Later Years: 1935–1977
(age 50 to 93)
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).
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.
- August 15–September 1, Ober canoes with Ted Hall and Billy Magee to the Seine River and Big Turtle Lake.
- 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.” He considers a plan to rent the entire island—except for “one of the cabins” in which he would have his “office and personal effects”—for $500 for the season. He does not act on the plan.
1937 (age 53)
- Summer, Ray Anderson, a photographer who works to preserve Ober's photographs after his death, meets Ober for the first time when he helps haul rocks for the foundation of Ober's Big House. Anderson later says, “I only spent a few days there, but the island and Ober made an impression on me that has lasted all my life.”
- 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. In a letter informing Ober of Billy's death, trader Edgar Bliss writes, “Billy was buried opposite the Headlight Portage. I gave them a nice flag to hang up along side of Grave.”
- July 5–10, traveling with Peavey Heffelfinger, Jr., Ober visits Billy Magee's grave opposite the Headlight portage out of Big Turtle Lake.
1939 (age 55)
- Superior National Forest's three wilderness areas are renamed the Superior Roadless Primitive Areas under a plan formulated with the help of Robert Marshall, then in charge of recreation in the Washington office of the U.S. Forest Service. The designation protects the areas from development but allows timber cutting and motorboats.
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.
1942 (age 58)
- October 5–19, Ober canoes with Buddy Friday, who is Charlie Friday's son, to Big Turtle Lake to photograph wildlife.
1943 (age 59)
- September 27–October 15, Ober canoes with Bob Namaypok to Big Turtle Lake. Before they began traveling together, Ober has heard that Bob “could draw and paint just beautifully,” and he hopes to help him develop his talent as a visual artist. On their trips, perhaps including this one, Ober would bring along large sheets of paper and he would “give him one of these every evening to draw on.” Tragically, Bob later contracts tuberculosis. Sometime after their 1947 trip, he hemorrhages and nearly bleeds to death while cutting pulpwood with his uncle, and soon after dies.
1944 (age 60)
- September 1–24, Ober travels by canoe to visit the Seine River Indians and goes wild-ricing with Charlie Friday's party, then canoes on to the Mathieu logging camp on Robinson Lake.
- October 14–19, Ober canoes with Bob Struve to see Charlie Friday and the Seine River Indians.
1945 (age 61)
- May 29–June 22, Ober canoes with Bob Namaypok and his younger half-brother Pinay, who is about 8.
1946 (age 62)
- September 12–October 1, Ober canoes with Jimmy Boshkaygin, who is John Boshkaygin's son and part of an extended Seine River Ojibwe family.
1947 (age 63)
- October 16–20, Ober canoes with Bob Namaypok to visit Johnny Jones' family at Red Gut.
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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. He also attempts to record Notawey, who he thinks has “a wonderful quality, a rich voice,” but—never good at operating mechanical things—Ober forgets to attach the microphone and misses his opportunity.
- Frank Hubachek establishes the Wilderness Research Center on his Basswood Lake property, which he purchased in 1937 to prevent a stand of 200-year-old pines from being logged.
- The Thye-Blatnick Act, Public Law 733, is passed by Congress, directing the Secretary of Agriculture to acquire resorts, cabins, and private lands within the boundary waters area and prohibiting any permanent residents after 1974.
1949 (age 65)
- April, Friends of the Wilderness is founded by Bill Magie, Frank Robertson, and other conservationists, to represent organizations supporting a ban on airplanes over the boundary waters area. Thirty years later a bronze plaque honoring Magie is placed on the granite rock wall on the southeast end of Mallard Island. Its inscription reads: “Think on this land of lakes and forests. It cannot survive man's greed without man's selfless dedication. William W. Magie, friend of the wilderness, devoted most of his life to the cause. Now it is yours. Placed with love and gratitude by the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, August 18, 1979.”
- Ober travels by canoe to visit the Seine River Indians. He keeps a daily journal (now in possession of the Minnesota Historical Society), in which he mentions efforts to create an airspace reservation over the boundary waters region, the presentation of his draft for a treaty establishing a peace memorial forest, and his literary efforts.
