The sale recently by Bruce and Sue Kerfoot of the legendary Gunflint Lodge, founded in 1929 in Minnesota’s northern border-water country, recalls an era in this state when strong-willed, resourceful women and men could prosper in truly wild places on their own terms.
The lives and times of Justine Kerfoot, Benny Ambrose, Dorothy Molter and Betty Berger Lessard make the point.
Each immersed himself, or herself, in Minnesota’s northernmost wilderness, forgoing more traditional and comfortable existences. In so doing, they defined what Minnesota was at one time, and to some degree remains.
A snapshot of each:
Justine Kerfoot (1906-2001): Justine Spunner had just graduated from Northwestern University and had intended to enter medical school when, in 1929, her parents, George and Mae, purchased the small hunting and fishing camp that would become Gunflint Lodge. Gunflint Trail at the time was just that — a rutted trail — and travel along it occurred sparingly. Sometimes in winter only a single trip, at Christmastime, was taken to Grand Marais, about 60 miles away, on the shores of Lake Superior.
To survive, and thrive, Justine, who would come to own the resort, befriended her Chippewa neighbors and learned to hunt, fish, repair outboard motors, train sled dogs, deliver babies and home-school her children. In 1934, she married Bill Kerfoot.
Having willingly foregone her dream of becoming a physician to live at road’s end, Justine would, over the decades, endure everything from a lodge fire to marauding bears. In 1968, she sold the lodge to Bruce and Sue.
Residing in the north until her death, Justine wrote often and well, authoring three books about life in the north, while also penning a weekly newspaper column.
Benny Ambrose (1899-1982): At age 14, Benny ran away from his Iowa home, claiming his father had remarried “the devil’s grandmother.” “I threw a huge, live hornets’ nest in her bedroom and I had to make tracks,” he said.
Discharged from the military about 1920, Benny settled on Ottertrack Lake in the boundary waters in the late 1920s or early 1930s. His skills as a hunter, fisherman, trapper and prospector were widely admired, and Justine Kerfoot once described him as, “Hardy and physically tough, [he] took pride in being able to carry the heaviest load, of traveling in the coldest weather of winter with a hat and open shirt … traversing ice in the spring and fall that no one else dared to tread.”
Benny married Val McIlhenny, Justine’s college roommate, whom he met while she visited Justine at Gunflint Lodge. The couple had two daughters while living on Ottertrack Lake.
Establishment of the boundary waters as a federal wilderness threatened Benny’s Ottertrack home and lifestyle. Ultimately, however, the Forest Service allowed him to keep both until he died there, alone, on Aug. 27, 1982.
Dorothy Molter (1907-1986): Known in her later years as the “Root Beer Lady” (for the home brew she sold to passing canoeists), Dorothy first came to Knife Lake in the boundary waters in 1929, traveling with her father from Chicago. They fished while staying at Isle of Pines Resort.
A nurse, Dorothy would return to work at the resort, owned by Bill Berglund. When he died in 1948, Dorothy inherited the island. Except for brief trips to Chicago, she lived there alone until she died.
Once a part of a BWCA motor route, Knife Lake for many years was relatively easily reached from Ely (15 miles by water and five portages), where Dorothy bought supplies. Locals also came by snowmobile in winter to help her cut and put up ice for year-round refrigeration.
Expansion of the boundary waters, and reduction of its motorized routes, adversely affected Dorothy significantly. Still, she, like her “neighbor” Benny, remained in the boundary waters until her death.
Betty Berger Lessard (1915-1997): A hunter, trapper and Namakan Lake island dweller who taught herself to fly a floatplane, Betty, as a girl, was sent to school in Winnipeg. At age 13, she returned to Crane Lake, Minn. Because of weak ice at springtime, her 64-year-old father walked to Crane Lake to get Betty, who rarely again left the Namakan Island.
As an adult, to support herself, Betty built a mink ranch on the island, protecting it as necessary from bears and wolves. In winter, she trapped, traveling so many miles by dog sled that she could wear out a set of oak runners.
Married once, in 1955, to Leon Lessard, Betty was widowed a year later when her husband fell from a hay barge en route to the island from Crane Lake.
Connected by geography and history, the lives and colorful times of Kerfoot, Ambrose, Molter and Berger Lessard will be recalled less easily as Minnesota further transitions from what it was to what it will become.
Yet, thankfully, the state’s border country remains — a physical manifestation of Minnesota’s truly wild past, and a reminder to us all of the value, however occasionally, of forgoing our more traditional and comfortable existences.