More than 125 years ago, families traveled to Isle Royale for all kinds of reasons. Some had commercial fishing operations based on the island. Some took the ferry out to vacation.
Over time, families built homes and fisheries and camps on varying parts of Isle Royale, stretching from Tobin Harbor to Washington Island. While different families had different purposes, they united over generations in their love for the island and a unique way of living that has stood the test of time.
The cultural history ingrained in the buildings that remain and the families who have occupied them for a century or more is an important piece of the tremendous, unique history of Isle Royale National Park.
John Anderson and Herman Johnson were Scandinavian immigrant fisherman who began fishing at Pickerel Cove in the 1880’s, living in just tents. By the 1890’s they moved their fishing operation to Fish Island (now Belle Isle) and built a cabin, dock and gas storage building on Gasoline Island. They fished from there until Fred Scofield bought the island in 1912 to establish the Belle Isle Resort. Scofield told the two fishermen they could move their fishery to the island across from Belle Isle, which he also owned.
After the two moved, built two cabins, docks, a fish and boat house, Scofield learned he did not own that island but another nearby.
Not wanting to move again, Herman and John decided to homestead the island. John’s youngest son, Gil Anderson, and his fishing partner spent the winter of 1915 on the island to fulfill the 12 month occupancy requirement for a homestead patent. The patent was issued to Herman Johnson because he was the senior partner of the two and the island was named Johnson Island. The two families fished together from Johnson Island until Herman retired and sold the island to John Anderson for $1 in 1922. The Anderson family continued to commercially fish from Johnson Island until John’s son Emil and his wife Elna retired in 1958.
Today, John Anderson’s great grandchildren and family friends continue to visit the island each summer to maintain and care for the five historic structures built by their immigrant ancestors. The fishery provided a stable income for the family through two world wars, the Great Depression and enabled John’s grandchildren to attend and graduate from college. The island and its history are a testament to every immigrant’s dream of a better life in America for future generations.
The Reverend Maurice D. Edwards of St. Paul, Minnesota, first came to Isle Royale in 1893 seeking good fishing waters and a remote, wild place for spiritual reflection. A few years later, Maurice returned with his wife Annie Louise, their children and extended family members. They set up camp in Tobin’s Harbor on “a large island just east of Scoville’s Point,” returning each summer to the same spot.
Maurice purchased the island in 1908 on the auction block and built a cabin there, naming it “Prospect Camp.” Maurice’s grandson, Robert Edwards wrote that “the facilities were designed for a cheerful, healthy level of plain living and high thinking!”
“For shelter, a one-bedroom cabin with friendly fireplace, along with a series of platform tents; for cooking, an iron wood-burning stove; for eating, a screened-in frame dining structure with a near-by supply room; for water…buckets and dippers repeatedly refilled from the Lake.”
For over a hundred twenty-five years, generations of Edwards have continued to maintain this historic place while preserving camp traditions in sync with the surrounding wilderness and respect for the waters of Lake Superior and the archipelago that comprises Isle Royale.
2022 marks the ninetieth year that the Gale family members have made an annual trek to Isle Royale.
How did it all start – In 1932, at the height of the Depression, Alfreda Gale was invited to visit Isle Royale by her good friend, Gertrude How. They had been in grade school together in St. Louis, Missouri, and maintained their friendship over many years. Alfreda still lived in St. Louis with her father, Alfred, and her two young sons, John and Phil. She was a single mother, so it was not an easy trip to head off to the north woods, driving on dirt roads from Green Bay to Houghton, Michigan, to take a ferry over to Isle Royale, leaving her two sons behind. But she loved the outdoors! She spent her time at Isle Royale on How Island in Tobin’s Harbor.
The next year, Alfreda brought John and Phil up to the Island and spent it with the How family. They met others who lived in the harbor at this time. Mattsons, Merritts, Edwards, Snells, Greens, Baileys, Wolbrinks, Musslemans, and others.
Alfreda was so enamored with Isle Royale that she invited her father, Alfred, to visit with her and the boys the following year and they stayed on Musselman Island. In 1935, Alfred bought Gale Island (2.1 acres) for his daughter from a Mrs Bandettini. Gale Island was historically used by the Mattsons and others to raise chickens for meals at Minong Lodge on Minong(Hotel) Island. For this reason, the island was named “Chicken Island” before the Gales bought it.
