flying duck logo Oberholtzer – TimelineAdulthood

Adulthood: 1925–1934
(age 40 to 49)

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).

1925 (age 41)

  • Raymond Ickes, son of Harold Ickes, spends time on Mallard. Harold later becomes U.S. secretary of the interior and supports Ober's work to protect the border lakes region.
  • 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. Two decades earlier Backus financed construction of the dam at Koochiching—now International Falls—to provide waterpower for his Minnesota and Ontario Power Company (later called the Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company). Since construction of that dam, serious floods have occurred in 1912, 1916, and 1927, causing significant damage to property owners in low-lying areas.
  • 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. Water levels would be raised significantly above natural levels—for example, Little Vermilion Lake would be raised by 80 feet, Loon Lake by 33 feet, Lac La Croix by 16 feet, and Saganaga and Crooked lakes by 15 feet. Because the purpose of the storage basins would be to provide an even flow of water to the main power dam, water levels would be lowered and raised according to when the water was needed.
  • 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. In 1930, having moved from Mallard to Minneapolis and having stayed for extended periods in Washington, D.C., to carry on his campaign to preserve the border lakes region, Ober laments, “I miss the lake and my old life more than I can say. It is very difficult for me to understand why it should have fallen to my lot to carry on the battle for this region, where I was always such a quiet and unobtrusive sojourner.”
  • By odd coincidence, Backus and Oberholtzer, who do battle with each other for the next nine years, are summer neighbors on Rainy Lake. Backus's lake home, on Red Sucker Island (also known at the time as Backus Island, and now known both as Hyatt Island and as Windsong Island), and Mallard Island are within sight of each other. According to Joe Paddock, “Both men had the manners of Victorian gentlemen, and local legend has it that once a year these two, alternating between their separate islands, set aside their struggle and had a polite cup of tea together.” Another story reveals a less cordial side of their relationship. When Backus learns that Ober has built a dock with logs cut by Backus's company that were drifting in Rainy Lake, Backus has his men show up unannounced and tow away the dock.
  • September 25–28, the International Joint Commission, created in 1909 by Britain (on behalf of Canada) and the U.S. to study and settle disputes regarding the use of bordering international waters, holds a three-day hearing to discuss whether lakes and streams in the Rainy Lake watershed should be used as storage basins for industrial waterpower. The economically powerful and politically well-connected Backus is accustomed to having his way with legislatures and governing bodies, and he considers a favorable ruling by the IJC to be critical to the success of his plan. Ober attends the meeting and makes a brief presentation opposing the plan. He is coached on strategy by his friend Sewell Tyng, former secretary to Herbert Hoover and an energetic and capable attorney.
  • Based on information Ober collects for him at the September meeting of the International Commission, Tyng drafts a legal brief opposing the Backus plan. Ober approves the arguments, does some final editing, and sends the brief to his friend attorney Harold Ickes, soon to be U.S. secretary of the interior, who approves the brief as is. When the Joint Commission receives the brief, its mood seems to shift from giving the Backus plan routine approval to paying serious attention to the opposition.
  • The Minneapolis Journal publishes a series of editorials opposing the Backus plan.

1926 (age 42)

  • September 17, the Little Indian Sioux, the Caribou, and the Superior “roadless areas” of the Superior National Forest are designated as a 640,000-acre roadless wilderness area under a policy issued by the U.S. Forest Service under U.S. Agricultural Secretary William Jardine in a policy to “retain as much as possible of the land which has recreational opportunities of this nature as a wilderness.”
  • October 2–12, Ober canoes with Billy Magee to Magee's camp on the Seine River.

