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Oral History Interviews with Ernest C. Oberholtzer

DATE: 1948, 1960[?], 1963, 1964, 1968

INTERVIEWERS: Lucile M. Kane, Evan Hart, Pete Heffelfinger, Russell Fridley, Frances Andrews, George and Gene Monahan, and Mary Nagle

Ernest C. Oberholtzer was born in 1884 in Davenport, Iowa, and died in 1977 in International Falls, Minnesota. He is known as an explorer, conservationist, and writer. Educated at Harvard University, Oberholtzer took a B.A. in landscape architecture in 1907, and remained at Harvard to do some graduate work. In 1908 he traveled to England and Scotland with his college friend Conrad Aiken.

In 1909 Oberholtzer first explored the border lakes in the Rainy Lake watershed area in northern Minnesota and southern Canada. By agreement the Canadian Northern Railroad bought Oberholtzer's notes and pictures documenting canoe routes in the area.

Oberholtzer worked for a short time as a newspaper editor and in 1910 went again to Europe, this time with a friend, Harry French. Oberholtzer briefly served as vice consul in Hanover, Germany, before returning to northern Minnesota in 1912.

In 1912 Oberholtzer traveled to Hudson's Bay with an Indian companion, Billy Magee. The same year Oberholtzer moved to Rainy Lake, spending summers on an island, "The Mallard," and winters on a houseboat at Ranier. He often traveled the area with Indian companions, particularly Billy Magee of Mine Centre, Ontario, and was a friend of the Indians as well as a teller of their stories and legends.

Oberholtzer is best known throughout the United States and Canada for his ceaseless role in preserving the Quetico-Superior wilderness. He was instrumental in the founding of the Wilderness Society. Oberholtzer worked for the establishment of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Voyageur National Park and received many honors for his part in conservation work.

SUBJECTS DISCUSSED:

OH81.1 Reel 1 1963.
1 reel, length 2 hours, 40 minutes at 1 7/8 inches per second, dubbed onto 3 90-minute user cassettes; submaster copy on 2 90-minute cassettes. Interviewers Lucile Kane, Russell Fridley, and Pete Heffelfinger. Transcript: 65-page draft.

Oberholtzer's Hudson Bay trip into the barren lands in 1912; Pat Cyr, brother-in-law of Louis Riel, and the Rainy Lake district; Billy Magee, an Ojibwe Indian and Oberholtzer's companion on many expeditions; exploration around the Quetico-Superior Forest in Ontario and Superior National Forest in Minnesota in 1910, which prepared Oberholtzer for the Hudson Bay trip as well as readings in the British Museum in London; trip to Europe with Harry French, a Harvard friend; Oberholtzer's stay in London and his service as vice consul in Hanover, Germany, and return to the United States in 1912; Canadian Northern Railroad sponsorship of Oberholtzer's Hudson Bay trip in return for his notes and pictures of canoe routes; Billy Magee's black sturgeon story; Atikokan area and the iron mines; Steep Rock Lake in Quetico-Superior and the highway issue.

OH81.2 Reel 2, circa 1963.
1 reel, length 45 minutes at 1 7/8 inches per second, dubbed onto 1 90-minute user cassette; submaster copy on 1 90-minute cassette. Transcript: 19 p., draft.

Oberholtzer's narration to accompany lantern slides he took on his 1912 trip to Hudson Bay. (The slides remain part of the unsettled Oberholtzer estate as of July, 1980.) The trip covered 3,000 miles through western Ontario, Manitoba, and the Northwest Territories of Canada up to Nueltin Lake and Hudson Bay and took six months.

OH81.3 Reel 3, October 21, 1963.
1 reel, length 3 hours at 1 7/8 inches per second, dubbed onto 2 90-minute user cassettes; submaster copy on 2 120-minute cassettes. Interviewers Lucile Kane and Russell Fridley. Transcript: 57-page draft.

Beginnings of efforts to establish Quetico-Superior National Forest ca. 1925; major opposition to the national forest was E. W. Backus, a timber industrialist and owner of the Backus Wholesale Lumber Company of International Falls, who had planned use of the timber and water resources of the Rainy Lake watershed, including building dams, flooding, and re-routing rivers; organization of support for Quetico-Superior Council and preservation of the wilderness--important organizers were lawyers Sewell Tyng and Fred Winston; the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Bill passed by the US Congress in 1930 which provided for (1) withdrawal from use of public lands in the Superior National Forest and Rainy Lake country, (2) restriction of logging of shorelines of federal lands, and (3) no further settlement of the area.

OH81.4 Reel 4, October 21-22, 1963.
1 reel, length 3 hours at 1 7/8 inches per second, dubbed onto 2 90-minute user cassettes; submaster copy on 1 90-minute cassette and 1 120-minute cassette. Interviewers Lucile Kane and Russell Fridley. Transcript: 67-page draft.

