As I was finalizing my preparation for the third town of my project, Tonopah, NV, scheduled for June of 2016, it dawned on me that I would be visiting the high desert in the middle of summer. It was at this time I had the idea that I should do the exact opposite come the following winter and visit a town in the far north. Six months later when I was preparing for town number six of my This is America Too project, my main criteria was finding a place in Minnesota as close to the Canadian border as possible. The decision came down to either Grand Marais or Ely and in the end I chose the latter because with a population of 3,455 it was by far the larger of the two. I wanted to make sure there would be some people left in town during the dead of winter and Ely was my best shot at that. Once the decision was made I started preparing for the visit.
The trip from where I was staying in Kenosha, WI to Ely is just over 500 miles, so I decided to stop for the night at a half-way point in Chippewa Falls, WI where my old friend Dale was living. It was the first long trip for Bessie, the van that I will be living out of and traveling across the country in as my project progresses. Previous to the trip I had put a lot of money into the vehicle, a 2001 Chevy Astrovan that had just over 200,000 miles at the time. Bessie and I stated out on a Tuesday in the middle of January and I had a hotel booked for the following night in Ely. We made it to my friend’s place with no problems, stopping along to way to see a few sights. I met Dale’s wife Greta and their kids, spent the night catching up, and the next morning we had breakfast before I headed off. For me the plan was a quick stop at Willow River State Park to see the waterfalls there and then on to Ely. About twenty minutes into the trip my battery warning light started to blink slowly and just as I was getting off the highway at the town of Menominee, WI all the gauges died. It was not what I was hoping for on Bessie’s inaugural voyage.
I pulled into a Walmart and drove around the back to the automotive shop. I popped inside and told a mechanic what I just experienced. He assured me it was the alternator and explained he didn’t want to sell me a battery I didn’t need. I got the van jumped and was sent to a Fleet Farm where he thought they may be able to get me in that day. When I arrived there I left the van running and went in to see if they had an opening. The very friendly mechanic explained they were booked but called another place named All Car Automotive. I was put on the phone with Jason, the shop manager, who told they could get me in right away. I jumped in the van and attempted to make the two mile trip but about three quarters of the way the van died. I had no service on my phone and didn’t know the number of the shop. Just as frustration and despair started to set in Jason pulled up and told me he had a feeling I wasn’t going to make it. We went back to the shop, got another vehicle, and strapped Bessie up to tow the rest of the distance. The repair went smoothly, the price wasn’t bad, and I still had time to make it to Ely that day. Just a little bump in the road, or so I thought.
Once the repairs were done and the work was paid for one of the mechanics that was pulling it out of the shop asked me if my breaks usually went all the way to the floor. I assured him the brakes were good and he told me that I had a busted brake line. Jason confirmed that I indeed had a busted line but said they didn’t have the time to repair it that day. I asked if I could get back to Chippewa Falls at least and they claimed it shouldn’t be a problem if I was careful. I got a couple of miles down the road and decided there was no way I was driving anywhere, I had no brakes! I called my mechanic Kurt back in Kenosha and he told me they likely snapped the brake line while towing, a consequence of helping me out. He mentioned the only one that was bad was near the front right tire and it shouldn’t be more than $150. I drove back to the shop, told them I was not taking a chance, and Jason explained they had a cancelation and could get it in right away. It was the brake line Kurt mentioned but they couldn’t get it done that day. I called Dale and he told me Greta just happened to be working near where I was. She came and got me and I was able to call my hotel in Ely and rearrange the dates of my reservation. A minor hang-up easily alleviated and likely not the last. The next morning I got a call from Jason telling me the van was ready and in the end it was fairly priced. I felt lucky to find an honest mechanic on the road.
The drive from Menominee was lovely. I stopped at Wisconsin’s tallest waterfall Big Manitou Falls, passed through Duluth, MN, and finally entered the Superior National Forest as the sun was setting. By the time I reached Ely it was dark and my first impression was that it seemed quaint and very secluded. My hotel, the Ely Budget Host, sat right on Sheridan Street, the main drag through town. I had no problem finding it and checked in with the amiable couple who ran the place. After the usual procedure they gave me my keys, told me which restaurants were still open, and warned that the sidewalks were slick. I put my stuff in the room and drove to the closest store to grab some beer.
