By: Steffi O'Brien
Editor’s note: In the following article, written in 1996, Sig’s son Robert recalls details of the Olson family home in Ely. This home, recently purchased by the Listening Point Foundation, now provides many opportunities for the Foundation to advance Sig’s legacy of wilderness education.
Sig and Elizabeth moved from the Rapson House on Harvey St. up to the new house on the hill south of town in August 1934. There are no letters about the move, but it must have been hectic because it was at that time of the year that the Border Lakes was going full blast, which meant a twelve-hour day, seven days a week. I remember absolutely nothing about the move although I was nine and old enough to have know what was going on. My only recollection is that Sig was happier about the move than Elizabeth. She remarked many times how she missed being in town and seeing the children walking by on their way to school. I think I found it a great adventure and looked forward to living out of town near the woods and fields.
The house was not totally unfamiliar to me anyhow. I had visited there many times with my little friend Ricky Bang who lived there with his sister (name forgotten) and parents, Dorothy and Luther Bang. Bang worked for one of the mining companies and had a dreadful temper. They used to call him “the terrible tempered Mr. Bang” after a cartoon character of the period.
The house itself, which was built in 1928, was only half finished. The upstairs was without a bath and more like an attic than an upstairs. That is where the Bang children slept and must have half frozen to death in winter. The setting in 1934 was bleak. The house was set in the middle of a grassy field studded with piles of rocks, piled up, presumably, by someone who had once farmed it. There was neither shrubbery nor even trees in the yard except for three small box elders planted in a line just to the east of the house. On the other hand, it had a great view over town and no other buildings between it and the woods across the field to the south. The only tree that I can remember was the beautiful clump of birches in the middle of the field back of the house, which now appears to be dying.
The carpenters must have been busy that summer. When we moved in, the upstairs had been finished in its present dimensions so that Sig Jr. and I had a proper bedroom to ourselves. This is the room which Sig used for a bedroom for many years. Elizabeth’s bedroom was used by Sig for work and writing.
We shared the hill then with only one neighbor, Florence and Pete Peterson who owned the brick Dutch colonial house just to the West. They owned Peterson’s Fishing Camp on Hoist Bay of Basswood Lake, and Pete was partner with Sig and Wally Hanson in the Border Lakes Outfitters. Relations between the families were close and for the most part cordial. The families socialized together, attended the same church, hunted ducks together, and cross-country skied during the winter. A few years later, the Chinn family, also members of the Presbyterian Church and part of the mining community, built a new house to the west of the Petersons. Jim and Merle Call built next to us sometime after the war. It was all very neighborly and cozy.
The writing shack began as the family garage, which was located to the right of the entryway approximately where the big spruce now stands. The garage was converted into the writing shack in 1937 at a cost of $150 and moved to its present location. The work was done by Border Lakes employee Alex Peura of Winton. A set of clothesline posts completed the backyard and served to suspend many a deer.
The new garage was added to the main house in 1938.
These were the years when Sig converted the raw material of his surroundings into the yard as you now see it with the stone walls, shrubbery, and trees. Elizabeth had wanted a landscaper to do a design for the yard along conventional lines, but Sig would have nothing to do with that nonsense. He wanted to landscape the yard in native shrubs and trees and along informal lines, so there was much hauling in of spruce, maples, birch and even a scrub oak from the woods (see “Scrub Oak” in The Singing Wilderness). Hauling in the rocks and piling them into the stone wall was a labor we all pitched in on. We rejoiced at what we had done and Sig describes his thoughts and feeling in “Stone Wall” also in The Singing Wilderness. The only drawback for me was that for many years I had the job of mowing and trimming the lawn, which included clipping by hand the grass that grew up between the rocks in the wall, a real chore.
For me, the lore of the old house is that it was in that house that the family matured and came to define itself. It was during those years that the Olson family established its traditions, memories, and way of life. The house was small and cramped (775 square feet of floor space). But it always seemed to be full of fun, comfort, security, and friends, at least from the boys’ point of view. Both Sig and Elizabeth had their problems, Sig with a place to get away to work free from telephone and friends, Elizabeth with a cramped little kitchen and tiny closets. Every inch of space including the basement was put to use. Cousin Curtis Uhrenholdt expanded the family for a couple of years (1939-1940) so that Elizabeth had to feed a family of five on the dining room table set against the living room staircase. The boys and Curtis filled the upstairs. Sig and Elizabeth slept in the downstairs bedroom. Fortunately (for all concerned) Sig now had his writing shack where he could get away.
The Porch was built during the summer of 1954 by Harvey Tjader, Esther’s older brother. It was never called anything else. Credit for actually doing it should rightly go to Elizabeth. They had talked about adding another downstairs room for years but Sig never took the time to do anything about it. Finally, Elizabeth put her foot down and made it happen. Much pleasure and congratulations all around when it was finished.
It transformed the house, added a stunningly beautiful new room, and provided the increasingly necessary space for entertaining as Sig became more and more involved with the conservation community. In a way, the Porch marks the end of one, mostly family, life and the beginning of another life of affairs.