A 1930’s Diary Reveals What Life Was Like During an Isle Royale Winter
Jan 04, 2020 06:43AM
● By Editor
By Emily Tyra from mynorth.com - January 3, 2019
A young mother is assigned to teach on Lake Superior’s Isle Royale in the throes of the Great Depression. In winter, the Michigan island becomes even more isolated, and a small black radio becomes her lifeline. (Note: Isle Royale became a national park in 1940.)
Dorothy Simonson was a 29-year-old divorced mother who, to make ends meet, took a state-appointed job to teach the children of Chippewa Harbor in the wild reaches of Lake Superior.
Besides her own six-year-old son, Bob, Dorothy taught the children of island innkeepers Holger and Lucy Johnson: Jerry, Violet, Vivian, Holger Jr. and Kenyon. Dorothy and Bob lived in the back of the one-room schoolhouse and ate meals at the Johnsons’s house. After dinner they listened to their favorite radio programs, or tried to make contact with the mainland via a shortwave radio. Occasionally, Dorothy wrote articles about island life to be published in The Detroit News.
We asked Bob Simonson, who now lives in Iron River, Michigan, about that wondrous but difficult winter he spent with his late mother on the island. He says Dorothy’s spirit was both encouraged and confined by a winter spent hemmed into one beautiful but lonely place and time. This is her journal, a tale of discovery and a peek at Northern Michigan’s history.
This Traverse Classic was featured in the December 2003 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe to life Up North.
Diary entries by Dorothy Simonson // Compiled by Emily Tyra
October 4, 1932
Our first snow, which was slightly more like sleet than real snow, fell this morning. School went well this morning and we could scarcely realize that 12 o’clock had come. Had a wonderful fish dinner. Early in the afternoon we dismissed school to go picking wild cranberries. The small children stayed at home with Mrs. Johnson. We put on old clothes and rubber boots or galoshes … and rowed over to the point in the skiff. The whole point is a mass of flaming color set off by the dark evergreens. The sky was overcast and we could see and hear the huge rollers out on the lake, which tell us fall is here.
We pulled up the boat on a little rocky shore near the outer point and proceeded to follow the trail in to the cranberry bog. And it was a trail! We climbed over and under windfalls, over spongy moss into the ankle-deep mud. I saw much beautiful moss, in great quantity, and of many varieties, also crowds of luscious oyster mushrooms, and beautiful dark red pitcher plants. After fifteen minutes of walking we reached the cranberry bog and received Mr. Johnson’s warning to walk only on the hummocks. It was easy to see why—it was like walking on a giant sponge floating on deep water. Every step set the whole muskeg bed quivering. The berries are purplish in color and grow very close to the ground. Each of us picked nearly fifty pounds in a little over an hour and the girls and I picked mushrooms, moss and pitcher plants as well. Then home again, tired, and somewhat chilly, and with decidedly wet feet. But hot coffee soon pepped us up and we enjoyed an evening writing and sewing while listening to the radio. Heard President Hoover’s address—reserve my comments until after the election. He did appeal to those Iowa farmers. Finished [The Detroit] News stories—bed at 11:30.
October 9, 1932
We were up early and scurried around to get cleaned up before the Winyah arrived. She didn’t come until 12:00, however! Brought us fourteen letters and five packages—two of them big Christmas boxes which we have locked away down in the low cabin. It seemed so queer to receive Christmas packages in October. Makes us feel truly that we are soon to be isolated.
October 19, 1932
We had a terrific thunderstorm, which rather spoiled the bombastic political speeches! We heard Ogden Mills (Republican) and Roosevelt (Democrat)—and decided to vote for Norman Thomas. It is no wonder people become socialistic, or even Bolshevik in their ideas when they have to listen to political drivel of the nature that we are hearing now. And Mills mentioned all in all some 133,900,000,000 of dollars in his speech! And us with $8 or so in the bank—and $65 a month for twelve hours a day of nerve-wracking work—to turn out more boys and girls to become rotten, grafting politicians. Bah!
I’m going to bed—I’d rather hear good old Lake Superior roar against the rocks than any more hooey.
October 22, 1932
Well, I woke this morning to see the sun shining and I felt fine! All last night’s gloom had vanished. We were invited to go down shore while they helped lift herring nets, and we did our jobs of mending and go. We went in the Spray and it being one of October’s choicest days, clear blue skies, shining water, breeze gently playing through the evergreens, we had a lovely ride. Past stern cliffs with their crowns of spruce and balsam, past intriguing small harbors, veritable Loreleis of interest, to lovely Huckleberry Harbor we went. Here we picked greenstones on a sun- and lake-kissed beach and collected moss for the Chicago and Detroit boxes. We found nice stones.
