Minnesota Memories, Part 3

A Pilgrimage To Cass Lake, Bemidji & Lake Itasca

June 27 – 30, 2000


By Lewis Nolan


Return To Nolan Travels Home Page


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 Index


Wednesday, June 28, 2000 – In Cass Lake

            After a leisurely breakfast at our motel and scan of USA Today (a newspaper I used to abhor when I was a working journalist but which I have grown to tolerate now that I’m reading for leisure), we drove back to Tom’s Resort to meet Jim and Carol. Jim had brought some old family photos and other material from home, including copies of our grandfather L.E. Nolan’s poetry and our grandmother Bertha Nolan's ’s sheet music. I immensely enjoyed seeing his treasures and hearing his reminiscences about growing up in Cass Lake. Jim gave me much insight and appreciation for the kind of life that our grandparents and their children lived in that cold clime early in the 20th Century.

            Our first stop on our day-long tour of the area was at Pine Grove Cemetery. Our grandparents and their youngest child are buried in Block 1 near
Jim reads, Lewis listens
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
the interior St. Charles lane of the cemetery, about 75 yards or so to the right from the cemetery entrance. The grave markers read Bertha O. Nolan (1882-1959), Lewis E. Nolan (1870-1939) and Roger Nolan (Jan. 15, 1915 – Jan. 22, 1915). My book retells the story about how the infant caught cold and died after somebody left a hospital window open in the dead of winter.

            I am skeptical about the dates given on the tombstone for Bertha’s birth. I think her real age at the time of her death was closer to 86 than 76. My belief is based on her reluctance to discuss her age with her own grandchildren, inconsistencies in key dates she gave at various times and the economic pressure on her following the death of L.E. She had good reason to conceal her real age in order to gain employment as a late-in-life schoolteacher. Besides, her appearance in 1900 wedding photos with L.E. suggests a couple about equal in age.

Jim remarked that had he described her the way he describes his patients in clinical reports, he would have delicately written something like “The patient is a woman who has the appearance and physical characteristics of someone in their mid-80s.”

            He had learned from a cemetery caretaker than the Nolans had purchased space for a fourth grave. But the fourth spot was never used. Neither of us knows if Bertha and L.E. had reserved it for one of their children, perhaps daughter Harriet, or for another relative.

            I had the feeling that our visit to the Nolans' final resting place was the first by a member of the family in a very long time. We placed fresh, cut flowers on the graves. Betty and Carol took photos of Jim and me as he read – in his rich, baritone voice – some of the poetry written by Bertha and L.E. that was reprinted in a copy of my family history book I had brought along.

While the date of our visit was a few months off from the actual day of their wedding (April 12, 1900), our small ceremony proved to be a moving observance of their 100th anniversary. The selections we read included L.E.’s poem, “Boyhood Memories,” and Bertha’s poem, “Junetime and a Garden.” Our reflection over their words so many decades after they were written seemed to renew for a few, brief minutes our grandparents’ voices, vantage points and outlooks on life in the North Woods. May they rest in peace.

L.E. and Bertha are now united in death with all their children, whose lives and families are
Jim & Carol at Harriet's grave
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
detailed in "Nolan-Miller Family History." The book was published in 1997 by Highland Press and is in the collections of about 30 libraries, including the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress and most recently, the Cass Lake Museum.

            The last living child of L.E. and Bertha to die was Donald Edwin Nolan, MD, who died Nov. 20, 1994 near Seattle at the age of 89. His ashes were scattered per his wishes.

            The third of their children to die was Don’s older brother, Lewis Earle Nolan, MD, my father, who died Dec. 8, 1970 at the age of 69, following a heart attack in Asheville, N.C. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

            The second of their children to die was Harriet Mary Nolan Connor, Jim’s mother and my Aunt. She is buried about 100 yards from her parents and baby brother, in a newer section in the cemetery’s center. She died Jan. 20, 1961, at the age of 45, of breast cancer.

There have been several Nolans who have developed breast cancer, including both men and women. One was my father, Lewis Earle Nolan, MD, who was successfully treated at the Mayo Clinic. But there is a warning there for all descendants of L.E. and Bertha Nolan to be on the lookout for warning signs, including swelling, lumps and fluid discharge through the nipple.

