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Rock Island: Chester Thordarson
Thursday, February 25, 2010
 
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ROCK ISLAND: CHESTER THORDARSON
IN WISCONSIN REPORTS

This island get-away is described as one of Wisconsin's best kept secrets. Chester Thordarson was an inventor, Icelandic native and amateur botanist who turned his private holdings on Rock Island into a retreat for the rich and famous. A lot of people you'd recognize from the history books came to this remote Wisconsin island to do business with Thordarson.  Today it is Rock Island State Park where there are no cars or bikes all travel is on foot.  Come along as In Wisconsin Producer Joel Waldinger explores the history of this tiny island.

Thordarson
TRANSCRIPT
Patty Loew:
We begin this week with a summer escape described as Wisconsin's best kept secret. It centers around the little known story of an Icelandic immigrant who amassed a small fortune and acquired all the private land on one of Wisconsin's most remote islands. To this day, Chester Thordarson's conservation ethic remains the cornerstone of Rock Island. At the water's edge an architectural marvel stands. Rising from Lake Michigan like a mighty fortress. It's a manmade monolith with cavernous catacombs. And archways sculpted by hand from Rock Island dolomite. Nicknamed the “jewel house of art and nature,” the Viking Hall boathouse welcomes travelers to Rock Island from distant shores.

Man:
Good morning. Welcome to Rock Island.

Man:
We have visitors from all over the world.

Patty Loew:
It's arched windows and French doors mimic the design of the Parliament building in Iceland. This boat house is the vision of an immigrant from that faraway land that would change the face of this little island in Wisconsin forever. Today it's where DNR ranger Randy Holm parks his boat after riding the waves to work.

Randy Holm:
Rock Island is really unique. It's kind of a jewel.

Paul King:
One comes here just to experience the outdoors. The magic of the island.

Patty Loew:
The magic can be seen in places like this natural rock archway, leading to a small hidden cave carved in the cliffs.

Paul King:
Being a naturalist on Rock Island is the most wonderful place that you could possibly be a naturalist.

Patty Loew:
There's magic in the trees rising like sentinels from the hillside. This old growth forest hasn't been touched in thousands of years. And there's something magical about Wisconsin's oldest light house anchoring the island's north shore.

Tim Sweet:
So this is as far to the northeast in Wisconsin as you can be.

Patty Loew:
The 900-acre island has welcomed people for more than 10,000 years.

Paul King:
And it was often sought after by many different tribes. They all wanted to be here. It was a great place to live.

Patty Loew:
It's that greatness that first attracted Chester Thordarson to this island outpost in 1910.

Randy Holm:
Chester bought the island and initially was just going to leave it the way it was. Then he proceeded to start building several buildings in the 30 acre compound.

Patty Loew:
A fenced in compound anchored by the stone boathouse built for boats but a place for his books. Upstairs, 11,000 rare books had been housed in the boathouse balcony. The collection is so large it took this boat to carry them all from the Thordarson Chicago offices. An avid reader, Chester's collection grew when he made only $4 a week with one dollar always set aside to buy a book. He amassed a significant collection on botany, natural history and ornithology like these huge color plate portfolios. They're now housed in secure vaults on the UW campus and are still used for research.

Randy Holm:
And the fact this rare book collection became the basis of the rare book collection at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Patty Loew:
Thordarson was book smart. His electrical prowess with transmitters brought him fame, fortune and the money to acquire all the private land on Rock Island. All on a seventh grade education.

Randy Holm:
He had people out here from Chicago that were movers and shakers of the world.

Patty Loew:
Like Chicago mayor William Hale Thompson. Thordarson built Thompson his own cabin. When he came to visit Rock Island, Thompson brought along his well-armed entourage.

Randy Holm:
They could take in the beauty of the place and the peace and the quiet of it and work on the problems of the world. The Edisons, Henry Ford, a lot of people we recognize from the history books came out here and did business with Chester and enjoyed the resource.

Patty Loew:
When he wasn't inventing, Thordarson was dreaming big about what he would do next on his island retreat.

Randy Holm:
It would be more like a luxury hotel that would be built with a watch tower and it would have had a moat around it. It would’ve been really spectacular. Had that been built, this would be a resort island rather than a state park.

Patty Loew:
Thordarson also saw the island as a place to experiment in the garden.

Randy Holm:
Chester was an amateur botanist. He was very interested in plants. He brought in hundreds of different kinds of plants.

Patty Loew:
The Far East was a favorite destination and influenced the design of this pagoda-style pavilion and the layout of his well manicured gardens.

Randy Holm:
One of the things that struck him was Japanese gardens with the fountains and the paths and the fancy trellises and stuff so he copied that on the island.

Patty Loew:
But the political landscape was changing in the 1940s.

Randy Holm:
He was also a patriot and shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed he had no use for the Japanese at all and he ordered his workers to go out and bulldoze the whole thing.

Patty Loew:
Only the garden gate is still standing. In the mid-1960s the state of Wisconsin bought the property for $170,000 and the decision was made to demolish buildings badly in need of repair.

Randy Holm:
In retrospect some of those would be nice to have back, the log cabins and the old fishing village but at the time it was a fledgling park and the budget didn't support it.

Patty Loew:
What remains are the Icelandic-inspired stone structures, including a cabin now home to the park's administrative office. It's a place where Randy Holm plans for the land, the buildings and the future of Rock Island.

Randy Holm:
Rock Island is probably always going to remain as it is today. People come here that visit Rock Island are usually touched by the remoteness, by the beauty, the quiet where all you hear is the wind and the waves. Without a doubt people have come here saying, wow. I didn't know Wisconsin had anything like this.

Patty Loew:
One of the biggest threats to the island habitat is invasive plants and be forewarned there are fields of poison ivory. Cars and bikes are not allowed on Rock Island. All exploring is done on foot. If you would like to learn more, go to wpt.org/inwisconsin. The Potawattomie lighthouse and some of Chester Thordarson's historic buildings are on the register of historic places.
 
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