First Roadside Table
Like many boys in the north woods, Herb Larson grew up listening to stories. Old-time settlers loved talking about the early days of iron mining and logging. He liked hearing Indians describe their old hunting grounds. He saw the barren wastes of pine plains where fire and erosion had followed the total logging-off of white pine. Because of all that, when he graduated from the University of Michigan School of Engineering, he had a fuller, more complex sense of environmental and social history than typical engineers of the era, with their naïve can-do faith in progress.
Larson came back to Iron County to head its fledgling highway department just as lumber companies were busy harvesting the area's magnificent hardwoods. Hardwoods, too heavy to float down rivers like pine, had to be hauled to mills by rail, so they were cut later. No tract of big pines remained in Iron County. But it seemed feasible to save what Larson envisioned as a living forest memorial of virgin hardwoods, he later wrote, so that posterity could see and enjoy what nature had richly bestowed upon us.
Larson hoped to keep scenic wide strips of big trees along Iron County's principal roads. A man with a mission, he kept his ear to the ground about who was selling timber and land. When he learned that this prominently located parcel might be acquired, he went to the landowners, Cleveland Cliffs Iron, with the support of the county board chairman, and bought it as a forest memorial public woods.
Larson's campaign to save old-growth timber along roadsides caught on with lumber firms owning local land. But it took a frustrating Sunday outing into the nearby Wisconsin lake country to inspire the roadside table idea. In upper Michigan we could go where we chose, Larson wrote, with no one to bother us. To a surprising degree this is still true today. But in northern Wisconsin in 1919, lake resorts were mushrooming. On that Sunday, everywhere Larson's party tried to have a cookout, a caretaker asked them to leave. The Upper Peninsula could soon suffer a similar loss of a much-loved pastime, Larson feared. Why not provide picnic tables and grills at the forest memorial woods? This trend-setting roadside park soon attracted large gatherings - too large for the small picnic area. Its success provided popular support for Larson's later projects: first, Pentoga Park and in the 1930s the beautiful Bewabic Park, now part of the state park system.
After 85 years, Herb Larson's legacy has generally endured. The parks he inspired remain beautiful and well used. Furthermore, the U.S. Forest Service classifies roads as to their sensitivity, and visual impact along highways is considered in its timber sales.
On U.S. 2 four miles east of Iron River, 6 miles west of Bewabic State Park.
Return to Iron River
POINTS OF INTEREST
Iron County Museum. Multifaceted museum includes satisfying exhibits on the area's geology, logging, musical and ethnic heritage, life in mines (great video), plus 24 outdoor buildings (10 old log barns, houses, outbuildings), intact Caspian Mine headframe ... more
Ski Brule. In a scenic hilly setting is a resort with miles of cross-country skiing trails, two snowboard parks, Alpine skiing, and in summer mountain bike trails, horseback riding, canoeing and tubing ... more
Lake Ottawa Park/Ge Chi Ski Trail. This pleasant Ottawa National Forest park is on crystal-clear, 551-acre Lake Ottawa. It has hiking trails, a swimming beach, fishing pier, and a handsome CCC-era pavilion/bathhouse with fireplaces. ... more
George Young Recreational Complex. Open to the general public, this plush golf course and indoor swimming pool is sited on a 3,300-acre complex bordering 3 lakes. Foxes, deer, and eagles are not unusual sights for golfers here ... more
Pentoga Park. Opened in 1922, this is one of Michigan's very first county parks, located at an Ojibwa burial ground. Take an old 3-mile Indian Lake to the Brule River, fish the deep, 1,100-acre Chicaugon Lake for walleye and muskie, or use the swimming beach and picnic area ... more