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Growing Up on Ten Mile Lake

An account taken from an interview of Sam Fahr,
July 12, 2000, conducted by Tom Cox for the
Mississippi Headwaters Board Oral History Project.
Sam Fahr died on August 28, 2004.
Excerpted by Mariana Goodwin..

Sam's mother and father came to the Middle West from Pennsylvania in the 1920's. His mother had developed hay fever and asthma and found it necessary to move the family to the shores of Lake Superior near Beaver Bay, about 60 miles north of Duluth. They lived in small cabins with one or two bedrooms and the usual primitive facilities. The beautiful scenery reminded Sam's grandmother of the coast of Maine and her home on Bar Harbor.

Sam worked for a commercial fisherman, August Olson, born in Norway. They went out every day and caught what they called herring. Sam said the herring they caught "magically" turned into walleye by the time they were transported for sale in Minneapolis. Sam loved working for Mr. Olsen for five cents an hour but there wasn't much for the rest of the family to do, so it became imperative to find another place.

His mother heard of Ten Mile Lake through a friend in Minneapolis and in 1931 the family decided to rent a cabin for a season to see how they liked it. Sam didn't like the idea, especially when he found out that the friend had a daughter, Laura Bouraem, who would be there too. At age thirteen, that was not a happy coincidence and so Sam sulked around for a few days.

Then Mrs. Bouraem gave a party for all the young people on the shore and Sam met the three oldest Brandt boys. Suddenly he forgot Lake Superior and Mr. Olson's fishing business and embraced Ten Mile Lake wholeheartedly. There were some girls, too, but they didn't count. Stan Benbrook was also there, and two years later Dick Garbisch arrived with his Chris Craft. It didn't work very well, but that didn't bother him too much because when he was taking a young lady for a ride and the clutch refused to work, it was like running out of gas in a car.

Sam's sister Marnie also found girls to play with: Molly Brandt, Katie Benbrook, and Beth Carlson among them.

Sam's brother George was twelve years younger, and Sam tried to avoid him if possible because that was a lot of difference when one was sixteen and the other four.

There was always something to do. The Brandts had a tennis court with some problems. The court enclosure was chicken wire on some posts close to the sidelines and baseline. If they went for a wide ball they could lose some skin. The surface was just local dirt and hard to line. The lime they tried washed away in the rain so they put down tapes held by staples and sometimes tripped on loose tapes. However, they had a good time because they didn't know they were supposed to be miserable.

There were different kinds of boats on the lake but not like today. A few motor boats with ten horsepower motors were considered large but mostly people had rowboats and canoes and rowed or paddled wherever they wanted to go. Sam's family often rowed to Camp Beach (Hillaway) for picnics, sometimes with the Brandts. They would build fires and roast wieners. Sometimes they went to Batcheller's Bay across the lake.

They had to row if they went fishing along the reefs or in the bays. They caught crappies, much larger than what are caught today. Sam's family had a baby scale: some crappies weighed over two pounds. They could always catch enough for a meal for the family. There were "canvas canoes;" (fiberglass and aluminum were not available then). The Fahrs would canoe over to see friends and sometimes paddle to Long Bay and through the river to Birch Lake, where they would haul out the canoe at Shady Shores and carry it home. (The river was called "The Thoroughfare" then; now it is the "Boy River.")

Life preservers were not common in those days. Children were taught to swim and if a boat capsized, they were expected to hang on to the overturned boat or swim to shore. Parents would deliberately capsize the boat so the children could practice. Sam used the same method on his children when they were four, five, or six. The Brandt boys were excellent swimmers and left Sam way behind.

A rite of passage was to swim across the lake, over to Chariton Beach where Mr. Buck lived. He had a very pretty daughter but she was older than the boys.

Life at the lake was not all fun. The boys had important chores to perform which took up a certain amount of time every day. There was no running water so it had to pumped into pails and put on the porch for cooking and washing. Much of the bathing was done in the lake, and Sam's mother washed out baby George's diapers in the lake. (EPA Alert!) Cooking was by kerosene or wood and heating by wood in the fireplace or from the wood stove. Sam had to cut down the trees, preferably dead ones, saw them up, and split the logs. He had to carry the wood to fill the wood bins before he could go out with his friends, which was okay because they were doing the same chores. Sam learned to watch out for dead branches which were dangerous and not to cut down elm or ironwood trees. Elm won't split and ironwood earns its name.

Eventually Skelgas from the Skelly Oil Company became available, and the Fahrs got a gas range, a gas refrigerator, and gas lights which made reading at night a lot easier. They had to pipe the gas from the tanks into the house, and Al Woock showed Sam how to install the piping. The early cabins were quite small but the families often added rooms or porches. During construction or remodeling it often became evident that the buildings were far from square. When Sam decided to panel the living room he was told by Mr. Green at the hardware store in Hackensack to start in the middle and go to the corners. When he reached the northeast corner the last piece of paneling was about ten inches at the top and two inches at the bottom. Sam then installed some wide molding which hid the difference and looked pretty good. (One family developed an ingenious way of solving the space problem. They slept on mattresses on the floor in the all-purpose room. In the morning they hoisted the mattresses to the ceiling and went about the day's activities.)

School started later in those days, after the middle of September. The Fahrs stayed at the lake until school started. The weather was nice, but chilly, so to make the cabin warmer, the floors were covered with linoleum and ceilings were installed.

During the Depression, no one had much money so improvements were made gradually and much of the work was done by the families themselves. However, Al Woock was always around to give advice and lend a hand when needed. Al also raised some dairy cows on his farm and sold the milk. His cows were tuberculin tested, but the milk was not pasteurized. Sam did not know of anyone getting sick from that milk.

(This interview continues into Sam Fahr's adult life and his career. If you are interested in reading the complete interview, please contact Tom Cox.)

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Revised: June 30, 2016.

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