Rudy Hillig’s death on May 31 caused more than one Northland Arboretum enthusiast to think about what might have happened had he not founded the arboretum that straddles the Brainerd-Baxter border behind the Westgate Mall.
Years ago, the site was a city dump on the largely unpopulated west side of the Mississippi River. Nothing special in the eyes of many of those who lived here in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Hillig, a trained horticulturist, saw something different. He saw the potential of a 500-acre oasis in what was a growing urban area. He saw an accessible nature site with bluffs, wetlands and beautiful stands of trees — all within a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of commercially developed land and a densely populated residential areas. Hillig’s vision meshed neatly with that of the late Terry McGaughey who was the driving force behind the Paul Bunyan Trail. The Northland Arboretum, originally opened in 1975 as the Paul Bunyan Arboretum, is now the main trailhead for that trail.
Our arboretum serves a variety of nature lovers — people who might not have discovered the solitude of streams and wind whistling through the trees had they been required to travel to a more remote part of the region. The arboretum is a tremendous benefit for cross-country skiers, elementary students, runners, hikers and older folks who grew up as outdoors enthusiasts but who now are only able to take on tamer excursions.
We have Hillig to thank for this Brainerd and Baxter area jewel. His passion and his patience in educating many of us to the joys of nature was a tremendous gift to the community.
— Mike O’Rourke