," Smith said. "Everybody was on board."
Friends of the Bird Sanctuary board member Brian Finstad first brought the "Save the Fire Tower" project to the nonprofit group. The state announced it was decommissioning fire towers in 2015. Finstad contacted the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources about saving it two days before it was slated to be scrapped. The state gave him a year to come up with a plan, and he lofted the idea to the friends group.
The site isn’t on the bird sanctuary property, which is in the pine barrens area near Solon Springs, but it is connected.
“It’s a sharptail (grouse) jumping ground," said Aspling, who lives in Gordon. "They find their way to a bird sanctuary by finding jumping grounds. And this happens to be one, you know, a place where they can take a rest and finally wind up in the bird sanctuary where they breed."
The sanctuary can be seen clearly from the tower, as well. Aspling, a former Duluthian, had another reason for supporting the decision to save the tower.
"I’m a relative newbie. I’ve only been here for 27 years.," she said. "So I discovered that people in Gordon consider the tower the same way people in Duluth consider the Aerial (Lift) bridge. To imagine Duluth without the Aerial bridge made my stomach go 'oh, no good.' So that’s when I jumped on the wagon and said, 'This is something we can do.'”
A glimpse of the tower from Highway 53 is a sure way to identify Gordon.
"So there’s a lot of history, I think, to some degree that people in the community identify and, even though I don’t live here, I have always identified Gordon with the fire tower," said Dennis Cummings of Superior, a fellow board member. "They go together. If it would have been gone, it would have been gone. I mean, there’s no turning back.”
A small board dug in and managed to save the structure. The work involved raising funds, purchasing land from Douglas County, buying the tower from the DNR (for $1), fencing the tower and getting insurance for the site. Intended to be a campground, the project got a boost when a couple donated its one-bedroom Whitefish Lake cabin to the group. It now sits below the tower, and is scheduled to welcome its first paying visitors on Memorial Day weekend. The goal is to make the site self-sustaining through Airbnb rentals of the tower.
Another clear goal of the group is to offer public access to the site, paving the way for more memories to be made. The site will be open for public climbs every other Sunday from 1-4 p.m., beginning June 6.
The DNR handed all the fire tower guest books, dating back to 1935, to the friends group.
"We started looking at them and there are some that have the same name on three different pages for the same year; somebody climbed up that many times that year, or there’s the same name three years in a row," Aspling said. "Mine’s on there somewhere from 20-some years ago when I moved in.”
“And now we get to start our own,” Smith said. “That’s one of the coolest things about it, for sure.”