This piece is excerpted and edited from “Summer at the Lake” by John Huston, originally published in the 2006 Ely Summer Times. The above image features Edna & Paul at a cabin in their resort.
Log cabin lodges dot the green shorelines. Motorboats full of tourists from Chicago and Minneapolis criss-cross the water. Floatplanes buzz overhead. Owners and employees of the many resorts on the lake form a unique culture, connected by water and a love for living on it. A young couple lazes about in a small boat. The sun is setting and they are feeling full from the fresh walleye dinner they just ate. They are thinking of the next chance they will have to cross the water and see each other.
This scene is not from modern-day Vermillion or Burntside. This is Basswood Lake in the 1940s. The couple would likely see each other the next evening after the work day as the lodges wound down. The two sat in a Shell Lake boat – a wooden 16-foot round-bottomed boat, powered by a 3-horsepower Johnson motor. Like everyone else of that time, they did not wear life jackets, their clothing was cotton and wool, they washed their dishes in the lake, and they puffed on unfiltered cigarettes. It was a time when hardworking resourceful families, happy to live a simple existence on lakes teeming with fish, met with a burgeoning tourism industry to create what many fondly remember as summer paradise on Basswood Lake.
Most people vacationing on Basswood Lake frequented the less expensive lodges that were common on the lake. Paul Summer and a business partner purchased Pipestone Lodge and its 400 acres of land for $30,000 in 1946. His wife Edna remembered that, “we were always busy, because of the fantastic fishing. Our resort was very rustic, guests had to carry their own water from the pump. We had no plumbing and only outhouses. In the evenings a diesel generator provided 110 volts of electricity. We relied on an icebox, which used ice that we had put up in the winter. Only in later years did we switch to propane-powered refrigerators. We did not have a shower until the late 1950s; up until that time people took a bath in the lake or carried water up to their cabin.”
Edna and Paul grew up in Hibbing, MN. Paul flew fighter planes in World War II and returned to Minnesota determined to fulfill his dream of owning and operating a resort. Shortly after purchasing Pipestone Lodge, he and Edna married and moved up to Basswood Lake where they lived, near Pipestone Falls, year-round for six straight years. Later they lived in Winton where Paul made his famous Pipestone Pottery.
“Paul and I were up every day and in the lodge at 5 in the morning. He would wake up the boys who went off to net minnows to serve as bait for the days fishing and then they got the boats all ready. Each day I cooked 17 loaves of homemade bread and several pies for dessert. I sold most of the bread to the resort staff for 35 cents a loaf. Once in a while I would take a bunch of guests and their children to pick blueberries. We usually came back with a few gallons. From these pickings I would bake 10 blueberry pies. I had a huge wood stove that could bake 10 pies at once. Then after the evening meal, being on vacation and all, people always wanted to visit. They always wanted us to stay down in the lodge and talk. Finally, it got so Paul and I took turns, because we were so tired. One night Paul stayed up late and the next night I would. It was hard, I tell you, each summer Paul and I each lost 20 pounds and it took us all winter to gain it back.”
“Basswood was full of young couples back then,” Edna continued with her customary warm chuckle, “The only time I made it to Basswood Lodge was on account of a couple. My waitress at Pipestone Lodge the first year, her name was Gert. She got hired by Basswood Lodge and her boyfriend Jake worked at the Kraft Executive Club, which was just down the shore from our place. Anytime he had a day off, Jake was always going all the way from Pipestone Bay, around U.S. Point and down Basswood to see Gert at Basswood Lodge. So, Jake talked Paul and I into trying to hire Gert, so she could be closer to him. We went all the way to Basswood Lodge and hired her and she came back with us. She and Jake married. Gert turned out to be my best friend and just died two years ago. Also, the mail would always come to our place and we would deliver it to the other lodges nearby. The young boys always wanted that job so they could meet the pretty girls at Dominon Isle, Pine Cliff and Mittermiers. One of our boys eventually got married to a girl from Dominon Isle. We raised our family on Basswood Lake, there was always a great community of families and children of all ages.”
Leone Johnson’s family owned Johnson’s Brother’s Fishing Camp, located on 42 acres just west of Rice Bay and that was where she spent her summers growing up. Her family lived in Winton during the winter and she attended school in Ely. “Those were great summers,” said Leone. “I swam all the time. We had a great location with some ancient cedar trees on our property. Since we were right on the border with Canada we got to know some of the rangers living in Bayley Bay to the north and on Ranger Island to the west. Canadian seaplanes were always coming and going.”