Then we turned north and cruised to the beach the fishermen call North Beach, about two miles north of Chippewa. Here we visited the abandoned property of the Ohio Mining Company. We found here an old iron stove, scarcely rusted at all, still holding the big teakettle in mute testimony that here once lived people like ourselves, who made tea and coffee and washed dishes, in this then-truly-isolated wilderness. There are five or six partial cabins still standing—after eighty years! One is the old blacksmith shop and on its moss-covered forge we found a pair of ragged snow soles, and the heel of a child’s shoe. As we stood among the rotting logs that were once homes, I paid silent tribute to the sturdy people who had lived and loved here, so long ago, courageously facing untold hardships in a strange and almost inaccessible wilderness. We turned silently away, leaving the logs to their memories, with the tall trees a silent guard in this graveyard of human hopes and plans.
Home at 3:00—had lunch. Then Bob and I went up in the woods for more moss and packed our boxes. Had supper and wrote up my News story—listened to the radio till 9:00—then home. Feel so fine tonight—my life is easy compared to that of the women who lived here eighty years ago! Stars tonight—and warm.
(Ten years ago—my wedding day!)
October 26, 1932
Nothing to record—rain, rain all day—mud, slush, dirt, cold. Is Isle Royale romantic? Not today!
October 28, 1932
The worst storm in years, they tell me. It is bitterly cold, raining, hailing. The sea is roaring in, even here in the harbor. They had to move the boats over to the other side, it is pounding so here. They are worried that the fishhouse may blow away.
We listened to a play, Mary Queen of Scots, with June Meredith—it was good, but too short! We didn’t hear Time because the air was cleared for Hoover’s damn old speech.
It is cold here—we are all hurrying to get to bed!
October 29, 1932
We woke this morning to a changed world—one covered with snow, and very beautiful. At least three inches of snow fell during the night. The children were overjoyed and spent the day making snowmen and sliding on the hills. The stove was put up in the living room, with much argument over the merits of the various places for the furniture. I worked on clothes—mending and washing, did some schoolwork, wrote two stories for the News, and took a roll of film—went out to the point to get some of the waves, and slipped on the sloppy snow—slid and scraped my “seat!” Decided to wash my hair and thereupon did so. As I sat here drying my hair, it grew dusk and I watched the scene change from one of turbulence to one of peace. Mr. Johnson came in late to supper—he had been treed for over an hour by a big bull moose, while he was out on the trap lines!
November 3, 1932
The old lake was surely rolling, all day today. I voted—hope I did it the right way! After listening to all the speeches, I was more confused than ever.
Did my ironing in the evening. The men were skinning wolves and minks. Oh what a smell!
November 6, 1932
The men made a fine haul of five hundred pounds of trout and whitefish this morning! The Winyahbrought all our winter supplies and was the dock loaded! I wonder if we’ll ever eat our way out.
November 8, 1932
It was a horrible day—poured rain continuously and the whole place is a sea of mud. We listened to the election returns all evening, and are pleased that Roosevelt seems to have been chosen for our next president. And the fishermen are very pleased to hear of Comstock’s (probable) election as governor.
All I care about is a decent job for next year. One that won’t require wood and water hauling and janitor scrubbing and cleaning! It’s fierce here in this mudhole!
I’m going to crawl into bed and read old lady E.D.E.N. Southworth’s The Hidden Hand! Just the thing for a murderous election night. We have nothing to help us make whoopee!
November 10, 1932
Today was one of those discouraging days when everything was muddy, wet, smelly—the youngsters fidgety and knowing even less than usual. And after school, Bob, Kenny and the other boys got into a fight and there was much yelling and hollering—I was so darn discouraged and so sick of having a commotion all the time that I had a nice little weep all alone—when the Winyah blew her whistle unexpectedly and we went down to the dock to get welcome letters. Our radio set arrived! Now I am anxious to get it going—and feel much better!
November 11, 1932
It snowed most all day. Mr. Johnson and I set up the shortwave and it works. I could hear Houghton as well as many other stations. It is a fine-looking, very neat and compact job and I’m beginning to get much interested in operating it. We are to have a schedule with Houghton Wednesday. Here’s hoping he can read me and I him!
