“Stand back! Watch those sparks. Don’t get too close. OK Steve, throw those logs on top. The kids will get the branches.”
Father was calling to his brother Steve a short distance away. Father also kept his eye on his two daughters and their cousins. What a crew! Dressed warmly in woolen snowsuits, boots, mittens; the men wearing much the same clothing that they wore deer hunting. It was early spring 1940 and clouds of blue-gray wood smoke rose from three huge brush fires. There were uncles, friends, Mother and cousins all busy either chopping down brush with brush hooks or hauling twisted branches and short logs to the burning piles. There was a sense of urgency as June was only a few months away. Then the dream of a lifetime would become a reality.
Anna Marie stood back from the noisy group and watched hot flames consume the brush. It surely was exciting; men hollering, trees falling as axes smacked against tree trunks, cousins running, laughing and Mother pleading with the kids to keep hauling brush. A road to the resort was being built. Later, truck loads of gravel would be dumped, spread, and smoothed out. A rutted, overgrown, primitive and narrow road led from the highway to the lakeshore. Part of this road would be abandoned and another road built across the top of the hill. This road connected the cabins and wound gently down a short hill to the lake.
Mother leaned on a rake and looked toward the water. A small smile turned the corners of her mouth up. Her brown eyes glistened. She seemed lost in her thoughts. Anna Marie watched her wondering if she was getting sick or about to cry. There were tears in Mother’s eyes.
The smoke, that’s it; all this wood smoke from the fires, thought Anna Marie.
Mother brushed her eyes against the sleeve of her dark maroon wool jacket.
“Anna Marie, there’s a bag of potatoes in the car. They’re all scrubbed and ready for the fire. Find a spot where there are coals and just put them in. Should be baked in an hour or so. Be careful by the fire. Have Jean help you. I’ll be down the way, by the road. There’s brush to haul so hurry along. We need your help,” Mother said talking as she walked away.
And so it came to be that two woods lovers became owners of 167 acres of prime lakeshore property on Bear Island Lake. This land was purchased for $1,000.00 on a contract for deed on January 20, 1940 and paid for by April 4th. The land was from the estate of Mary Kajanus. The long search was over! A search that began when Jack and Marie were newlyweds, and then young parents. The search took them all over northeastern Minnesota and even up the Gunflint Trail with a week’s stay at Tuscarora Lodge where they realized that the Gunflint was too far from their home base of Duluth. The land for building a small family resort needed to be close to Duluth but far enough away to be a truly north woods retreat. Father could commute to the resort on weekends and his vacations. The family would be there from the time school let out in the spring until early fall just before school re-opened. Mother, the girls and hired help would run the resort. Mother was asked many times why a resort, why not just a cabin? Her reply was: “Too lonely. More fun to have people around. We’ll keep it small, won’t serve food, only housekeeping cabins.” How many cabins? How big? Do we need a lodge? What shall we call the resort? And on and on.
Bear Island is located south of Ely about 12 miles down the road on Highway 21. Perfect, near a bustling town, in the Superior National Forest yet close enough to shops and supplies. The cabins were to be housekeeping cabins, complete in every way except for running water. A light plant would provide electricity. There was an artesian spring down near the dock where the well was sunk.
Water would have to be hauled to the cabins in new galvanized steel buckets. R.E.A. (Rural Electrification Association) was years away from reaching Bear Island so there would be no indoor plumbing or running water until the power lines crept down Highway 21 in the late 1950’s.
A total of four cabins were built. Three of them had two bedrooms plus a sitting room-kitchen area. One cabin, small, one-room, was called the honeymoon cabin. There was an ice house, a fish cleaning house, a small two room unfinished building called the store, five outhouses, a storage shed for the light plant and tools and a long dock. That was it: small, neat and manageable. Mother and Father insisted that the cabin interiors be pine-paneled and have casement windows that opened inward. Finnish carpenters, the very best Father could find, put up the pine paneling and built the kitchen cupboards. “No wood butchers allowed!” Father said. Mother chose a warm brown stain for the paneling and the exterior was stained a darker brown. Window trim was a soft cream color; roofs were shingled in a dark green to blend in with the tree tops. All cabins were 500 feet or more apart and close to the lakeshore but high enough and far enough back to catch the breezes blowing from the west across the bay.
