1930's Diary of an Isle Royale Winter

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 of longing for contact from the outside world.

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 nervewracking 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!)