flying duck logo Oberholtzer – Timeline


This is the overview version of the Timeline. The Childhood, Young Adult, Adulthood, and Later Years pages provide more detail.

Note: The information in this Timeline is drawn for the most part from Joe Paddock's Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Oberholtzer (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001).

1884 (birth)

  • February 6, Ernest Carl Oberholtzer is born in Davenport, Iowa, a thriving Mississippi River town of 30,000 residents, to Rosa Carl and Henry Reist Oberholtzer.

1890 (age 6)

  • Rosa files for divorce from Henry Oberholtzer on the grounds of desertion.

1891 (age 7)

  • Ober's 5-year-old younger brother Frank dies from inflammation of the brain, possibly the result of a severe head injury caused by a fall. Ober and his mother Rosa move in to the large and gracious home of his maternal grandparents Ernest Carl and Sarah Marckley Carl on the corner of Sixth and Perry, Davenport. Ober never sees his father again.

1891–1900 (age 7–16)

  • Ober is raised in an upper middle-class, cultured household, spending his time reading, studying German, attending the neighborhood Unitarian church, delivering the Chicago newspaper, biking, hanging out with his best friend Harry French, and exploring the Iowa countryside.

1895 (age 11)

  • Ober is given a three-quarter size violin by his Grandfather Carl, and he begins a lifelong study of the classical violin.

1899 (age 15)

  • October, Ober's Grandfather Carl dies at age 58; Ober's Grandmother Sarah dies the following spring.

1901 (age 17)

  • Still grieving the loss of his grandparents, Ober is bedridden for three months with a severe bout of rheumatic fever, causing him to drop out of high school and fall half a year behind his class and leaving him with a heart condition. He is told by his doctors he is unlikely to live a year. His heart is a concern to him for the rest of his life.

1902–03 (age 18–19)

  • Ober studies Greek for six months in preparation for the Harvard entrance exams. He scores high marks on the exam in German and Greek, but unsatisfactory marks in geometry, chemistry, and history. He is conditionally admitted.

1903–08 (age 19–24)

  • Ober attends Harvard University, is awarded a B.A. in 1907, and pursues one year of graduate study in landscape architecture. He studies the violin under Boston Symphony concertmaster Willy Hess, plays in the college orchestra, attends concerts, serves on the board of the Harvard literary journal, The Advocate, and takes heavy credit loads. His English literature professor, Charles Townsend Copeland, whom he calls “Copey,” becomes a lifelong friend. He also begins lifelong friendships with classmates Conrad Aiken, who later achieves fame as a poet and fiction writer, and Samuel Eliot Morison, who becomes a renowned historian.

1906 (age 22)

  • In the summer after his senior year, Ober takes his first canoe trip in the border lakes region north of Ely, Minnesota.

1907–08 (age 23–24)

  • Ober pursues post-baccalaureate studies in landscape architecture at Harvard. He studies under Frederick Law Olmsted, son of the designer of Central Park in New York City.

1908 (age 24)

  • July, Ober and his college friend Conrad Aiken sail third-class cabin, steerage, from Quebec to Liverpool. They bike 40 to 50 miles a day around the Lake District in England and the Grampian Mountains in Scotland.

1908–15 (age 24–31)

  • Ober writes a number of articles and short stories, some under the name Ernest Carliowa. Most are in the boys' adventure genre; many are based on his canoeing experiences.

1909 (age 25)

  • May 28, still unsure about how he is going to make a living, Ober begins his “3,000-mile summer.” He canoes from May until freeze-up in late October, exploring water routes in the 14,500 square mile Rainy Lake watershed and discovering a passion for photographing moose.
  • Ober receives expert assistance from six different guides. Two in particular are exceptionally knowledgeable in wilderness ways: 69-year-old Pat Cyr—brother-in-law to Louis Riel (leader of the 1869 Red River Rebellion against the Canadian government)—who is of French-Indian extraction and endowed with legendary strength and ability; and Tay-tah-pa-sway-wi-tong (or “distant echo”), also known as Billy Magee, an Ojibwe trapper and guide who is in his late 40s and is so skilled he can follow a disused, overgrown Indian trail through the forest by feeling it beneath his feet.
  • As temperatures drop and the lake routes begin to freeze over, Ober heads for open water. Now traveling alone, he paddles down the Rainy River. Despite the water being “fearfully cold,” he decides not to portage around the big rapids at Manitou and shoots them, finding them “very much worse” than he thought they would be.
  • Ober sells his notes and photographs of his trip to the Canadian Northern Railroad for $400. His pamphlet describing canoe routes and estimated travel times is published by the railroad and is in use for 20 years.

