The Black Lake Conference Center has a rich history of not only the story of Walter Reuther, but also of labor’s part in shaping this nation. The Center was created as an educational center for UAW members across the country. It was a meeting place of brotherhood where ideas could be taught, traded and shared, friendships built. By the completion of the Center, Reuther understood that this would be a place where families would build memories as well.
By January 1967, the UAW had purchased 1,000 heavily wooded acres along the shores of Black Lake. A skilled craftsman and tool and die maker by trade, Reuther, envisioned the center to be aligned with nature. He wanted to bring the outdoors in and let the landscape dictate the center’s footprint on its environment. Reuther, along with longtime friend and renowned architect, Oskar Stonorov, were committed to preserving the oak, pines, maples, aspen and hemlock trees on the site. He and Stonorov wanted the Center to be a lesson on how to build without destroying nature. Reuther personally examined and tagged practically every tree on the site and, in some cases, construction lines were altered to preserve a particular piece of nature.
In the early spring of 1970, Walter and May Reuther unveiled the Center’s main buildings for the UAW leadership, the media and others. By May 1970, the world mourned the death of a great leader and visionary when a plane carrying the Reuthers, Oskar Stonorov, Reuther’s bodyguard Willy Wolfman, and two pilots crashed while on final approach to the Pellston Airport. All six passengers died in the crash.
Most trees on the grounds were planted after World War I or by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression and are red, white, jack and Scotch pine. There are also cedar, oak, maple, aspen and hemlock. The Douglas firs used for the massive beams and columns in the Center came from Portland, Ore. The dining room holds the largest beam, which is 72 feet and had to be carried on two rail cars. The columns – some of them 40 feet long and 16 inches in diameter – were turned in Washington state on equipment once used to turn the masts of wooden sailing ships. More than 15,000 tons of stone from Wisconsin were used in the buildings. The bronze work was cast in Italy, and the roofs are strong enough to hold approximately 5 feet of snow.
A city utility system exists underground. Reuther, an environmentalist long before it was popular to be green, designed the Center to ensure maximum protection of the environment. A water treatment plant covers 6 acres including five, 1-acre lagoons which pump all waste water away from the lake, virtually eliminating pollution. Most of the Center’s pipes and power lines are buried underground, leaving the pristine view untouched by power lines.
The Center is a living tribute to the lives of Walter and May Reuther. Trade unionists from Japan presented the Center with an eternal flame stone lantern. The Reuthers’ ashes were scattered on the hilltop overlooking the main building.
Whether you escape to the picturesque area for rest and relaxation, use the time to connect on common issues, build a better organization or learn labor history and work toward the common goal of social and economic justice, Black Lake is waiting for you.