The history of Björklunden: From Swedish roots to LU

By Ollin Garcia Pliego

Björklunden vid Sjön, simply known as Björklunden in the Lawrence community, translates to “Birch Grove by the Lake” from Swedish and is a 425-acre estate on Lake Michigan’s shoreline, in Door County, Wis., just south of Baileys Harbor. Carleton and Winifred Vail originally purchased 325 acres for $2,000 in 1928 and named it after the trees that dotted the shoreline with the idea of building their summer residence there.

Mr. and Mrs. Vail built a four-bedroom lodge and a guest house/studio that was completed in 1929 and also a caretaker’s stabbur, or storehouse, the latter finished in 1931, only three years after they bought the property. Sadly, Mr. Vail was killed in a car accident in October of 1932. After the tragedy, Mrs. Vail traveled around Europe for one year to put the past behind her.

While she was visiting Lillehammer, in Norway, she observed a stave church and instantly knew that one day, she wanted to build one herself at Björklunden. A few years later, in 1934, Winifred married Donald Boynton.

Around that time, Winifred made the announcement that a chapel, similar to the one that she saw in Norway, was to be built at Björklunden. It was not until 1939 when the construction started, and it would continue for nine years.

In 1963, Donald and Winifred donated Björklunden to Lawrence University with the understanding that it would be preserved as a place to ensure peace and contemplation, or in Winifred’s own words “a sanctuary for all.”

When Lawrence acquired the property, no one really knew what to do with it. There were no seminars and no student retreats. The only way in which Lawrence students used the property was when “Professor Nicholas Maravolo [brought] his botany students and they [explored] around the property … and the cross-country team [spent] their week in pre-season at the lodge,” said Breseman.

Mark Breseman ‘78, Björklunden’s Executive Director, enrolled at Lawrence in 1974 and worked all his four summers there. “I was the first student hired to work there [in the summer of 1975] … It was always my dream to go back there and work … When I was working there in the summers, either I was the only person or there was another person working with me.”

In 1980, the original Resident Director, Joe Jopfensperger ‘52 incorporated the Björklunden seminars with the idea of sponsoring a series of adult education

“Initially just ran from graduation [mid-Jun. through Aug.] and one seminar a week was all we could have because the house was so small. Maybe 12 residents, a couple of extra commuters …,” said Breseman. That was the way things worked until 1993.

Tragedy came to Björklunden in 1993, when a fire destroyed the estate’s main lodge due to an electrical short in the kitchen’s ceiling. The disaster happened on a Saturday night, when there were no guests in the lodge, however, “there were staff in the lodge … folks were staying in the room right above where the fire started,” said Breseman, but everyone was able to escape without injury.

After the fire, the options were to sell the property, rebuild it or make it useful for Lawrence’s students and faculty. Breseman added that “the President at the time, Richard Warch, had this vision, that Björklunden could be a spot where students and faculty go to enhance their academic experience on campus.” After the Board of Trustees accepted Warch’s proposal, Björklunden’s rebuilding started.

In 1996, Björklunden became the early version of what Lawrentians know today. The original lodge was built although there were only 14 guest rooms, one seminar room and soon enough, it was too small.

“There was a huge waiting list for the student program, the adult seminars were in waiting list for that. The largest group we could accommodate on a weekend was 54 students,” said Breseman.

It was in the fall of 1996 when the Weekend Student Program started. Breseman became the Executive Director of Björklunden in the spring of 1997 and lived on-site with his wife and two kids.

Later on, Breseman started the light campaign in order to expand Björklunden. “Now we can fit 180 students. Vail Hall was built, Lakeside seminar room, the elevator got put in … now there’s 22 guest rooms, plus staff quarters.”

The remodeling ended in 2007 and Björklunden became what we know today. Office Coordinator Kim Eckstein has been working there for nine-and-a-half years. During that time, she has experienced some changes such as “the addition in 2007 which doubled the size of the lodge, adding Samantha Szynskie—Assistant Director and a great co-worker and also adding Mark Franke—our new, much needed, Maintenance Man!”

Currently, Björklunden hosts many retreats that include “CEO’s, artists, poets, quilters, weavers, photographers, retired doctors, non-profits and [educators],” said Eckstein. Also, there are day groups that include “church retreats, luncheons, community meetings, hiking groups, fundraisers and theatre events,” she said. Björklunden also offers public chapel tours and it hosts several weddings and baptisms annually.

Assistant Director of Björklunden Samantha Szynskie ‘09 just celebrated her five-year anniversary this January. She shares her job’s favorite part: “…the most enjoyable part of my work is interacting with those who love Björklunden. I have met so many people throughout the years … and they all love what this lodge represents, a sanctuary of peace where people can come together to learn, share, relax, and grow,” she said.

Some people might still wonder why everyone is required to participate in an “opportunity” while staying at Björklunden. First, Björklunden is a budget neutral operation meaning that college tuition fees do not cover its expenses. Second, “if the students did not do the opportunities, we would have to hire [people] … and we would have to charge students to come … I don’t think anybody wants that,” Breseman said.