SPRING GREEN – Site 12 at Tower Hill State Park may soon be one of the state’s most popular camping spots.
The view is unspectacular and mosquitoes can be prolific. But for those who come prepared, the smell and tastes here will be overwhelming.
You’ll still want to bring lawn chairs, tents, sleeping bags and s’more fixings. But make room in your coolers and bins for fresh mushrooms, bags of shredded mozzarella cheese, Canadian bacon, flour, yeast, a rolling pin and slabs of butter.
The aroma of freshly baked bread and pizza is about to become a campground staple along the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway.
A historic, little-known, wood-fired brick oven believed to be a remnant from a Unitarian camp that closed in the early 1900s has been restored and is ready for campers to begin cooking some of their favorite foods not typically found around a fire ring.
“This has always been here in various states of disrepair,” said Greg Stanosz, 64, of Milwaukee, who has been coming to the park for more than 30 years and was camped last week on site 11 with his wife, Sandra Rubin-Stanosz. “Next year we’re going to bring a group here and use it. We’ll do some bread and maybe even a roast in a pan.”
Tower Hill is perhaps best known for its tower that was used from the 1830s to 1860 to make lead shot. The village of Helena was here for a time until it was bypassed by the railroad in the 1850s.
But from 1889 to 1918, the area that is now the park was home to the Tower Hill Pleasure Company, a retreat founded by the Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones. The property included cottages, a barn, library and dining hall. After Jones died in 1922, his widow donated the land to the state.
About all that remains from the time is a pavilion near the parking lot, the foundation to the barn at the park entrance and the oven, located on a ridge with views through the trees of the Wisconsin River backwaters and near where the dining hall stood decades ago.
Thanks to the efforts of an Appleton couple, the oven is now a working piece of history and likely the only functional wood-fired brick oven in the state park system.
Paul and Jude Kuenn have been camping at Tower Hill for nearly 20 years to attend performances at nearby American Players Theatre. They noticed the dilapidated oven years ago but last fall received permission from the Department of Natural Resources to restore the oven this spring at their own expense, which totaled about $600.
“It came down to having more spare time,” said Paul Kuenn, a longtime mountain climbing guide who now works inspecting fire trucks at Pierce in Appleton but is also passionate about making his own bread. “In the last three to four years I really started to think about (the oven’s restoration). We just decided to give it a little TLC.”
So, over two long weekends in April, the Kuenns and some of their friends went to work to repair the oven that had a rotting and partially collapsed roof, plants growing from the structure, crumbling bricks and missing mortar.
The Kuenns used salvaged bricks from a 130-year-old home in Bonduel and rough-cut cedar from a mill in Trenary, Michigan. Tri County Building Supply in Spring Green offered treated lumber at a discount, while a builder from Waupaca contributed excess cedar shake shingles for the roof. About 15, five-gallon buckets of sand harvested from the river were used as an insulating barrier between the roof and the brick dome.
“I wanted to keep the oven design historically accurate while incorporating durable building techniques to ensure that the roof would last at least 50 years,” Kuenn wrote in the Voice of the River Valley. “By the nails, tar paper, and rotted wood found, we believe the oven may have been re-roofed in the 1960s.”
It’s unclear when the oven was last used, but it can hold several pizzas and loaves of bread. With an interior that is nearly 5 feet long and 3 feet wide with a 20-inch ceiling, it takes a considerable amount of wood to bring it up to the 700- to 800-degree temperature that is optimal for baking pizzas. Kuenn said when the ceiling of the oven turns white — which can take four to six hours — the oven should be ready to use.
When Paul and Jude camped at Tower Hill on June 23, they noticed no one had used the oven since the April restoration. The pizzas they made last month took all of five minutes to bake while bread was done in about 35 minutes.
“I think what Paul and Jude did was just fantastic,” said Pat Kraska, who works at the park and also sells firewood. “They love this park. They love coming here to camp. Four years ago when I started working here, Paul started talking about how we were going to get this done. Now it’s done and I think it’s great. I hope it will start bringing more people to the park.”
The 77-acre park that is closed over the winter has 11 campsites (sites 2, 4, 5 and 6 no longer exist), all of which are on a first-come, first serve basis. There is a picnic area, a hiking trail to and around the shot tower and a canoe launch into Mill Creek that feeds into the Wisconsin River.
There is no cost to use the oven although it is technically part of site 12. It’s hard to imagine anyone who rents the site turning down a request to use the structure which, from a distance, looks like a miniature, windowless cabin. The park office has a garden hoe to push coals, a long-handled pizza peel to insert and remove pizza and bread from the oven and a mop (make sure to soak it) to clean the oven floor after coals have been pushed away but before food is placed in the oven.
Excitement about the oven was instantaneous for those who stumbled across our day camp last Thursday. We stoked the oven with oak, rolled out pizza crusts on a plastic pastry sheet on the picnic table and munched on a round of steaming-hot bread, one side a bit charred from being too close to the coals that had been pushed to the back of the oven.
The pizzas, topped with mushrooms, green peppers, onions, pepperoni and Canadian bacon, were a big hit, too. Our visitors included couples from Omro and Milton, a pair of hikers from Madison, park staff and Ellis Pifer, 73, who as a child lived in a cabin in the park until the late 1950s.
“I was just marshaling my forces late last fall to see how I could accomplish it and all of a sudden I find out they did it and I’m elated,” Pifer said of the Kuenns. “They did a marvelous job on it.”
The culinary ideas our visitors came up with for the oven included a variety of breads, pies, potatoes and even tandoori chicken. Just be careful opening the steel door. It gets really hot. And, don’t be in a hurry.
We fired the oven for about two hours before cooking but should have doubled or even tripled that time.
Pizza crusts should be as thin as possible, and hot coals should also line the sides of the oven instead of all being pushed to the back, said Erik Ferguson, who operates Riverview Spring Green Restaurant, located in the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center just west of the park. He also has a small, wood-fired pizza oven at the historic White School in downtown Spring Green that attracts dozens for pizza (cooked in 90 seconds) every Friday night.
“You want to keep a live fire going in there (for pizza) because that’s what gives you over-arching heat and really cooks the top of it,” said Ferguson. “The bottom cooks fairly quickly but you want that top to be able to cook and brown.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!