After spending some time searching the small market unsuccessfully, I finally broke down and talked to one of the workers. She explained that in Minnesota I had to go to a liquor store for anything more than 3.5% beer and told me where to find one. I jumped back in the van and went a few blocks to Mike’s Liquor. I stepped in and was greeted by the very friendly Jamie. I picked up a sixer of The Ringer, an APA from Fulton Brewery out of Minneapolis. At the register Jamie asked why I was in town and I explained the project and gave her a card. She instantly rattled off a number of names of people I should talk to. I was delighted she was so friendly but I was too tired from the drive to think and forgot everything she said the moment I left the store. Getting in the van I noticed the Boathouse Brewpub across the street and knew where I would be eating that night.
I returned to the room, cracked a beer, and took a second to unwind from the long day of driving before setting back out for dinner. I decided to walk to the brewpub and although the average temperature could get well below zero at that time of year, it was in the high 20s that night. As I was warned the sidewalks were icy and I carefully made my way the few blocks to the restaurant. From the outside the place looks rustic but inside it was clean with hardwood paneling along the walls and décor like snowshoes and canoe paddles that gave me the feeling I was in the northwoods. I sat at the bar and ordered their Ely Nevada Pale Ale, a well-balanced pale ale with the perfect amount of hops, not too far off from the popular Sierra Nevada Pale Ale that their name mimicked. Off the menu I went with a fried chicken sandwich and sat sipping on my beer, taking in the scene, and watching hockey on the television while I waited for my food. I eventually asked the bartender about the brewery and he explained that the beer was made onsite and that the brewer was humble and just loved what he did. I found out that the bartender was from central Wisconsin, his name was Tyler, and he had come up to work for a summer years ago and had never left. The sandwich was simple but filling. I ordered an Alimony ESB which is another well-crafted brew and when I finished I inquired where I should go if I wanted another beer before calling it a night. Tyler recommend the Kwazy Wabbit a couple blocks away so I paid my bill and made my way over there.
Entering the place I got a sense that I wasn’t exactly welcomed and it was not how I usually felt in small-town bars. There was a pool league going that night but the place wasn’t too full. It was more lit up than the typical dive but the décor was the usual, beer signs and local flavor. I ordered a PBR from the bartender and she seemed pained to get it for me. After a bit I tried to strike up a conversation and asked her how old the Hamms beer sign was behind the bar. I got a very cold, “old” as she walked away. On the television was hockey, something I was beginning to realize would be the norm while I was in town. I watched the game as I sat finishing my beer and then ventured back out into the cold and made my way to my room.
When I woke up the next morning I had my coffee before heading out to explore and shoot photos of the town. It was cold, but not the frigid temps I was expecting. Never the less I put on my thermals and bundled up in my scarf and hat for the stroll. As I meandered the streets of Ely, capturing glimpses of it with my camera, I couldn’t help but think that it was exactly what I was expecting from a small town in the far northern forests of Minnesota. The architecture of the homes and buildings, the ubiquity of outfitter companies along the main street, and the snowmobilers whizzing through the alleyways and streets all gave me a sense that I was undeniably in another world. When I looked out beyond the town to the snow-covered forest that stretched for as far as the eye could see, my feelings were reinforced. I also got the impression that there was a duality to Ely and that although it was surprisingly alive for being the dead of winter, in summer it must be truly bustling. Interestingly, the more I learned about Ely the more I realized the division wasn’t solely among the seasons.
I eventually had to return back to my room for breakfast and a shower before going to the Ely-Winton Historical Society. Prior to arriving in town I had contacted them looking for assistance. I received a reply from Margaret Sweet who ran the society and we made plans for me to come by that first morning there. The society was located at the Vermilion Community College, only a fifteen minute walk from my hotel. When I arrived to Margaret’s office I was greeted and we talked a bit about what I was doing. In preparation for our meeting she had compiled a list of potentials for me to interview and after I explained my project she started to tell me who on the list would be best to talk to and why. As we were chatting one of the people on her list, David Kess, came into the office. David’s family has been a part of the town for many generations and his ancestors came directly from Finland to Ely in the 19th century. David and I talked, I explained the project, and we agreed to meet the following day.
