Ernest Oberholtzer: Unknown Q-C hero


He might be virtually unknown today in his native Davenport, but 25 years after his death, Ernest Oberholtzer still is renowned as an environmental pioneer — savior of the Boundary Waters region.

He is “as important as any environmental figure in U.S. history,” says Joe Paddock, the author of a newly released biography about the obscure early 20th century explorer.

Oberholtzer’s accomplishments are even more remarkable considering that he was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition before graduating from Davenport High School in 1902. But he beat the diagnosis and went on to accomplish the extraordinary.

At 28 years of age and with only one companion, Oberholtzer explored more than 3,000 miles of unmapped North American wilderness in a single summer. He later championed the preservation of the Quetico-Superior National Wilderness in Minnesota and Ontario, Canada, creating an innovative program that would become an example for environmental movements to come.

Betty Gorshe, a retired librarian and chair of the archives committee at the Unitarian Church in Davenport, grew interested in Oberholtzer’s story several years ago when she came across a $200 donation he made to the church upon his death in 1977.

As time passed, she encountered his “fun German name” over and over again in the church archives. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Oberholtzer attended the church with his mother, gave violin recitals and was a leader in what is believed to have been the area’s first Boy Scout troop. “Just here and there, I kept putting things together,” she said.

Joan Walker, a retired teacher and amateur historian from Davenport, learned about “Ober,” as he is commonly known, from an account of his home in the book “Eccentric Islands” by Minnesota author Bill Hohm.

In the Boundary Waters region, just northwest of International Falls, Minn., Oberholtzer created an island home. Over the course of decades, he mixed culture with the wilderness, bringing violins, pianos, piles of sheet music and thousands of books into the sylvan setting.

Inspired by the scene painted by Hohm, Walker began working with people in the Davenport Public Library system and the Scott County Historical Society to learn more about Oberholtzer. She discovered he was an environmental pioneer, yet almost unknown in his hometown.

“He alone, in an era when that just wasn’t done, was able to save the whole (Boundary Waters) area from logging and other things that would have destroyed it,” she said.

A story of contradictions

Telling Oberholtzer’s story is difficult for many reasons. His life was filled with contradictions. He could not pass the physical exam to enter the military, but he took part in an incredibly grueling canoe trip. He was 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed less than 150 pounds, but the Objiwe Indians of Minnesota called him “Atisokan,” or “legend.” He graduated from Harvard University, but he never held a steady paying job. He lived on an island during the 1950s and ‘60s, but he could not operate a boat motor.

“He is really hard to pin down,” said Paddock, his biographer.

Oberholtzer had accomplishments that, for some people, would be crowning achievements. But for the tellers of his story, they are mere footnotes. He thoroughly catalogued the stories and language of the Objiwe, for example, and he was the first person to take pictures of the North American moose.

“I understand there may be a guy who has been plugging away at an Oberholtzer biography for 25 years,” said Paddock, who took five years himself to finish the newly released “Keeper of the Wild.” Oberholtzer was a writer himself, but he struggled his entire life with the ghost of the empty page: He never published an account of his 3,000-mile canoe trip nor was he able to write a book he had long planned about his difficult childhood growing up in Davenport.

Nevertheless, two events are the linchpins of the Oberholtzer tale: his astonishing canoe trip and his pioneering work as an environmentalist.

The frail youth turned explorer

At the age of 17, while Oberholtzer was living in a house at the corner of 7th and Perry streets, he contracted rheumatic fever, which left him with a serious heart condition. At times, it left him fatigued, caused chest pain and resulted in a dangerously high heart rate. He was close to death several times.

But Paddock writes that Oberholtzer was very active in spite of his heart condition and eventually became an accomplished canoeist, rowing for several months in the Boundary Waters region. “A fellow who was really defined as a kind of puny, sickly boy went on to do astounding things,” Walker said.

“He wanted to test himself because he had been told he had not long to live,” said Jean Replinger, the program director for Mallard Island, where Oberholtzer lived much of his life.

Oberholtzer longed to be a lecturer and writer, and he decided he must do something significant to launch such a career. His familiarity with the Boundary Waters, just south and east of one of the only uncharted areas left on the North American map early in the 20th century, made his choice of adventure a natural.

With only one companion, an American Indian named Billy Magee, he traversed a series of unmapped lakes and streams, completing an epic circle through three Canadian provinces that started and finished in Winnipeg. They canoed through labyrinthine lakes that took days to navigate and camped in wilderness void of trees and people, yet filled with huge boulders and biting black flies. With no guides, they somehow managed to find a trail of water that brought them back home with maps, journals and newfound confidence.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] In August of that summer, they entered Lake Nueltin, a body of water that straddles the Canadian Northwest Territories and Manitoba province, which was, at that time, an unknown point for white travelers.

“Nueltin expands into broad, island-studded reaches, then contracts briefly into narrow passages, only to expand vastly outward again, over and over, five times in all,” Paddock says.