- December 17, Executive Order 10092 is signed by President Truman creating an “airspace reservation” that bans private flights below the altitude of 4,000 feet above sea level, in part as a result of the work of activists Sigurd Olson, Frank Hubachek, Charles S. Kelly, Bill Magie, and others.
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.
- Oscar Gilbertson comes to Mallard Island to do stonework. He stays on as an all-around island handyman.
- 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.
1950 (age 66)
- Ober canoes with Bob Hilke to Sawbill Lake in the eastern part of the boundary waters. Later that year they canoe up the Namakan River.
- In an event known locally as “the big flood,” runoff from heavy snowmelt causes widespread flooding and property damage in the Rainy Lake watershed. Buildings on Mallard Island are damaged and some supplies that couldn't be secured float away.
1951 (age 67)
- Ober canoes with Bob Hilke up the Namakan River, staying at Bob Handberg's resort on Lac La Croix.
1952 (age 68)
- Ober canoes with Maurice Perrault, an Ojibwe boy, up the Turtle River. Maurice spends his summer working for Ober on the Mallard.
- September–October, Ober and Maurice take a second canoe trip. This time they travel up the Little Turtle River to Atikokan, Ontario. For the last three hours of their trip, they push their canoe across a frozen lake.
1953 (age 69)
- October 12–23, Ober canoes with Jimmy Boshkaygin to the Northwest Angle, Lake of the woods.
- 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.”
1954 (age 70)
- October 13–25, Ober canoes with Pinay.
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1955 (age 71)
- Summer, Frances Andrews hires Barbara Thomas (who later becomes Barbara Thomas Breckenridge), an 18-year-old student at the University of Minnesota, to work as cook on Mallard Island. It is a formidable job, one that presents unusual challenges, as when John Szarkowski (who later becomes director of the Department of Photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art) shows up with two homegrown eggplants, which Barbara doesn't know how to prepare. Frances and Barbara live in Front House. Jimmy Banks (a 23-year-old Seine River Ojibwe) and his half brother (who is about 20) live in Cook's House. That same summer, Harry French's daughter, Alice Virginia, visits Mallard Island with her new husband, William Primrose, an accomplished viola player. Ober declines an invitation for them to play some music together.
- September 19–October 21, Ober canoes with Ron Lempi, John Szarkowski, and Pinay.
1957 (Ober age 72–73)
- July 26–Aug 29, Ober canoes to the upper Seine River with Jimmy Banks.
1957 (age 73)
- July 26–Aug 29, Ober canoes to the upper Seine River with Jimmy Banks.
- 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.
1959 (age 75)
- October, Ober canoes to Clearwater Lake. While camping with the Indians, he takes a number of color slides.
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.
- August, the Quetico-Superior International Advisory Committee holds its first field meeting. The event is hosted by Frank Hubachek on his Basswood Lake property.
- September 7–18, Ober canoes on Namakan River with Howard Willie.
1962 (age 78)
- Fall, after repeated invitations over the years, Ober's Harvard friend Samuel Morison and his wife visit Ober on Mallard Island for two days while on a university speaking tour.
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 fly in to the south part of the lake with a seventeen-foot canoe, knowing that their craft is too small to safely navigate the one-hundred-and-twenty-mile long lake. During the trip Ober says to Bob, “Now, Bobby, if something happens to me up here, I don't want to be taken out. I want to just be buried under these rocks up here someplace.” A group of commercial fishermen, inspired by Ober's story, lend them a steel fishing boat and fifteen-horse motor, which they use to traverse nearly seventy miles across the greater part of Nueltin Lake to Hawke Ridge, with Bob in a rain suit at the stern and Ober perched under a tarp in the bow holding the map he made fifty-one years earlier. 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. (According to a later explorer, P. G. Downes, a trapper named Cecil “Husky” Harris came across the can and removed the note in 1924.)
- September 17–27, Ober canoes with Pinay to White Otter Lake.
- 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.