Also located in the college was the Ely-Winton history museum which the society cared for. Once David departed Margaret kindly offered to give me a personal tour of the museum that I happily accepted. Among other things, I learned of the lumber and iron mining beginnings of the town as well as the decline of those industries. She told me about the deep European roots of Ely’s population and the early animosity between certain groups like the Slovenians and Finnish immigrants. Although I never learned what the division was about, I guessed it was due to cultural differences between Northern and Eastern Europeans. When we finished the tour I thanked Margaret for her generosity and willingness to take time to enlighten me on Ely’s rich history. I left there more knowledgeable, with an interview already set up, and a list of names and numbers of people that may give me even more insight into Ely’s past.
Feeling the day was already a huge success, I decided to reward myself and enjoy some of the natural beauty the region offered. I grabbed a simple lunch from a local market and then headed to Kawishiwi Falls for a short hike. The trail was slick but accessible. I spent a little under an hour exploring and taking photos of the waterfall and nearby Fall Lake, both so serene surrounded by a blanket of snow. After my hike I took a drive around the even smaller town of Winton located just a few miles from Ely. Winton is just over 150 people, was established as a lumber town in the 19th century, and named after William Winton who was an important figure in the industry during its heyday. Today the town likely survives because of its proximity to Ely, but as I drove around it the lack of commerce and sense of poverty made me feel it was barely hanging on.
When I felt content with my exploration of the region I headed back to the hotel. I gave a call to one of the people on Margaret’s list that caught my attention, the 70 year-old Saraphine Rolando, a retired miner whose roots trace back to Italy and whose father and grandfather had also been miners. He answered the phone and I explained Margaret had given me his number and what I was doing in town. He told he would be happy to sit down with me but had a busy schedule, so it would be best if we talked the following day. With my work done, I headed into town to take my chance at another dive and eventually find dinner.
During my walk that morning I passed by the bar called Zaverl’s and the classic sign alone made me want to go in and check it out. Inside the bar sits to the left with some booths to the right. Both the stools and booths are finished with maroon vinyl and the place has all the signs of a typical dive, yet like Kwazy Wabbit it was unusually lite up. I sat at the end of the bar closest to the door and saw the beer Schmidt on tap. It was something I had never seen and I knew it wasn’t a microbrew. Intrigued by it I ordered one from the bartender, who like the woman the night before, seemed annoyed to serve me. It was typical light pilsner and cheaply priced. I found out later that it was a brewery from St. Paul that dates back to 1855. I was going to have just one because of the vibe, but the bartender and a patron were talking about meth-labs and a local guy who got busted for dating a minor so I stayed for a second beer and some local gossip. Finally I peeled myself away and went in search of dinner.
Across from Zaverl’s was the Oriental Orchard and I was intrigued by Chinese food in such a remote town. I stepped in, gave the empty and slightly dirty interior a look over, and then glanced at the menu. Nothing about the place was appealing so I moved on. Next I stopped in the Ely Steak House a couple of blocks down. The place was hopping so I found myself a spot at the bar. When I was greeted I asked for a beer and a menu. The beer was the Saga IPA from Summit Brewing in St. Paul which I found enjoyable with a bold hop, a hint of tropical fruit, and a clean finish. I had noticed that walleye seemed to be the popular fish in town so I went with the walleye sandwich. The fish was flakey, perfectly battered, and it came with a generous portion of fries and coleslaw. I devoured my meal and was extremely content with my choice. I ordered another beer and started chatting with the bartender Jim about his Cubs jacket. I learned he was from Iowa and, like me, a longtime Cubs fan. We were both still reveling in the recent World Series win that was long overdue for the Cubbies and quickly bonded. We talked for a while and I learned the owners of the restaurant were also Cubs fans. Finally I paid my tab and made my way back to the hotel. I left feeling that like the night before I had seen two sides of Ely’s hospitality industry, the friendly restaurant and the cold local-bar.