1910 (age 26)

  • May 22–June 13, with Halley's comet visible in the evening sky, Ober and Billy Magee canoe up the Big Turtle River, prime habitat for moose. Using a large and heavy 3A Graflex camera and a portable developing box, and stringing up the negatives in the canoe to dry as they travel along, Ober takes some of the finest daylight photos of moose in his time.

1910–12 (age 26–28)

  • July–September, Ober alters his plans for the summer when a telegram arrives from his childhood friend Harry French inviting him to travel around Europe for three months.
  • At Arthur Hawkes' urging, Ober decides to stay in London for the winter to see if he can make his living as a lecturer and freelance writer providing articles about the North American wilderness for English publications. He illustrates his talks with black and white lantern slides of moose and the border lakes region, publishes a paper in the London Zoological Society proceedings, and does several articles for the highly regarded magazine The Field.
  • With his Harvard education and his command of the German language as credentials, and on the recommendation of a friend, Ober is appointed American vice consul at Hannover.

1912 (age 28)

  • June 26–November 5, setting out at the end of the railroad line at Le Pas, Manitoba (west of Lake Winnipeg), Ober and Billy Magee head “toward magnetic north,” exploring an unmapped territory that hasn't been visited by a white man since Samuel Hearne traveled through the area in 1770.
  • Beginning on the Saskatchewan River, they paddle north to the 170-mile-long Reindeer Lake. There, without a guide, they thread their way through a “labyrinth of islands, long bays, headlands, and points,” never completely certain of their location. Finally the two explorers, exhausted and occasionally hallucinating, find the entrance to the Thlewiaza River.
  • September 12, weeks later than planned, the two explorers finally reach Hudson Bay.
  • Stuffing their shoes and surrounding their legs with dry wild hay to keep from freezing, they paddle 300 miles from Churchill south to York Factory, following the west shoreline of Hudson Bay. Against the advice of the post manager at York Factory, they continue their journey south, traveling against the swift current of the Hayes River toward Lake Winnipeg.
  • When they reach Norway House at the north end of Lake Winnipeg, they are told that the last south-bound steamer of the season had departed just two days earlier. They paddle another 260 miles to Gimli, where they catch a train home.
  • The extraordinary 2,000-mile, four-month journey makes Ober and Billy legendary figures among outdoors people, and Ober later refers to the trip as the single most powerful experience of his life.

1913 (age 29)

  • In 1917, Ober writes, “Since 1913, I have lived almost continuously among the pagan Ojibwe Indians in the territory north of and tributary to Rainy Lake Ontario. I have made numerous trips alone on snowshoe or in canoe to tribes within a radius of 250 miles, one of the objects being to record in their own language and from their own dictation, their old legends and songs. I have taken down a great many of their stories from dictation in the original Ojibwe.”

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1914–15 (age 30–31)

  • As Ober later describes, “I traveled alone in 1914 by canoe in summer and snowshoes in winter among the Indians between Rainy Lake and Lac Seul getting their acquaintance and their language.”
  • Over the 1914–15 winter, Ober house-sits a new cabin on Rainy Lake for the Ogaard family. For the first time his local address is Ranier, Minnesota, a village about three miles east of International Falls.

1916 (age 32)

  • Ober continues gathering information from the Ojibwe people in the area. They begin calling him “Atisokan,” which means “legend” or “teller of legends” and is in reference to Nanabozho legends. His principal source of material is Pierrish Jourdain, who is of French and Indian descent and is nearly 100 years old.
  • Ober becomes acquainted with Dr. Mary Ghostley, whose husband, also a physician, died in an epidemic. Some people believe she is interested in a romantic relationship and possibly marriage.

