By Anne Morrissy | Photography by Holly Leitner
If you’ve ever taken a ride around the lake on one of the Lake Geneva Cruise Line boats or gone for a walk in the Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy in Williams Bay, you have benefited from the work of one extremely dedicated local man: Harold Friestad. For the past 49 years, Friestad has served as general manager of the Lake Geneva Cruise Line with Gage Marine. And since the founding of Kishwauketoe in 1989 during Friestad’s tenure as Williams Bay village president, he has also been the animating force and primary steward of the popular nature spot. Friestad’s passion for the natural assets in the Geneva Lakes area is nearly limitless, and he has dedicated his life – both his career and his free time – to preserving and sharing the beauty of this area’s natural world with others.
How did he get started on this path? Friestad has lived in Williams Bay all his life, except for a handful of years. “When I finished college, I moved up to the Green Bay area to do a management training course with Sears,” he explains. While living there, he volunteered as an usher at Lambeau Field during Green Bay Packers games. “My last game as an usher was the Ice Bowl,” he says proudly, referencing the famous New Year’s Eve Championship game in 1967 where the Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys in subzero temps to win the NFL title. “I like to joke that [famous Packers coach] Vince Lombardi and I left Green Bay at the same time.”
LIFE-LONG CAREER AT GAGE BEGINS
Friestad returned to Williams Bay to pursue a career opportunity with Gage Marine, where he had worked as a ride boat captain during college. “Up to that point, [the ride boat schedule] had been very seasonal — just Memorial Day to Labor Day,” he explains. Gage Marine founder Russell Gage hired Friestad as general manager of Lake Geneva Cruise Line, and tasked him with the goal of extending service into the spring and fall. “One of the first things I did was that I started to hire teachers to replace the college students who had previously been driving the boats. Having been one of those college students myself, I knew some of the antics that could go on with these valuable antique boats,” he chuckles. Local teachers were available in the summer but more importantly were able to drive the boats on weekends in the spring and fall.
Friestad’s plan to hire teachers helped extend the tour season, and today, weather-permitting, Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers tours from mid-April through November. “Last year, we had our busiest day ever on the Sunday of Columbus Day weekend,” he says. Through the years, Friestad has hired and trained hundreds of employees for the boats, from the iconic mail jumpers (who deliver the mail directly to private piers by jumping off and back on the U.S. Mailboat as it moves) to the ticket sellers to the captains. Many of those employees are what he calls “full-time part timers,” meaning that they work seasonally but come back year after year. “We have some employees that have been with us 45 years,” he says.
It is these relationships that he takes the greatest pride in: “Along the line, the people became more important to me than the 100-year-old boats. We made it a big family.” And Friestad himself is quick to roll up his sleeves and pitch in when necessary.
“That was one of the reasons Russ Gage hired me back in the beginning, I could always jump in and drive a tour if we were short-handed,” he says. “Over the years I’ve done everything: sold the tickets, driven the boat, even been on the dinner cruises carving the roast beef. Whatever needs to be done.”
PUBLIC SERVICE LEADS TO ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
That can-do attitude is one that Friestad embraces not just in work but in life. In 1987, it led him into public service when he was elected village president of Williams Bay. And during his first meeting as village president, he was introduced to an issue that would become a great passion for him: nature conservation. “My very first meeting as village president, we heard a plan from a developer to build a golf course and marina in [what is now] Kishwauketoe,” he explains. Over the next two years, Friestad kept an open mind while hearing the proposals but ultimately realized that the developers had no plans to protect the environmental benefits of the land or to mitigate the impact of such a large development on the lake ecosystem as a whole. So instead he arranged for the Village to purchase the land and dedicate it as a nature preserve.
“We bought the land in 1989, and we were always very clear about how we were going to pay for it,” he says. “In ten years, it was completely paid off.” During his seven-year tenure as village president, he also led the Village’s efforts to buy up the land closest to the lake and create public access areas, parks, piers and boat space. As a result of these efforts, the Village of Williams Bay today owns all of the lakefront spanning from Cedar Point Park to the Bayshore condominiums.