- September 3, the Wilderness Act, U.S. Public Law 88-577, is signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, establishing the U.S. wilderness preservation system and prohibiting the use of motorboats and snowmobiles within wilderness areas except for areas where use is well established within the Boundary Waters, defining wilderness as an area “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man . . . an area of undeveloped . . . land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements.” This date is considered by many to be the birth of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
1964 (age 80)
- 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. On July 14, in reference to a second presentation of the award in Pither's Point Park in Fort Frances, Ontario, Ober writes, “I don't get round well and broke down completely. . . . There were many old Indian friends present and, when they crowded round me on the platform after the presentation, that was just too much for me.”
- 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.
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1971 (age 87)
- Voyageurs National Park is established by Public Law 91-661 (amended by Public Law 97-405), enacted by Congress on January 8, and signed by President Richard Nixon to “preserve, for the inspiration and enjoyment of present and future generations, the outstanding scenery, geological conditions, and waterway system which constituted a part of the historic route of the Voyageurs who contributed significantly to the opening of the Northwestern United States.” The park is officially established under these laws by the Secretary of the Interior on April 8, 1975.
1972 (age 88)
- Ted Hall, a former correspondent and deputy New York bureau chief for Time-Life who was befriended by Ober as a boy, returns to Rainy Lake and starts a newspaper, the Rainy Lake Chronicle. Throughout its years of publication, the newspaper features Ober and Mallard Island in many stories written in Ted's accomplished style. A project to compile those stories is being spearheaded by Jean Replinger (former program director and current board secretary), Barbara Garner (a participant in summer programs on the island), and Charlene Erickson (long-time helper to Ober in his later years and co-owner with her late husband, Lauren, of Bald Rock Dock).
1973–76 (age 89–92)
- January 4, Ober moves into the Falls Nursing Home in International Falls. He suffers from recurring minor strokes that rob him of his ability to speak, a condition that frustrates and angers him. According to Ted Hall, however, Ober still has good days. Once, Ted was pushing Ober in his wheelchair down a sidewalk in International Falls: “The whole morning there hadn't been a word you could understand. He just communicated by signs. And as we were crossing the street, an Indian woman called out to him and started a conversation. It wasn't until she left that I suddenly realized that in Ojibwe Ober was completely, absolutely articulate.” After the conversation with the Ojibwe woman, Ober once again could not get a word out.
1973 (age 89)
- May, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness is formed under the leadership of Sigurd Olson, with Miron (Bud) Heinselman as chair, in opposition to Representative James Oberstar's bill that would divide the Boundary Waters into two areas: a Boundary Waters Wilderness Area of 625,000 acres and a Boundary Waters National Recreation Area (NRA) of 527,000 acres. Logging and mechanized travel would be permitted in the latter area. The Friends' purpose is to advocate for greater protection of the Boundary Waters and to promote “the biological, intrinsic, aesthetic, economic, scientific, and spiritual values of wilderness.”
- 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.” A bronze plaque, designed by Dr. Gilbert Dalldorf, is installed in rock at the highest point of the island near Ober's Big House. It bears the inscription: “This island was for fifty years the home of Ernest Oberholtzer, pioneer in the effort to save the wilderness, devoted Atisokan to the Indians and cherished friend and companion. 1973”
- Quetico Provincial Park is given full wilderness protection and all logging is permanently banned, snowmobiles are banned, and a motorboat phaseout is begun.
- 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
- Ted Hall and George Monahan become principal figures in a legal fight to prevent the sale of Mallard Island and in the establishment of the Oberholtzer Foundation so that the island can become a living memorial. George and Gene Monahan serve as unofficial island caretakers, and they work to preserve Ober's papers. Some 54,000 letters and reports eventually are turned over to the Minnesota Historical Society. Ray and Ruth Anderson spend an entire winter on Mallard Island archiving more than 5,000 photographs taken by Ober. Jean Replinger and her husband, Randy, along with Don and Sandy Maronde, Bob and Mary Lou Norbie, and other volunteers work for four weeks in the summer of 1983—and some of these volunteers work another four weeks in the summer of 1984—cataloging Ober's 11,000-volume library. Today, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which is part of the area Ober worked for so many years to preserve, is the most heavily visited wilderness in the United States, receiving some 200,000 visitors annually.
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