Minnesota Memories, Part 2

A Pilgrimage To Cass Lake, Bemidji & Lake Itasca

June 27 – 30, 2000


By Lewis Nolan


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Speedy Links to Trip Segments:

Part 1: Memphis to Minneapolis

Part 2: Minneapolis to Cass Lake

Part 3: Cass Lake

Part 4: Bemidji and Lake Itasca

            Part 5: Cass Lake to Memphis

            Photo Album


Tuesday, June 27, 2000 – Minneapolis to Cass Lake –

After taking pictures of the Minneapolis home for Mary, Betty and I drove north on a pleasant day. Our route, courtesy of the MapQuest Internet service, turned out to be terrible. We saw a lot more of the repetitive, Minnesota countryside than interested us. There were pretty, blue lakes here and there. But mile after mile of flattish land, green meadows and squatty pine trees unbroken by different landscapes or scenery proved to be quite boring. MapQuest evidently didn’t know about some extensive reconstruction underway on Minnesota 73, a main route west of Interstate 35 and south of Duluth. Sections of road several miles long at a time had been scraped to the gravel bed. We found ourselves having to drive many miles on dusty, gravel road only two lanes wide. Thankfully, traffic was light.

I had forgotten that Northern Minnesota is essentially flat. There are some gentle, low hills and a great many lakes carved out of the rocky ground by glaciers. We saw no mountains or even hills large enough to ski down. But cross county skiing is a huge winter sport here.

We deduced that the bad winters force all the highway construction into the summer months, one of the reasons for the abundance of roadwork going on all around us. Another reason for the ever-present roadwork is likely the wealth generated by the hard-working Midwesterners, who seem to pay way more in taxes than we do in Tennessee. In Minnesota, we paid half again as much for gasoline as we do in Tennessee.

We finally picked up some decent, two-lane roadways near Moose Lake, a small village of the shore of a scenic lake. I stopped at a combination bar-bottle shop, which reeked of tobacco smoke. They were selling Kendall Jackson Chardonnay for $18 a bottle, compared to $12 in Memphis. I suspected (wrongfully, it turned out) that Cass Lake would be dry because of its location in the middle of a Chippewa Indian Reservation, so I went ahead and stocked up by buying a $6 bottle of Gallo Chardonnay, a six-pack of Miller Lite and a pint of gin.

We stopped for gas at Deer River, where the combination gas-grocery store's inventory included live leeches (sold for fish bait). It also offered large bags of salt, smoked game and smoked fish. What else could anybody want in Northern Minnesota? I think the store clerks had as hard a time understanding our soft, Southern accents as we did their fast-clipped Minnesota brogue.

Hunting and fishing are popular weekend activities in the South. But the two sports seem to be a central part of everyday living in Northern Minnesota. The advertising, the lodging, the newspaper coverage, and many stores are clearly targeted to the outdoors markets. There are more than 500 miles of snowmobile trails that take advantage of roadbeds abandoned by the railroads. Ribbons of steel on these roadbeds once connected this thinly populated region to Canada to the North, Brainerd to the South and Duluth to the East. Much of the population of Northern Minnesota comes from descendants of Scandinavians and other Northern Europeans who find the horrid winters to their peculiar liking.  

After five long hours of driving, we finally arrived at Cass Lake, home of the Leech Lake Band of the Chippewa Indian Tribe. The Indian Reservation surrounds the town and provides a
Lewis at grandfather's grove
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
principal source of income for the area. The town is also surrounded by the Chippewa National Forest, whose lands overlap those of the Indians. It must be interesting to see how the various town, county, Forest Service, tribal and other authorities work out their differences.

Cass Lake, with a current population of 923, celebrated its Centennial Anniversary in 1999. A tourism brochure provided the following account of the town’s history:

            The City of Cass Lake has a rich and interesting history. Of course, native people had been living in the area for centuries before white settlers arrived. When non-native settlers first arrived is not known, but they were likely to have been fur traders or missionaries.

The first trading post is said to have been established prior to 1760 by a Canadian businessman. A fort was built at the same site and was garrisoned by French soldiers, but the fort was abandoned shortly after 1763. Early records indicate that the Hudson Bay Company then took over the post, and in 1821 it was sold to the American Fur Company, owned by John Jacob Astor.

Cass Lake was part of the Red Lake – Leech Lake Trail, a series of interconnected waterways used as a water “highway” by trappers and traders. The trail ran from the southern point of Leech Lake to Cass Lake, on to Red Lake and thence on to the Red River of the North.

Originally, the lake for which the city of Cass Lake is named was called Red Cedar Lake, after the trees growing on Cedar Island. The name was changed to Cass Lake in honor of Lewis Cass, the Governor of the Territory of Michigan, who traveled to this area in 1818 and named the lake as the source of the Mississippi River. It was not until 1832 that the true source, Lake Itasca, was discovered by a party led by Henry Schoolcraft and his native Chippewa guide, Ozwwindib.

Missionaries, as well as trappers and traders played a great role in the early history of Cass Lake. Probably the first missionaries to work among the native tribes of Minnesota were the Jesuits, though no individual names have been preserved. Congregational missionaries also took an early interest in this area. By 1885, a log chapel had been constructed on the north shore of Cass Lake, near the Lake Andrusia Bridge. This was originally called the Galilee Mission, and is now known as the Prince of Peace Mission.

In 1898, the Great Northern Railway was built through the northern section of Minnesota. Through a series of changes in the right-of-way of the railroad, Cass Lake became an important and more densely populated settlement.

In the late 1800s, logging and sawmill operations became the backbone of the Cass Lake economy. . .