The children had a very nice little Armistice Day program and I dismissed them a little early. Bob stayed here and we cleaned house—then listened to the radio. After supper we sewed and enjoyed our favorite March of Time and Little Theatre. Togo had a moose up on the hill—they are coming closer to our houses every day but are no longer so vicious—their antlers are beginning to fall off now.
November 14, 1932
The Winyah arrived early (10:30)—only two letters and two packages today. We are grateful indeed. The Winyah will make two more trips.
The Rock Harbor men came down this afternoon and all are pleased with the radio set. Listened to several good programs tonight—sewed, wrote several letters and articles.
We are watching for the comet.
November 16, 1932
The lake was frozen over and when I went out behind the schoolhouse to empty the “pot” (about 8 a.m.) I met a huge bull moose face to face. Dropped “pot” contents and all, and fled precipitously to the schoolhouse! But I ventured out on the porch to take a picture of the gentleman.
Tried to get W9YX at noon but couldn’t raise him. I know our antenna has to be shifted—also, the “lost comet” seems to be a disturbing element, atmospherically speaking.
We’ll try for W9YX tomorrow. Came up to bed early—read and started a “boat book” for Bob for Christmas.
November 19, 1932
Radio signals from everywhere except Houghton. Oh, well, I had time to get acquainted with the set anyway! Listened to the Michigan-Minnesota game and it was a dandy, ending 3-0 for Michigan! Spent the evening getting ready for our last batch of mail for 1932, for tomorrow Winyah will make her last trip. Temperature is rising now and snow is falling softly, Wonder whatever happened to that famous comet?!!
November 21, 1932
The Winyah arrived at 11 a.m. on her last trip and brought us many letters and packages, but no word from the Chicago folks and not the radio licenses. They blew five whistles and departed at 11:30—to return April 1, or thereabouts, 1933. Bob and I watched her out of sight and took pictures of her, realizing that we are now indeed isolated. But I didn’t feel nearly so let down as I had expected, for with a broadcast receiver and a shortwave set, we do not lack contact with the outer world entirely. And at 1:00, I had a good conversation with operator Cook at Michigan Tech, so feel much better. Our licenses are there, so it is safe to operate now.
November 22, 1932
The world was a mass of swirling white flakes this morning and we had to break trail over to breakfast. All day the storm raged and we heard at noon of shipwrecks on the south shore of Lake Superior.
I tried to get W9YX this noon but could not raise him. Guess this weather simply nullifies radio signals as far as we are concerned.
Bob and I went over to supper in a setting mysterious, living and yet almost threatening. For the first time we seemed to realize that we are indeed isolated on this block of snow and ice, with its threatening, fir-crowned cliffs and howling wolves, its frozen stars and frosty moon, surrounded by nothing but a seething turbulency that men call Lake Superior. Our only link with friends and family—a little black box whose thin, querulous voice sent out through frosted skies will let the rest of the world know either of our safety, or our distress. I cannot help but wonder what the winter may bring us—eleven people apart—with only a radio and Providence to aid us should we need aid. I shudder as the wind howls about this exceedingly frail shelter which we must, for over five months, continue to call our home, and wonder that I had the temerity to so tempt Providence by bringing Bob, and myself, to this place, awful and majestic in its stand against nature’s onslaught.
November 24, 1932
Well, our Thanksgiving Day on Isle Royale is over! And it wasn’t half-bad!
I washed my hair and sat in the big rocking chair and read The Door while my hair dried, in the morning. We had dinner at 2:30—whitefish, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, beets, onions in vinegar, fresh rolls, pumpkin pie and coffee. (Oh, yes—and Isle Royale turkey [moose] for those who don’t like fish as well as I do!)
December 1, 1932
It was such a lovely day that the folks decided to pay their final visit of the year to Rock Harbor. As it is necessary, on Isle Royale, to take advantage of the weather, we agreed to take the day off, and all go.
After we started, we found a much heavier sea than appeared from here, but we kept on rolling and swaying from side to side. Just before we reached Saginaw point, the skiff broke loose and we had to lie in the trough of the sea, after making a sharp turn almost on the side of the boat. But everyone sat still and said nothing, so we managed to get righted and proceed. By this time, the sky had turned gray and lowering, and I, for one, felt like a mighty insignificant atom in the scheme of things, pitching and tossing in a twenty-foot cockleshell on Lake Superior, whose giant fist seemed to pick us up and shake us as a baby shakes its rattle.
We reached Rock Harbor about 11 a.m. and went over to the old lighthouse where we visited until 3 o’clock. Vivian and I climbed the old tower—the view from there is gorgeous.
The men decided they’d like to go on to Rock Harbor Lodge and visit the caretaker and his family there, so we loaded everyone on to the boat and started out.
