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Volunteering for the love of the lore and the locals

Mary Plein, of Ideal Township, resides at the center of the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway — literally and figuratively.

She’s involved in both the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway Association (PBSBA) and the Ideal Community Service Organization (ICSO).

As former chair of the PBSBA, Plein loves the stories of Paul and Babe. Sharing that story allows the association to tell visitors about why the area is great.

“It’s telling the story of these roads that make up the byway,” she said, “so that people realize what a gem it is and come visit.”

As a member of the association, she’s helped further the goals of the byway and had fun doing it.

Plein and her husband, John, own a consulting company that specializes in graphic design and web development. She has two sons, both grown, and three granddaughters.

Plein’s been with the byway from the beginning, when it first started in 1998. At that time the byway worked with Ideal Township to get the road shoulders paved to the 8 feet they are today. That work is continued, too — the byway seeks to pave or widen shoulders around other routes near the byway.

The byway association is also responsible for the kiosks that are scattered at pull-offs along the byway. The kiosks combine the lore of Paul and Babe with factual history of the area’s history, geology and culture. The stories are written as if Paul himself is telling them.

“You just can’t walk away from those,” she said. There are 13 kiosk sites on the byway.

Plein serves as president of ICSO, a group that exists to fund the Ideal Scholarship Foundation. Every year since the 1970s, one graduating senior from Ideal Township has been awarded a scholarship. The scholarships are funded by pull tabs at Bites Bar and Grill and the Old Milwaukee Saloon and Eatery.

It was Plein’s neighbor who talked her into joining ICSO.

“She said, ‘We get to give away money to good causes,’” Plein said. That convinced her. She’s been on the board for six years. She said the reason she sticks with it is “the people.”

“And volunteerism gets in your blood. It’s my way of giving back. It sounds cliché, but it’s true,” she said.

Additionally, Plein said, she’s always learning something new about the community and making new friends.

In the past few years, ICSO has seen a drop in funding. Donations were down 30 percent in 2013, which Plein said is reflective of the economy.

“Little by little it’s getting better,” she said, adding that for the future, “the focus is on staying on track for the continued donation to the scholarship and those in most dire need in Ideal Township.”

Lives have been saved with donations to ICSO. The organization donated money for an AED, for example, for the Ideal Fire Department. That machine has saved lives.

As for PBSBA, its next project is planned for Jenkins. The association is looking into creating a history walk at the Jenkins park with interpretive panels. The byway association also has a museum at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Campground building in Crosslake, and hopes to develop the gardens there.

Plein encouraged involvement in either of the two groups. They especially need young members.

“It takes a small amount of sacrifice, but what you get out of it is so much bigger. You get to know the community, and it’s so much fun,” she said.

Plein also enjoys watching projects go from ideas to reality.

“You go in with the spark of an idea and big projects come to fruition,” she said.

She encouraged others to get involved- both in ICSO and the byway.

“Don’t hesitate to get involved because we need you,” she said.

Kate Perkins can be reached at Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at