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Oberholtzer, Ernest (1884–1977)

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Ernest Oberholtzer, 1940.

Ernest Oberholtzer, 1940.

Ernest Oberholtzer first paddled the lakes of the Rainy Lake watershed in 1909. Starting in the 1920s, he lived on Rainy Lake’s Mallard Island and was a prominent conservationist. He led the campaign for legislation to protect the watershed, including parts of what would become Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Ernest Carl Oberholtzer was born in February of 1884 in Davenport, Iowa. His parents divorced when he was five years old, and he was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents in an upper middle-class home in Davenport.

As a child, Oberholtzer was interested in the outdoors, reading, and playing the violin. He began playing violin at eleven and continued to play throughout his life. At seventeen, Oberholtzer contracted rheumatic fever, which left him with a weakened heart for many years. The condition shaped how he approached his future, embracing physical endeavors and nature as healthy and restorative.

In the fall of 1903, Oberholtzer began college at Harvard. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1907 but could not decide what to do next. As a result, he spent the next few years alternating between trips to Europe and canoe trips into the Minnesotan and Canadian wilderness.

In the summer of 1909, Oberholtzer had his so-called “3,000-mile summer.” His goal was to travel the major canoe routes of the Rainy Lake watershed. With the expert help of an Ojibwe man named Dedaabaswewidang (He Who Echoes Far Off, also known as Billy Magee), Oberholtzer did just that. As a result, Oberholtzer became an authority on the Quetico-Superior region.

In 1912, Oberholtzer and Magee went on a second major canoe trip, this time to northern Canada and the subarctic Barrens. The two men canoed 2,000 miles through northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories on their way to Hudson’s Bay. The area was home to a variety of Indigenous peoples, including Ojibwe, Cree, Dene, and Inuit groups, but the route was not well known to whites.

Like many white people at the time, Oberholtzer believed (incorrectly) that Indigenous people were disappearing just as the wilderness was disappearing. This led him to try to be an amateur anthropologist and collect the stories of Ojibwe people. After his 1912 trip, he returned to Rainy Lake to undertake this work. Although unable to make a living as an anthropologist, he continued to learn from the Ojibwe people living in the Rainy Lake area throughout his life.

In 1915, Oberholtzer became part of a business venture in the Rainy Lake area called Deer Island, Incorporated. The business sought to raise crops and wild animals and provide campgrounds and guiding services to tourists. It lasted only seven years. When it dissolved in 1922, Oberholtzer became owner of some of the Rainy Lake islands the business had owned. One of these, called Mallard Island, was where, over the next three decades, Oberholtzer would construct a series of cabins for himself, his mother, and guests.

Despite having close Platonic relationships with men and women, Oberholtzer never married. When asked why, he reportedly replied that he was “born in the wilderness” and preferred to be self-sufficient. Some historians believe that, if he were alive today, he might identify somewhere on the spectrum of queer identities—as possibly gay, bisexual, or asexual.

Mallard Island and the Rainy Lake Watershed were threatened in 1925, when lumber baron Edward Wellington Backus proposed building seven new dams at the western end of the lake. If built, the dams would have raised the water level, flooding Mallard Island and much of the watershed shoreline.

Oberholtzer and others formed the Quetico–Superior Council to oppose the dams. Oberholtzer was named president of the council and lobbied the federal government to protect the watershed. Many individuals lent their support, including Sewell Tyng, a fellow Harvard graduate, and Frances Andrews. Fellow conservationist Sigurd Olson also aided the effort. After several years of difficult work, Herbert Hoover signed the Shipstead–Nolan Act into law in 1930. The act prevented logging and the alteration of lake levels on federal land in the Rainy Lake watershed. This law effectively stopped Backus from building his dams.

Oberholtzer continued to live on or near Mallard Island until 1973, when he entered a nursing home. In the latter years of his life, parts of the watershed became well-known Minnesota Wilderness areas. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was created in 1964, and Voyageurs National Park was established in 1975. In 1977, Oberholtzer died at the age of ninety-three. Mallard Island and many of Oberholtzer’s possessions are preserved by the Oberholtzer Foundation.