            With the passing of L.E. and Bertha, followed by their children Harriet, Lewis and Don, my cousin Jim is the only Nolan descendant who lived in Cass Lake. With his salesman father traveling much of the time, Jim and his mother lived in Cass Lake with Bertha when he was small.

Jim attended kindergarten there as well as his summers from age 6 to 12. The family moved from Cass Lake when Jim was 6, following Harriet’s contraction of pneumonia. Jim remembers playing with a stethoscope as a boy (perhaps one from his Uncle Lewis, who also provided outdated medical equipment and Army surplus gear to me in lieu of toys). He recalls listening to his mother’s chest and concluding “mom has a tiger in her chest. I can hear it growling.”

Jim’s father – whose relationship with his mother-in-law Bertha was always strained - had long requested his company to transfer him to a job south of the bitterly cold winters of Northern Minnesota. The winter temperatures around Cass Lake are often  20 degrees below zero and snow is measured in feet, not inches. His request was finally granted and the family moved to Milwaukee in 1949.

Jim was 17 when Harriet died, nearly 12 years after the family moved from Cass Lake. She had wanted to be buried in her hometown, in the cemetery where her once-doting father and infant brother rested. Jim recalls having had a tough time as a teenager dealing with his mother’s premature death. He remembers that there was record cold in Northern Minnesota that January, with temperatures hitting 60 below. The ground was frozen so hard that it took two tons of anthracite coal to be burned on Harriet’s gravesite over a twp-day period for the soil to be sufficiently softened so that the grave could be dug. (Today, many burials in the extreme north are postponed until the spring thaw. The funeral services are held near the time of death and the actual burials are often conducted without fanfare.)

            The elegant, pink marble gravestone over Harriet’s remains also has the name of her husband, James F. Connor. He has since remarried and lives north of Minneapolis in the town of Brighton. Jim doesn’t know what his 84-year-old father’s burial wishes are. He said his dad is very alert although is slowly going blind from diabetes.

            After leaving the cemetery, we drove to the site of the Nolan home. It had been a two-story, wood frame structure of perhaps 2,000 square feet, including a large, screened porch. The house was at the northwest corner of 4th Street and Basswood, about 100 yards from the Soo Line Depot where L.E. worked. The site is about 3 blocks from the town’s main commercial artery, 2nd Street.

While L.E. had only a short walk to work, I imagine that the walking wasn’t easy during heavy snowfalls. The home was only three blocks away from the elementary school Jim briefly attended. A new school has been built on the site, which earlier housed the school the Nolan children attended nearly a century ago.

            Following Bertha's death, ownership of the house passed to Harriet and later to Jim. He rented it out for several years, but he sold the house and lot (for $4,300) in 1972 after tenants ripped off some nice antiques and other furnishings. The purchaser was the owner of a nearby gas station, who tore down the old Nolan home and built a new house on the site. All that remains from the Nolan years there are a concrete walkway to the sidewalk and a ramshackle, wooden garage that looks like a candidate for demolition.

Jim recalls the home had city water and sewer service, but it also had an outhouse in the back yard. The home’s first floor contained the living and dining room, kitchen and screen porch, where Jim would occasionally sleep in the summer. The only inside bathroom was upstairs, as were three bedrooms. There was also a basement.

“It was so boring when I was here,” remembered Jim, “that the high point of my day was walking to the Post Office downtown and opening my grandmother’s postal box to check for mail.” He said the Nolan family was somewhat isolated due to the smallness of the town. He believes the population of Cass Lake in the 1940s was half its current 923.

Among the Nolan's neighbors were the Scarbo family, with Mrs. Scarbo being an avowed Communist. Nonetheless, she was a good friend with Bertha, who was a leader in the local Republican Party. Her son, George Scarbo, became a cartoonist who worked for several publications. Another neighbor was a Mr. Morris, remembered by Jim for being an immensely strong, former lumberjack who liked to drink.

Bertha was a temperance advocate. But L.E. tipped a bottle on occasion, sometimes at a downtown bar with his neighbor Mr. Morris. Jim’s father, James Ferguson Connor, was also a drinker, particularly enjoying beer. I don’t remember my father ever drinking much and I never saw his brother, Don, drank any alcohol. But I painfully remember seeing my mother, Garnett Elizabeth Ford Nolan, move from social drinking to heavy alcoholism following her divorce from my father.

