KANDIYOHI -- Dr. William Reid was director of pathology at Rice Memorial Hospital in 1967 when he and his wife, Ute, bought two miles of shoreline and about 220 acres of farmland and woods on the west shore of Lake Kasota.
"When I came out here to work at Rice Hospital, I saw all these wonderful lakes,'' said Reid, who as a kid swam in the lakes near his home in Oakland County north of Detroit. "First thing I wanted to do was to find some shoreline.''
The beautiful woods nestled along Kasota, Minnetaga, Swan and Little Kandiyohi Chain of Lakes were dominated by rock elm, but included red elm, American elm and about 40 other tree and shrub species.
The Reids continued their interest in the chain of lakes. Over the next 30 years, they acquired the equivalent of nearly one square mile of property that includes 175 acres of woods and about 7 miles of shoreline.
Beyond the lakeshore and woodland beauty, Dr. Reid began to notice his elm forest was unique. About three-fourths of the trees were elm and he remembers Dutch elm disease killed about half of them in 1969.
"The next year I expected all of them to be dead,'' he said. "But guess what? Some lived.''
In the late 1980s, Reid said, his elm forest appeared to be battling Dutch elm disease and he started contacting arborists, environmentalists and ecologists. The forest "understory'' was full of elms, which he said was strange. Rising above were hundreds of giant trees.
"I felt something was going on there that was quite unique,'' he recalls.
His suspicions were confirmed in a landscape study conducted on behalf of the Trust for Public Lands, a national nonprofit organization that conserves land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens, historic sites, rural lands and other natural places.
The study, published last year, said the area, known as Reid Woods, is home to an exceptional old-growth forest as well as significant cultural resources such as archaeological and historic sites and structures.
The area exhibits characteristics not seen in other parts of Minnesota or the world, both in its ecology and cultural history, including the possibility that its hardwood forests are very old relict (surviving) forests, perhaps dating back as far as 9,000 years.
Reid Woods is home to one of only two rock elm-dominated forests in Minnesota and possibly the world and is home to some of the state's largest trees.
In addition, Reid Woods has not only been largely unaffected by Dutch elm disease, but also shows signs of fighting it off.
Dutch elm resistance
This feature is significant to scientists studying Dutch elm disease. Because the second-growth forests are of the same genome as the old-growth forests, they can be more easily studied without risk of affecting the pristine older forests.
Mark Stennes, a private forester and certified plant pathologist, was one of three forest and plant experts who visited Reid Woods on Sept. 27, 2010, to assess the forest's ecological significance.
Stennes can only hypothesize as to why Dutch elm has not killed all three elm species. While genetic resistance can be found naturally in elm trees, Stennes said the odds of all three species having the necessary genetic combinations at this site are "fundamentally zero'' and akin to "winning the lottery.''
A more pessimistic view held by some is that Dutch elm disease has yet to run its course at Reid Woods. But Dutch elm has been present in the woods for many years and yet has not decimated the elm population.
"This is very exciting,'' the study said. "If in fact the elm population at Reid Woods can shed light on Dutch elm disease resistance, it would have tremendous value and significance. Scientists are keenly interested in Dutch elm resistance at this site, and that fact alone justifies protection.''
As a pathologist, Reid knows about tissues and diseases, "and that's why this is so fascinating because this is not behaving like a normal disease. I saw one tree die in a week right in this forest and there was a tree right next to it that didn't get it.''
Rich history in this area
The area's archaeological history is complex and fascinating. The presence of exotic materials left by inhabitants thousands of years ago at 14 documented sites lends significant research potential regarding trade networks and interactions between different cultures.
Relatively rare historic features include the Broman Farmstead. The farmstead, located on the western bank of Lake Kasota, includes the Italianate-style Broman house, constructed in 1885. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as the Reids' summer residence. The farmstead includes structures built between 1885 and 1940.
Finally, their land contains a portion of a plot overlooking Minnetaga Lake known as the Capitol Lands. The plot had been proposed during the mid-1800s as the site of the Minnesota state capitol.
The unsuccessful 50-year battle to move the capitol from St. Paul to Kandiyohi County gives insight into Minnesota's early development and politics. Had the move been approved, Minnesota and Kandiyohi County's geography would be drastically different.
The Reids lived for 19 years in Michigan and Illinois where Dr. Reid was associated with higher education and medical institutions. Reid retired in 1988. The couple lives in Macro Island, Fla., but spends summers at Lake Kasota.
Reid has tramped many hours through his woods and easily identifies trees like they were his children. On a tour in late August, Reid pointed a visitor toward a rock elm more than 100 feet tall, a 100-foot ash and a 125-foot basswood, among thousands of other giants.
"They are true monarchs,'' he said. "Nobody knows why this forest survives. It's one of those miracles.''