Savenac Nursery: A legacy of forestry

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Carole Johnson teaches students how to plant trees.

In 1907, a forester named Elers Koch was on his honeymoon in Mineral County. While on horseback, Koch came across an abandoned homestead along the Savenac Creek and dreamed of building a nursery. Koch’s dream would soon become a reality and begin over 100 years of forestry history at the Savenac nursery.

Work began on the nursery the following spring, with forest service members preparing seed beds and planting the first trees at the site. In 1910, Koch’s dream was engulfed in flames along with most of the forests in the Pacific Northwest.

“After the 1910 fires it was quickly rebuilt with the mission of helping reforest the areas that had been burnt,” Carole Johnson, Superior District Recreation Manager, said. “A lot of the trees came from the Savenac Nursery. They were producing up to 3 million trees.”

The rebuilt nursery was quickly and efficiently supplying the Pacific Northwest with tree seedlings and as it approached what Johnson called the nursery’s “hay day” in the 1930s it was the largest supplier of tree seedlings in the nation.

In the early 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps was founded as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program. The CCC was formed to provide unskilled manual labor jobs to citizens during the Great Depression and in 1935 over 200 workers were camped across from Savenac Nursery at Camp Taft.

“With that labor pool they built most of the infrastructure you see at Savenac today,” Johnson said.

Employees of the CCC were responsible for the construction of most of the nursery’s current buildings as well as the pond and entry ways. The increased pool of laborers also meant an expansion of the nursery itself. More nursery beds were developed and planted and soon the nursery became known as “Uncle Sam’s Largest Nursery,” producing over 16 million trees.

The CCC disbanded as the United States entered World War II and according to Johnson, production at the nursery began to “taper off” shortly after.

“But it was still a very active nursery and continued to produce a lot of seedlings,” Johnson said. “It also became more mechanized with extractors – a lot of what was previously done by hand (and required a large labor force) they now had the equipment and machinery to continue the production.”

In 1969 the Forest Service halted production in Savenac and moved operations to Coeur d’Alene. The nursery still kept a tree cooler to prepare seedlings to be planted in the Superior Ranger District, but for the most part the facility was not active and began transitioning to serve the function it currently serves – a historical site that instills forestry in visitors and students.

Every year in July the Savenac Nursery holds the Passport in Time Program, which sees over 30 volunteers from all over America descend on “Uncle Sam’s Largest Nursery” to work on maintenance projects throughout the week.

At the end of the week the public is invited to a presentation and during the 2012 presentation, Johnson and several other Forest Service employees described what the nursery looks like today – including the sites return to being a nursery.

“It was a Washington office initiative to provide some funding to get youth connected to the outdoors again,” Johnson said at the presentation. “The thinking is, they spend so much time on computers and with technology that in a few years we aren’t going to see anyone camping anymore.”

As a response to the federal funding, Johnson and her team came up with the idea to have Savenac be the site of a Christmas tree nursery.

Students at Superior Elementary School have been attending outdoor school at Savenac for over 40 years and the Superior Ranger District teamed up with the school to begin planting the nursery last May. Seedlings were obtained from the University of Idaho and those seedlings were planted by the sixth grade class.

“That class of kids will follow their trees all the way through high school,” Johnson said. “They will do the pruning and shaping and hopefully when they graduate from high school some of those trees will be of the size that they can sell.”

While the now seventh graders work to tend to the 180 Christmas trees they planted last May, this year’s group of sixth graders will plant their own crop of trees this week to continue the program.

On top of being the site of a new Christmas tree nursery and outdoor school for all of Mineral County’s schools, the grounds are also used for a variety of functions including weddings and family reunions.

Johnson added that the Ranger District has also worked to provide an interesting historical experience for travelers just passing through.

“We have developed some interpretive hiking trails and memorials – there are a lot of things for people who are just passing by to stop and look at in the visitor’s center,” Johnson said. “They can spend an hour walking the grounds and looking at the interpretive history.”

To Johnson, the nursery is just as important today as it was in the past. Not only does the site hold historical value, but it is a place where the next generation is able to participate in hands on activities relating to forestry.

Spending time at the nursery surrounded by history of the forests and development of the Pacific Northwest is something that brings volunteers back to PIT annually, something that provides a spark of learning to the students who attend outdoor school or plant Christmas trees and something very special to the men and women who worked there.

“I can’t tell you what a warm feeling it is to be back,” Frank Somonsen, a former Savenac Nurseryman said at the PIT presentation. “It makes me feel comfortable to be here. There’s only one place I would rather be than standing up here talking to you, and that is out there listening to what is coming next.”

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