Jim’s grandfather was also named James Ferguson Connor. He came to America from England during World War I. As Jim tells it, the senior Connor was on the run from  the conscription that sent so many young Britishers and other Europeans to their deaths in the trench warfare in France and Belgium. When the U.S. government tried to draft him into the American army, he escaped military service again when he successfully argued that he was not yet an American citizen and thus couldn’t be conscripted.

 “We Connors come from a line of draft dodgers,” Jim once joyfully responded to some cousins who were giving him a hard time over his anti-war activities while he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania during a time the U.S. was torn over Vietnam.

Jim describes his father as a “very intelligent person” even though he was not college educated. The lack of formal education was a definite minus in the eyes of his mother-in-law, who took great pride in the medical degrees earned by her two sons.

According to Jim, Bertha always thought that Harriet, a teacher, married down. Jim himself is brilliant and extraordinarily versatile. He holds doctorate degrees in psychology and in medicine, with postgraduate residency training in psychiatry, pathology and family practice.  He now wishes he had accepted scholarship offers to either Harvard or Stanford rather than Penn, an Ivy League school where he got his bachelor’s through doctorate degrees in the psychology of animal behavior.

Jim's love of learning and remarkable span of knowledge is now being even further broadened by his enrollment in a computer programming and applications school. He is doing this while working as an emergency room physician on weekends in a small town near Lincoln, where he and Carol live and she is director of the city library system.

Jim’s computer expertise really came in handy when we visited the Cass Lake Museum and Chamber of Commerce, where a poorly configured PC prevented me from connecting to the Internet to show Museum staff my website (http://home.att.net/~lewis_nolan/). I had thought the museum curator would like to see the site’s summary information about the lives of the now deceased, onetime Cass Lake residents L.E. and Bertha Nolan and their children, Lewis, Don and Harriet. The Museum and Chamber office are housed in the old Soo Line depot where L.E. worked.

The wooden structure looks like a classic rail depot built early in the 20th Century. The railroad tracks were removed sometime after the last freight train pulled out March 18, 1959; passenger service from the depot had been discontinued many years before. The Soo Line service was consolidated with the Great Northern railroad, which still operates tracks and a small switching yard on the other side of Cass Lake under the name Burlington Northern. Ironically, the last Soo Line train pulled away from the old depot just a month after Bertha died. There is discussion among the town fathers to either demolish or move the old wooden depot structure so its prime location along Highway 2 can be used for other purposes.

While the tracks have long gone, reminders of the depot’s work in the shape of relics like baggage carts remain at the site. The depot is adjacent to the main road through town, at the corner of U.S. Highway 2 and Grant Utley Road. Utley was the longtime publisher of the Cass Lake Times, where Bertha served for a time as a columnist.

Today's Cass Lake Times is a tabloid newspaper that focuses on local happenings and cable TV schedules. The front page of June 29, 2000, included stories about a resident receiving an honorary diploma nearly 60 years after he left high school to enter military service during World War II; the resignation of Becky Norton as City Clerk after seven years in office; and the expected appointment of Max Loewe as interim police chief. Inside the 20-page, weekly paper was a lot of news and pictures about fishing. 

The Cass Lake Museum's co-founder and current curator, Ed Hill, has operated the museum since
Lewis, curator Ed Hill
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
1991. Its revenue includes town tax money, gifts, admissions and proceeds from the sale of books and souvenirs. The collection includes the turn-of-the-century brick-a-brack one would expect in a local museum. Among artifacts on display are a stuffed moosehead, antique tools and lots of old photos and documents that trace the history of logging, railroading and tourism in Cass Lake. Given the human propensity to take photos of proud moments, a great many pictures are of huge catches of fish.

