Writers series: This is the second installment in a series of stories profiling celebrated - and not so well-known - nature writers in Minnesota. Today: Florence Page Jaques
As the story goes, Florence Page Jaques stood at a dock on Fall Lake in Winton, Minn., one late-summer day in the 1930s, bundled incongruously in a fur coat. Her artist husband, Francis Lee Jaques, was loading their wood-and-canvas canoe with supplies for a wilderness trip lasting several weeks in the north country.
Years later, when the New York City author’s fame as a nature writer reached national levels, the story of her first foray into canoe country dressed more in Manhattan furs than Grand Marais flannels drew laughter. Jaques (pronounced JAY-kweez) would neither confirm nor deny her choice of outerwear; the fur became part of her city-mouse-in-the-country persona.
That first expedition, when she was in her mid-40s, resulted in a book whose title gave national exposure to the region with the name that the locals had called it for decades: “Canoe Country.” With stark black-and-white illustrations by Lee, as he was called, their 1938 book captured the attention of readers during the tumultuous ending of the Great Depression as war clouds hung low over Europe.
“I’ve never been so cold in my life,” Florence wrote during a stop in Duluth on her way to the border country from Manhattan, where she lived most of her life. “I wear my fur coat all the time. If this is what Duluth is like in August, what must it be in January!”
Champions of the wilderness come from all corners; but Florence was not quite a city mouse, either. Born in the flatlands of Decatur, Ill., in 1890, she attended Millikin University in her hometown before setting off to graduate school at Columbia University in New York, where she met Lee. He claimed Aitkin, Minn., as his hometown and spoke fondly of his experiences in the North Woods, and Florence eventually agreed to take a canoe trip with him.
Florence, described by many as warm and vivacious, went on to write five more books about her wilderness experiences, all illustrated by her husband, who was well-known as a wildlife artist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. But, perhaps reflecting the biases of the day, when she died in 1972 she received no obituary in the New York Times, although Lee’s death in 1969 had warranted one.
One incident that illustrated Florence’s good nature took place at Gunflint Lodge near the Minnesota-Canada border, where the couple stayed to write “Snowshoe Country.” Owner and local legend Justine Kerfoot paid them a compliment: The couple “graciously accepted the odors that sifted through the cabin when I was cooking dog food,” Kerfoot wrote in her memoir. “Only when I inadvertently opened the fox [urine] scent that Bill had for trapping did they draw the line. When I pulled the cork the bottle exploded, and the contents hit the ceiling.”
Florence’s style differed from that of her canoe-country contemporaries such as Sigurd Olson (profiled in part one) and Calvin Rutstrum. Olson was the philosopher-guide and Rutstrum the hardscrabble survivor; Florence was the keen-eyed observer filled with wonder and a way with a phrase that reflected her ambition as a poet and children’s book author. The couple and Olson all would go on to win a John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor given to an American nature writer, as they described similar landscapes in their own ways. (The 1946 Burroughs award was given to “Mr. and Mrs. Francis Lee Jaques,” the first time it was awarded to a team.)
Her contemporaries knew how good she was. So did her fans. And often they were the same person. The zoologist and author William Vogt compared her to Rachel Carson. She was “known the world over wherever outdoor books are admired and loved,” according to a 1949 story in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, which reported that her readers numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
The couple’s travels took them around the world. “As I looked about the bare plateau,” she wrote in “As Far as the Yukon” in 1951, “I felt it set forth the tragedy of all existence. The flowers, tiny sparks of life, menaced by the cold, shadow and wild weather, live so briefly and die so surely.”
After rich careers of adventure, Florence and Lee left New York and retired to North Oaks, in 1953. Florence died Jan 1, 1972, at 81. She donated the couple’s art collections to the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum, where Lee had painted 20 dioramas — many of which can still be viewed today.
Mark Neuzil is chair of the journalism program at the University of St. Thomas and the co-author of “Canoes: A Natural History in North America.”
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