History of LIttle Arbor Vitae Lake

In this period of the removal of long standing dams in Wisconsin, I believe it is imperative that residents carefully review the real value of the lake’s current dam structure.

Having been a shoreline resident of the lake since June 26, 1944, or seventy years in total, I feel that I am obligated to share my thoughts and memories of that span of time.

To describe the topography of the lake in 1944 I like to think of it as a saucer with its water flowing over its rim at one point.  The outward flow was normally quite gradual and gravel surfaces were stable.

The lake, particularly in Blue Island Bay, was heavily covered with aquatic growth which we referred to as lake weeds.  When my parents, Glyn and Marie Roberts, purchased Blue Island Resort from Elizabeth Dertz from Blue Island, Illinois, she gave them a photograph of the bay.  It was completely covered with wild rice all to the way from shore to the narrows.  She explained that the narrow passageway shown was done by local teenagers each spring to enable resort guests to reach the main lake by boat.  That photo remained with the resort at the time of the resort’s sale in 1964. 

In the pre-1950’s, Little Arbor Vitae Drive was actually Highway 70 as it skirted the side of the lake.  The Vilas County Highway Department maintained it for the state.  The west end of the highway was said to have been built upon an early corduroy-log bed which supported an even earlier train track.  The sawmill at Arbor Vitae received its supply of logs from the east via that line.

That west portion of the highway plagued the highway department each time there was a heavy rainfall.  The high water level caused flooding and the breakup of the road bed.  At some point the county employees attempted to remedy that problem by digging out the gravel and stone ridge at the lake’s outlet.  The water flow increased and resulted in more erosion of the ridge. The lake’s water level dropped considerably and the weed growth seemed to prosper in the low water condition. 

After several sessions of excessive weed growth which caused difficulties for fishermen, my father together with Fred Wolff and Mike Adzima of Little Arbor Vitae Lake Resort, received permission to install a dam to restore the normal lake level.  Bill Ahlborn, a block mason and lake resident, agreed to construct a simple dam of concrete blocks, steel fence posts, and a wooden highway guard rail that had been removed from old Highway 70. I believe the total cost of $300.00 was shared by the two resorts.

The dam’s center section allowed for water level adjustment by adding or removing the guard rail plank.  One difficulty remained with that feature because it allowed unauthorized persons to frequently add a plank.  Their action was based on their idea of better fishing success with high water levels.

Complaints received by the State Public Service Commission regarding high water levels were forwarded to my father who was the town chairman.  Often I would put on hip boots and join my father at the dam to remove an extra plank that someone had wired in place.

The erratic water level problem continued and my neighbor and I decided to try to solve the problem.  A permanent fixed-level dam appeared to be the best solution.  We contacted the DNR and were advised to form a lake district because someone had to take ownership and maintain the structure.

We found great help and guidance from Ken Anderson, the University of Wisconsin’s Extension Agent, who provided information and forms to apply for various grants.  My neighbor, Dick Hill, and I filed the necessary application forms, list of lakeshore property owners, and maps.

The Little Arbor Vitae Lake Protection and Rehabilitation District was chartered.  Dick Hill became its first president and I took on the combined position of secretary/treasurer.  It was the first Lake District to be formed in Vilas County.

We needed funding in order to operate, including application fees for grants.  Establishing the Lake District was a first step toward building a dam.  We were required to conduct a water quality study prior to any dam construction.  Matching funds were available through grants but we needed to provide a percentage of costs.  With the help of Fred Wolff and Mike Adzima of Little Arbor Vitae Resort we sold raffle tickets for a Winchester Model 94 deer rifle.  Another time we raffled off a Johnson outboard motor.  Sill, another time we sold metal buttons imprinted with “I gave a dam for Little Arbor Vitae Lake".  A collection of favorite recipes provided by lake property owners was assembled and published in book form.  The sale of that cookbook added to funding the dam construction.

The water quality study contract was awarded to a firm from Marinette, Wisconsin.  Part of the cost was reduced by lake residents who performed in-kind services.  Those services included measuring water flow rates at the entrance of Link Creek and the lake’s outlet.  Several wells that had been installed required weekly monitoring.  Water temperatures and oxygen samples were taken at various depths and forwarded to the firm’s labs.

After filing for and receiving grants, the engineering and dam construction project was completed.  Its location was set on state land at a point more accessible for maintenance.

About the time of the dam’s construction, Leon Butler, the new owner of Blue Island Resort in 1971 became president of the Lake District.  He became active in overseeing the completion and maintenance of the dam.  When Leon required knee surgery I took over the weekly care and reading of water levels for the next seventeen years.

In conclusion, I believe the dam’s design matched the need for uniform water levels throughout the years.  In the absence of the current dam I can envision quite intolerable growth of vegetation and reduced water travel.

I am extremely pleased with the lake’s current and past leadership and dedication to water quality that serves its residents and general public very well.


Glyn Bud Roberts
July 2, 2014