When Nick died last fall, his kids came to me with iPhone in hand saying, “You really were father’s best friend. Look, here in the security questions on his phone … Name of your best friend? Answer, Rod!’”
In their family it was never “dad”, but always “father”, and for six generations the Wolter-Douglass family story was written and repeated at grandfather’s cottage, South Walker Bay, Leech Lake, Walker, Minnesota. As Father’s Day approaches, as well as the anniversary of my best friend’s death, I can’t resist telling one of those if-these-walls-could-talk stories.
The 1923 cabin took its name from one Abraham Grenager who acquired the property on old State Highway 34 at Allen’s Point, where the old bridge originates to Shingobee Island and then again to the mainland toward the Ah-Gwah-Ching Sanatorium, a state tuberculosis hospital, and the city of Walker.
If those walls could talk, they would tell stories of when the daughters in the family established a little Tea Room restaurant open to travelers in their cottage. Over time, the wooden bridge was abandoned, a causeway was built to the island and the railroad track with the longest wooden trestle bridge over water on the Great Northern was constructed just 50 feet behind the cottage’s back bedroom. Mail was still delivered by boat on the lake in the 1950s and trains crossed the trestle over Shingobee Bay twice a day into the 1980s.
Grandfather Abraham’s daughter Dagny married Jesse Douglass, who became the TB doctor at the sanatorium and walked the trestle and up the hill to the hospital in summer. His son, Dr. Jesse Douglass Jr., served at Mineral Springs Sanatorium in my hometown, Cannon Falls, in southern Minnesota and his eldest son, Nick, became my best friend in high school.
Here’s where I enter the story of grandfather’s cottage. Beginning in 1967, Nick and his girlfriend invited me and my girlfriend to grandfather’s cottage countless times. Breakfast as well as late night conversations by the largest picture window I have ever seen, whiffle ball games on the front lawn and football games on the beach, camping out in The Glen and campfires with s’mores and so much more got recorded in the grandfather’s cottage log book.
In 1975, when tuberculosis was no longer a health threat and the state hospitals closed leaving lung doctor Jesse Jr. looking for work and finally finding opportunity in Tyler, Texas, Jesse asked me to be caretaker for grandfather’s cottage and to continue documenting everything we saw and did and experienced in that book. That we did with great joy for 32 years until the property was sold in 2007 to be developed into a vacation destination. You can see the beach and causeway and bay at www.bluewaterlodge.com.
The secret was grandfather’s cottage log book recording ancestral history, the family story comprised of many love stories to be remembered and repeated and re-told year after year. One volume became two and then more as every visitor recorded the birds seen at the feeders, fish caught, water ski escapades and even the upkeep and improvement projects completed. Before we wrote, we took turns reading what others had written since we were last there. With grandfather’s family dispersed around the country, the log provided for keeping the family together. Births and deaths, graduations and weddings, and all imaginable family events were entered into the history at old grandfather Abraham’s cottage for review and reminiscing … maybe, and even especially, on Father’s Day!
There’s another Father Abraham ancestral history to which I want to draw your attention. It’s a family story with many love chapters in a book called the Old Testament that’s well worth retelling and hearing again and again. His dwelling place was in a tent on the way to and then in the promised land. Over the centuries, his displaced wandering children were on many journeys including one camping trip that lasted 40 years. It’s a story that’s been re-told by all the children of Father Abraham around the world for centuries. May I be so bold as to invite you work a little of it into family conversation that might draw you even closer together on this Father’s Day.