Story by Mark R. Johnson
Photos by Glenn Sanderson Photography
What is your dream destination for your retirement years? Arizona, Florida, Texas, maybe even a beach house in Mexico? How about a lakehome in east-central Wisconsin?
Well, Wisconsin was the dream destination for New Jersey residents Tom and Barbara. They set their sights on Wisconsin’s Chain O’ Lakes region near Waupaca, Wis. Why? Well, the short answer is that their (grown) children made them an offer they could not refuse.
The actual, more complex answer is that Wisconsin and its Chain O’ Lakes region have been a vital, beloved part of the couple’s lives for decades, so retiring there was actually a homecoming and the realization of a dream.
A family legacy Barbara’s family history is deeply rooted in the Chain O’ Lakes area, so named because of a chain of 22 connected lakes.
In 1868, Barbara’s ancestors immigrated from Germany and settled near Milwaukee, Wis., where they lived in a rented log cabin. Eventually, they started traveling 130 miles by horse and buggy to the Chain O’ Lakes region to visit a son who owned a farm in the area.
Fast forward to more recent history. Once Barbara’s parents married, they also settled in the Milwaukee area. When Barbara was 5 years old, her parents established their own family tradition of vacationing every year on the Chain O’ Lakes. “No Disneyland for my family,” she recalls. “We vacationed up north every year religiously, sometimes for a week, but up to a month, and rented different places on the various lakes that make up the Chain O’ Lakes, including: Round, Columbia, Miner and Rainbow.”
Barbara and Tom met in 1967 when both were enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee campus. That same year, Barbara introduced Tom to the Chain O’ Lakes. While Tom didn’t grow up with cabins, camping and nature were part of his Eagle Scout upbringing, and he was immediately enthralled with lake and cabin life.
After graduation, Barbara became a freelance artist and Tom went to work in the logistics field. In 1973, the couple married. They continued to live in Milwaukee for two years, until Tom’s career took them to Cincinnati for two years and then to New Jersey. The plan was to live in Jersey for a maximum of 10 years.
The legacy continues Tom and Barbara stayed in New Jersey for 30 years. They raised their daughters, Nikki and Tami, there. But the family made sure to return to the Chain O’ Lakes every summer for vacations. What inspired them to travel across several states every year? “There’s a lot to do here. There’s something for everyone,” says Barbara.
Their daughters are grown now with families of their own. Nikki lives in San Francisco, Calif., with her husband, Ryan, and their son, and she works in marketing. “Tami is our starving artist,” jokes Barbara (now a retired art teacher) with a glint of pride in her eyes, and lives in Elizabethtown, Pa., with Steven and their daughter.
When Tom turned 62 years old, he was laid off, and it was time to get serious about retirement plans. As Nikki and Tami listened to their parents weighing their options, the daughters made their parents an offer they couldn’t refuse. “They told us, ‘If you want us to visit, you need to retire on the Chain O’ Lakes,’ ” Barbara recalls with a laugh.
Tearing down & building up Tom and Barbara purchased property on Dake Lake in 2007. “When we bought the property, there was a home near the water, a much older home, that we ended up razing when it was time to build,” Tom says.
But the couple still had loose ends to tie up in New Jersey, so they didn’t rush into the demo and rebuild. “We had about four years to go to log home shows, do research and compile ideas – of what we liked and what we didn’t like,” Tom says. He and Barbara each kept a large binder that they stuffed with log home design and decorating ideas.
“And then in October of 2010, we began construction,” Tom says. “We were living in New Jersey, so the house was going up, and we came in during the construction about three times.” The couple moved into their new home in July 2011.
Preparing the construction site was also tricky. In order to build on the property, Strongwood had to drive 30-foot log pilings into the ground.
The design process was collaborative between the homeowners and Strongwood. “Our home is not a blueprint of anything that Strongwood had,” says Tom. “They designed around the property, and we gave a lot of input. And they had a lot of suggestions for the fireplace, the four-season room and the exposed wooden beams. For instance, they suggested an angular fireplace [in the corner, versus in the typical wall location] so that you have more of a view of both the fireplace and the lake from the great room, kitchen, loft, etc.,” Tom explains.
Tom gave Strongwood a challenge during the design of the lakehome’s second floor. He asked for oversized dormers, and their engineer Lars Jaworski had to research the feasibility, but gave the dormers a thumbs-up. “I’m guessing they added 600 additional square feet to the second floor,” Tom says.
Open & livable with great sight lines Tom and Barbara were purposeful about making sure their dream home on the lake would serve them well in their later years. “Basically, when we built the house, we knew it was going to be for retirement, so we wanted everything that we could on the first level so that we don’t have to use the upstairs,” Barbara says. And in case they need their place to be wheelchair accessi-ble some day, the doors are all extra wide, 36 inches.
They also wanted an open-concept design. “It just worked out well because the view lets you see water on three sides, 180°,” says Barbara. “In the wintertime, when the leaves are gone, it really is something that you can really see all around! Another thing the builder did to open things up was to leave the ceiling open.
While the couple points out that they made choices along the way to stay within their budget, like choosing laminate countertops over granite, they didn’t want to scrimp on space in high-use areas since this is their primary home, not a vacation retreat. “We wanted a big kitchen so that we can entertain a lot,” says Barbara. The kitchen also includes a sizable pantry.
