A ferry ride from Bayfield, Wis., to Madeline Island in 1970 led to author Linda Mack’s love affair with the clean air, sandy beaches and views of blue-gray Lake Superior surrounding the largest of the 22 Apostle Islands. Mack and her husband, Warren, joined other smittten summer islanders when they bought a beach cottage in 2005.
Over two summers, Linda, a former Star Tribune architecture critic, and one of her daughters, photographer Kendra Mack, gathered colorful stories and shot photos of 27 different cottages, cabins and retreat homes, some more than a century old and passed down from generation to generation. Their new book, “Madeline Island Summer Houses: An Intimate Journey” (I Was There Press, $39.99), is not about the architecture and whether windows are arched or a roof is gabled, said Linda. “These are love stories about what the homes mean” to the owners.
We talked with Linda and Kendra, as they lounged on a Madeline Island beach, about being invited into strangers’ homes, the Wal-Mart of Lake Superior and the log “honeymoon cottage.”
Q: You’d been vacationing on Madeline Island since 1970. Why did you decide to buy a second home there?
LM: We had been sailing there for years, and I got interested in learning more about the island. It became a fantasy to have a place. Warren is an amateur pilot, and his idea of fun is visiting friends with cabins in Minnesota. At the end of the summer, I announced over the engine noise of the airplane that I didn’t want to see other people’s cabins. I wanted my own cabin.
Q: What’s your house like?
LM: It’s right on the water and faces south, which is a great advantage in the north country. It’s a very simple timber-frame home with one bedroom, built in 1995. The dining area has sliding doors that look out on the water. It looks like a shoebox with a gabled roof on top. We come up as many weekends as we can — even in the winter to cross-country ski and snowshoe.
Q: How did you decide to do a book?
LM: My daughter Leslie, a year-round islander, suggested I do a book. I had been inside the Donna Woods cottage, and I thought it would be beautiful for the book. And it was a good excuse to spend a lot of time on the island in the summer. I recruited Kendra, and we had a team.
Q: The islanders are a close-knit community. Did word spread fast that you were doing the book?
LM: I figured I would be cold-calling people to be interviewed. The first person I called already had heard about it. To put together a list, I biked to Beth Fischlowitz’s place — they owned the Chateau Madeline. She rattled off 25 homes I should see. Most people were excited and happy to share their stories. Two families turned us down. The interviews were pretty darn easy and fun. It was a joy.
Q: Which houses were you always curious about?
LM: The Ferguson cottage on Nebraska Row. It’s an exotic and mysterious house that had fascinated me over the years. I’ve always loved the charming little Mission Cottages that were built as part of a retreat for ministers and their families at the turn of the 20th century. It’s an intimate living arrangement among different families that is very touching to me, maybe because I grew up in a small town. It’s a way of life that seems rare these days.
Q: You describe a minimalist home designed by architect David Salmela as “two black sheds,” which is obviously not for everyone. How did you choose the homes for the book?
LM: That was the trick, because there certainly were lots of choices. I wanted a mix of old and new. They range from architect-designed to Barbie Brown’s trailer.
Q: How did you shoot the cottages and cabins?
KM: It was clear that the people loved them and inhabited them so fully. I decided to use natural light so you get a sense of the space as it’s lived in. Barbie Brown’s trailer was a favorite place because it was totally hers and idiosyncratic. And I loved shooting all the wonderful porches.
Q: Did you have a connection to any of the homes?
KM: I have an affinity for the honeymoon cottage because I did, in fact, honeymoon there in 2010 after getting married on the beach. It’s a cozy one-room with a bed. It’s tiny and perfect. It smells like wood and dust.
Q: Which was a “wow” house for you?
LM: The Donna Woods cottage. It’s new and beautiful but manages to have some of the quirkiness and intrigue of the old places, which is really hard to do. Seeing it was one of the inspirations to do the book.
Q: You’ve written an in-depth history of each home. How did you find all those dates and details?
LM: Most of the stories were from people who owned them. So much has been passed down orally and not documented. I spent some time at the Madeline Island Museum and Wisconsin Historical Society, read books and talked to a lot of people.
Q: What’s a fascinating fact related to the history of the island?
LM: I love the story of Grant’s Point. It was a sacred place that has been described as the Wal-Mart of the Lake Superior region because Native Americans would come there to trade furs and share food and celebrate rendezvous. That’s where the French fur trader Michel Cadotte married Chief White Crane’s daughter and named her and the island Madeline.
Q: With many of the properties passed down from generation to generation, is it hard to find one for sale?
LM: Right now, there’s a lot on the market. The second-home market isn’t as strong as it used to be. There’s some huge places for sale that haven’t moved because it’s an undertaking to acquire a big older cabin and keep it up.
Q: Do you have to be well-off to have a home there?
LM: There’s a lot of different ways to enjoy the island — it’s not an exclusive place. A friend bought an Airstream trailer and parked it on his land. The property taxes along the lake are high and inland less high.
Q: Could you live on the island year-round?
LM: I’m not sure I could. I’m pretty used to being able to walk to Barnes & Noble or a Walgreens. It’s a ferry ride and 40-minute trip to Ashland [Wis.] for supplies. It’s a major commitment to a way of life that’s not convenient.
Q: What was the best part about doing this book?
KM: Working with my mom. That was pretty awesome. We really had fun.
LM: It was a chance to do something with my daughter. And I started as an outsider, and now I feel like an insider because of my connections with these people. It’s pretty cool.
Linda Mack will present a program on “The Architecture of Summer” and sign books at 7 p.m. Thursday at Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church, 2020 W. Lake of the Isles Pkwy., Mpls. For information, call Birchbark Books, 612-374-4023.
The book is available at www.madelineislandsummerhouses.com.