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M530
Ernest C. Oberholtzer papers
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00353.xml
Description: Papers of Ernest C. Oberholtzer.

Paddock, Joe. Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Oberholtzer. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.

Pelly, David F. The Old Way North: Following the Oberholtzer–Magee Expedition. St Paul: Borealis Books, 2008.

Regan, Ann. Email conversation with Anton Treuer, November 4, 2019.

Related Images

Ernest Oberholtzer, 1940.
Ernest Oberholtzer, 1940.
Hand-drawn 1920s map of the Rainy Lake watershed in both Minnesota and Ontario, possibly drawn by Ernest Oberholtzer, showing the 14,500 square miles that would have been effected by Edward Backus’ proposed dams. Used with the permission of the Oberholtzer Foundation.
Hand-drawn 1920s map of the Rainy Lake watershed in both Minnesota and Ontario, possibly drawn by Ernest Oberholtzer, showing the 14,500 square miles that would have been effected by Edward Backus’ proposed dams. Used with the permission of the Oberholtzer Foundation.
Ca. 1942 image of Ernest Oberholtzer at Mallard Island.
Ca. 1942 image of Ernest Oberholtzer at Mallard Island.
1933 image of Ernest Oberholtzer and Sewell Tyng representing the Quetico–Superior Council and defending the newly passed regulations of the Shipstead–Nolan Act and the Rainy Lake watershed in front of an international commission.
1933 image of Ernest Oberholtzer and Sewell Tyng representing the Quetico–Superior Council and defending the newly passed regulations of the Shipstead–Nolan Act and the Rainy Lake watershed in front of an international commission.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Ernest Oberholtzer documented flood damage associated with existing Rainy Lake dams in an attempt to prevent Edward Backus from constructing more dams, causing additional damage. This image documents damage related to a storage dam on Namakan Lake.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Ernest Oberholtzer documented flood damage associated with existing Rainy Lake dams in an attempt to prevent Edward Backus from constructing more dams, causing additional damage. This image documents damage related to a storage dam on Namakan Lake.
Ca. 1910 image of Ernest Oberholtzer on a canoe trip in the Quetico–Superior region.
Ca. 1910 image of Ernest Oberholtzer on a canoe trip in the Quetico–Superior region.

Turning Point

In 1930, the passage of the Shipstead–Nolan Act protects federal lands in the Rainy Lake watershed, parts of which would later become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.

Chronology

1884

Ernest Carl Oberholtzer is born to Henry and Rosa Carl Oberholtzer on February 6.

1903

Oberholtzer begins college at Harvard. He graduated in 1907 with a bachelor’s degree.

1909

During Oberholtzer’s so-called 3,000-mile summer, he and an Ojibwe man named Dedaabaswewidang (He Who Echoes Far Off, also known as Billy Magee) attempt to paddle all the major canoe routes of the Rainy Lake watershed.

1913

Oberholtzer returns to Rainy Lake in hopes of becoming an amateur anthropologist.

1915

Oberholtzer and others form a business, Deer Island, Incorporated, to farm, raise wild animals, and provide services to summer tourists and campers.

1922

Deer Island, Inc. is dissolved, and Oberholtzer receives deeds to islands in Rainy Lake; he begins to build his Mallard Island complex, host guests, and guide canoe trips.

1925

Lumber baron Edward Wellington Backus proposes to build seven new dams on Rainy Lake, threatening to raise water levels throughout the watershed.

1927

The Quetico–Superior Council forms, with Oberholtzer as president; it lobbies for the conservation of the Rainy Lake watershed in both Canada and the US.

1930

The Shipstead–Nolan Act is signed into law by President Herbert Hoover. It prevents logging along shorelines and the alteration of lake levels on federal land.

1934

Backus dies, ending the threat of additional dam construction.

1938

Billy Magee dies.

1964

The National Wilderness Act is passed; the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is created.

1975

Voyageurs National Park is established.

1977

Oberholtzer dies.