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A Short History of Brickyard Creek

Featured in the Boreal Forest Citizen Fall/Winter 2006/7 Vol. 1

Sitting very comfortably in the trade winds at my Caribbean home, I struggled to envision the North Woods. My partner, Bob, a real estate attorney from Minneapolis and on St. John to work with me on an eco-tour resort, was describing land he had been purchasing near Bayfield, Wisconsin. All I really knew from my geography books was that Bayfield was on Lake Superior, somewhere near the tundra.  As Bob talked, I pictured a charming cottage nestled beneath the canopy of giant pines, surrounded with wild flowers, bear and wolves—kind of like Little Red Riding Hood’s house. Between sips of wine I wondered why most of Bob’s working trips to the tropics were in the winter. I wished him good luck with the investment and we moved on to island business.

I didn’t give the North Woods much thought after that, happy to be living in a place that never, in the darkest night in the middle of winter, saw a temperature reading below 63 F—ever. Little did I know that two kids later and with a lot of pressure from my now ex- wife, I would be moving back to America. After 15 years in the Caribbean I landed in Northern Virginia with boxes of flip-flops, spearguns and other useless tropical artifacts.

Bob invited me to Bayfield to help him figure out what to do with his North Woods properties he had purchased. He told me that the only thing he knew for sure was that he was going to build a marina and a building to lease to the National Park Service. I agreed to visit, looking forward to seeing that part of the world for the first time. I was worried about the cold but, after looking at my bare arms and legs, realized it was April. I was on my way to an outdoor tennis court.

Having never visited America during winter months the entire time I lived in the Caribbean, I bought boots and a coat and headed to Minneapolis, where I was picked up at the heated airport in a heated car. Thirty minutes later we parked in a heated garage and walked into a heated house. That was easy. The next day we drove north from Minneapolis, through northern Minnesota, turned right at Lake Superior and continued toward Bayfield. I grew up in southern Illinois and remembered that April was a relatively warm month. Not here. Just outside of Duluth we stopped at an outfitter’s store where I replaced my new boots and winter coat with warmer versions.

Comfortably back in Bob’s heated SUV I got my first view of the largest lake in the world. There was ice in it–lots of it. I shivered. Before reaching Bayfield we traveled through a few small villages that seemed ready to be swallowed by either Lake Superior on one side or the North woods on the other. The trip left me a little puzzled. Some things were missing from my long held vision of the Northwoods. I turned to Bob and asked where all of the bear were.

He laughed and said, “They are still sleeping.”

“Where are the wild flowers?”

“It’s too early in the year,” he said.

“Where is Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s cottage?”

Bob winced and said, “I don’t know.

After a brief tour of Madeline Island and the Bayfield area, I started the first of a hundred walks through the Brickyard Creek forest. I was glad I bought the new boots. Many trips to the tundra later, Spring turned to summer and the mosquitoes came out in droves. I was finally in my comfort zone and had a great time exploring the forest alone. I was only chased out twice, once by a mother bear, and the other time by a mother partridge. I had stepped too close to a bush she and her chicks hid under and had no idea what the animal was that flapped and gyrated toward me. I ran back a few steps and saw that the rumbling ball of feathers relaxed to a much sleeker and smaller animal than the one that attacked me. It was a bird. “What the f… No bird is going to chase me from the forest,” I said out loud, and skirted that part of the forest the rest of the day.

Bob had just finished a marina—almost. He’d also built a new industrial looking building from which employees of the National Park Service happily went about their business of maintaining the nearby islands—almost. They didn’t seem happy.

The land around the marina was at issue—the land I’d been exploring for a couple of months. What could be done with it? Should anything be done with it? The land was unique—lots of wild flowers, lots of bear and a great tree canopy—except for the meadow. A past associate of Bob’s had prematurely cut two large swaths through the forest south of the creek. That’s what a typical developer does a unique environment—clear ninety percent of it to make way for a passel of large homes that could then enjoy the remaining ten percent.  I had a totally opposite plan—clear ten percent to make way for small cottages that could enjoy the remaining ninety percent of the forest. It would take a lot of arm-twisting to prove its economic worth.

The easiest thing to do with the Brickyard property would have been to subdivide the whole thing. The lakeshore lots would sell, but what about second and third tier lots. And what would happen to the trees and the wildlife in a conventional subdivision? As I spent more and more time walking the land, I kept coming back to the vision I had had when first hearing about this property. Though the cottage idea had not hit home yet, I did see several areas where, if properly sited, a cottage could be built to look as though it was born there.