- Cass Lake Area Vacation Guide 2000


            Cass Lake, and its sister body of water, Pike Bay, are the two largest of the eight lakes which make up the Chain of Lakes. Pike Bay was named in honor of Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame), who mapped the Mississippi River as far north as Cass Lake in 1806). Both offer fishermen the much sought-after Muskellunge, a fighting fish that sometimes tops 35 pounds; Northern Pike; Walleye Pike; and a variety of bass and perch. The Chippewa National Forest, with 900 miles of rivers and 1,321 lakes within its boundaries, is home to the highest breeding density of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states.  There were 188 breeding pairs there in 2000; there were 69 young Eaglets hatched in 1995.

Information about fishing, Eagle watching, other recreation and the usual tourism stuff can be obtained at the town’s website on the Internet, www.casslake.com.

            As luck and instinct would have it, our first stop in Cass Lake was to an old railroad depot building along Highway 2. The former Soo Line Depot now houses the Chamber of Commerce, a museum and visitor information center. I was thrilled to
Lewis at old depot
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
learn that the depot was where my grandfather worked as station agent in the first half of the 20th Century. A grove of Norway Pine trees he planted just outside the building in 1931 was dedicated as a memorial to him by the railroad and townsfolk, along with a suitably inscribed bronze plaque mounted on a slab of granite.

We deferred touring the Cass Lake Museum until the next day because I was certain that it would be one of the places that my cousin Jim would show us. But we did get directions to our lodgings, “Tom’s Resort.” I wasn’t quick enough to take note of a carefully phrased response to my question. I had asked the Chamber employee, “Do you know Tom and is his resort a respectable place?” Her reply was a noncommittal “I don’t know him.”

             In a place as small as Cass Lake (pop. 923), and from an employee of an agency whose job is to promote tourism, her statement should have pulled an alarm bell for me. But it didn’t so on we went several miles to “Tom’s Resort,” where I had booked what was advertised as a “modern cabin” months before. I was shocked and disgusted by the squalid quarters. Worse yet, I had steered Jim and Carol there.

            Simply put, rather than a resort, Tom’s was a dump. The wood cabins were coated with dust from the adjacent dirt road; several were occupied by trashy looking families. Exterior brown paint was peeling beneath the dust and grime. A porch of one cabin was held up by concrete blocks. The advertised “Supper Club” was little more than a roadhouse bar. The furnishings of the cabin we had reserved were 1950s shabby. Dried food was embedded in the worn, shag carpeting and the place smelled like a dog kennel. And they wanted $95 a day!

            I soon discovered that Jim and Carol had checked into a 1960s-style mobile home the previous day. They were obviously more tolerant of what he termed “Minnesota fish camp living” than we were. Betty and I used Carol’s cell phone (our Bell South Mobility didn’t work this far north) and made reservations at a Comfort Inn 16 miles away in Bemidji.

The desk clerk at Tom’s said he didn’t have the authority to refund my deposit; he assured me that the manager would later. (Tom didn’t send a check and after several unreturned calls I filed a formal complaint with the Tennessee Attorney General, followed up by critical letters to the Minnesota Attorney General and state and local tourism authorities. Nothing came of my squawks except polite agency responses.)

            I was more than a little annoyed at the crummy cabin and the nonchalance shown at my displeasure by Tom’s staff. Showing empathy and understanding of my agitation of the moment, Jim and Carol suggested that Betty and I check into our motel in Bemidji, have a nice dinner and a drink and that the four of us meet the next morning. Upon reflection, I’m of the opinion that they said exactly the right thing at exactly the right time.

            Jim is much more laid back than I am, probably with a forgiving manner like that of our grandfather. I envy his serenity and continue to endeavor to be more accepting of things I can’t change. While I believe I have mellowed considerably in recent years, on occasion I think my genes still tend to surface my mother’s “in your face” aggression. And yes, I know that tendency has caused me and others unnecessary discomfort and I also know blaming my mother is a cop-out. But as unrepentedly noted in “Nolan-Miller Family History,” my mother could be hell on wheels when crossed.

             We ended up paying $45 a night for a bright, modern room at the Comfort Inn because of the special rates given members of AARP, about the only advantage of being over 50 that I can think of. The motel had an indoor pool, hot tub and free breakfast. It was adjacent to a former Holiday Inn convention center complex with an excellent restaurant. Both properties are owned by the Ganglehoff family, operators that evidently take their hospitality business seriously.

            Betty and I enjoyed a meal of Walleye Pike, wild rice soup, fresh vegetables and a very good salad.  It was so good that we dined there the next two nights. Our waitress, a beautiful young college student of Finnish extraction, provided excellent service and a measure of insight into the lifestyle and recreational pursuits in the area. She told us that Pike and wild rice are local specialties and are also important underpinnings of the area economy. Pike fishing provides a popular form of recreation for residents plus attracts many tourists. Waitress Nancy said her favorite activities are fishing from a boat in summer, ice fishing in winter and cross country skiing during the seven or eight months that snow is on the ground. That’s right, seven or eight months!

The harvesting of wild rice is a significant source of income and food for the Native Americans. My grandmother, Bertha Miller Nolan, wrote an essay on “Mahnomen or Wild Rice Gathering” that is reproduced in my book, “Nolan-Miller Family History.” The hand harvesting techniques haven’t changed much since she wrote about them more than a half century ago.

Bertha wrote essays, poetry and songs. Some of her work was published and has survived. Her husband was also a published poet, who whiled away the lonely hours at the depot by writing of the charms and call of the North Woods.


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