It was from one of those seaplanes that Bob Hayes first viewed the splendor of Basswood Lake. A tall black-haired sixteen-year-old Canadian, Bob was already one year removed from graduation from his 10-grade school and seasoned by growing up hunting, camping and fishing with his father. In May of 1942, he flew aboard a 4 passenger Stinson Reliant Gullwing headed east from Fort Frances, Ontario to Basswood Lake where he was posted as a Quetico Provincial Park Ranger for the summer. A ranger’s responsibilities pertained mostly to responding to forest fires, issuing permits to Americans entering the Quetico and patrolling for poachers. He could not imagine a better way to spend the summer than getting paid $112 a month to work in the woods and live in a log cabin on Basswood Lake. “I was very very excited at that time,” Bob recalled with his ever present dry wit. “On that plane I thought I was descending into the ultimate paradise. Little did I know it would be better than I could have ever imagined. I ended up living there year-round for four years.” Within hours of landing Bob would meet his future wife.
“We landed in Bayley Bay and I met the boss. He was a great broad shouldered husky man named George Armstrong and for some reason he took an immediate liking to me. Around about 5’oclock he said, ‘Bob, I’m going to take you over to meet the girls.’ We motored 3 miles straight south in a Peterborough freighter canoe, which was almost 4 feet wide and powered by a 3 horsepower opposed firing motor. We get over to the lodge and this cute little brunette girl is behind this glass case full of candy, fishing lures and cigarettes. I smoked back then and asked to buy one carton of Chesterfield cigarettes. I was shy at that time and just leaving home. First thing I knew, she had me out sitting on the porch swing in front of the lodge and we were exchanging our life stories, which doesn’t take too long when you are 16 years old.” Following countless summer evenings spent floating through the sunset on the lake, an interruption due to world war and with the help of a man named Oscar Frederickson, Bob Hayes and Leone Johnson married in 1948 and they are still in love 58 years later.
During the summer of 1943, Bob received orders to transfer to a ranger post on Lac La Croix. Being in love with Leone, Bob desperately did not want to leave. He tried to change the order through all official avenues possible, but his efforts were to no avail. When the day of his transfer arrived, his packed duffle bag sat waiting at the end of the dock and the seaplane approached to pick him up. At this point Oscar Frederickson, Bob’s boss that year, took matters into his own hands. Bob remembers Oscar as “an older Finnish man who stood 5’8”, possessed a very deep gravelly voice and had a chiseled physique hardened by years of living in the woods. Oscar saw that plane coming for me,” continued Bob with a smile “and he got on the radio and growled to the pilot ‘I want Hayes here and here he is going to stay!’ he repeated this forcefully several times. The plane landed and when it took off again I was still on the dock. Oscar knew Leone and I were in love and wanted me to stay to work for him and I did. I am forever grateful to Oscar for that.”
Bob depicted summer life as a Quetico Ranger in the 1940s as not all that different from life working at an American lodge, except that he got to carry a pistol, hunt anytime he wanted and that he never had to guide or entertain tourists. He lived year-round on Basswood Lake from the time he arrived in 1942 until he left for the Royal Canadian Air Force and World War II in early 1944. He returned to Basswood for more year-round work after the war in 1946 and worked as a ranger until 1948. During the winters he would snowshoe to Winton each weekend to visit Leone. Bob described his life as a ranger with the obvious affection of one looking back 64 years at the most positively formative period of his life. “Our main job in the summer was to control forest fires. With the sighting of a fire we would be flown off to try and put it out. When there were no fires in our area things were very loose and relaxed. I worked hard chopping wood, netting fish and helping to maintain the cabins, but I rarely felt short of free time to motor over to see Leone.”
Bob and Leone married in 1948 and moved to Emo, Ontario, 20 miles west of Fort Frances on the Rainy River. After six years of missing the Quetico and Basswood Lake, Bob quit his job on the highway crew, arrived home and announced to Leone that their young family should move to Winton. Leone did not need much convincing. They bought a house on Fall Lake. “We felt like something was missing from us away from here” said Leone “we wanted to be around the people and wilderness that was so much a part of us.”
Throughout his life Bob and Leone have remained passionate about the Quetico, Boundary Waters and each other. In the late 1970s when Provincial Park administrators planned to close the Quetico’s southern border to entry, Bob successfully lobbied for the border to remain open. Bob has also lobbied many young men “never to marry a woman who doesn’t like the woods.” Today Bob and Leone Hayes are 80 years old and live in Mittirmier’s old house in Winton. They still take walks in the woods with their neighbor and good friend, 84-year-old, Edna Summer.
EPILOGUE – Paul and Edna, Bob and Leone have all passed on to that great Northwoods in the sky. But they have left behind countless people who learned the lessons they taught through the way they lived their lives. Their homes in Winton are now owned by others who love the lakes and forests they live near, and who love each other too.