“A labor of love” is how Sue Altschwager describes White Birch Village.
Starting in 1942, her mother’s vacations as a child to White Birch Village, then known as Wilsie’s White Birch Lodge, marked the beginning of the family’s ties to the Northwoods resort – ties that would only grow stronger through time.
“My mom pretty much hasn’t missed a summer [coming to White Birch Village] in those 70 years,” Sue said.
Her mother, Carol (Ackerson) Malmgren, carried on the tradition of vacationing at the resort with her husband, Dick, and their family.
“It’s always been pretty much our family place, and it’s been the same for Sue’s siblings. It’s nice because Carol and Dick instilled that in the beginning, that this was a family gathering place, and now we carried that on over the years,” John Altschwager, Sue’s husband, said.
Carol and Dick fostered such a strong love for the place that when owners Arlene and Fred Dreyfus were going to sell it off into subdivisions in 1981, they couldn’t stand by and watch.
“[Arlene and Fred] went to my parents first, gave them first dibs on a lot because my mom was the longest-stayed guest. My parents hated to see the resort die, so instead they bought it,” Sue said.
Now Sue and John manage the resort and try to give their guests the same experiences they had spending time at White Birch Village.
“It’s my parents’ legacy more than it’s my legacy. This was a labor of love for my parents – to retain a place for people to vacation – and they gave up a lot to make this happen,” Sue said.
The resort’s colorful history
For 90 years a resort has stood where White Birch Village does today, starting with the first in 1922, the White Birch Resort Company. From 1922-41, ownership passed often from hand-to-hand.
“It was the Depression years, and I looked through all the deed papers and there were about 20 different owners in those years,” Sue said. “When it really became a strong, solid resort was in 1941 when it was sold to Pat and Kelly Wilsie and became Wilsie’s White Birch Lodge.”
The Wilsies decided to create an attraction that people still remember more than 50 years later – Aqualand.
“Aqualand was one of the very first Wisconsin wildlife zoos. In the 60s and 70s when it was really in its heyday – 72,000 visitors a summer. It was huge. We still have people stop by and say, ‘Is this the old Aqualand?’ and it closed its doors in ‘89, but still the memories remain,” Sue said.
Wilsie’s White Birch Lodge had such a draw that even Disney came to film an episode of the Sunday night Wonderful World of Disney program.
“So that was one of the neat pieces of history here. We have it in our DVD library for guests to check out if they want to watch it,” Sue said.
Twenty-plus years brought new owners and a new name. In 1963, Arlene and Fred Dreyfus bought Wilsie’s White Birch Lodge and renamed it Motel-In-The-Woods. They would run the resort until September 1981, when Carol and Dick began writing a new chapter of the resort’s history.
A close-knit resort
From the very beginning, Carol and Dick wanted to give the same experience they had at White Birch Village to their guests – unforgettable family memories and a welcoming environment with a close-knit feel.
“The reason they chose the name ‘village’ in White Birch Village is because that’s what they wanted. They wanted that community feel,” Sue said.
Taking on the resort was not a vacation in and of itself – it was hard work.
“From fall of ‘81 when they bought it to summer of ‘82 when they reopened their doors as White Birch Village, they wanted nothing to do with providing meals, so they slapped kitchens in all nine units,” Sue said.
But they kept the dinner bell as a keepsake – a historical icon.
“When my parents bought [the resort] and took out the restaurant, the dinner bell was used as the muskie bell, so when a large muskie was caught, people could ring it and everybody would come running to see the muskie. Now the bell is a symbol of our history,” Sue said.
Carol and Dick purchased the Aqualand property in 1992 and completely renovated it, making it a part of White Birch Village.
“After we purchased the Aqualand property, we completely cleaned that up. All the animals were gone because they closed in ‘89, but there were still years of trash to clean up,” Sue said. “Now the barn is one of our rentals, and it was actually one of the working barns at the zoo.”
While her parents still managed the resort, Sue would travel from Madison every summer with the children and spend four weeks at White Birch Village to help out.
“And I always chose the same four weeks out of every summer, so my kids are still good friends with all the other kids who were staying there,” Sue said.
Lifelong friendships for Sue were built at White Birch Village, including her friends that stood up in her wedding. But its not just she and her family that nurture these relationships, the same goes for the guests who vacation there as well.
“That’s what’s neat to watch, especially with all the repeat guests,” Sue said. “There’s a few weeks out of the summer where the same families have been vacationing here for years together. They didn’t know each other before they started coming here and now they’re going to each other’s kids’ weddings, or if there’s a crisis in the family, they’re there supporting each other, and it all got based out of vacationing here together.”
White Birch Village has its guests that come every summer, but there’s also guests who travel thousands of miles that stay at the resort.
“What’s fun is to see how far people have come from. This summer we had someone from Australia and someone from Dubai stay here. They had connections,” Sue said.
The visitor from Australia’s connection to the resort was through his wife.
“She vacationed here for years with her family, and she brought her boyfriend she met as an exchange student in Australia four summers ago and he actually proposed on the property. So they were back for the first time since then with their new baby,” Sue said.
White Birch Village today
Now that Sue and John have taken over managing the property, they are carrying on Carol and Dick’s legacy and upholding the White Birch Village slogan, “Where memories are made.”
“It’s come a long way from 30 years ago, the first time I saw it. Sue and I were engaged at the time, and we came up and saw the place, and then to find out a year or six months later that her parents just bought the place,” John said.
They make sure to provide entertainment for all ages to ensure that their guests don’t have a want or a need.
“Our guests can be as involved or as uninvolved as they want, but the majority of our guests are very involved,” Sue said. “I would say 80 percent of our guests love everything that we have and have to do everything there is.”
And that’s Sue’s favorite part of managing the resort – creating activities for their guests, including geocaches, scavenger and treasure hunts, bird watching stations, a disc golf course, sunset pontoon boat cruises, minnow races and a weekly potluck picnic.
“My parents have been doing the weekly picnic almost since the very start, so that is also very built into the fiber of this place,” Sue said. “And the minnow races are for all ages. One week the final race was between a 2-year-old and an 80-year-old.”
One children’s activity grew in popularity to the point that it now is considered the White Birch Village icon – Charlie the chipmunk.
During the summer, a small statue of a chipmunk (Charlie) is hidden somewhere on the resort grounds. Sue takes a picture of Charlie in his location and posts it on a bulletin board along with a clue. Whoever finds Charlie gets their picture taken with him and they get to choose his new hiding spot.
“And there are days that Charlie is found seven or eight times. We have avid Charlie hunters,” Sue said.
During the winter, a toy chipmunk sits in a chair on the lake and guests can guess what day they think Charlie is going to take a plunge into the lake. Whoever has the right answer gets their name on a plaque kept at the front desk.
The inspiration for Charlie the chipmunk came partly from the large number of chipmunks at the resort.
“We have chipmunks galore up here. I sell about 100 pounds of peanuts every summer out of the store for children to feed the chipmunks,” Sue said.
And the children take this task very seriously.
“This was the cutest story from this summer. During the Thursday morning treasure hunt, one of the little girls didn’t want to leave from feeding the chipmunks, so she left a note: ‘Dear chippies, I’m away at the treasure hunt. Love, Ella,’ with a bowl of peanuts right next to it,” Sue said.
Carrying on the family’s love of the resort that blossomed in 1942, Sue and John continue to build new memories together at White Birch Village while fondly remembering earlier ones.
“There’s a lot of pride that comes into [managing the resort] because I have all my memories from here,” Sue said. “I have so much of my own history here. Even though we’ve only owned it since ‘82, it’s still a big part of the fabric of my life.”
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at email@example.com