1916–21 (age 32–37)

  • 1916, William Hapgood, a fellow Harvard graduate and brother of Norman Hapgood (editor of Collier's Weekly) hires Ober to develop Deer Island (also called Grassy Island), a 375-acre island on Rainy Lake, for agriculture and tourism. He and Rosa work many long hours hauling topsoil, planting corn, and raising chickens, geese, turkeys, and sheep. When William and Ober incorporate the project as a business in 1920, Ober becomes a partner.
  • Ober turns down two positions, one as a Boy Scout executive in Davenport, and another (tentatively offered) by pioneer educator and noted engineer Arthur Morgan to serve as a faculty member at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
  • 1918, Hapgood and Oberholtzer purchase the 227-acre Sand Point Island, located on the Canadian side of the lake. When they dissolve their partnership in 1922, Ober becomes sole owner, and for the next fifty years he makes the island's granite ledges and exceptional sand beaches available to the public for picnicking, hiking, camping, and swimming.
  • 1921, as a result of losses in the Columbia Conserve Canning Company in Indiana, Hapgood begins to withdraw his support of the Deer Island project and to liquidate assets.

1922 (age 38)

  • The Deer Island partnership is dissolved. By previous arrangement, in lieu of salary Ober assumes ownership of three of the four nearby Review Islands (Crow, Mallard, and Hawk, but not Gull, which is given to the Oberholtzer Foundation in 1995).
  • During the latter part of the Deer Island Partnership Ober moved two old houseboats that he and Rosa had been using for shelter – the Wannigan, which had been a floating kitchen for lumberjacks, and Cedar Bark, which is said to have been a floating brothel – from the mainland to Mallard Island.
  • Sometime in the early 1920s, Ober and Rosa host Frances Densmore, a famous collector of Indian songs.

1923–24 (age 39–40)

  • Ober plans a number of writing projects, but makes no substantial progress on any of them. He considers making his living selling real estate. Twice he borrows $1,000 from Harry French, who is eager to help out his childhood friend.

1924 (age 40)

  • Summer and fall, Bror Dahlberg, a wealthy Chicago industrialist, hires Ober to supervise construction of Red Crest, an opulent lodge on nearby Jackfish Island. Ober is successful in persuading the master carpenter Emil Johnson, who is considered a genius with wood, to stay sober and on the job so that the project can be completed.
  • With the trained eye of a landscape architect and an innate appreciation for the natural beauty of the north woods, Ober begins to develop Mallard Island, constructing a series of buildings from native materials that blend harmoniously with the granite and pine landscape.
  • Ober travels by canoe to visit the Seine River Indians. He also travels to the Red Gut Reserve in Ontario to purchase Indian crafts to sell to the many people who are now visiting him on Mallard Island in the summer, sometimes for extended stays. He prints a brochure titled “Canoe Trips Arranged by Oberholtzer” offering factual information on routes and campsites as well as anecdotes and bits of local color.

1925 (age 41)

  • Ober and other conservationists learn more about a plan by lumber baron and industrialist Edward Wellington Backus, whose paper mills are, at this time, the second largest in the world in terms of total production.
  • Backus's plan is to build a series of seven dams to create four main water storage areas in the Rainy Lake watershed. The affected areas would include parts of the Superior National Forest and what are now Voyageurs National Park, Quetico Provincial Park, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
  • Affronted by what he considers an assault on the ecology and beauty of a wilderness he knows so intimately and loves so deeply, an area he thinks “one of the rarest of all regions of the continent, if not the world,” Ober assumes a leading role in organizing a national campaign to oppose the plan.

