They were a quirky couple, both 44, who had ditched their Chicago careers in 1954 to hunker down in a rustic log cabin on Gunflint Lake as winter arrived on the Minnesota-Canadian border.
“Darkness came an hour earlier and with it snow like crumbs from a giant white cake,” Helen Hoover wrote. “We sat in the living room, half reading, half listening to the humming of winds high in the pines and the tap and rustle of the snow against the north window.”
Hoover’s descriptions of what she saw through that window became the source of four wildly popular books that established her as one of Minnesota’s most enduring nature writers.
She took an unconventional path to the best-seller list.
Hoover never graduated from college, let alone studied writing. Born in 1910 in Ohio, she moved to Chicago with her mother in 1930 at the Depression’s outset. Her father, a factory manager, had died suddenly from a heart attack without a will in 1928, leaving them broke.
Taking night courses in chemistry, Hoover landed lab jobs during the second World War and developed into a top-notch metallurgist — fiddling with a new way to temper steel for farm implements at International Harvester’s research lab near Chicago.
Her husband, Adrian Hoover, was an art director for a textbook publisher. They had no children and, when Helen’s mother died in 1953, they decided to turn a dream into reality and escape their urban lifestyle that had only grown more hectic since “Ade” returned from the Pacific after World War II.
When her husband required minor throat surgery in Chicago in 1954, Helen asked for a year’s leave of absence from her job. She was granted two months. She shrugged and they headed Up North, figuring his health would only improve amid the pine-scented summer breezes blowing across Gunflint Lake.
Six years earlier, they’d impulsively purchased a two-room cabin on the lake straddling the Canadian border on the northern edge of Minnesota’s Arrowhead region.
When their two months were up, the Hoovers drove down the Gunflint Trail — itching to stay and watch the seasons change. So they stopped in Grand Marais, where Helen called her boss and quit. Instead of going home to pack, they simply had all their belongings shipped to northern Minnesota.
“Local residents placed bets on whether this odd couple from Chicago would stay the winter,” Minnetonka writer David Hakensen wrote in a 2014 Hoover profile in Minnesota History magazine.
Although that first winter came with challenges — a bear in the basement, no indoor plumbing, storm-collapsed walls — the Hoovers not only stayed, they remained at end of the Gunflint Trail from 1954 to 1971.
With the nearest grocery store 50 miles away in Grand Marais and no interest in hunting or fishing, the Hoovers stocked up on supplies, patched roof leaks and fixed the stove. They had made no plans for earning a living so Ade crafted wooden toys and notepaper with nature scenes, selling the items at gift shops and through ads in outdoor magazines. Helen started selling nature stories to magazines ranging from “Audubon” to “Humpty Dumpty” for kids.
Her first book, “The Long-Shadowed Forest,” was a minor success. But her second book, a five-year account of a family of deer they observed around the cabin titled, “The Gift of the Deer,” was published in 1966 by Alfred A. Knopf — both as a hardback book and a condensed serial in Reader’s Digest. It sold 45,000 copies and nearly 2 million Condensed Books, according to Hakensen.
“Suddenly Helen was a successful and well-known female nature writer among a field of mostly successful male writers — Sigurd Olson, Calvin Rutstrum, Hal Borland and Edwin Way Teale, among others,” said Hakensen, a public relations executive and Hoover aficionado.
He was introduced to her writing when a friend gave him a copy of Hoover’s third book, “A Place in the Woods,” as a cabin-warming present after he and his wife purchased a lake place near Emily, Minn.
“It was a charming read, so I wanted to see what else she wrote ...,” he said. “But I found very little about her, which surprised me, considering her unusual circumstances getting to Gunflint Lake.”
A 1990 grad student’s short bio led Hakensen to two-dozen boxes in the archives at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
“I began spending time in Duluth digging into her archives and doing additional research,” he said.
“Although Hoover didn’t have the stature of Sig Olson, she certainly had an interesting story, so that’s what attracted me.”
Others were attracted, too.
“Reading Hoover’s books have reminded me how to observe closely. Even a common mouse looks different to me now,” wrote Virginia Wright-Peterson, who teaches writing at the University of Minnesota-Rochester, on her blog.
After 17 years on the Gunflint, the Hoovers moved first to New Mexico and eventually to Laramie, Wyo., with their “30-odd cats.” She died in 1984 at 74 in a Colorado hospital and Ade spread her ashes near Taos, N.M. — not northern Minnesota. He died two years later and is buried in Denver.
Their eternal home, though, endures on the shores of Gunflint Lake. At the end of her last book, “The Years of the Forest,” Helen Hoover wrote about her last trip up the Gunflint Trail in 1971:
“…Such a place is more than a piece of earth. … It is where you find the fulfillment of your deepest needs, and you find it only once, if you are lucky enough to find it at all …”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.