I put myself to bed early because the following morning I had a dogsledding trip booked with a local outfitter Chilly Dogs. Originally the trip was booked for noon but due to the unseasonably warm weather and the stress it put on the dogs, they moved it up to nine. Chilly Dogs was not far outside of town and the night before I received a call with directions and a warning that the roads could be icy because of the unusual weather. That morning I carefully made the six mile drive out of town with no problems and when I arrived I learned I was one of nine going out that day. The rest were couples so I got to ride on a sled with the owner Jake. Before going out they set us up with the right gear, let us meet the dogs, and gave us a tutorial on the dos and don’ts of dogsledding. When it was time to set up the sleds, the dogs went crazy. Although most of them were over ten-years-old, from their energy one would have thought they were just pups. Our sled was the last of the group to go and I started out being the passenger as Jake did the mushing.
On the eight mile trip into the back-country I got to ask Jake a ton of questions. I learned he had started working with dogs when he was thirteen, and at fourteen had led his first week-long dogsledding trip into the Boundary Waters (one million acers of land in northern Minnesota and Canada that doesn’t permit building or any motorized vehicles). In his teens he was already buying dogs and at twenty-nine he currently had ninety. He used Alaskan Huskies that were all retired race dogs. He explained that when they are too old to race in the long-hauls like Iditarod it was best to still keep them active or they slowly decay and break down. His dogs only went on smaller trips but it kept them happy and healthy until their time came. Jake also shared stories of his own experience sledding and that of friends including Nathan Schroder who won Iditarod rookie of the year in 2014. I also got my chance to mush and found the whole experience unforgettable. I understood how someone like Jake could fall in love with the sport and the bond it creates with the dogs. By the time it was over I wanted to go on a weeklong winter camping trip-and I always whine about how much I hate winter after spending 21 years in it! Back in the lodge we all returned our gear and sat talking about the experience over some hot chocolate. Before leaving I got Jake’s number and he said he would try to sit down with me for the project sometime in the following days. I left for my hotel exhilarated and still on a high from the experience.
In town I grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed to the Historical Society to meet with David. He was waiting in his office when I arrived and we sat down for an hour-long conversation. I learned about his family including how his great-grandfather originally came to the region from Finland and produced goods for those working in the lumber and mining industry. He also shared more with me on the history of the mines and their closure, how the Boundary Waters came to be, and he helped me understand why I got the uninviting feeling from some of the locals. He explained there was still a portion of the town that resented outsiders coming in for environmental tourism and considered the local bars their last stronghold. I also inquired about the pro-mining signs I had seen in people’s windows. He told me that a company had wanted to start mining copper just outside the Boundary Waters and the town was divided between those in town who saw the project as potential jobs and those who saw an environmental disaster in the making. David was an excellent source for me as I began to piece together the town’s history. When we finished he offered to help me if there was anyone else I wanted to talk with. I mentioned that Margaret told me about Barb Rom whom I wanted to meet but it might be best if I did it through him. He said he was going to contact her right away and give me a call if she could do it.
During our talk David mentioned I should check out the Grand Ely Lodge on the edge of town so after leaving I made my way over there. It was a huge classic style lodge that reminded me of an oversize log cabin. I stepped in and went to the bar to see if there might be room to sit and have a beer. It was packed with snowmobilers and lodge guests all looking to do the same thing as me. Unable to find room, I left and took a walk across the street to check out an old iron mine. After exploring a bit David called and told me Barb was willing to meet with me as soon as I could get to her house. We agreed to meet at the lodge and he would show me the way to her place. Within fifteen minutes David was there and I followed him to Barb’s where he brought me inside and introduced me. He had to run so the two of us sat down alone to talk.
Barb was in her mid-nineties, legally blind, and sharp as a tack. As soon as we started talking I sensed which side of the Ely divide she was on. She told me how she met her husband in Seattle, Washington, where she was raised, and returned with him to Ely in 1946. When they returned the two of them set up one of the earliest outfitters in town that eventually became quite large. Most interesting is that she explained how it was her husband, with budding conservationists like Sig Olsen, who fought to get the Boundary Waters protected and make them what they were today. She also went into how difficult, and at times violent, the fight was; how divided the town became, and how her children were even victims of the riff during the period. As I listened to her story, I was in awe that I was there talking with someone who was a part of such and influential movement. Our conversation also added more depth to the polarity I was seeing in Ely. We chatted for about forty minutes before I thanked her and said my goodbyes. I left realizing this small town I was visiting had a history so profound that my short time there would only scratch the surface. I wondered how many others had visited Ely for a canoeing trip in the Boundary Waters and never realized the deeper role that little town played in their summer fun.