Adoption in 1933 of the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Bill for the state meant protection against Backus's plans for "public works"; financial downfall and bankruptcy of Backus ca.1929 and 1930, and his death in 1934; lukewarm reaction to the Quetico-Superior program from governors Theodore Christianson and Floyd B. Olson, and their eventual support; Minnesota Conservation Commission's opposition to purchase of lands for consolidation of the Superior National Forest; the change of membership under Governor Olson and the gaining of support for the Superior National Forest; setbacks for the Quetico-Superior program under Governor Stassen, and his refusal to approve purchase of lands on the Kabetogama Peninsula for the Superior National Forest; gaining support for Superior National Forest by Dr. Karl Compton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and General Dwight Eisenhower, and President Truman's creation of an airspace reservation over roadless areas; passage of the Thye-Blatnik bill for purchase of private properties threatening the airspace reservation; and Oberholtzer as executive-secretary for the Quetico-Superior Council.
 
OH81.5 Reel 5, December 6, 1963.
1 reel, length 2 hours, 45 minutes on side 1 and 2 hours on side 2 at 1 7/8 inches per second, dubbed onto 2 90-minute user cassettes; submaster copy on 3 120-minute cassettes. Interviewers Lucile Kane and Russell Fridley. Transcript: 45-page draft (only side 1 of the original reel is transcribed).

The President's committee for the Quetico Superior Council, and membership of the committee and problems it faced such as land acquisition, building of dams, airspace reservation, and destruction of wilderness by "civilization"; Sigurd Olson, conservationist; opposition of the Minnesota Conservation Commission to consolidation of the Superior National Forest prior to Governor Olson's term in office; M&O Railroad and the Kabetogama Peninsula and the question of flowage rights and easement; conflict between the federal forest service and state forest service in establishing Quetico-Superior Forest; Oberholtzer's Harvard University days, and his major in landscape architecture and discouragement by graduate studies; Oberholtzer's Harvard friendship with Conrad Aiken and their trip to England and Scotland (transcript for this interview ends at this point); setting up the President's committee on the Quetico-Superior and work with Sewell Tyng; opposition of the Arrowhead Association of northern Minnesota to the Quetico-Superior program; Shipstead-Nolan-Newton Bill; tax revenue paid to counties for land acquired for Quetico-Superior; the International Joint Commission and its territorial jurisdiction over the United States-Canadian border; problem of ownership of flowage rights on property; Quetico-Superior Council and the Isaac Walton League; airspace reservations over the Quetico-Superior.

OH81.6 Reel 6, February 18-19, 1964.
1 reel, 5 to 5 ½ hours at 1 7/8 inches per second, dubbed onto 3 90-minute user cassettes; submaster copy on 2 120-minute cassettes. Interviewers Lucile Kane, Russell Fridley, and Evan Hart. Transcript: 77-page draft.

Frederick S. Winston of Minneapolis and Sewell Tyng, and their help in conservation of the Quetico-Superior area wilderness; Ojibwe Indians; Frances Densmore's limited approach to collecting; Nanibojou stories, flood stories, and winter lodge stories; Oberholtzer called "Atisokan," i.e. story; the Widéwiwin society; personal songs; dream vision sought at puberty; curing; grandparents instructing young with stories; games; the windigo (cannibal); Mrs. Notawey, Billy Magee's oldest sister, a very good storyteller; Oberholtzer's tape-recording Johnny Whitefish, cousin to Mrs. Notawey, and the attempt to tape Mrs. Notawey; the naming of Billy Magee, Tay-tah-pah-sway-we-tong, by his mother at his birth. Name means "far-distant-echo"; Billy Magee and trips in 1909 and 1910 through Quetico-Superior Provincial Forest Reserve; moose; origin of Superior National Forest, now in 1968 Quetico Park; 1909 offer of the publicity agent of the Canadian Northern Railroad to buy Oberholtzer's notes about canoe routes in the Rainy Lake watershed area; Oberholtzer's stay in England during the European trip with Harry French in 1910 (French's name is not mentioned in the recording); trip to the barrenlands and Hudson Bay in 1912; and exploration of Nueltin Lake and return to the lake many years later.

OH 81.7 Interview of March 13, 1964 (No tape):
Interviewer Evan Hart. Transcript: 31-page draft.

Oberholtzer's job as vice consul in Hanover, Germany, ca. 1911; Oberholtzer's friendship with Conrad Aiken and their trip to England in 1908; seeing Aiken later; Samuel E. Morison, a college friend and later a professor at Harvard University; Fred Winston and his contribution to the Quetico-Superior project; struggle against E.W. Backus for land for Quetico-Superior forest; and Mrs. Martin, secretary for the Minneapolis office of the Quetico-Superior Council.

OH81.8 Reel 7, March 17, 1964.
1 reel, length 2 hours, 15 minutes at 1 7/8 inches per second, dubbed onto 2 90-minute user cassettes; submaster copy on 1 120-minute cassette. Interviewer Lucile Kane. Transcript: 41-page draft.