In 1935, talks began at the national level to make Isle Royale a National Park. The Gale family knew of these talks and heard that owners of lands with a cabin on it would be given the option to either sell their lands to the government or obtain a life lease. The Gale family wanted to stay on Isle Royale and therefore made plans to build a cabin on their newly acquired Island. To accomplish this they employed an architect to design their cabin. This was one of very few structures to be built to a set of plans at that time, since many of the structures of that era were built from salvaged materials, and were changed over time, depending on their needed function.
In 1936, construction began on the Gale Cabin with materials shipped over from Duluth, MN. They were dropped off at the mail dock in Tobin’s Harbor, and then slowly moved the short distance to Gale Island on another boat. The cabin was built by Art Mattson, Phil Gale, John Gale, Bill Robinson, Alfreda Gale and others. Various tasks were assigned to those who built the cabin. In particular, John Gale was the mason for the project and built the huge stone fireplace with a Heatilator and beautiful Cedar mantle. There are also some noteworthy features in the Gale Cabin. In the living room, there is a hidden writing desk on the east side of the room. The small bedroom off of the living room was used by Alfreda Gale and has a pass-through window from the bedroom to the kitchen . It was most likely created on a whimsy by the builders to say she could be “served” breakfast in bed. This was most unlikely since she did most of the cooking in this kitchen.
The Gale cabin was completed in 1937 and a life lease was officially given to John and Phil Gale in 1940. This was done so that use of the cabin would extend for the lives of John and Phil.
The eastern end of present day Barnum Island was once a thriving family community, explored and settled by John F. Johns and his wife Catherine in 1861. John was born in Hartland, England and raised in Redruth of Cornwall. He and Catherine immigrated to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1855 where they started their family of eleven children.
John worked as a copper miner and was recruited to explore the eastern end of Isle Royale and in subsequent years, the western end of the Island. They eventually moved to Isle Royale, settling on Johns Island (later named Barnum Island). From here, John worked as a miner, fisherman, and resort owner. John and sons built the first resort accommodation, the Johns Hotel, and visitors cabins on the Johns Historical Point.
The property he owned and homesteaded consisted of the Hotel, a smaller log house, fish house, boat house and boats, docks, a dining room, small barn with chickens, cows and sheep and other small cottages. Earlier, about 1888, they built a cabin on what is now Johns Island to lodge the fishermen who worked for John.
Through the years and up to the present day, the Johns Family has been able to maintain and live in the Johns Hotel as well as the cabin on Johns Island. Our grandfather, Edgar, was the youngest child of John and Catherine. Edgar and his wife, Grace, continued to live and work at the Hotel during their lifetime. Edgar’s son, Robert, his wife Betty and their five children (Robert, William, Thomas, Cynthia and Patrick) and their families also continued to occupy the Hotel and eventually the cabin on Johns Island.
Through the years and after being designated a National Park, the family continued to stay on Johns Island each and every year although the Hotel had progressive deterioration. In 1996 with much persistence, planning and determination, Robert Johns received a letter from the Superintendent permitting ongoing stabilization and restoration of the Johns Hotel. By 1997 details of the structure and construction management were formalized. The actual preservation work began. Today, Robert’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are restoring the Johns Hotel according to standards of the National Register of Historic Places. Through the cooperation of the National Park and family members spending substantial amounts of time and their own money, the restoration of this significant building and homestead continues. Some of the accompanying photos show the original Johns family that lived on the Island in the mid 1800’s and others show the present day family members working on the restoration project.
In 1866 a nineteen year-old Alfred Merritt sailed to Isle Royale as a deckhand on the schooner Pierpont. It stopped at Washington Harbor to unload 1500 hundred pound kegs for the commercial fishermen there, picking them up six weeks later filled with salted down lake trout, whitefish and herring. He returned in 1873 in charge of a crew to build the two and one half mile road up the rugged terrain to the Island Mine from Siskiwit Bay which they finished in 1874. He returned to visit and camp around the island between 1874 and the early years of the next century. In 1908 Alfred Merritt attended the auction of Isle Royale islands at Marquette, Michigan. He bought a number of islands in Tobin’s harbor, Duncan Bay and Siskiwit Bay including the four that are south of Blake”s Point at the northeast end of Isle Royale.
