For sale in northeastern Minnesota: 1 abandoned Air Force base

FINLAND, Minnesota – A 100-acre property once home to the Finland Air Force Station in northeastern Minnesota is for sale.

The former Cold War Air Force radar station, located on Lookout Mountain in the unincorporated community of Finland, in Lake County, was established in 1950 and used until 1980.

The base used several equipment systems over the years to track and identify passing aircraft, especially to monitor and potentially intercept any enemy aircraft entering the United States from Canada using ground control intercepts. The station was also responsible for maintaining remote, unattended gap-filler radar sites in Askov, Pine County; Aurora, St. Louis County; and Upson, Wisconsin.

According to Bonnie Tikkanen, president of the Finland Historical Society, the servicemen and the Finland residents “coexisted” happily, with many servicemen marrying local women over the three decades of operation. The base provided jobs to 25 civilian workers.

“They were fully self-sustaining up there,” Tikkanen said. “They didn’t need to come off that base for anything, but they did and they participated in different things for the community.”

There were also curling and baseball teams on the base that competed against other teams in the region. The 756th Radar Squadron held a reunion at the base in 2015. About 250 veterans were invited to return to the base and meet at the Silver Bay Lounge.

Today, the radar systems are gone, as are all but one of the buildings on the main site, according to a fortwiki.com photo from 2016. The property, with acreage comparable to the Mall of America, is listed as “a once- in-a-lifetime investment opportunity” by Fieldstone Real Estate. Red Pine Realty calls for somebody to “bring their ideas, imagination and creativity to create something special,” with “truly endless possibilities.”

The 101.26-acre property has been listed online for $800,000 since June 2021. It was put up for auction in November 2019, where the highest bid of $216,000 did not reach the reserve price.

Some of the site’s original Air Force housing is still standing, and the two- and three-bedroom homes are described as “potentially salvageable,” with “new roofs on some,” by the property description from Red Pine Realty in Grand Marais. According to the auction listing and Fieldstone Real Estate, 43 homes still exist in some capacity in the housing and trailer park sections of the property.

For sale in northeastern Minnesota: 1 abandoned Air Force base
Tech Sgt. John Kimmes, a radar operator, works at the controls of a radar scanner in the operations building at Finland Air Force Station in May 1980, a few days before the facility closed. (News Tribune file photo)

A Twin Cities family planned to renovate the former air base homes to become an affordable housing development, and then sell lots at the top of Lookout Mountain for luxury vacation homes. They bought the property in 1983 and owned it for more than two decades.

“That would’ve been good because we need lots of rental property up here because everything’s been bought up,” Tikkanen said. “It seems like every person that comes there has big ideas, but nothing gets done.”

According to MPR News, the family invested at least $1 million into the property by 2006, including the installation of a new septic system and several wells. Unfortunately, little progress was made on the development as contamination was found in the wells.

The property is now a Superfund site, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and has been on the MPCA Permanent List of Priorities since 1995. The groundwater contains TCE (trichloroethylene), industrial chemicals that can harm human teeth. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) have been detected in the soil; those chemicals can be carcinogenic to animals and humans and cause other adverse health effects.

The Finland property has been under MPCA oversight for cleanup since 1989, when a remedial investigation was performed. Soil excavations in the 2000s removed more than 2,000 cubic yards of the contaminated soil, but remaining concrete slabs from the air base prevented all contaminated soil from being removed.

1st Lt.  Raymond Crump walks through a nearly empty row of military housing at the Finland Air Force Station shortly before the base closed in May 1980.
1st Lt. Raymond Crump walks through a nearly empty row of military housing at the Finland Air Force Station shortly before the base closed in May 1980. (News Tribune file photo)

“Investigations determined the contamination was likely a result of past military activities associated with the Motor Pool Maintenance Building, the Old Radar Tower, the Steam Generation Building, Building 308, and the East Radar Installation Building,” the MPCA wrote on its website.

These days, the mountaintop has been left mostly abandoned, described by some as a “ghost town.” Tikkanen said vandalism started to become an issue during previous development, when it became too overwhelming to complete.

“There’s nothing left there to see anymore,” Tikkanen said.

Eagle Ministry, a Christian church organization founded in 1985 by Dale and Cecile Schmidt, has hosted worship retreats at the top of the mountain since 1990, taking advantage of the property’s trails and panoramic views.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency lists a former wastewater treatment plant as an existing structure. A notice of intent to reissue a permit for the Lookout Mountain Village Wastewater Treatment Plant was brought to the MPCA in summer 2021 by the property’s current owner, Patrick Remer. The previous permit, issued in 2014, expired in 2019. Remer could not be reached for comment.

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