When I returned to the hotel I was exhausted after the day but still energized by everything I experienced. Knowing my time was short there, I chose to try the one dive bar left in Ely that I hadn’t yet been to. First I gave a call to Saraphine and we agreed to meet the next day in the late afternoon. I made my way to Dee’s Place which I was told by David was the oldest bar in town, and a must-see. Outside Dee’s sign has the classic look like Zaverl’s, and inside it was clean and had an old-time feel. The bar is to the right when entering and I sat down at one of the first stools. There was only one other patron in the bar and he was watching Fox news and talking to himself. The bartender came in from outside and was very friendly when she asked what I was drinking, I was surprised. I ordered PBR and began chatting with her. I learned her name was Carrie and she owned the bar. When I told her about the project, and that I had heard it was the oldest bar in town, she opened up. She explained that her grandfather started it in the 30s after he was blacklisted from mining for having contact with the union. They used to have polka bands play years ago and it was the hottest bar in town at one time. She also mentioned that it was historically a Slovenian bar. With delight she searched for and showed me an article from 1977 about the bar in a liquor rep magazine. We even talked a bit about the debate in town over the copper mine which she argued would bring jobs, and when I mentioned Barb Rom she didn’t hide her disdain. I really enjoyed chatting but eventually had to grab something to eat.
I returned to the Boathouse Brewpub for dinner and had the most ridiculous plate of poutine, loaded with nearly everything the cook could find in the kitchen. I enjoyed a couple more beers there and chatted with the bartender who was very friendly and in the region working on a graduate degree in something dealing with the environment. There were also a couple of younger guys drinking who I learned were from Wisconsin. We talked about the Green Bay Packers’ turn-around season and the playoff game that was taking place the next day. I eventually decided to head out and made my way back to the hotel where I spent a bit of time doing some work before turning in.
The following morning I took another stroll around town. As I moved along the streets I realized that I was seeing Ely differently than I had just days before on a similar roundabout. I reflected on all that I had taken in and learned in such a short period. I also wondered how the Packers were going to do against the Atlanta Falcons later that day. If they could pull off the win they were going to the Superbowl and it would be an amazing comeback season. When I returned from the walk I still had time before the game so I decided to visit some of the other attractions in town.
I drove first to the Dorothy Mohler Museum. It was closed for the winter and the grounds were covered with snow. There were a few displays outside so I worked my way through the snow but found it wasn’t the best idea with the low boots I was wearing. After the failed attempt I went to the International Wolf Center but didn’t have much time and chose not to pay the fee to enter. As I was leaving to return to the motel I felt badly for not going in but got over it pretty quickly. Back at the room I did a bit of reading and waited for the game to start. It was a disaster and the Packers were being beaten so badly that by the third quarter I called Saraphine and we agreed to meet right away.
After the call I collected my stuff for the interview and saw that his house was only a short ten minute walk from the motel. I made my way over there glad to no longer by worrying about how the Packers were doing. At the house, Saraphine, his wife, and daughter all greeted me. I told them what I was doing and why I was interested in talking with Saraphine. The two of us went into the dining room and ended up talking for over an hour. I could tell he loved to share his stories and he said more than once that he was a talker. I learned he was a third generation miner who worked in the last of the mines until they all closed in the second half of the 20th century. He told me stories of his experience working in them. My favorite was how a crazy co-worker decided to turn a crane into an amusement ride and gave Saraphine a lift up into the air one afternoon. He shared his perspective on the older divide in town and how many miners thought Bill Rom and Olsen Sig only fought for the Boundary Waters after they had fully utilized the area for their personal gain. Finally we talked about the current riff over copper mining. For him it was simple, mining meant jobs and Ely needed them. When he finished I thanked him for his time, said goodbye, and made my way back to the room. On the walk back through the frozen streets I reflected on how Saraphine’s story again highlighted the long divided history of this small town.