Other historic photos of early Cass Lake show what must have been the haunts of the Nolans in the early 1900s. These include the old Tedford Hotel & Café, S.M. Schaab General Merchandise Store and the Vogue Hat Shop. Mr. Hill pointed out a mounted poster announcing the dedication of the “Lewis E. Nolan Memorial Pine Grove” and a photo of the Soo Line station whose caption mentioned “Agent Nolan.” He also showed us a brass, Cass Lake High School plaque he had rescued from a junkpile that listed the class valedictorians from 1905 to 1940, including “Lewis Nolan Jr.” as the 1918 honoree. (My father’s valedictory about the War in Europe is reproduced in “Nolan-Miller Family History”.)

We spent nearly two hours at the Museum and the related Lyle’s Logging Camp across the street. A retired forester named Lyle Chisholm re-created four, one-story log structures to show how the lumberjacks lived and worked until virtually all the commercially valuable pine forests in the area were cut down. The cutting started in the late 19th Century and continued until about 1930.

It was fascinating to learn how tough men had to be to work as lumberjacks in those
Betty at camp cookhouse
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
days of hand axes and hand saws. Most of the cutting was done during the harsh winters that often left snow on the ground for up to eight months. Freezing conditions were necessary to build “ice roads” so that the big logs could be hauled to the nearest river or railhead. A twin path of ice was made by digging two rows of shallow depressions, which were filled with water to form twin ribbons of ice about four feet apart. When the water froze, teams of horses were able to walk between the paths and pull massive sleds mounted on steel runners, which glided over the ice. Some of the loaded sleds were as large as freight cars and weighed many tons.

Lyles Logging Camp includes a re-created bunkhouse, cookhouse, blacksmith shop and a "wanigan," or camp office. A corner of one served as a "company store," where the men could buy tobacco and other personal products. There were several antique packages of laxatives on display, which Jim explained was a necessary medication due to the lumberjack diet.

Their meals were heavy in grains (huge quantities of pancakes and other breads) and in meat, much of it game provided by Indians. With virtually no fresh vegetables or fruit available during the long winter and the large quantities of meat ingested, constipation was a big problem for the loggers.

Much of the North Woods has been reforested in the intervening 70 or so years since it was mostly cut down. Consequently, there is a modest amount of logging underway today. But the short growing season means it takes a century to grow a big pine tree like those that covered the region at the beginning of the 20th Century.

The largest of the 30 or so trees in the Nolan Memorial Grove are Norway Pines with a diameter of no more than 8 inches. These are trees planted by my grandfather in 1931. I picked up a couple of smallish pinecones from the grove and want to see if I can get a tree to grow in our yard in Memphis. I have my doubts. But then, according to the story told Jim, so did L.E. Nolan's neighbors. The prevailing local wisdom was that Norway Pines could not be hand-planted from pinecones so far north.  Grandfather proved them wrong.

Jim estimated that the Nolan Memorial Grove's trees have another 50 years of life ahead of them, absent some outside event. I hope they do, which would mean they will outlive at least three generations of Nolans who've admired them.

The Nolan Memorial Grove is adjacent to the old Soo Line Depot. The grove was dedicated Sept. 3, 1945, in a ceremony that drew many townsfolk and railroad officials. Details are provided in “Nolan-Miller Family History.”

The main drag of Cass Lake is 2nd Street, which is two blocks north of the Burlington Northern track. Like that of many small towns, some of the old commercial buildings are vacant. But some life remains of what was once downtown, including a Post Office, the Cass Lake Times, American Legion Post, a café or two and a gift shop.

Once the area’s logging industry died out after all the trees were cut, the town survived because of two economic forces – Indians and tourism. There are several outdoor festivals that seem to benefit both forces, including the Spring Pow Wow, Independence Day Pow Wow and Big Dance Pow Wow Labor Day. There are other festivals during the warm months that feature the arts and music. We just missed the Moondance Jam that included the Beach Boys, Credence Clearwater Revisited and other rockers.  

Cass Lake is surrounded by the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, which is the beneficiary of many government assistance programs targeted to Native Americans. These include a hospital, an alcohol abuse clinic (at mid-morning we saw a drunken, middle-aged male Indian stumbling down the middle of the road that runs by it) and schools. These welfare programs and the agencies that run them provide jobs and pay rolls that in turn feed the local merchants.