The lake is a maze that sent the explorers southeast, then northwest, then northeast without reason. They needed to find the mouth of a river that would take them to Hudson Bay and, eventually, home, but if they missed the river, they would not finish their journey before winter and surely would die. Lost in the middle of 120 square miles of water and facing a desperate situation, Oberholtzer climbed a hill.

“At the very top of the esker, a height future explorers were sure to climb, he left a note in a can, secured in a cairn of rocks. The note was for his mother and the world,” Paddock wrote.

Fourteen days after they entered the lake, they found its exit and eventually made it to Hudson Bay. Barefoot, exhausted and occasionally hallucinating, they reached Winnipeg days before the winter freeze set in. They had successfully canoed and portaged more than 3,000 miles.

Thrust into the conservationist role

When Oberholtzer was 40 years old, he began to realize the Rainy Lake area in northern Minnesota, where he lived at the time, was in danger of being destroyed.

There was “a plan to turn the (Rainy Lake) watershed into a hydroelectric power basin through the construction of a series of seven new dams. The size of the area to be affected was 14,500 square miles — an area larger than Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined — and it contained within it the Superior National Forest and the areas that were to become Voyageurs National Park, Quetico Provincial Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness,” Paddock said.

The proposal was the work of Edward Backus, the owner of a paper mill empire. One of his mills was in International Falls, on Rainy Lake, and Backus had a habit of raising and lowering the lake’s water level to maximize his mill’s production. Those tactics had already destroyed a significant amount of property and natural features that lined the lake.

Backus was politically and economically powerful. In the mid-1920s, when Oberholtzer began his struggle, Backus’ paper mills were the world’s second-largest in terms of total production, Paddock said. He added that Backus attempted to thwart conservation efforts by using his influence to affect the content of newspaper editorials, stall legislative bills in committee and influence legislators.

It was Oberholtzer’s success at the end of a five-year political battle that has made him an environmental hero. “One could argue that he is as important as any environmental figure in U.S. history,” Paddock said.

Oberholtzer spearheaded a group that patiently and meticulously fought Backus before the courts, state legislatures, the court of public opinion and ultimately even Congress and President Harry Truman.

He also authored the primary document used throughout the battle, which established the novel idea that federal lands could be used solely as wilderness, free of economic exploitation. At a time when the job of the U.S. Forest Service was to assist lumber companies, that concept was visionary.

“He was a man ahead of his time,” Walker said.

It took five long years, but newspapers, the public and, finally, the courts and politicians began to agree with Oberholtzer and the organization he headed, the Quetico-Superior Council.

“He was able, through his charm and wisdom and ability to express himself, to assemble around him a group of people who wanted to save that area from development. He somehow had the charisma to gather the right people at the right time,” Replinger said. That group included a Davenport lawyer named Harry French and an important 20th century environmentalist named Sigurd Olsen.

The Great Depression and obsessive efforts by Backus to keep the Rainy Lake project alive eventually ruined his logging empire. As his political influence waned, an unrelenting Oberholtzer pushed his pioneering plan through Congress during the last day of the 1929-1930 session.

“Foreshadowing the Wilderness Act of 1964, it was something new in United States history. For the first time, Congress had legislated that federal lands should be preserved as wilderness,” Paddock said.

The fight to keep the area protected continues to this day. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, part of the region he protected, is one of America’s most popular wildernesses with more than 200,000 visitors a year, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

In spite of his accomplishments, Oberholtzer remains largely unknown in his hometown of Davenport. In Minnesota and, particularly, the Boundary Waters area, it is quite the opposite. He is a folk hero. Many people who knew him are still alive and regularly share vivid stories. There is an Oberholtzer newsletter and a foundation. In Rainer, Minn., there’s even a tavern, Woody’s Pub, where the restroom walls are plastered with Oberholtzer newspaper clippings.

“He is absolutely not given credit for what he accomplished, not in his own hometown,” Walker of Oberholtzer’s obscurity in the Quad-Cities.

Although he lived most of his life in Minnesota, the importance of Davenport to Oberholtzer’s life is not to be discounted.

“He always took his background in Davenport very seriously and he returned quite a bit,” Paddock said. “He long wanted to write the story of his childhood in Davenport.”

In his journals, Oberholtzer wrote that events from his childhood, including walks along Duck Creek, prepared him for his later work:

“What probably impressed me more than anything else were the long rafts of logs that came down the Mississippi ... to be sawed in Davenport and Rock Island — out of the vast unknown North!” he wrote.

When Oberholtzer died in 1977, he chose to be buried in Davenport, next to mother in Oakdale Memorial Park near Eastern Avenue.

His lack of fame does not bother admirers.

“The man doesn’t need to be famous,” Replinger said. “He just has a great story.”

Contact the city desk at (563) 383-2245 or newsroom@qctimes.com.

used with permission