Back at the room I contacted Jake from Chilly Dogs via text and we decided to meet at his house the following morning. I went out back into town for a beer and dinner. It was Sunday evening and the town was dead. Most of the shops, the liquor stores, bars, and some of the restaurants were all closed. I found that Dee’s Place was open and I stopped inside. Carrie was there with her boyfriend but this time on my side of the bar. She came over and started to chat and soon her guy joined. She told me more stories about the bar’s heyday. The best was about how Sean Connery had come in there when she was still a young girl and cocktailing for her family. Connery had a decent entourage with him and when she took the order she was able to memorize all their drinks. When she returned and handed out the drinks without mistake Connery was so impressed he tipped her $200, an unfathomable amount of money for a kid in those days. Her father who ran the place took the tip back to Connery and told him there was no way she was keeping the money. Connery insisted even after her father warned him that he was going to keep it, which he did, and Carrie never saw a penny of the generous tip. After a few stories I told them I was in need of food and asked what was open. Of the places they mentioned I decided that another trip to the Ely Steak House was what I craved.
When I arrived I sat at the opposite side of the bar and Jim was there bartending again. He greeted me and we made some small talk about how bad the Packers got beat. I got a Saga IPA and saw that they claimed to be famous for their burger, so much that they made t-shirts advertising so. When he brought back the beer I ordered the burger and sat sipping. I was taking in the scenery and noticed that a few of the patrons at the bar looked like pretty ragged alcoholics, not the type you normally see drinking at a family restaurant. It dawned on me that it was Sunday and with the liquor stores closed, the restaurant was probably the only place open that served hard alcohol. I found it fascinating that there was this whole new dynamic to this fairly nice restaurant on Sundays because of the dry laws in the state. About then the burger came. I devoured it and was impressed. The patty was hand-pressed, juicy, and the condiments were sufficient but not sloppy. As I was finishing up Jim introduced me to the guy sitting next to me and we ended up having a long conversation.
The gentleman’s name was Hans and he had lived in and around the region for years. As we began to talk I got the sense he had an environmentalist edge to him but saw things a bit differently than most. For instance he believed that there should be some clear-cutting of the forest, even in the Boundary Waters, and that hunters are an important part of the ecosystem. He was articulate and made many valid points that helped me see yet another side of this multidimensional region. Although I could have continued our banter into the night, it was getting late and I had a long day ahead. Before I left he gave me his contact info and mentioned some ways I might be able to find funding for the project. I thanked him again and told him I would be in touch. I had an early start the next day and some heavy driving to get done so I returned to the room and passed out.
In the morning I went back out towards where Chilly Dogs was located to the home of Jake and his wife. I was greeted first by their barking pup and then Jake came out and invited me in. The place is beautiful and he explained they shared a good bit of land with his parents and the Chilly Dog outfitter. We sat for just under an hour and he told me again his story about getting into dogsledding and how it has become such a passion for him. When we finished the interview we chatted a bit more and he gave his opinion on the most recent town-quarrel over the proposed copper mine. He didn’t see himself on either side and understood both ends of the debate. He did mention that he feared the copper mining would only bring a small number of jobs in general and that many of them would be given to specialists from outside the town and region. He questioned if the possibility of some type of environmental disaster in the Boundary Waters was worth what little money the mines would bring to the region itself. At the same time he realized jobs were needed in Ely and not everyone could prosper from eco-tourism like himself and his family. As I left I thanked him for everything and reiterated how much I loved going out with him on the trip and respected what he was doing with the dogs.
I returned to the room to pack up and then got on the road to head to Big Lake, MN. Driving out of town, and eventually the Superior National Forest going south, I contemplated everything I had taken in over the last days. Like the towns I visited previously, I knew that I was taking a small part of Ely with me and leaving a part of myself as well. I thought that Ely may have been one of the most interesting of the towns I had visited for the project to that point. I wanted to return in the summer and see how different it felt. I also wondered how much more I might uncover if my trip had been longer but I was content in discovering even the small bit I did. This was going to be the last town I would be doing in the Midwest for a while and I wondered how it would compare with the South where I would be heading next.