Willow Springs owner Iditarod veterinarian dies aged 70

Dennis Griffin, savior of Marathon County’s iconic Round Barn and veterinarian who looked after farm animals and Iditarod sled dogs, died aged 70 on September 5.

Along with his wife, Peggy Griffin, Dennis co-owned Willow Springs Garden, a unique event venue in Maine town northwest of Wausau that incorporated his love of historic buildings, country life and the gardening. The property is distinguished by the enormous round barn, which Dennis saved from demolition by buying it from a neighbor and moving it to its current location in 2006.

It was an unorthodox and expensive idea, but for those who knew and loved Dennis, it was very much in character.

“He was very calm. He never spoke more than he needed to,” Peggy said. “But he was still thinking.… He was a visionary who saw things that you and I cannot see.”

Dennis Griffin in 2006 with the Round Barn he rescued and moved to Willow Springs Garden.

The Round Barn joined the Old Maine Town Hall on the Willow Springs Estate, another building Dennis fell in love with and moved to in order to save it from destruction.

“We see it as taking these structures and giving them new life,” Dennis told the Wausau Daily Herald at the time.

When Dennis and Patty moved the Round Barn to the property, they came up with the idea of ​​using it in one way or another, including the idea of ​​housing a museum there. But as they thought about it and started making plans, the idea of ​​Willow Springs as a place took shape.

It has become a place for weddings, parties and annual events such as the harvest festival, the 4th of July festival and a Christmas celebration.

Willow Springs became a partnership, Peggy said, but Dennis had dreamed of what it should look like. He did all the planting and landscaping. He wanted it to look clean and idyllic, like Disneyland.

Dennis cultivated his spirit of exploration, adventure and curiosity when he grew up in Iowa. He and his brother spent hours outdoors, canoeing the rivers and exploring. He worked on a pig and beef farm. When he was a teenager he began to venture further afield, hitchhiking to explore the Midwest.

He did a veterinary rotation at Wausau while studying at Iowa State University’s veterinary school in Ames. When he graduated in 1976, he moved to north-central Wisconsin and became a large animal veterinarian.

“He loved the animals and the farmers of the world, and that’s what motivated him,” Peggy said. “And he really was a scientist.”

Dennis passed his passion for the outdoors on to his children, Katie and Dave Griffin. Dave and Dennis loved downhill skiing and joined the Rib Mountain Ski Area Ski Patrol. Dennis and Katie went on long hikes and road trips, hiking the Australian Outback while Dennis was in Sydney for a vet training reunion, according to the obituary that Dennis’ whole family wrote together.

After Dennis married Peggy in 2006, he also became a father to three other children, Kathleen, Vincent and Andrea Vignali. They shared family camping trips, ski days, and vet visits. “What a special man,” his obituary said. “Dennis was the father he didn’t have to be.”

After a trip to Alaska with his Dave, Dennis became intrigued by sled dog racing, Peggy said. He would eventually volunteer to race as a track vet for almost 20 years, because there was the kind of excitement Dennis was looking for.

“He flies in bush planes, going from checkpoint to checkpoint,” Peggy said. “It was his adventure, besides helping people.”

In a 2012 Wausau Daily Herald story, Dennis said he also loved running because it gave him an appreciation of the “human-animal bond (and) nowhere is that bond as strong as in the Arctic “where humans could not have survived without the partnership with animals.

Dennis died of primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare disease that scars the bile ducts. He fought the disease for 32 months, Peggy said.

“He faced it with fear, but he was also strong the whole time,” she said. “He chose the quality of life. It was amazing. He didn’t want to leave this earth, but he was ready for what was going to be.”

RELATED: Longtime Wausau School District educator Claude Bickler brought kindness to work. His colleagues will not forget.

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Contact Keith Uhlig at 715-845-0651 or kuhlig@gannett.com. Follow him on @UhligK on Twitter and Instagram or on Facebook.

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