Sewell Tyng, and his book on military history; Oberholtzer's mother, Rosa Carl Oberholtzer, and life on the island in Rainy Lake, 1918; Dr. Mary Chapman Ghostley, a physician in northern Minnesota; Harvard University days with Samuel Morison; and young Indian companions of Oberholtzer on his trips in the wilderness: Bob Nanmayok, Pinay, and Douglas Head.

OH81.9 Reel 8. Spring of 1948
1 reel, dubbed onto 1 90-minute user cassette; submaster copy on 1 120-minute cassette. No transcript.

Oberholtzer's trip to tape record Johnny Whitefish, a cousin of Billy Magee; Mrs. Notawey (Minta Boya), Billy Magee's older sister; Maggie Jackpot; Johnny Whitefish's remembrances of Billy Magee's version of the trip to Hudson Bay with Oberholtzer in 1912; and Oberholtzer's story of the failure to record Mrs. Notawey and her dramatic story-telling.

OH81.10 Reel 9, Spring of 1948.
1 reel, dubbed onto 1 90-minute user cassette; submaster copy on 1 120-minute cassette. No transcript.

Narration by Johnny Whitefish, and songs sung by him; and narration by Maggie Jackpot.

OH81.11 Reel 10, Spring of 1948.
1 reel, dubbed onto 1 90-minute user cassette; submaster copy on 1 120-minute cassette and 1 30-minute cassette. No transcript.

Oberholtzer questions Mrs. Notawey about her life and relatives, and Whitefish and Jackpot speak again. (It is not clear, when one considers Oberholtzer's story of how he failed to record Mrs. Notawey, just when and how he did tape her.)

Note: Reels 8 to 10 are re-recordings of tapes that Oberholtzer made with some of his Ojibwe Indian friends in 1948. In 1960 Oberholtzer re-recorded the 1948 tapes with Ray Anderson of Rainier, Minnesota. Tapes are in English and Ojibwe.

OH81.12 Reel 11, 1960.
1 reel, length 2 hours at 1 7/8 inches per second, dubbed onto 1 90-minute user cassette; submaster copy on 1 120-minute cassette and 1 60-minute cassette. Interviewers George Monahan and Frances Andrews. Partial transcript.

Black sturgeon story, as told to Oberholtzer by Billy Magee (repeated on tapes 1 to 3 and tape 21 reels [original reels 1 and 13]); summers of 1909 and 1910 on Rainy Lake; Oberholtzer's trip to Europe with Harry French, describing France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and especially Hungary; a winter stay in London, and reading in preparation for the Hudson Bay expedition; giving a popular lecture for the Liverpool Geographic Society; and an invitation for Oberholtzer to become vice consul in Hanover, Germany.

OH81.13 Reel 12, possibly 1960.
1 reel, length 2 hours at 1 7/8 inches per second, dubbed onto 1 90-minute user cassette; submaster copy on 1 120-minute cassette. Interviewers George and Gene Monahan. No transcript.

Oberholtzer's visit with Harry French to the Carpathian Mountains in Hungary; experiences as vice consul in Hanover, Germany; Oberholtzer's study in London in preparation for the trip into the barrenlands of Canada to Hudson Bay; Oberholtzer's mother's visit and illness in England; and Oberholtzer's commentary on pictures or slides taken on the Hudson Bay trip in 1912, including images of the land, caribou and moose, and native people.

OH81.14 Reel 13, no date.
1 reel, length 10 to 15 minutes at 3 ¾ inches per second, dubbed onto 1 60-minute user cassette; submaster copy on 1 90-minute cassette. No interviewer. No transcript.
Oberholtzer narrates Billy Magee's black sturgeon story, as told in 1912 on the trip to Hudson Bay.

OH81.15 Reel 14, August of 1968.
1 reel, length 1 hour at 3 ¾ inches per second, dubbed onto 1 90-minute user cassette; submaster copy on 1 90-minute cassette. Interviewers Mary Nagle and Lucile Kane. No transcript.

Oberholtzer comments on and criticizes Eric Sevareid's book Canoeing with the Cree, which describes an adventure some think similar to Oberholtzer's Hudson Bay trip in 1912.

COMMENTS ON INTERVIEW: In general, the tapes in this series contain interviews with Oberholtzer, his commentary on lantern slides he made, and some recordings made by Oberholtzer in interviewing some of his Ojibwe Indian friends. Several drafts of each transcript exist and none is a final copy. Some transcripts show editing by Lucile Kane of the Minnesota Historical Society or by Oberholtzer. A four-page biographical sketch of Oberholtzer, by Lucile Kane, is available in the Oral History Office of the Minnesota Historical Society.

LENGTH OF INTERVIEWS: 23 hours 57 minutes

TRANSCRIPTS: 383 pages

Oral history interviews with Ernest C. Oberholtzer
Ernest C. Oberholtzer