It was beautiful traveling through the December dusk over a calm harbor, with the snow-coated trees looking ghostly and vague, as darkness swiftly fell. We finally arrived at the lodge and there they decided to go over to the dining room and have dance. Violet and I furnished the music on a worn-out violin and an awful old piano. We had Scandinavian schottisches galore! It was a great dance—the men all wore their hats, lumber jackets and rubber boots! The little kids all bawled when their mothers danced!
December 4, 1932
What a day! I experimented nearly all day with the shortwave set. Mr. Johnson helped me. It is okay on the receiving end but no good on transmission. I was so discouraged I simply went to pieces—but I’ve done all the work and that’s that. I’ll try Houghton again tomorrow and hope for the best.
December 8, 1932
What a day! Stormy—cold—the school is like a barn and all of us huddled around the stove, which simply gobbled wood. I tried Houghton again—heard half a message or so—then he faded completely. Guess there is still something wrong with our transmission.
I did my Christmas sewing in bed with my feet on a hot water bottle!
December 10, 1932
Had a nice letter from Mom and the kids, which was read over WHDF at noon. They are all going to Wyandotte for Christmas—and will we envy them! I’m glad they’ll all be together anyway.
We have practically finished the doll’s house, which we are making for our dear little girls for Christmas.
December 11, 1932
We had a lovely, peaceful Sunday—snow fell gently all day long and Bob and I spent the day doing Christmas work in the school. I feel we are truly possessed of the Christmas spirit, for we are having a grand time making many gifts of little cost. Violet, Vivian and I are making a three-room [doll] house and furniture of pasteboard cartons—Violet made the furniture—I made curtains, a real patchwork quilt, etc. Today Bob and I made bookmarks, pen-wipers, address books—everyone has a secret and is working very busily and it’s fun! The boys are doing a beautiful winter garden for their mother—and some hand-tooled leather things (out of an old purse of mine)—for the men. A heavy sea rolling again!
December 13, 1932
I finished making Kenyon’s “Book of Cars” tonight. He will little suspect that my Christmas gift is designed to motivate letter learning!
December 17, 1932
The ice was all gone from the harbor today. Didn’t get our batteries charged in time to get W9YX today. It is so hard to charge them, as the engine freezes constantly. I made the winter garden we are giving Mrs. Johnson—painted various plants, etc. to give it color. It is really pretty. And one of the narcissus bulbs is about ready to blossom.
We wrapped gifts in the evening. Our packages look nice—paper is cheap—even if the gifts are makeshifts.
December 19, 1932
A beautiful day! The world was so quiet and beautiful this morning that Bob and I stopped on our way to the house and enjoyed just living.
December 21, 1932
No news—no battery! Bob and I cleaned and decorated the school and trimmed the tree.
December 22, 1932
I managed to get W9YX long enough to send messages to George Burgan, Grossmama, and the family at Wyandotte. Will have to finish the telegrams tomorrow as my ears played out today.
There were moose tracks all around our woodpile this morning.
December 24, 1932
We were busy all day with Christmas preparations. The men started out in the boat to get Ben Benson [on Malone Island] but had to turn back—it was too rough.
December 25, 1932
Christmas on Isle Royale! We were awake at 8:00 when the men started out to get Ben. I wonder how many boats were out on Lake Superior today? It was rough, but they didn’t want Ben to spend Christmas alone, so went the eight miles down and eight back to let him in on a little of our Christmas fun.
And we did have fun. We all had gifts, lovely ones—even our school-and-homemade creations making a brave showing! Bob’s and my gifts from home were grand! So were the ones from the folks here.
The men returned about noon and we had lunch. At 1:45 we heard messages from WHDF—were so tickled. Bob and I had messages from Mom, the kids. The Ashleys, the Knapps, the Raleys, and Sig and Lila—also heard that we are to have a weekly news broadcast every Saturday 1:15 EST, especially arranged by Time and WHDF! We were disappointed because no mention was made of our greetings. Evidently W9YX didn’t deliver the messages he okay’d for me—I feel just sick about it. We had dinner at 5:00 and spent the evening playing hearts.
To read the more of the original article and the rest of the diary entries, follow this link to the My North website. https://mynorth.com/2020/01/isle-royale-winter-1930s/
Bob Simonson lives in Iron River with his wife, Jean, in the same house that he lived in with his mother as a child. Her journal, “Diary of an Isle Royale School Teacher,” is available from the Isle Royale & Keweenaw Parks Association.