1927 (age 43)

  • Attorney Frank Hubachek, a member of a Twin Cities group of young business and professional men opposed to Backus's plan, contacts Ober to offer the group's support. Of this group, Hubachek and attorneys Charles F. Kelly and Fred Winston play a critically important role in working with Ober to protect the Quetico-Superior wilderness over the next forty years.
  • At the request of Frank Hubachek's Twin Cities group, Ober writes a seven-page, 5,000-word analysis identifying and responding to the important issues in the Backus plan. Some 25,000 copies of the document—titled “Conservation or Confiscation: An Analysis of the Water Storage Project proposed by Mr. E. W. Backus as Affecting International Boundary Waters Particularly in Quetico Park and the Superior National Forest”—are eventually printed and distributed to libraries and various organizations throughout the state.
  • Because the Twin Cities group thinks it important to have a conservation program of its own to propose to the International Joint Commission rather than merely oppose the Backus plan, it encourages Ober to begin developing a counter plan. Ober comes up with the idea that the Rainy Lake watershed should be managed as a single bioregion or unit. Ober refers to his plan as “the Program,” and he concludes that the best way to protect the region would be for the U.S. and Canada to sign a treaty designating the entire ten-million-acre Quetico-Superior region an International Peace Memorial Forest to honor the men and women who served in the First World War (and later those who served in the Second World War as well).
  • November 29, Ober attends an international forestry conference in Duluth organized by the Minnesota Conservation Council. Delegates adopt a program and agree to create an organization, soon to be named the Quetico-Superior Council, to support a treaty creating an International Peace Memorial Forest. They decide that Ober should head this new organization.

1928 (age 44)

  • January 27, the Quetico-Superior Council, so named at Ober's suggestion, holds its first meeting, with Ober as its president. Ober agrees to do the job for six months but ends up serving for more than 30 years as its one and only president. He is to be paid a salary of $5,000 a year.
  • March, Ober's fight to preserve wilderness requires that he leave Mallard Island. He and Rosa move to an apartment at 2605 Fremont Avenue South, Minneapolis, where he works to assemble a prestigious National Board of Advisors for the Quetico-Superior Council. For years the Council maintains a tiny office on the twelfth floor of the Flour Exchange in Minneapolis, where Fred Winston works in his quiet but effective behind-the-scene style.
  • Spring, the Shipstead-Newton bill (later reintroduced as the Shipstead Nolan bill) is introduced into Congress, and Ober begins to work for its passage. On May 11 he testifies before Congress in support of the bill.

1929 (age 45)

  • Ober writes three articles explaining the consequences of the Backus plan on the border lakes region and pointing out that the proposed dams and storage basins are to be constructed “not at private but at public expense.” The articles – which appear in three separate issues of American Forests and Forest Life and are republished under a single title, “The Lakes of Verendrye: A University of the Wilderness” – illustrate Ober's skill as a writer.
  • Summer, Ober meets with President Herbert Hoover to enlist his support for the Program.
  • August 14, after being an invalid for the past year and a half and suffering from pneumonia twice in the past year, Ober's mother Rosa dies.

1930s (age 46–55)

  • Ober opens an account with Mine Centre trader Edgar Bliss, who is called Iceman by the Indians, for the purpose of providing assistance to Billy Magee and his family. He maintains the account long after Billy's death, providing assistance to Billy's oldest sister, Notawey (Ogish-quay-cumi-gola), and her cousin Johnny Whitefish.
  • At some point in his life, perhaps during the 1930s, Ober becomes an initiate in the Midéwiwin, the Ojibwe Grand Medicine Society (the Society of Mide or Shamans) as a result of his long association with the Ojibwe and his dedication to their language, legends, and spirituality.

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1930 (age 46)

  • Frances Andrews, an environmentalist and daughter of a Minneapolis grain merchant, enters Ober's life, and they become close friends. Though she loves him dearly and though Ober cares deeply for her, they never marry. Ober, who remains single throughout his life, makes it clear he prefers they remain friends.
  • May, Ober returns to Harvard for the first time in more than twenty years. He visits the three people who were closest to him at Harvard: his former classmates Conrad Aiken and Samuel Morison, both of whom have distinguished themselves by publishing numerous works in their respective fields, as well as his former English professor Charles “Copey” Copeland.
  • July 10, partly as the result of the dedicated work of Ober and Fred Winston and other conservationists, the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act is signed into law by President Herbert Hoover. The first statute in U.S. history in which Congress expressly orders land be protected as “wilderness,” it withdraws all federal land in the boundary waters region from homesteading or sale, prevents the alteration of natural water levels by dams, prohibits logging within 400 feet of shorelines, and preserves the wilderness nature of shorelines.