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1927 (age 43)

  • Raymond Ickes, son of Harold Ickes, again spends time on Mallard.
  • 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. In its first public statement, the group declares its position: “We preserve our masterpieces of art. Why not preserve also a few masterpieces of Primitive America?” Of this group, Hubachek and attorneys Charles S. 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, using information from the legal brief he and Sewell Tyng have prepared, 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). It would be “a vast international park, four times as large as Yellowstone and excluding all economic exploitation.” Despite decades of work, Ober never succeeds in getting the two countries to sign a treaty, but in 1957 formal letters of agreement regarding mutual protection of the area are exchanged by the U.S. and Canada, the Program becomes a national model for wilderness management, and many of its concepts and principles – including the idea that federal lands could be preserved as wilderness free of economic exploitation – eventually become policy and law.
  • October, financed by the Twin Cities group, Ober travels by train to conferences in Chicago, Ottawa, Toronto, New York, and Washington, D.C., to promote the Program.
  • November 29, Ober attends an international forestry conference in Duluth organized by the Minnesota Conservation Council, made up of a number of organizations concerned about the Backus plan including the Arrowhead Association, the Izaak Walton League, the Rainy Lake Association, the American Legion, the Game Protective League, the Women's Association, and the Minnesota Farm Bureau. 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.

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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. By their determined efforts they succeed in enlisting as supporters many influential people, including Gifford Pinchot, Kermit Roosevelt, Ernest Thompson Seton, Dan Beard, Margaret Culkin Banning, Stuart Chase, Irvin Cobb, John Collier, Dr. John Finley, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, Arthur Morgan, John Marquand, Samuel Eliot Morison, Frederick Law Olmsted, Viljalmur Stefansson, Carl Sandburg, and Steward Edward White.
  • 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.
  • Over the next few decades, with invaluable secretarial support from Clara Martin, Ober writes thousands of letters soliciting support for the Program. He also continues to make canoe trips to monitor the environmental impact of dams, logging, and other commercial activities on the Rainy Lake Watershed, averaging 500 miles of canoe travel a summer. His photographs and firsthand accounts carry considerable weight in his continuing efforts to protect the wilderness.

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. He comes away feeling discouraged because he doesn't think the President “has the slightest interest in the world in what we are after.” The publicity surrounding the visit, however, is positive.
  • 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.
  • Ober inherits his mother's house at 35 Oak Lane in Davenport and a commercial establishment he calls “the old Market” at 422 West Second Street. Profit from the commercial property becomes his most stable source of income for the rest of his life.
  • October 14–23, Ober canoes with Fred Winston to see Billy Magee at his camp on the Seine River.

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. Ober considers “Mrs. Notawey” to be “one of the greatest women I ever knew in all my life.”
  • 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.

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.
  • April, Ober considers turning over all his property on Rainy Lake to his friend Harry French in payment for his growing debt to him. Harry refuses the offer.
  • 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. Ober is relieved that his old friend Conrad seems to harbor no ill feelings regarding their troubled parting in 1908.
  • 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.
  • Despite this triumph, for the next three years the Quetico-Superior Council enters a troubled period as a result of the Depression and dwindling donations.

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.”
  • Sewell Tyng spends much of the year with Ober on Mallard Island following a romantic scandal and the breakup of his marriage with Ruth, who becomes mentally unstable and is committed to an institution. In October, Tyng represents the Quetico-Superior Council at two critical hearings of the International Joint Commission. One of the witnesses he calls is Sigurd Olson, who later plays a critical role in preserving the boundary waters wilderness. During his stay on Mallard, Tyng spends time writing a history of a World War I battle, later published to critical acclaim under the title Campaign of the Marne 1914.

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.
  • July, the International Joint Commission issues its long-awaited final report. Though it fails to take a definite stand on the critical issues relating to the proposed development of industrial waterpower within the Rainy Lake watershed, it denies Backus permission to go forward with his plan. According to Joe Paddock, “Sewell Tyng was disgusted by the unresolved nature of the final report. Ober, on the other hand, rightly believed that, with federal and state protection offered by the Shipstead-Nolan legislation, the IJC's inconclusive report marked the end of the industrial dream of turning the boundary waters into a power basin.”
  • Included in the Final Report are the first detailed maps of the Quetico-Superior country, produced as a result of a five-year survey of lake shores, stream flows, and water levels conducted by employees of the U.S.-Canadian Boundary Survey, including “Canada Jack,” Big Fred Frederickson, and William “Bill” Magie.
  • 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. Of his death Ober writes, “So tragically alone at the end . . . without the comfort of real friends. I know the sadness of it . . . and what great qualities he had. His lonely death makes his life, with all its triumphs, seem pathetically hollow. I will miss E. W. One cannot be in harness with a team mate for so long without missing him.”

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