Had it not been for elders in his St. Paul community, Nathaniel Khaliq never would have found his patch of Up North heaven.
It started nearly 40 years ago whenever he would greet James Murray, a postal carrier known in old Rondo as "The Singing Mailman" for his magnificent vocal performances.
"I would ask him, 'How you doin', Mr. Murray?' " Khaliq, 78, recalled. "He'd say, 'Oh, I was just up in paradise.' "
The mailman would then wax about his cabin on Lake Adney, a spring-fed gem 150 miles to the north in Crow Wing County. What was unusual about this lake, Khaliq would learn, was that one side of the shore was populated almost entirely by African American cabin owners.
Knowing that Khaliq was married and raising a family at the time, Mr. Murray promised he'd keep an ear out for any leads on anyone looking to sell their cabin.
Some time later, Mr. Murray connected Khaliq and his wife with Mrs. Lillian Henderson, whose late husband had built their place on Lake Adney. Turns out she lived in Rondo, too, and requested to meet Khaliq and his wife, Vicky Davis, in person. When they arrived at her St. Paul home, Henderson peppered the couple with questions.
"My wife is just the most charming and persuasive person," Khaliq told me. "I just kept my mouth shut and let her carry the day."
"It meant so much to Nick, so it meant a lot to me," said Davis. "I was just trying to make sure he could get his dream."
Davis' charm apparently won over Mrs. Henderson. The couple learned they would advance to the next stage: setting foot on her 10 acres. As they rolled up to the property, the sight of the lake — a pristine beauty with clear water — took Khaliq's breath away.
"I said, 'Wow,' " Khaliq recalled. "Just, what did we do to deserve this?"
For most of his life, Khaliq didn't think cabin culture was for him. And even though Mrs. Henderson was telling the couple that she wanted the cabin to be theirs, Khaliq still thought it was beyond reach.
"She threw a price out there, and we said, 'When do we have to pay?' " Khaliq recounted. "She said, 'Well, you pay me when you can.' It almost made me cry, just the kindness of it.
"I also thought about Mr. Murray looking out for us," he added, "all these angels that God put in our lives to make things more pleasurable for us."
Khaliq and his wife eventually paid Mrs. Henderson the $20,000 she had requested. And while gazing at sunsets from the dock, enjoying campfires with the kids and reeling in sunnies and bass, they got to know their cabin neighbors — and came to appreciate Lake Adney's unique place in Minnesota history. Mrs. Henderson passed along a hand-crafted wooden guestbook that chronicled cabin visits going back to 1953.
"It dawned on us that we're going to be part of the legacy of this lake," Khaliq said.
Nearly 100 years of history
That legacy started nearly a century ago. Many old-timers credit an African American named George Gamble for putting down roots in the area. Born in Omaha, he served in World War I and moved to the Twin Cities, where he worked as a mechanic.
In the 1920s, Gamble purchased property on Lake Adney's southern shore from the Cuyler Adams Mining Co., then divided the land into plots and sold them to Black families, according to researchers with the Minnesota Historical Society. He died in 1962 in a cabin fire.
At one time, the cabins were owned by African Americans not only from St. Paul and Minneapolis, but Omaha and Chicago. A handful of Black-owned resorts in the area also drew vacationers from as far away as New York and California — all by word of mouth. State senators, schoolteachers, police detectives, doctors and lawyers all descended onto this slice of Minnesota lake country.
"It was incredible," said Patrick Patton, 86, who as a child helped his dad build Patton's Resort on nearby Goggle Lake. "The Black community was really like an information highway. These people knew each other from all over the country, told their relatives and friends, and that's just how it spread."
Their stories from Up North are not unlike those of white Minnesotans. They came to Lake Adney to get away from the city, find solace in nature, hear the call of the loon, sip cocktails and play cards, teach their kids how to anchor the boat, pick wild berries, walk the woods under the stars, and tell stories about the colossal fish they almost caught.
But owning lakeside property at a time they were fighting for equality was especially a matter of pride for many African Americans, who were blocked from buying homes in some Twin Cities communities because of racist lending practices and restrictive covenants. Lake Adney was one of the few vacation destinations where they felt welcome.
"There weren't many places Black families could go," said St. Paul-based artist and professional genealogist Mica Lee Anders, who conducted oral history interviews of Lake Adney cabin owners for the Historical Society. "The '40s, '50s and the '60s were a really divisive time. Everywhere you went, you had to live in the oppression of being a Black person in Minnesota."
Lake Adney afforded these vacationers a chance to relax and escape from reality, she said. They brought not only their kids and grandkids, but others from their communities — building a neighborhood away from the neighborhood.
"It was this little microcosm of Minnesota culture, tied in with Black culture, in the middle of somewhere people don't even associate with there being Black people," Anders said.
Khaliq, a former St. Paul NAACP president, understands how special that is. The lake gave them a sense of refuge when he and Davis needed it most. Because of his activism fighting drug dealing and crime in St. Paul, he and his family were targeted by gang members in the '80s and '90s. Their front porch was firebombed with a Molotov cocktail. Vandals hurled a boulder through their bay window.
"To get away from that and go up through the woods was a wonderful thing," Khaliq told me.
Adney's history is significant to him for other reasons, as well. He was just a boy when he witnessed his old Rondo neighborhood, the heart of St. Paul's Black community, being torn apart to build Interstate 94. One searing memory was coming home from school and stopping by his grandpa's house, only to find police handcuffing his elderly grandfather because he wouldn't give up his home.
"Because of our history, going through what we've gone through as a people, we've lost so much," said Khaliq. "We don't have to worry about a government action like a freeway coming through Lake Adney. We can hold onto it."
Properties along Lake Adney have changed hands, and there are far fewer Black cabin owners along its shores than decades ago. Demand for lake homes across the state has swelled in the past few years, pricing out Minnesotans of all races. Lots of folks probably wish they had a Mr. Murray or a Mrs. Henderson in their corner.
Khaliq says he'll hang onto this piece of paradise for future generations because he knows how hard his elders worked to build community there. He'll do everything in his power to make sure the cabin stays in the family forever.
Cabin culture is about the allure of the lake, the freedom to just be.
In this case, it's also a legacy worth keeping alive.