Pioneer Park Historical Complex experiences restoration and growth
Story and photos by Lori Adler, reporter
“It’s a true gem of the Northwoods, and I would even say the Midwest really,” says Kerry Bloedorn, director of the Pioneer Park Historical Complex.
The complex, which houses a number of different museums at Pioneer Park, has been a part of Rhinelander for over 80 years. Rhinelander’s museum beginnings date back to 1932 when a logging museum was established on a small tract of land owned by the local paper mill. In 1953, the paper mill sold the land, and plans were made for the museum to be relocated. Pioneer Park was selected as the new location, and construction of a replica 1870’s logging camp began, using trees that had been removed from the Highway 17 right-of-way during the widening of that roadway.
Sometimes still called the Logging Museum, the historical park is so much more. Other museums in the complex include an antique saw mill, a rural one-room schoolhouse, a Civilian Conservation Corps barracks, a Soo Line depot complete with a Thunder Lake Lumber Company narrow-gauge engine as well as train cars and track, a fire equipment museum, and an antique outboard and boating museum. In addition, there are many items celebrating the legend of the mythical Hodag. And while continued maintenance and repair of the museums’ many artifacts is expected, this year the museums are experiencing some more signification restorations.
“I do try very hard to advocate for the museum and its preservation,” Bloedorn says, adding, “This is our repository of local knowledge, the heart of Rhinelander is right here in this museum. And not just for Rhinelander but for the outlying communities and the whole region because it covers so much wonderful history.”
That being said, Bloedorn acknowledges that he still has to operate within a tight budget, stating that the complex tackles the repairs and restorations one season at a time. This year, the biggest restoration project concerns the Thunder Lake Lumber Company engine. Many facets of the aging train have been repaired this year, including the tender and wooden doors and windows. Sandblasting is scheduled for the first week of September, which will be followed by a new coat of paint. In addition to the train, the track it sits on is in need of repair as well. It is currently sinking into the ground below it. However, in order to repair the track, the engine will need to be lifted and placed on a support so the track can be repaired. While the track repairs will not be done this year, the logistics of the project are being discussed.
Bloedorn’s main objective when considering the maintenance and restoration of the many buildings and artifacts in the complex is to be sure that the restoration of the items will last far into the future, allowing more time between repairs. This is never more true than with the engine. If a covering is not erected for the train, future restoration will have to be done much sooner than Bloedorn prefers.
“The dilemma is that it is exposed to the elements, so unless we do something to cover it in the very near future after its restoration is complete, we’re going to kind of be back in the same shoes we’re in now in ten or twenty years,” Bloedorn explains, noting, “That train had in fact been stripped, primed, and painted once since its been here in Rhinelander, and we really want to do something to kind of not have to do this every ten or twenty years. “
The train, however, is not the only thing needing repair at the complex. The schoolhouse museum is another restoration project planned yet this year. Earlier this summer, mildew was discovered on a few books in the schoolhouse, and the dampness the building experiences, especially in the spring and fall, is suspected as the culprit. A dehumidifier was added this summer, but it is not enough. Again, in an effort to make time between repairs longer, a new roof is being considered. The complex is currently awaiting bids for the installation of a new roof which will hopefully take place this fall and should help resolve the dampness issues.
While professional contractors will install the new schoolhouse roof, many of the projects at the complex are completed by volunteers, which allows Bloedorn to use his restoration budget mainly for materials. It is, however, sometimes difficult to find people with the skills needed, especially when dealing with antique equipment. In addition to repairs and restoration, many people are needed to help during the summer season. Many of the museums are staffed, so the complex is always looking for those with a love for history to come and help out.
This is especially important as the complex continues to grow and add exhibits and museums. The most recent building addition is the antique saw mill, a donation from a local family that fits in perfectly with the rest of the complex, but more is planned. Another local family is considering the donation of a pioneer homesteader’s cabin. The cabin, currently located on Highway G, would need to be moved, but the family is considering funding both the move and the cabin’s ongoing maintenance once it is relocated to Pioneer Park.
“To have a pioneering homesteader’s cabin here on the complex, not only would it fit in with the complex, it’s something that just makes sense,” Bloedorn said.
Though he is currently waiting for information from the family regarding the funding, Bloedorn has started to make some preliminary plans to include a Native American display with the homesteader’s cabin, explaining that this would illustrate the connection between the early pioneers and the indigenous peoples.
Though building additions are nice for the complex, Bloedorn is pleased to have received two new exhibits this year as well. An exhibit of photos and gear used by renowned UW-Madison botanist, Rhinelander native James Larsen, during his arctic expeditions has been added to the antique outboard and boating museum. Another new exhibit features the Belles of St. Mary’s, a Rhinelander Drum and Bugle Corps which began in 1956 and performed for over 20 years. This exhibit is being housed in the fire equipment museum as many of the fire trucks were used in the same parades in which the Belles performed. Both of these new exhibits have been very popular among visitors to the complex.
The historical park is a popular attraction throughout the summer, with appeal for all ages. The complex hosts about 100 visitors per day for a total of about 10,000 per season. And while the numbers haven’t been tabulated yet, Bloedorn believes this year has exceeded past years in number of visitors. Though a popular local attraction, many visitors are not from the area. This year has seen visitors from 40 different states and 18 different countries.
“We count everybody that comes through the gate, and we have guest registration books, so not only are we a museum that shares our history, but also we’re a great weathervane for how the community’s tourism industry is doing, and so to keep track of the people that come from different countries and different states and the numbers of those peoples, it’s really special to have that information,” Bloedorn says.
While there is no entry fee to the park, the complex accepts donations as well as operates a successful gift shop. This year, Bloedorn has added merchandise that is more specific to the museums which has been very popular with shoppers. Enlisting the help of Jill Kuczmarski (creator of Happy the Hodag), new t-shirt designs were created, which Kuczmarski donated to the park. In addition, Bloedorn selected softer t-shirts made from an organic fair trade cotton blend and had local screen printer, Vital Industries, print the shirts. Bloedorn has plans for other additions to the gift shop too, including a series of postcards featuring Rhinelander buildings and landmarks taken by local photographers.
Bloedorn took over the role as the historical park director from Aprelle Rawski just two years ago, but he seems to already have had a big impact on the complex, judging by the renovations and new exhibits. A passion for history and a desire to be a significant part of the community is easily heard in his voice when he speaks about the park.
“I really do feel just honored and privileged, I mean hundreds of people over 87 years have come before me to put this museum in place,” Bloedorn says, adding, “It’s just an honor just to play a small role in preserving it moving into the future.”
The season for the historical complex is winding down as summer comes to an end. The complex is currently open every day through Labor Day. After Labor Day, the complex will be open on Fridays and Saturdays only until the end of September, reopening Memorial Day weekend next spring.