flying duck logo Oberholtzer – Biography

“Close friends of all sorts have occupied a large part of my life and still do. Whatever the other interests—and there have been many—these friends know my incurable slant toward primitive people and wilderness, particularly Indians and the sub-arctics of America. The Indians, who love droll characters, could probably give you a more vivid picture of me at this date than I.”

–Ober


“‘Ober,’ Boundary Waters' friend, creator of a magic island,” by Ted Hall. Published as a commentary piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 12, 1983.

He left a charming and challenging legacy, this Ernest Oberholtzer better known as “Ober” who was the torch-bearer of the half-century crusade that rescued the Boundary Waters Canoe Area from the looters and persuaded a new generation that the alternative to treating our host-planet kindly is to perish with it. Like those other pioneer conservationists—Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, Jay “Ding” Darling, Robert Marshall, and John Collier—he believed that wilderness is a national treasure intended for a grander purpose than to be “conquered.”

Ober came to the Minnesota-Ontario boundary waters area at the age of 25 to see for himself the country then being called our last frontier. The year was 1909 and he was fresh out of Harvard two years behind his class because of a long bout with rheumatic fever that his doctor told him had left about a year of life in his damaged heart. That remaining year, Ober promised himself, would be well spent, and he prepared for it by reading the journals of early travelers along the Minnesota-Canadian boundary waters, our oldest east-west highway still relatively unchanged.

From Ely he went into the boundary waters and stayed until ice began to glaze their sparkling surface. By now he was able to carry his canoe with only a few stops to regain his wind on the rougher, longer portages. By now he was thinking of the next summer—and summers far ahead. By now he was convinced that this simple, vigorous outdoor life in the north woods—the gentle, long exercise of paddling, the more vigorous workouts on the portages, and, above all, the serenity of wilderness—was extending that year of grace predicted by the doctor. He worked that winter in a Chicago investment brokerage house, and when the spring winds blew in across Lake Michigan, he resigned his job and returned to the country that promised new life.

Ober had studied to be a landscape architect, a trade of little promise in country already landscaped satisfactorily by a passing glacier, and he fell easily into another trade—that of writing about this new frontier that he now considered home. He learned the ways of the moose and of the still-primitive Ojibwa who welcomed his friendly curiosity about their rich, quiet culture and shared with him legends few white men had—or have since—heard. During his fourth year in the northland he traveled by canoe from Winnipeg to Hudson's Bay and back, a journey only one other white man had ever undertaken.

That winter of 1913 he lectured in England as the guest of the Royal Geographical Society, feeding his tales of the northland to audiences hungry for new knowledge of Indians and moose. That year of grace predicted by his doctor was far overdrawn and had become one of his humorous anecdotes.

By now he was spending winters as well as summers in this land that had given him life. He supervised the construction of a summer home on a Rainy Lake island for a former neighbor in his boyhood town of Davenport, Iowa. He managed a farm-resort summer community on another Rainy Lake island until its visionary owner lost courage and abandoned the project. He was briefly in charge of the marine machine shop and boatyard at Rainy Lake's port village of Ranier, and all the while he continued his canoe travels through the boundary lakes area in quest of new photographs of moose and old legends of the Ojibwa, by now his trusting friends.

Ober was on his 10th year of borrowed time when he staked out his own little sliver of granite in this granite land. It was called Mallard Island, one of a picturesque group of five islands, and for the next 50 years this doomed man from Harvard made it his home and his lectern.

He made it, too, the headquarters for the battle to save the boundary waters, a battle that began in 1925 when Minneapolis lumber baron and papermill tycoon Edward Wellington Backus unveiled his grand plan to conquer the boundary waters wilderness for the service of his mills. He was in for a surprise, for when Ober raised the alarm the strongest response came from Backus' own seat of power—Minneapolis—where Winstons and Wintons and Heffelfingers and Heads and Kellys and Hubacheks and Pillsburys and Crosbys rallied to stake out the public's long-term interest in the boundary water wilderness. “We preserve our masterpieces of art,” they declared in their opening salvo. “Why not preserve also a few masterpieces of Primitive America?”

That was a good question and the answers came quickly from all over the country, and the Quetico-Superior Council was born. Its supporters included Gifford Pinchot, Kermit Roosevelt, Ernest Thompson Seton, Dan Beard, Margaret Culkin Banning, Stuart Chase, Irvin S. Cobb, John Collier, Dr. John H. Finley, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, Arthur E. Morgan, John P. Marquand, Samuel Eliot Morison, Frederick Law Olmsted, Viljalmur Stefansson, Carl Sandburg, and Stewart Edward White. Its work horses were Ober, as president and secretary; Frederick S. Winston, who manned the council's tiny office on the 12th floor of the Flour Exchange In Minneapolis; Charles S. Kelly and Frank Brooke Hubachek, whose law office, first in Minneapolis and later in Chicago, provided the follow-through on the legal and lobbying front; and Sewell Tappan Tyng, whose access to the White House made him the council's chief troubleshooter.

The long, wearing battle for the Quetico-Superior boundary waters has been well chronicled by Newell Searle in The Fight for Quetico-Superior—A Land Set Apart, published by the Minnesota Historical Society. Let us simply note that through all that long battle, Ernest Oberholtzer's Mallard Island in Rainy Lake was the real headquarters—the touchstone—for the battle, and upon his death in 1977 at the age of 93, friends steered his island home into the foundation he had set up a dozen years earlier to carry on his quiet work as teacher, friend of wilderness and Indian, friend of art and literature and music, and, above all, friend of all people.

The restoration of Ober's magic island to his shipshape standards is nearly completed, and recently two dozen of his old friends and neighbors came to see again this special place and help plan its future. Already it has resumed Ober's hospitality to Indians and scholars and fellow-conservationists, to handicapped young adults, to writers and artists. Of this, the old friends and neighbors now approve.

And they offer good memories and good suggestions: Try to keep it the interesting “mix” of people who came there with Ober as their host, Winston Schmidt said. Use it, but use it the way Ober used it, he adds. Bud Schlick suggests that its use to help the Indian might be balanced by its use to help the white man learn from the Indian, a two-way street, and Jim Banks, one of Ober's many younger Indian friends and travel companions, agrees.

The conversation is lively and lasts until the witching hour when mosquitoes ride their brooms into battle. Keep it small and uninstitutional, we heard, and stay out of the involuntary restaurant-and-hotel role that would sap the Oberholtzer Foundation's meager income; consider it a sufficient role for the little foundation to perpetuate the magic spell of Ober's Island and make that its contribution to a rattling world.

Thus it comes together, this legacy, Ober's dream for his Mallard Island pieced together by friends like these assembled on the deck of his houseboat-kitchen, friends who heard him say that it should be a place where tired musicians could come to restore themselves, a place where in a crowding world Indians could always come to camp, a place where writers could come to escape the madding crowd, as did John P. Marquand and Sewell Tyng and John Bakeless and Kit Bakeless, a place where youth could take sights on a wider horizon, Ober's unending little university.

In the night that followed this gathering of Ober's friends, the summer waves applauded softly against the granite shore and the loons said Bravo. The northern lights danced a message, too, and that made it seem unanimous, this response to an evening's report on Ober's legacy, Ober's challenge.

Credit line accompanying the 1983 publication of this article: “Ted hall was Editor et Cetera of the Rainy Lake Chronicle. He continues to write, despite the disappearance of his newspaper.”


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