‘A lot of history being lost’: Crow Wing County preserves historic fire tower

Two men stand on a tower above a canopy of tree looking up.
Ryan Simonson, Environmental Services Supervisor for Crow Wing County, and Keith Simar, retired DNR forester, stand near the top of the recently acquired historic fire tower near that the county will open to the public next spring Pequot Lakes, Minn., on Thursday.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

Keith Simar has made the climb to the Pequot Lakes fire tower many times: Up the steep, winding path to the base of the steel structure rising high above the trees.

He started his career here nearly a half century ago, as a forester with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It was his job to sit up there, a hundred feet above the ground, scanning the horizon for any sign of smoke.

Decades ago, observation towers like this one, perched on a hill just off Minnesota Hwy. 371, gave foresters a bird's-eye view to spot the telltale smoke of a wildfire. But technology rendered those towers mostly obsolete, and many have disappeared from the landscape.

“There’s a lot of history being lost,” Simar said.

Today, foresters use airplanes and drones to spot wildfires, and radios or cell phones to report them. There's rarely a need for someone to sit for hours atop a lookout with a pair of binoculars.

The DNR stopped using the 85-year-old Pequot Lakes tower and closed it to the public several years ago because of safety and liability concerns.

Pequot Lakes, Minn.
Pequot Lakes, Minn.
William Lager | MPR News

But fire towers have a certain allure that still appeals to people, especially history and nature buffs. So, to avoid seeing the tower demolished, former Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede led an effort to preserve it as a historical and tourist attraction.

"We definitely had feedback that this was a very important piece that people didn't want to see lost,” said Ryan Simonson, who supervises the county’s environmental services department.

Last year, the DNR sold the structure — along with 40 acres of land — to Crow Wing County for $1. The county made about $50,000 in repairs, installing new stair treads, windows, guard rails and protective wire mesh to prevent falls.

“We had to be careful of what we can do to make improvements, even safety-wise,” Simonson said. “We want to keep that historical integrity, but we also want to make it safe.”

The county plans to reopen the Pequot Lakes tower to the public next spring or summer.

A sky-high view

A forest canopy with autumn colors is seen from above.
The forest canopy is seen to the north of the historic DNR fire tower, near Pequot Lakes, Minn., on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

At the top of the tower is a station with glass windows on all sides that offer a panoramic view of about 20 miles in every direction, from the water tower and railroad smokestacks of Brainerd to the mining hills of Cuyuna.

Along with watching for fires, Simar's job with the DNR involved recruiting others to spend seven hours a day in the tower for a few weeks during the spring wildfire season. No books were allowed, only a portable radio to keep them company. But Simar said it wasn't a hard sell.

"There's enough glamor associated with it that we didn't have trouble getting someone to work up there, although it gets boring after a while,” he said. “After a few weeks, they’re ready to see the rain come and vegetation green up.”

When Simar worked in the tower beginning in 1971, he would sit on a swivel chair and scan all directions. If he saw smoke, he'd use a sighting instrument called an alidade to measure the angle, then use a radio to report it to dispatchers.

Other foresters at nearby towers would do the same. Using triangulation, dispatchers could pinpoint the exact location of a fire. Since those days, most of the other towers in the area have been torn down.

"There were hundreds of these towers originally, and I think we’re down to a handful that are currently open to the public in the state of Minnesota,” Crow Wing County’s Simonson said. “So they’re getting pretty rare.”

According to the DNR, more than four dozen Minnesota fire towers are still standing. About a quarter of those towers, including the one at Pequot Lakes and one on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, are on the National Historic Lookout Register. And six of those towers are located in state parks, and open for the public to climb.

A finger points at names etched on a metal bar above treetops.
Retired forester Keith Simar points to some names etched into the metal of the historic fire tower.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

When the Pequot Lakes tower reopens to the public, Simar hopes it will give people a chance to learn about the history of fighting wildfires and maintain traditions. While he worked at the tower, many people would share their memories of climbing it.

“Grandpa would have his grandson along and he'd say, ‘When I was my grandson's age we used to climb this tower,’” Simar said. “I think it's great that we can give these young kids the experience that we had.”

Crow Wing County plans to give the public that opportunity next spring or summer. The county also is seeking a state grant to purchase another 69 acres of land around the tower for hiking trails and nature education, Simonson said.

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