This is our second installment from the book Back of Beyond by Susanne Schuler, which tells the story of her childhood at Timberwolf Lodge. Enjoy!
In June of 1924, a log canoe rack rested against the side of a two-story frame house in the small town of Aurora, Minnesota. Tied securely to the rack with a chain and a padlock was a well-used Old Towne canoe. Inside the modest white house a young couple was busy packing heavy khaki colored canvas duffel bags and checking supplies off a long list. Wooden matches. Mosquito dope. Fishing hat…
“Hey, what’s this book? Come on Marie, we can’t be lugging extra stuff. It adds to the weight over portages. I know you. If you take one book, there’ll be six more,” laughed Jack, a groom of two weeks.
“It’s only your book of Jack London poems. Thought we could read it at night by the campfire, kind of get into the spirit of the North Country,” the woman, a new bride replied.
It was the middle of June. Two weeks earlier, Jack, in a dark suit, and Marie in a black taffeta dress, had been married at St. Andrews-By-The-Lake a tiny Episcopal church in Duluth. When asked why a black dress Marie’s answer was that “it’s the very best I own”.
The groom had been four years old when he and his mother, Anna Barbara arrived in New York Harbor from Yugoslavia. When they landed, John (Jack as he was later called) was dressed in his best wool suit. His mother was weak, recovering from seasickness. The father and husband, John Matthew had ventured first to America to settle in Montana as a cook at a copper mine site, moving later on to the iron range of Northern Minnesota as a blacksmith.
The bride, Erma Marie, but always called Marie, was born in Nebraska and grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. For her, it had been a time of piano lessons, visiting relatives in Iowa, a cross-country trip by rail out west and excursions into Chicago to hear her parents play with the Chicago symphony orchestra. Her father taught her to drive their electric car. Summers were spent north, near Mercer, Wisconsin at a renovated lumber camp. These summers were shared with other families, relatives and her pet black and white collie, Prince. It was here that Marie began to love the woods, a love that would nurture and sustain her all her life.
While Marie was busy practicing the piano in Illinois, Jack was learning to be a northern woodsman, to handle and ax, paddle a canoe, use a compass and build a campfire. He was the oldest of six children. One chore he despised was picking blueberries. The family lived in Bangor location in rural Biwabik, Minnesota. A location was a housing development near iron ore mines for the miners and their families. Jack commuted from Bangor location to his job in Aurora, about seven miles. In winter, he used his two sled dogs, Snyder and Trixie, and in summer, a horse. The winter commute to Aurora was made in the dark, both early in the morning and returning in late afternoon. Sometimes Jack would hear wolves howling in the dark, causing him to hurry home. It was a lonely trail for a young man. In summertime, he tied his horse up with the mine mules. His job was timekeeper, later, bookkeeper at the Miller Mine.
After college, Marie accepted a kindergarten teaching position in Ironwood, Michigan. Years later she would laugh that there was a mysterious call to head northwest from Michigan to teach in Aurora, Minnesota at the Johnson School. The call was an excellent salary and an adventure.
Aurora in the early 1920’s was a mining town with wooden sidewalks, dirt roads and an occasional loose cow wandering the town streets. Unmarried female teachers lived together in a boarding house with strict rules. Marie was engaged to a “city slicker”- a “Chicago fellow who didn’t know a birch tree wasn’t a pine”- when she moved to the little mining town.
One day female teachers were invited to tour the Miller Mine. Jack was the tour guide. And so, a dapper, dark brown haired, blue-eyed young man with a marvelous sense of humor met a serious, brown-eyed, adventurous, auburn haired young lady. The sparks flew! But the attraction was complicated by serious questions: How to break the young woman’s engagement and how to deal with Marie’s ailing mother in Oak Park? In time, both matters were resolved and Jack and Marie were free to fall in love.
Jack and his friends owned a cabin on Wynne Lake near Biwabik. It was reached by canoe or boat in the summer and skis in the winter. Sunday afternoons in the winter, young couples bundled up to cross country ski to the cabin, build a fire, cook supper and then ski back across the lake to their parked cars. There were no ski clothes for women back then so Marie had a local tailor make her a pair of ski trousers. It was difficult skiing with a calf length heavy wool skirt flapping around her calves but pants on a woman? God forbid! School officials called Marie on the carpet for her choice of clothing but she stood her ground.
Once in a while Marie was asked to play piano for silent movies showing in the local theater. This was a challenge, trying to keep up with the flickering black and white movie with appropriate music.
After their marriage there were many canoe trips to Crane Lake, to Lac Le Croix and other border country lakes of northern Minnesota. Most canoe trips were in June when the mosquitoes were the worst. A canoe trip in August might find you trying to paddle streams and rivers where the water was low. When possible, short canoe trips were taken on weekends, longer trips during vacation. On one canoe trip, they came upon a summer Indian camp. That evening, Jack and Marie were invited to powwow and dance around the campfire. It was special, very unique.
The years went by. The Old Towne canoe rested against the house waiting for Jack to hoist it on top of the car and head for a river or a lake. From this time, the couple took photographs, saved in old albums, black and white portraits of sunsets, beautiful lakeshore settings and campsites. In all of these pictures, Jack and Marie are grinning. Then the young couple moved to Wadena, Minnesota. Jack became a traveling coal salesman for northern Minnesota, a job he held for over thirty years. A daughter, Barbara Jean, named after Jack’s mother, was born. Four years later, another daughter arrived. Life changed. And how!
Canoe trips were planned around when the relatives could baby sit. There was absolutely no way the couple would hang up their paddles and store their canoe. So Jack’s sisters, brothers, some married, some single, baby-sat the two little girls. Sometimes the grandparents pitched in. It was family time, a time of sharing, of fun, of laughter. A time to sit around Grandma Ann’s and Grandpa John’s kitchen table feasting on grandma’s homemade bread and sipping grandpa’s home brew. That’s the way it was done; family helping each other.
When Anna Marie, the youngest daughter, was three, the family spent several weeks with other relatives at a camp on Lake One near Ely. The camp, a primitive resort had no electricity or running water. Marie insisted on hauling an ironing board on top of the car. It later had t be tied to a canoe and brought to the camp. There were no roads to Lake One, Two, Three or Four. Sad irons for the ironing board had to be heated on the camp’s wood cook stove.
The family moved to Iowa to Minneapolis to Duluth and then back to Minneapolis. Jack finally said “enough”. He missed the cool lakes and green forests of northern Minnesota. And so, in the late 1930’s, they settled for good in Duluth.
Jack and Marie always yearned to own woods property: Property on a lake where it was quiet, away from people, where the air smelled like pine and you could sit on a rock and watch the sun set. The place they found would have to have high ground, birch trees and, if possible, the call of loons to add their eerie songs to the wilderness silence.
While friends and relatives took over as caretakers of the two young girls, Jack and Marie’s search began. Anna Marie learned to walk in Auntie Kay’s house in Ely while her parents were out tramping in the bush. The seeking, the finding of just the right property consumed their leisure time. Sometimes they used the Old Towne for their explorations. Other times they traveled by car or boat. The search continued until Jack heard about a piece of property near Ely. The canoe paddles were tucked in the rafters of the garage and the canoe was turned upside down on its rack. The paddling partners had found their place in the woods and were about to become landowners.
Timber Wolf Lodge is honored and excited to share the delightful book “Back Of Beyond” A Memoir from the North Woods. We will be sharing a new story in the blog from time-to-time.
From Susanne Schuler’s memoir “Back of Beyond”. Susanne’s family founded Timber Wolf Lodge over 70 years ago and her book recounts her childhood days growing up here.