1931 (age 47)

  • After years of preoccupation with the battle over his waterpower plan for the border lakes region and after major investments to expand his papers mills during a period of economic downturn, Edward Backus's business goes into receivership.

1933 (age 49)

  • April 19, despite vigorous opposition by Minnesota Power and Light, legislation applying the same set of protections of the Shipstead-Nolan Act to state lands is passed by the Minnesota Legislature. The bill is titled “An Act To Protect Certain Public Lands and Waters Adjacent Thereto Owned by the State of Minnesota.”

1934 (age 50)

  • June 30, the President's five member Quetico-Superior Committee is established by executive order of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with Ober as its first chair. Its mission is identical with that of the Quetico-Superior Council, but from a federal perspective. Ober chairs the committee for 12 years, and he serves as a member until 1968.
  • October 29, Edward Wellington Backus, the last of the great lumber barons, dies at the age of 73 of a heart attack in his rooms at the Vanderbilt Hotel in New York City.

1935 (age 51)

  • January, the Wilderness Society is founded by Robert Marshall, Harvey Broome, Bernard Frank, Benton MacKaye, Harold Anderson, and Robert Sterling Yard “to ensure that future generations enjoy the clean air and water, beauty, wildlife, and opportunities for recreation and spiritual renewal provided by America's Wilderness.” Aldo Leopold and Ober are invited to be part of the founding group. Ober serves on its executive council until 1967.
  • After four years without significant income, Ober is in desperate financial circumstances. He describes himself as “heavily in debt,” with taxes on Mallard Island and his mother's house in Davenport “long delinquent.”

1937 (age 53)

  • Despite his desperate financial circumstances, over the years Ober refuses to draw his salary from the Quetico-Superior Council because he doesn't want to deplete its limited resources. In late December, the council treasurer, J. G. Byam deposits $3,000 into Ober's account “by instruction of the Executive Committee,” and he informs Ober that another $2,000 will be deposited to his credit on the first of the year.
  • Billy Magee suffers a stroke.

1938 (age 54)

  • May 1, four days after suffering a second stroke, trapper, guide, and canoe trip companion Billy Magee dies.
  • July 5–10, traveling with Peavey Heffelfinger, Jr., Ober visits Billy Magee's grave opposite the Headlight portage out of Big Turtle Lake.

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1940 (age 56)

  • Ober's Big House is completed. More substantial in construction than other buildings on Mallard, it is apparently paid for by the sale of the Davenport house that Ober inherited from his mother Rosa.

1948 (age 64)

  • Ober travels to Mine Centre and tape records an interview in Ojibwe with Johnny Whitefish, who was living with his cousin Notawey (Billy Magee's oldest sister), about Billy's memories of their 1912 canoe trip to Hudson Bay and back.

1950s (age 66–75)

  • Health-conscious since childhood, Ober quits smoking cold turkey when he learns of the health risks and detrimental effects of tobacco use.
  • Frances Andrews begins spending summers in Front House on the east point of Mallard Island. She works preparing menus for guests and tending gardens. In the late 1950s Frances buys Wildcroft, a home on the mainland a short distance from the island, perhaps hoping someday she and Ober would live there together. Six years after her death in 1961, Ober moves into the house and he lives there for six years.
  • Ober continues taking regular canoe trips with Leo Anderson, Jimmy Banks, Harry “Pinay” Boshkaykin, Jimmy Boshkaygin, Douglas Head, Harry Henderson, Bob Hilke, Ron Lempi, Bob Namaypok, Maurice Perrault, John Szarkowski, and others, paddling a minimum of 500 miles a year, often traveling to the Seine River and Red Gut Reserves.
  • Ober continues his long tradition of lending a helping hand to Native Americans during difficult times. He keeps bundles of clothing on the island, usually purchased by Frances Andrews, and he gives them to visiting Indians in need of new pants and shirts.