Cass Lake is a study in contrasts, as it has been for several generations. In the middle of
Church in Cass Lake
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
town is a tidy community of small, wooden houses where the white people live. Surrounding that oasis of order is the Leech Lake Reservation of the Chippewa Tribe, where the Indians live. The Indian areas are just as unkempt as other tribal settlements we've seen in the South and Southwest. I don’t understand why so many Native Americans tolerate living amidst junk cars, discarded toys, weedy yards and peeling paint.

One of the well-maintained, old wooden structures in town that Jim called to our attention was the United Methodist Church. With its white paint and pointed steeple, it looked as though it could have been transplanted to Cass Lake from 18th Century New England. The building has housed several denominations. Jim attended the funeral services for his mother and grandmother there.

Lunch at a tribal restaurant – staffed by non-Indians – was surprisingly good, especially the Indian fry bread dipped in honey. Jim surmised the Indians preferred collecting welfare to preparing and serving meals to tourists. The restaurant is part of the Indian-owned Che-Wa-Ka-E-Gon Complex. It is connected to a small grocery store (offering gallon bags of beef jerky) and a crafts shop that sells native arts. The building houses a meeting room and storage area, which are protected by gates of heavy iron bars.

Other than drunken Indians, there doesn't seem to be much if any crime or civil disorder in Cass Lake. We talked briefly with the town cop, who said he decided several years ago to stop wearing a gun.

After seeing the sights of Cass Lake and hearing from Jim how various locations had been a part of the lives of the Nolan family, our foursome drove four miles to the east on Highway 2 to visit Norway Beach. It had been a favorite, shoreline hangout for my father and other Nolans early in the 20th Century.

It was a cool, misty day when we drove into the Chippewa National Forest to the Norway Beach section of the body of water called Cass Lake. The wind was really blowing, possibly 30 miles and more per hour. Small whitecaps were kicking up. The recreation area includes one of four campground loops, with 55 campsites. I'm
Lewis at Norway Beach
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
sure my impressions of Norway Beach were clouded by the crummy weather, but I wasn't at all impressed by the narrow strip of shoreline that locals call a "beach." The dirty sand was littered with detritus from red pine trees, both of the fallen and the washed-up variety.

Jim remembered swimming at "our beach" many times as a youth. He explained that the lake's bloodsucking leeches lurk in a border of woody reeds that grow about 15 feet from shore. Eluding the leeches is done by running at full speed through the shallows to deeper waters. The deep water is usually free from the leeches, which hide in the shoreline reeds while awaiting warm-blooded victims who come to drink or swim.

I remember swimming in the cold water nearby Leech Lake during a boyhood visit and nervously watching out for the leeches my father had warned about. Ugh!

Jim said Minnesota residents just get used to dealing with leeches, large mosquitoes, biting deerflies and woodticks.  That's the price of enjoying the Northern Woods' pristine wilderness. Jim said he never personally experienced a leech attaching  itself to his body. But he remembers his father using lighted cigarettes to back ticks off himself, including his private parts.

Jim's comments and pointers on how to deal with the local fauna – plus the light rain and mist that fell on Cass Lake that day – discouraged Betty and me from hiking on any of the trails through the pine trees. The area has many, many miles of hiking trails that are used by mountain bikers and other members of the DEET crowd during the summer and by snowmobilers during the winter.

We drove around nearby Pike Bay on a well-maintained dirt and gravel road. It is a way-out-of-the-way place where summer cottages dot the remote shoreline. Jim yearns for such a quiet retreat. Evidently waterfront property can be had here for a relative bargain. I noticed ads for lake homes on Cass Lake and Leech Lake with prices ranging from $49,900 (3 bedrooms and a sand beach) to $189,500 (including 2 car garage and 100 feet of shoreline, with harbor).

That evening, the four of us had a splendid dinner at Gangelhoff's Restaurant. The Duck L'Orange I had was excellent, as was Betty's wild rice soup. The Connors were likewise pleased with their meals. It was a very nice ending to a long but rewarding day.

We liked the Minnesota wild rice well enough that Betty bought several small bags to serve at home and to give to friends. Despite some good salesmanship by a young Indian woman at a local shop, we never were convinced that the hand-harvested variety made it worth the much higher price charged over the cultivated and machine harvested wild rice.

Continue with Next Trip Segment / Return to Top / Return to Nolan Travels Home Page