There were fish in Bear Island Lake, lots of them. Walleyes, perch, northern pike, crappies, and rock bass. They were hungry too! The water was soft and clean. Inlet and outlet rivers kept the water moving plus springs bubbled up from the lake’s bottom. The resort had a natural sandy beach with a gradual slope and no drop offs. At the end of the property was a natural sand bar at least two city blocks long. Mother was especially pleased that her favorite trees, the white birch, called by some the “lady of the forest”, were plentiful. There were also poplar and pines. Over the years seedlings were planted each spring to replace dead trees. This was a job Anna Marie hated.
A name. What to call the resort? Should it be a hard-to-pronounce Indian name, a cutesy name or what? “Back of Beyond” was suggested. This name was Anna Marie’s favorite; sort of mysterious, haunting and puzzling. Nope. Mother won and chose Buena Vista, loosely translated as “Good View”.
Mother spent hours, days and weeks thinking about and purchasing furnishings for the resort. A trip to Faribault, Minnesota was made to purchase blankets from a woolen mill. The blankets were green wool with darker green pine trees just below the top binding. Bedspreads of beige and red nubby fabric were purchased from Sears in Ely. Mother sewed all the curtains, beige with a small red pattern and hung by brass rings from the curtain rods. Furniture was bought from the Goodwill, Salvation Army and second hand stores. Furniture such as end tables, rocking chairs and ice boxes. Dressers were purchased new and unfinished and then stained. There were new Skelgas apartment sized stoves, porcelain sinks and light oak kitchen tables with thin red stripes at the edge of the tabletop plus four sturdy chairs in each cabin. The pots and pans supplied for each unit were white enamel with red trim. The dishes were white. Snowy white sheets, dish towels and one large black cast iron frying pan were also stocked. The pan was perfect for frying fish! Mother found a local woman to weave wool rugs in dark shades of red and blue. There was a rug beside every bed and in front of the door. There were also floor mats and window boxes. The cabins were clean, cozy and homey. They were heated by Heatrola stoves that burned wood or coal so there was a coal scuttle and a wood box behind each stove. In the broom closet, a new golden colored broom with a red handle stood ready for action.
Uncle Al, Aunt Lizette, Father, Mother and Anna Marie drove to Shell Lake, Wisconsin to purchase four sixteen foot round bottom wooden boats. These were painted white with red trim. The wooden interiors were varnished and shiny. A used flat bottom row boat of a larger size was bought the first summer. Later on, Father added an Old Towne canvas-covered canoe painted red to the fleet. There was also a goodly supply of anchors, oars, oar locks, rope, minnow buckets and a heavy duty all-purpose wheelbarrow available as well as all sorts of tools. Father bought a used one and a half horse Johnson outboard motor for the girls to use. He said the motor didn’t have enough power for them to get into trouble! He already owned an old two and a half horse fly-wheel model Johnson.
The first summer relatives and family helped to clean the swimming area. The shoreline was raked and re-raked as the waves washed in all sorts of debris left by careless people; jars, cans, bottles, old tires and assorted junk were all dumped into the lake. Prior to Father and Mother’s purchase of the property, the area, including the beach, the artesian spring and the primitive road had all been used as a public fishing area. The wave action of the lake kept unearthing old debris. Sometimes the girls carried rakes out into deep water to stir up the lake bottom. Gradually, the beach became clean but it was a lot of hard work.
It became evident right from the start that Mother and Father would have to hire help. So in the spring of 1940 Emmett Herranen, an Ely man, began working mostly as a fishing guide for the resort. His brother, Elmer, spent that year clearing land, burning brush and keeping an eye on the resort. Anna Marie loved the two bachelor brothers with sandy brown hair and beards. They were friendly and never in too much of a hurry to answer her endless questions. She followed them around, a little brown-haired eight year old asking: “Whatcha doing that for?” and “Why?” Up the trail they would go a young pesky girl riding on the shoulders of a laughing broad-shouldered man. Later their brother Billy, or Bill, an excellent swimmer worked a summer and taught the girls to swim.
Weekends were extremely busy because Father would be at the resort and there would be big projects to tackle. One of Bill’s jobs was to see that the tourists’ fish were put quickly on ice in the ice house then covered with saw dust and the spot carefully marked. One day Bill heard Mother calling for him in a frantic voice as he was involved elsewhere on the property. The health inspector was roaming around on his annual inspection and the fish house was a slimy mess!