Kishwauketoe has been Friestad’s true passion project. Shortly after dedicating the land as a nature conservancy, Friestad established two committees to oversee the more-than-200-acre site: a nonpartisan board called the Kishwauketoe Conservancy Commission, and the Friends of Kishwauketoe, a group largely made up of local supporters and volunteers. “[The Friends group] works very hard,” says Friestad. “We only have three paid employees a summer, and the rest of the maintenance and improvement is all done by volunteers.”
Volunteer help at Kishwauketoe is particularly useful in the off-season, he says. “Starting around [autumn], I host a volunteer day where we get from eight to 18 people to come out as often as once a week.” Volunteers remove invasive species and replace them with native trees, grasses and wildflowers. They also execute larger projects, which are often funded through state grants and donations from local organizations like the Geneva Lake Association, the Williams Bay Lions Club and the Lake Geneva Garden Club, among others.
One such project that Friestad is particularly proud of was recently completed by a local Eagle Scout who came to him with the desire to build benches for Kishwauketoe. “I told him we didn’t really need any more benches, but what we could really use were bee hotels,” says Friestad. This prompted the Eagle Scout to undertake a research project on declining bee populations and the necessity of adequate pollinators to sustain natural environments, which resulted in the construction of natural bee habitats for Kishwauketoe, including signage to educate visitors about the issue. “It’s really all about educating the public,” says Friestad.
A COMMUNITY-FULL OF APPRECIATION
Friestad is so passionate about Kishwauketoe that he spends a majority of his free time there. “I like to take about a two-mile walk there every morning before I go to work,” he says. He loves taking photos of the constantly-changing environment, and shares them with friends and supporters via social media. “I’ve had so many people come up to me at parties and tell me how much they love seeing pictures of Kishwauketoe every day,” he says. For his 70th birthday in 2009, he asked friends and family only for donations to a fund to add more trees to Kishwauketoe. They presented him with a $4,000 check, which he then used to plant dozens of 10 foot and 12 foot trees throughout the Conservancy. This practice has now become an annual event on Arbor Day, when he engages local elementary school classes — about 500 students each year — to help plant and dedicate the trees.
LAND TRUST ESTABLISHED
In 2012, hoping to ensure the continued preservation of the Kishwauketoe land as an environmental asset, Friestad worked with the Geneva Lake Conservancy to place the acreage into a land trust, a move he felt was necessary as he saw the Wisconsin DNR contemplating the removal of conservation status from lands in the Green Bay area and other parts of the state. “It just adds another layer of protection to ensure that this land always remains in its natural state,” he says. Looking forward, Friestad is engaged in efforts to meet all of the requirements to make Kishwauketoe the first Dark Sky Initiative park in Wisconsin, and he is working on a project to install a traditional “council ring” in the style of landscape architect Jens Jensen to provide a natural amphitheater space.
NO SLOWING DOWN IN RETIREMENT
Looking toward his retirement from Lake Geneva Cruise Line in 2017, Friestad plans to stay incredibly active. He is looking forward to the additional time retirement will give him to focus on his two grandchildren, his work in Kishwauketoe and his other great passion: skiing. A downhill skier since childhood (he learned to ski at age 7 on the hill behind the current Williams Bay Village Hall), Friestad also took up cross-country skiing in his 30s. Since then, he has completed the grueling 31-mile American Birkebeiner cross-country race in northern Wisconsin 27 out of the last 35 years. This winter, he’s looking forward to a two-week trip to Breckenridge, Colorado to hit the downhill slopes. And don’t be surprised to find him out at Alpine Valley as well: a season ticket holder, he’s been known to complete 25 runs there in an hour and a half.
“People ask me how I can walk two miles a day and ski and all that at my age. But it’s sitting still that would kill me,” he says. Expect to see him out there leading Friday afternoon trail walks and sharing his love for the natural environment of the Lake Geneva area for a long time to come.