1930's Diary of an Isle Royale Winter

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.

December 29, 1932

Bob and Kenny proceeded to disobey all orders and Bob fell in the lake—came home dripping wet and was promptly sentenced to bed. Supper here for him! It is much too cold to try swimming in Lake Superior now. How the wolves did howl early this morning. My blood ran cold, for they seemed to be so near. They were evidently devouring a moose, for their howling was fiendish!

January 1, 1933

Seventeen weeks from today, Bob and I will depart—we hope. Our stove celebrated the New Year by acting “ornery!” Bob and I made puzzles, played ten pins, ring toss and read during the early part of the day. Bob is beginning to learn to read music and can play a tune or two on his mouth organ, also on his lovely accordion.

January 5, 1933

We learned with sorrow of the sudden death of Calvin Coolidge, who was indeed a good president. My map is almost finished [embroidered map of the Midwest, with designs depicting farming, industries, state flowers, etc., for each state]!

January 25, 1933

A beautiful day! A cow and calf moose crossed the ice of the bay this morning (fascinating). We all rushed out to see them.

January 29, 1933

Well, today is a black and sorrowful day for all of us for at 1 o’clock we heard that WHDF is to be closed Tuesday night, for three months, probably permanently. It was like hearing of a death in the family.

February 5, 1933

We thought we heard the Winyah today—almost had heart failure—but guess it was only the wind, as we all rushed out to the point, but saw nothing! We are often hearing boats and airplanes. Last night I lay awake listening to the ice cracking in the bay, and the owls torturing a rabbit up in the woods until I could hear almost anything.

February 18, 1933

Mr. and Mrs. Johnson set out for Rock Harbor this morning via the snowshoe trail. They are exchanging Diamond Dyes and medicine for nails and embroidery thread. Such is high finance on Isle Royale! Bank closings bother us not—right now. A fine sunny day—just right for the weekly washing of Bob and me (which I perform in a bucket)—I mean the clothes and us—and it is the same bucket.

February 25, 1933

We are all breaking out in ringworm—I suppose because we have so much meat and potatoes—as the vegetables are nearly all gone. Bob and I are using Lysol and Resinol externally and Ex-Lax and plenty of water internally, but it will surely be good to eat lettuce, and carrots, and oranges. (I’d give my soul for an orange tonight!)

March 5, 1933

The southwest storm piled a lot of ice outside and in our outer harbor. And now we are hemmed in from the world again, with the grinding and crashing of the ice ringing in our ears constantly, maddeningly.

I believe we are all getting on each other’s nerves. So many little things that other people do annoy me terribly … the way one person chews, the groans of another when asked to do anything, the comments on politics—the children’s eternal clatter! However, I keep still and sew frantically to keep from exploding, although when I’m trying to listen to Rubinoff and his violin play the Desert Song and the rest argue whether it is music or not, I could weep. Violet and Mrs. J and I like music—Vivian, jazz—the kids, cowboy singers—and the men like nothing but old time fiddling and Swedish polkas. Wow!

March 20, 1933

The almanac says today is the first day of spring. We made a pool today betting on when the Winyah will get here.

March 29, 1933

A fine warm day, but the lake is still frozen. We look at it a hundred times a day. We have the “birchbark” epidemic now and are making every conceivable object out of it.

April 15, 1933

Well the seasons’ big day is over! The Winyah has been here! We were all busily working when we heard her whistle down at Wright’s Island. We had an hour to finish up our work and spruce ourselves up a bit. When she whistled at the harbor entrance, I felt just like crying and was so nervous I just shook—felt much worse than I did when she left!

We loaded up with supplies and ordered a case of beer. The Winyah crew was the same as ever—and old Martin has a real interest and pleasure in our welfare beneath his usual crustiness!

And now, the winter is truly over—our exile ended. It has been fun in many respects and I believe I could tackle it another year if nothing else turns up. Well, we will see. I’ll keep the journal until we hit Duluth, and then write finis to the Big Adventure. After debarking in Duluth, Dorothy and Bob Simonson set out for Chicago and arrived in the midst of the 100-year anniversary World’s Fair. After a few teaching jobs, Dorothy Simonson landed in Stambaugh, Michigan (now Iron River).

From there, young Bob took the boat over to Isle Royale several times to see his friend Kenyon. The entire Johnson family moved to Eagle Harbor when Isle Royale became a National Park on April 3, 1940. Dorothy remarried in 1946 and died in 1984. 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 Natural History Association, 800-678-6925.

This feature first appeared in the December 2003 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine and was updated for MyNorth.com in December, 2008.

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