1953 (age 69)

  • Ober winters alone on the Mallard. In his notebooks for 1953 and 1954, he indicates his continuing determination to write. In a reference to his former Harvard English professor Charles Copeland, he reveals the weight of his high expectations of himself: “Written work essential to everything. . . . Do not disgrace Copey, your college, your friends.”

1957 (age 73)

  • Formal letters of agreement regarding mutual protection of the Rainy Lake watershed are exchanged by the U.S. and Canada. Although the exchange falls short of the treaty setting the area aside as an International Peace Memorial Forest that Ober worked for years to establish, the exchange represents a significant achievement in wilderness management.

1960s (age 76–85)

  • George Monahan, who as a boy spent time on Mallard Island and who went on several canoe trips with Ober, conducts a series of oral history interviews with Ober.

1961 (age 77)

  • July, Ober's “generous hostess,” dear friend, and supporter of more than 30 years, Frances Andrews dies after a brief illness. She bequeaths her home, Wildcroft, and $55,000 to Ober.

1963 (age 79)

  • Lucile Kane and Russell Fridley of the Minnesota Historical Society, along with some of Ober's friends, begin a series of oral history interviews with Ober. In these oral history interviews, Ober reveals his continuing interest in collecting Ojibwe stories and legends.
  • August 3–11, nearing the end of his active life, Ober travels with Bob Hilke to Nueltin Lake, a trip he has longed to make since his momentous journey with Billy Magee in 1912. They locate the can that Ober left on top of the esker with what he thought might be his last words to his mother. The can is “rusted and with little holes, but still solid.” The note has been removed.
  • Ober finds a Winnipeg surgeon and arranges financing (presumably from Frances Andrews) for an operation for Allen Snowball, a twelve-year-old Ojibwe boy who was born with a defective hip that has prevented him from walking. The operation is a success, and Allen is able to walk almost normally throughout his adult life.

1964 (age 80)

  • Ober suffers a stroke that nearly ends his life. He spends six weeks in an oxygen tent. During his remaining years he suffers increasingly from memory loss and mental confusion.

1965 (age 81)

  • Ober establishes a modest charitable trust, the Ernest C. Oberholtzer Foundation. Its purpose, as described by Joe Paddock, is “to aid continuance of his life's work, especially in support of Native American culture and the preservation of wilderness areas.”

1966 (age 82)

  • Ober is awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Northern Michigan University for his unrelenting work to preserve North American wilderness. The award is facilitated by Ober's Harvard friend Samuel Eliot Morison.

1967 (age 83)

  • January 6, Ober is recognized by the Natural History Society of Minnesota for his work on behalf of “the perpetuation of our wilderness canoe country.”
  • March 22, Ober is awarded the Department of the Interior Distinguished Service Award, “the highest honor within the power of the Department of the Interior to bestow upon a private citizen,” by the U.S. secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall. – July 19, Ober is awarded the Capitaine International Honor Award for his contributions.
  • Ober moves to Wildcroft from his houseboat (later named Frigate Friday), which is grounded nearby. He lives alone in Frances Andrews' former home for about a year. His health is rapidly failing.

1968–73 (age 84–89)

  • Ober continues to live in Wildcroft, assisted by a series of live-in caretakers. During this period he spends six months in the International Falls hospital.

1970 (age 86)

  • Without family and no longer able to manage his own affairs, Ferdinand “Fritz” Hilke (father of Bob Hilke) is named Ober's personal guardian.

1973–76 (age 89–92)

  • January 4, Ober moves into the Falls Nursing Home in International Falls.

1973 (age 89)

  • October 10, seventy-five of Ober's friends gather on Mallard Island in a ceremony honoring his life. As Joe Paddock describes the occasion, “Eighty-nine years old and confined to his wheelchair, Ober was in attendance, but Atisokan's marvelously sensitive and alive storyteller's mind was no longer much present.”


  • June 6, after refusing food during his last days, Ober dies at age 93. Memorial services are held in both International Falls and Davenport. According to his wishes, Ober is buried in his family plot in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa, alongside his mother, brother, and grandparents. His headstone bears these words:

Ernest Carl Oberholtzer
His Indian name for Storyteller
Feb. 6, 1884–June 6, 1977

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