Part of my family’s story includes a pine log cabin near Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Once owned by my grandparents, a few old pictures and stories tell us family members gathered there in the time when my mother was a little girl. For many reasons, the place has always intrigued me, and I’m still trying to understand the backstory – how did a family from Kenosha, Wisconsin end up with a cabin so far to the north in the 1940s or maybe before?
After the death of my grandfather in 1957, the cabin was sold to Mildred and Clarence Vandermoon, becoming part of Vandermoon’s Rustic Resort, a collection of three old cottages and a house situated on a cove just off the main channel of the Wisconsin River. Growing up I heard stories about the cabin and family exploits, and eventually, my grandmother would make a special effort to take me there a couple times in the 1960s.
I often wonder what those trips meant to her. Were they viewed as way to help me connect to a grandfather lost, or maybe discover some of the joy her children found so many years before on that little spot of land among the trees, old row boats, and the smell of water. Or maybe it helped her reconnect to memories long past when the cares of life and family, as they were during the 1940s and 50s, could be enriched at that place she called the cabin up north.
My memories of the cabin and Vandermoon operation, allow me to substantiate two facts. First, the term rustic was accurate, and secondly, the term resort was a stretch, at least by modern standards. Perhaps back in the day it was an appropriate moniker but by the mid-1960s, it was a quickly fading, old-time fish camp. Modern conveniences included electricity, a small gas heater for warmth and a stove for cooking, a wellhouse for hand pumping iron-infused drinking water, and two outhouses. Nighttime needs meant a trek into the darkness to the appropriate, gender-specific privy or using the thunder mug (bucket) situated in a corner of the cabin.
A couple years removed from my last visit, I would travel to California to see Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm. I remember very little about those grand shrines constructed for fantasy and amusement, but 50-plus years later, I can still tell you details about the visits to the Rhinelander cabin with particulars that evoke smiles and sometimes an ache in my heart.
I can still see the gap under the backdoor where the chipmunk would brazenly enter on a daytime raid looking for unprotected food. I recall my fascination watching a dozen hummingbirds congregate at the red cardinal flowers near the main house. I remember early morning shoreline patrols to look for the legendary grandad musky who supposedly could be seen on occasion rolling in the water close to the cabins, and I knew to avoid hitting the sunken island in the center of the cove as I rowed a boat out for late morning fishing; a homemade buoy still marks the spot.
I remember a little evening chaos when my grandmother chased a bat with a broom after it slipped in the cabin front door. I recall bailing out my grandfather’s old wooden, round-bottom rowboat so I could take it out fishing, sorting through a pile of oars to find a matching pair, and the difficulty shoving off from the shoreline as it was a heavy boat for a skinny kid. I have vivid memories of the simple joy of swimming from the old wooden dock with other kids and being forewarned about the size of muskies and their proclivity for attacking ducklings and children. And the trips to town to see big fish laid on ice outside a storefront along main street and hearing the stories about the legendary hodag of Rhinelander.
I recall listening to the women reminisce about old times and the mysteries of a past occupant named Loddy and searching the old house for secrets presumably never found. At night in my bunk, I’d study the pine log interior of the cabin, reading names and proclamations previous visitors had carved into the soft wood, and now, I wonder if any of those runes were crafted by my ancestors, wishing I could see those inscriptions one more time.
And I remember Aunt Millie.
When not exploring the camp or the old fox farm across the highway, I could be found fishing from the old dock or alone in a rowboat somewhere along the shoreline, amongst the lily pads. In the evenings, Millie, a short, round lady with a friendly laugh and raspy voice from too many cigarettes, would be my companion. The widow of my grandmother’s brother, she accepted the title of Aunt graciously and took me under her wing when my thoughts turned to fishing.
After supper we would meet at the dock and load up a rowboat with oars, seat cushions, tackle boxes, my spinning gear, and her cane poles. Wearing a straw hat, Millie would awkwardly maneuver her short legs and round body through the poles to the back of the boat. I would take position in the center for rowing duties. I’d cast for bass and pike while Millie would pluck bluegills and perch residing among the lily pads, reaching out and over with her long poles. We would quit when the mosquitos started their nighttime feeding frenzy rowing back to camp before it was too dark to see. Upon returning, I’d unload the gear, flip the boat, and place our fish in the live box tied to the wooden dock where they would await their final fate and destiny – hot oil in a cast iron skillet.
Millie’s connection to the family made her a precious source of history and lore and was as important to me as the cabin and all else found there. I don’t recall much of what we talked about, although I remember prodding for stories about my grandfather. I don’t know if she had fun or if I was a burden, but I do remember laughter. And I do know the time she shared with me and whatever knowledge she passed on was a priceless contribution to the person I would become. I’m not sure what she got out of our time together other than a fishing partner, but she left me with memories and a rich appreciation of the place we called the cabin up north.
The cabin is gone now; a new structure sits on the site. A boat house replaced another old cabin. The pumphouse is gone. The old dock is gone. Only a few signs remain of a time over 50 years ago, and as I described the property as it used to be to the friendly man now living in Millie’s old house, since rebuilt, a few more memories drifted into my mind as did another thought – no matter how hard you look for yesterday, time waits for no one.