Monday, November 5, 2012

Snapshots -- On the Road in Minnesota

The Nanabijou Lodge

When laying out his 1909 Plan of Chicago, famed architect Daniel Burnham declared: "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will themselves not be realized."

The Nanabijou Holding Company out of Duluth took Burnham's admonition to heart when in 1927 it appropriated the name of a god to sign a 99 year lease on 3,330 acres of wild land along the northern Minnesota shore of Superior. There they planned to build a magnificent private club designed for exclusive use by a membership limited to 3,330 persons of privilege. That's exactly one acre apiece. (Numerology, anyone?)

The plans called for 150 sleeping rooms inside a spacious clubhouse surrounded by a golf course, tennis courts and other amenities. Membership was restricted to friends and friends of friends, with folk actually living in Minnesota limited to 25% of the total. Charter members included Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Ring Lardner, though they didn't have to pay for the privilege and you'd have to wonder exactly whose friends of Duluth gentry those famous east coast men were.

At any rate there's no record extant that this trio of notable sporting gents ever actually visited. They were exceptions that prove the rule, I guess.

The purpose of the club as defined in the charter was to allow for members to "Live and learn. Learn why the raspberry follows the fireweed; learn how the fern seed clings to its fronds; learn the ways of the kingbird, the haunts of the wood thrush; learn the pasturage of the moose and the deer and the home life of the beaver..."

In such ways do people justify using the name of a god they don't believe in. But don't scoff overmuch. There's plenty of the same sort of well-meaning back to nature fecklessness in the language of our own contemporary 'New Age' seekers. You can talk the talk but it's tough to walk the walk, when you've driven six hours to your embarkation point...

Much as Burnham's ambitious Plan for Chicago was never fully realized, neither were the Nanabijou Company's plans for their club.

A clubhouse was built, with a great hall and 24 guestrooms. The fireplace that anchors the west end of the hall was constructed by a local stonemason from 200 tons of rounded native rock and remains the largest stone fireplace in the State of Minnesota.

The Nanabijou Club opened its doors to much fanfare on July 7th, 1929, with the Governor of the State doing the christening honors. And if you know your American history, you already know what's next.

That same year on October 29th, Black Friday arrived. The world plunged into The Great Depression and the ambitions of the Nanabijou Holding Company fell to naught.

By 1935, the property was in foreclosure. In 1939 it was sold. Then it was sold again. And again. And again. Along the way, most of the original 3,330 acres were sold off too, where today you'll find the picturesque Judge C.R. Magny State Park -- open to all comers, no membership required.

But in some big plans there's a kernel of lasting greatness. And so it was, with the Nanabijou Lodge.

What remains of those grandiose plans is one of the most striking publically available architectural interiors anywhere on the Superior Basin. The great hall of the clubhouse having been long since converted to a dining room, the Cree inspired art deco design by French artist Antoine Goufee was instrumental in the Nanabijou Lodge being named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

The addition of a solarium carefully followed that design and it's there that guests can pass the time reading or playing board games or even enjoy high tea on a summer's afternoon.

Today the Lodge is owned by the Ramey Family and they are most gracious hosts. The Lodge boasts one of the better restaurants in the region. The otherwise well appointed rooms have neither television nor telephone and cell signal remains uncertain that far up the shore, so it's a place of quiet Northwoods elegance offering the opportunity for reflection or even just the chance to snatch a few precious days away from a screeching modern world.

Which means that in the end, the greatest ambitions of the Nanabijou Holding Company were met -- though I suppose it unlikely they'd have agreed -- because today the Lodge fulfills its original mission in letting folk step out through its grand French doors and into a world where such magic as wild raspberries and fern fronds and wood thrush song and dozing deer can still be learned from, if you've the mind.

If all that's not enough, the splendid Nanabijou Lodge is also one of the best values on the entire Minnesota shore.

And you can drop in this coming Thursday, to learn something of the alternative...

Vintage Delight

We touched on Smokey the Bear while Playing With Fire and it's absolutely true that fire prevention/control is always a concern in the Northwoods, this year being no exception as wildfire has ravaged both wild acreage and settled places alike.

It's also true that at the core of my work there's always been a fascination with cultural artifacts.

On State Highway 61 along Minnesota's Superior shore and north of Grand Marais, I found this.

A splendid, vintage example of cultural iconography and most unusual in that there by the side of the highway Smokey still stands, though made only of wood and exposed to the vicissitudes of Superior weather, day in and day out for who knows how many years now. I mean, just take a look at those jeans:

Fit That Beneath the Christmas Tree...

Roadside attractions run the gamut from silly to sublime. The path around the Superior Basin is no exception. For example...

In Ishpeming stands 'Old Ish". Made in 1884, originally painted black and sporting three fountains -- one for horses, one for dogs and one for humans. Ish is a local icon made world famous through the writings of favorite son John Voelker:

Outside of Marquette there's Lakenland:

And in my very own Gogebic is the Paulding Light, which mystery has attracted wandering tourists year-round over decades.

But in a week or so when we turn southwest out of Grand Marais to visit the fabled Mesabi Iron Range of Minnesota, we'll find that there, these tourist attractions take on a decidedly industrial bent.

For it's on a hilltop ridge high above the massively undermined town of Virginia Minnesota, that you'll find a couple of the Iron Giant's very own discarded Tonka Toys -- tires purposefully flattened no doubt, to keep little boys of all ages from trying to send them hellbent down the hill:

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