Unsure how to present this plan, I decided to travel around the region to see what other developments in the North Woods looked like. Throughout Northern Wisconsin and the North Shore of Minnesota I saw the standard fare of townhomes, strip centers, and the ubiquitous plastic sided suburban homes sitting proudly just feet from the closest roadway. I was worried that my vision of the quintessential Cottage in the North Woods was busted.

Back in Bayfield, I suggested to Bob that we might have an opportunity to develop a world class “Cottage” resort on the land behind the marina. He sighed. After a lot of explanation, he reluctantly agreed. The planning of Brickyard Creek had officially started. We eventually cleaned up the felled trees and decided to call our new open space, The Meadow and, after a lot of tweaking, the Cottage Resort idea evolved into a low-impact cottage neighborhood to be marketed as second homes. We were excited about this project. We imported some of the concepts from our Caribbean eco resort project, invented a few more, hired an architect who was well versed in vernacular design, printed up some nice brochures, and waited for the buyers.

They didn’t show up.

Locals and the people who hung around the new marina thought we were crazy. I remember a conversation I had with a man from the reservation. It went something like this:

“We are going to build “turn of the century” style cottages in the forest behind the marina,” I said.

“What about the mosquitoes?” he asked.

“We’ll clear an area just large enough for the footprint of the cottage and chip up the felled trees to create nature trails to the beach.”

“What about the mosquitoes?”

“We will create a set of legal documents that will allow for the forest surrounding each cottage to be preserved an even enhanced. We won’t allow lawns, clear cutting, traditionally designed foundations, or any other environmentally destructive convention.”

“What about the mosquitoes?”

“Mosquitoes? We will use bacillus thuringiensis.”

What’s that?

“It is a soil bacterium that kills mosquito larvae naturally.”

A long pause.

“What will the bats eat?”

We had no buyers but we attracted a lot of head-scratching tire-kickers who, once they learned about this crazy scheme, returned home to pack up their family and friends and return just to see it and laugh. Encouraged, I told Bob we should build a model. He pushed back. I pestered him until he gave in and we built a model Creekside Cottage across the creek from the marina. We used a back entrance of the property to build the cottage and had no easy access from our office at the marina. I placed a couple of logs over the creek with the contention was that anybody who couldn’t cross the logs without falling in the creek shouldn’t own a cottage in the North Woods. Bob didn’t agree. I think he was the first to fall. A few months later, armed with a brand new vehicular bridge to our Creekside Cottage and a new pedestrian bridge over the creek near the marina, we prepared for the onslaught of eager buyers.

They didn’t show up.

At the time I thought it was our location. We were way on the fringe, compared to conventional projects. As I look back I realize that not only were we nowhere near the fringe, we weren’t even on the same planet. We had no cleared lots. We only cut roads that were needed to access the few cottage sites we were offering for sale at the time, which were very few. We planted native prairie grass in the meadow. We created several hundred feet of wood-chipped nature trails and hoped that our prospective buyers would get to see a bear while looking at cottage sites. We actually condominiumized the cottages so that the land around them would remain in natural habitat. We designed a pier foundation system that kept the cottages above the land so they would not alter existing drainage patterns. We voluntarily reduced our allowed zoning densities. We refused to turn the forest into a park-like setting. Trees that fell in the forest stay to add nutrients for the next generation. We didn’t even have an entrance sign.

Nobody came.

Bob once commented, “We must be the best kept secret project in the state”.

We scratched our heads and wondered what further steps we could take to expose our project to the public—short of clearing land and putting up for sale signs. It’s always difficult to walk a prospective buyer onto a heavily wooded cottage site and show them the exact spot where their kitchen sink will be located. Not that we didn’t know where it was to be located, we did; well, I did. Bob was always confused. Most people can’t see a third dimension from a two-dimensional drawing and have no chance to be able to envision a cottage in the thick forest when a cottage isn’t there.

Bob asked what we should do. After considerable thought, I concluded that I didn’t know. While still scratching, and to our surprise, a few very brave prospective buyers showed up and a couple of them signed contracts for cottages. A couple more sales later, we were able to build a microcosm of the proposed project, which made envisioning cottages a lot easier.

Brickyard Creek had begun.

Specific to the Brickyard Creek owners, a few of you bought into this concept early. Some have just recently come aboard. But you were all attracted to something that Brickyard Creek possesses, and it wasn’t just our good looks. After all, even though we are developers, we refused to be looked upon as sex symbols. Whatever the attraction— the Lake, the meadow, the wildlife, the creek, the trails, the speed bump— let’s hope that we can preserve it far into the future so that our children and their children will be able to spend time at Brickyard Creek and enjoy the same things we have had the great opportunity to experience.


–David Culberson