Elmer and Emmett enjoyed playing cards, especially hearts with Father and Mother. The queen of spades became the Mustamija (“black queen”). Father enjoyed passing that card on. There was much hollering, laughing and pounding on the table during these games but it was all in good fun.
Another character at the resort was Jack Spring, a quiet bachelor who taught mother how to make majakkaa with fish. Jean and Anna Marie didn’t like fish stew and slipped pieces of fish to the dog under the table. Dudley Maijala from Winton also worked at the resort. He was full of fun, always teasing the girls and another excellent swimmer. These Finns were followed by Cousin David, Jimmy Toms of Ely, and then Gary Mackie from the Embarrass area who brought along his guitar and sang often in a soft tenor voice around the campfires at night. Sonny Evenochek from Winton was the last of the hired help. Each of these men in turn left a memory of times spent at Back of Beyond, of a special place he was part of.
Anna Marie poked one of the baked potatoes with a stick. They were soft, sort of except maybe in the center.
“Hey, they’re done. Somebody find the salt and pepper.”
Her cousins crowded around, grabbing for the sooty potatoes. They sat on logs, stumps or on the ground eating half-done baked potatoes with very sooty hands.
“Fun, huh? Hey look, the sun is almost set. Means we’re done here,” Jean said wiping her hands on her snow pants. “I’m tired, that’s for sure.
It had been a long day.
That first summer after the cabins were built Mother found inside projects to keep busy. The men, Father and the hired help, took care of clearing the land and trail building. The girls ran errands, played, hauled water, raked trails, piled brush and made wood piles; piles of logs and kindling for the Heatrolas. The piles had to be neat or else they were re-piled! There was time for swimming, fishing and tree climbing. Mother found some stationery that looked like birch bark so she answered correspondence to the resort on this paper using green ink. That lasted until she found tourists peeling the bark off the birch trees around the resort trying to make birch bark writing paper. A big NO-NO!
For Christmas, 1940 Mother sent guests small muslin pillows stuffed with cedar boughs. Sometimes she put a sprig of fresh cedar in with her letters as a pleasant fragrant reminder of the North Country.
The Ely Chamber of Commerce put together a descriptive booklet listing area resorts. The listing for Buena Vista reads:
Buena Vista Resort on Bear Island Lake, 11 miles South of Ely on Highway 21. Pine paneled housekeeping cottages, completely equipped. We have Skelgas ranges, electricity, built in cabinets and closets, porcelain sinks, innerspring mattresses, and coil springs. Fine large boats, excellent sandy beach. Good walleye and northern pike fishing. A real place for a real vacation. We invite correspondence. Mrs. J.B. Kobe, Box 147, Ely, Minnesota.
Suppertime. Early June. Mother was standing by the kitchen window staring at the sunset.
“Would you look at that sunset. Prettier than the one last night. Only one problem. We should have made these front windows ten inches lower. Then I could sit at the table and see the sunset through the trees without having to raise my head. Maybe the loons will be out tonight. We’ll stay away from the dock. They don’t abide people too well. Guess we best set the table. Where in the world is Father?”
The cabin door opened. Father walked in with a big grin on his face.
“You’re not going to believe this, no siree! I was walking down the road at the top of the hill, real quiet like with my hands behind my back like I like to do when I felt something soft and wet licking my fingers. Well, I turned around and there was a fawn, probably born this spring. It was licking my fingers. Honest. I stopped and it jumped into the bushes. Can you beat that? Marie, this place looks like a park, we’ve worked so hard.”
That’s as close to a “thank you” as Father could manage. Anna Marie could tell he was pleased and happy. It had been hard work, especially for her parents. The last few months had been hectic. The girls were in enrolled in the Ely schools and the whole family (except Father, who was on the road as a salesman) had stayed in Ely with Auntie Kay and Uncle Joe.
The sun ducked behind some deep purple and pink clouds and night crept up softly. Fish jumped leaving widening circles in the calm dark blue almost black lake. Mother sat quietly in her favorite rocking chair talking to everyone and no one.
“This is so perfect, quiet, birch trees all around, a sandy beach, and best of all-facing west!”
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.