In 1907-09 he cruised with his family to Isle Royale from Duluth in his forty-two foot yacht. They stayed at Tourist Home, now Davidson Island in Rock Harbor near the park headquarters at Mott Island. On one of those years, they went into Washington Harbor and docked at Barnum Island. As Grandfather and son Glen were on the dock tying up they heard George Barnum, Sr. yelling at them: “Five Dollars an hour to tie up at this dock!” Glen said his father paid no attention and when Mr. Barnum got closer and recognized Alfred he said, “Oh, is that you, Alf? You can tie up here any time.”
In 1911 Alfred and family built a large cabin in Tobin’s Harbor on the first island south of Blake’s Point. This became Camp Comfort. Later he bought Wright’s Island in Siskiwit Bay and a small island farther up Tobin’s Harbor. When the park was created the family had fourteen islands. They sold all of them to the park for five dollars an acre, except the one up the harbor known as Camp Dig Inn, which they still occupy under a special use permit from the park for Grant and his sister Mary Alice. She and her husband plus her son Brian Bergson and family are there in the summer. Grant’s wife Marilyn, their three children and grandchildren have enjoyed being there virtually every summer as well.
There once was a 3 inch red pine growing up the river flowing into Duncan Bay at Isle Royale. Louis Mattson and Grant moved that little red pine to grow on the path between the main cabin and the “parsonage” at Camp Dig Inn. It now is some 65 feet tall and a proud parent of this 5 foot offspring which has sprung up from a pine cone blown some distance east of the big red or norway pine.
This history of the Merritts at Isle Royale cannot end without seeing Glen and Alice Merritt in the “Handy” keeping warm in their serapes, which were gifts from their good Tobin’s neighbor EK, Elizabeth Kemmer.
Island Purchase & Cabin Construction
Roy, Lucille and their three boys, Jud, John and Laurie spent summers at Isle Royale starting in 1932. They need to escape the summer heat and find relief from asthma. They rented a cottage in Rock Harbor and then in Tobin Harbor. In 1936 Roy and Lucille Snell purchased their cabin from Faustina Breen of Duluth. The cabin at that time consisted of two rooms the living room with extended porch and the kitchen.
Fishermen Art and Ed Mattson built the Snell Cottage, the earliest structure on the site, in 1905. The writing shack was built in the late 30’s or early 40’s. With Three boys Jud, John and Laurie they needed more room so the boys slept in a tent on a wooden platform. A sleeping room added by appropriating a tourist cabin from the Minong lodge taken apart and floated across the water. The guesthouse was created in the same manner. The writing cabin on the right was where Roy wrote two of his 84 books that take place on Isle Royale: The Galloping Ghost and the Phantom Violin and the radio dialogue for “Jack Armstrong, all American boy” one summer.
The Snell Family consists of Roy, Lucille and sons, Jud, John and Laurie, and their children and grandchildren. Jud married Marjorie and they had four children: Teri, Greg, Roy and Cindy. Teri and her husband Bob had three girls: Emily, Jennifer and Molly. Greg married Jan and had two children: Tim and Gina. Deb is his wife now. Roy married Julie and they had four girls: Jessica, Abbie, Anna and Erin. Cindy married Tom and they had three children: Lindsy, John and Tom. She is now married to Scott. Jennifer and her husband Tim come to the island with their two children: Fritz and Bea. John Snell married Jeanne and they had three girls: Susan, Kathy and Nancy. Kathy married D and they had three children, Crystal, Don and Scotta. Crystal married P and they have Noam. Laurie married Joan and they had two children: John and Mary Paige. John married Janet and they had two girls: Molly and Savannah. Snells have been on the island for 83 years.
Roy was an adventurer, author and lecturer. He received his theology degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary, his masters at the University of Chicago. He served as a superintendent of a mission in Cape Prince of Wales Alaska in 1910. He served as a missionary in WWI for the YWCA. He returned home and married Lucille in 1919. He wrote his first book Little White Fox in 1916. He wrote most of his life and did lecture series in schools in Detroit and Des Moines for school children. He showed colored slides of his adventures and his experiences on Isle Royale to promote this beautiful place.
Lucile was a concert pianist and attended the New England Conservatory of Music. She taught at several universities until her marriage. She gave music lessons and made doll clothes and taught her three boys piano, cello and violin. She suffered from asthma, which led them to find respite in the north especially in the summers. Before they discovered Isle Royale the Snells spent summers in Hessel Michigan.
Jud was a businessman, John a Navy pilot, concert violinist, salesman, and engineer, and Laurie a mathematics professor at Dartmouth College.