I returned from Vietnam in 1970 after serving in combat on a Marines reconnaissance team in 1969. I was emotionally and physically battered.
I went to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs at Fort Snelling, wanting to help Vietnam veterans integrate back into civilian life, and continue to assist World War II and Korean War veterans. By 1987 I was supervising the unit that did the intake counseling, and knew I needed a quiet place to go periodically with my wife and two young daughters to reduce my post-traumatic stress anxiety.
We agreed to look for a small piece of shore land on the North Shore in Cook County and took out a second mortgage on our Apple Valley home. My wife soon found a nearly vacant piece of land on the shore near Cascade River in Lutsen to build a little cabin near the shelf-rock shoreline.
But it wasn’t quite vacant. Sitting well up off the shore near the gravel road was an 860-square-foot structure that had blown off its foundation, lying cockeyed on the ground at a 10% slope down the hill. Missing half its roof shingles and the inside destroyed from exposure to the elements, it was listed as a derelict “teardown” on the Realtor posting.
My wife called it a shed to store tools, but conversations with the two sisters in their 70s who owned the property changed my mind. I learned the cabin had been built by Finnish craftsmen in 1923 for two brothers as a halfway point for their drivers, who were running Canadian whiskey down to Duluth during Prohibition. The men were finally caught in 1930, and the sisters’ father, a defense lawyer from Minnetonka, gained the property for legal fees when they went to jail.
The sturdy cabin had been built on three rows of cedar stumps on the ground, 2 to 3 feet high, and the place had blown off its stump foundation during a huge 1951 storm. From that point up to 1987, it had only been inhabited briefly by squatters in the summer of 1961. The sisters told me wonderful tales of coming up to the cabin as young children, fiddlers and locals sitting out back all night playing music, eating and drinking by a bonfire. They took baths in the sun-warmed shelf rock pools, and each took turns hauling buckets of water with padded yokes 300 feet up the hill to the cabin.
With an OK from my wife, I tried to salvage the historic little structure. Rusted bunks and other junk littered the place, and floor boards had punched up when the structure collapsed on its stumps. A kitchen wood stove was the only functional item undamaged.
My two best friends, Greg and Mike, drove with me to Lutsen the first year whenever possible to help re-roof and then rebuild the interior. I had house-movers on the Gunflint Trail come and dig in three rows of cement columns down to bedrock, and then move the structure onto the pilings 24 feet to the west. I found a treasure trove of old whiskey bottles from the ’30s, along with two padded yokes, when the cabin was lifted off the ground. We salvaged 70% of the roof boards and most of the exterior pine clapboard siding. We made multiple weekend trips over two years, hauling up used windows, doors, a “heatilator” fireplace, and cupboards. The final year brought large loads of sugar pine carsiding for interior walls and ceilings, and products connected to the new well and septic system.
My wife and I unfortunately parted 14 years ago. But I ended up with the little cabin, and remarried a great lady who loves the outdoors as much as I do. The enjoyment of river walks nearby that provide fresh trout for dinner, and long beach strolls that add agates to an overflowing wicker basket, remind me that the thousands of hours I and my two buddies put into the little bootleggers’ cabin rebuild was so well worth it.
Floyd Nagler, Prior Lake