In other areas, the couple economized on space. For instance, the washer and dryer are stacked in the mudroom. Tom’s desk space is built into a loft wall. And pocket doors were installed for the mudroom and powder room to free up space.
About wood & stone For décor choices, the couple’s research binders served them well. “One thing we learned when compiling all these things was to not have too much wood in a log home. So most of our interior walls are drywall, so we can paint and change the color whenever we want to,” says Barbara.
The log construction is pine, but the couple chose hickory for their hardwood floors. “A nice thing about hickory is that everything seems to go with it because it has so many different wood tones in it,” says Barbara.
And then there’s the beautiful stone wall beneath the staircase. That was Barbara’s idea. “I had seen that in a magazine. And I wanted to pull the natural earthiness together by blending stone with the natural wood of the logs. I wanted this place to look airy and woodsy, but I didn’t want it to look like a camping lodge or something. Our house in New Jersey was Victorian country – with tchotchkes all over the place, and broken up little rooms. We wanted more of a mission style here.”
THE FAVORITE ROOM Tom and Barbara agree that their favorite part of their lakehome is their four-season room with its six windows providing an excellent view of the lake. “We really like this, how it’s bumped out instead of the wall going straight across,” says Tom. “We worked with the builder on it. By having it angular, you can have more windows and a better, more panoramic view.”
The four-season room is where the two grandchildren play. The original home design called for French doors between the four-season room and the great room/dining area, but Tom is glad they rejected that design notion. “We said ‘Why?’ Because we want to have them open most of the time. And now the kids play in here; this is their rec room, and we can see them!” says Tom.
THERE'S MORE! To see web-exclusive images of Tom and Barbara's lakehome that weren't shown in the magazine, click here.
That same year, Barbara’s mother passed away. While Barbara was going through things in her mother’s house, she was surprised to come across a forgotten collection of cabin brochures that she and Tom had gathered as a young couple in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “I realized our retirement dream has been alive longer than we knew!” says Barbara.
Only one throat to choke When it came to buying their log package and hiring a builder, the couple realized they had options. “We started out with a different company – not a builder, but a manufacturer [log supplier] – and they were very helpful. But in the end we decided to go with a local builder, Strongwood Log & Timber Homes, because they were both a builder and they provided the logs. Now I only had one throat to choke,” Tom says with a chuckle.
Because Strongwood is local to their area, the company was able to help Tom and Barbara navigate Waupaca’s tight zoning restrictions. “The law says that if you’re on the water [in our county], not more than 25% of your land can be impermeable,” says Tom. The reason for that is that they [zoning officials] don’t want overbuilding so that there’s runoff into the water. So you have to work around that.”
Another challenge: The required setback from the lake is 75 feet from the high-water mark. “We have a narrow lot that’s about 0.6 of an acre, and they [Strongwood] did a good job of using the property; the whole thing is about the view and a relaxed atmosphere,” Tom says.
Barbara points to the patio on the lake side of her home, and says, “That’s as close as we could get to the lake with our patio. And on the sides of our house, the retaining walls had to be a certain way … It was kind of tricky.”
Fitting right in Since settling in Waupaca, Tom and Barbara have found ways to connect in the community. He works as VP of sales for the Waupaca Area Chamber of Commerce, and she sells vintage clothing and accessories at a local antique mall.
Just as Tom and Barbara chose a local builder, it was important to them to buy locally, which fits naturally with Tom’s job with the chamber. “We decided that we were going to buy everything we could locally – furniture, appliances, etc. – because we want to support area businesses and the community, he says. So we did that, with the exception of driving to Wisconsin Rapids [30 miles] to shop at Home Depot. And we’re very happy with that because the area service is great.”
The good life True to their word, Nikki, Tami and their families visit Tom and Barbara every summer. Even though the couple has two kayaks and a canoe, in addition to a pontoon, Barbara says their favorite family activity is quite simple: “We like to just float around in the lake together like otters. She explains that they all float near the dock on blow-up rafts, “mostly floating, eating, drinking, sunbathing, talking and singing songs (our family loves musicals).”
Ryan is so enamored with lake life, he told Tom that he wants his son, now 4-years-old, to live with his grandparents for the summer once he turns 13.
Great day for a pontoon ride While interviewing Tom and Barbara for this article at their lakehome, they offered this writer a tour of the Chain O’ Lakes aboard their pontoon boat. As we passed through a channel from one lake to the next, the couple shared that pontoon tours like this one are a staple. “We never get tired of it,” Tom said.
“No, never,” Barbara agreed. “We always see something different.”
On Taylor Lake, we cruised slowly past the Clear Water Harbor restaurant, one of Tom and Barbara’s favorite boat-in lunch spots. Tom pointed at the restaurant saying that’s where he wants his grandson to get a summer job.
“As much as we love summer and having the kids here, fall is gorgeous,” Tom said. “In October, we take the canoe to the upper chain, which consists of five lakes. It’s pristine there – no motors, few homes. We bring a picnic basket, and it’s just great,” Tom said, beaming.
“It’s like we’re on a permanent vacation,” said Barbara. “We never have to go anywhere because it’s here. Everyone can come to us.”
When editor Mark Johnson interviewed Tom and Barbara, his hosts capped off the day by taking Mark on a pontoon boat ride on several connected lakes on their chain. Mark says that was a good day at work.