I have, at different times, written about deer camps, and how that special time brings family and friends together each year and the memories that are made on those trips. Many folks I know have a hunting cabin or “shack” tucked away somewhere in the north woods. The following story was sent to me by Kelly Schultz, a cousin of mine, and I thought it should be shared with the readers of this column. This story also ran – in part – in a special outdoors section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
The “International Hilton” Hunting Shack
By Carolyn “Kelly” (Dusek) Schultz in memory of my Dad, my hero
My “cabin/shack” story began in 1948. I was 9 years old and our family — Mom, Dad, brother age 4 and me — packed up our camping gear and headed to the north woods of Minnesota up past Orr several miles, then a left turn on a dirt road, then bear right at the fork in the road and continue several more miles. Finally, we came to the place where Dad went hunting each deer season. It was a very long drive from Albert Lea in our 1937 Plymouth and the dirt roads off Highway 53 were barely passable in certain places. The highlight was stopping for a tasty roadside picnic lunch packed by Mom. We also filled our water containers at the springs.
There in the clearing sat a rustic lonely building and a short distance away another sad run-down building. Dad said before being abandoned, it was where loggers cooked and ate. I recall he said another 4 miles down the road was the abandoned Johnson Lumber Camp. Upon entering the shack, I commented on the mess everywhere, even on the tables. Dad informed me they were porcupine droppings and no way was I going to sleep in that shack. Not to worry as Dad and Mom put up our Hoigaard umbrella tent and most of us slept soundly through the night...and survived to see the sunrise! I grew up tent camping and I must say I am grateful to my parents for my many camping memories. My husband and I used that same tent on our honeymoon out west in 1965. So that was cabin #1.
In 1949, six guys from the Albert Lea/Owatonna area purchased those 40 acres they had hunted/rented in previous years. I’m not sure when or how shack #1 mysteriously burned down, but it did. Shack #2 was across the meadow, but needed extensive repair to keep out the elements as it had previously served as a place the deer were hung until time to head home. Repairs were made, bunks built, and a table and a cooking area set up. It was still a “shack” with large pieces of heavy cardboard nailed to the inside walls and floor for insulation. It must have worked because the hunters returned season after season and in between for berry picking. They called it the “International Hilton.” In 1966, six of our family had been on a boundary waters canoe trip and spent our last night out at the Hilton. At least we were sleeping off the ground; however, the 14-year-old’s fall from the top bunk resulted in a broken arm. Before shack #2 met its demise in 1975, I cut away and saved many pieces of the cardboard walls on which years of visits were recorded. One reference related Dad’s first visit to the Johnson Lumber Camp in 1928 (at age 22) with three friends. He talked about their 4-mile trek to the camp from a depot with temps 5-10 below zero, about the cook who set them up with food, bed and even arranged for them to take their deer out on the train. He noted how hard the lumberjacks worked with no chain saws, how the logs were hauled by sled to the rails. The Canadian National main line went to International Falls, Virginia, Rainy Lake and elsewhere.
Fast forward to September 28, 1969, when shack #3 came to be. Dad, plus two hunting owners from Albert Lea, rented a big truck, took down a condemned building and hauled the wood to the forty. Mom cooked all their meals and the 16’ x 20’ cabin stood solid by October 4th. I presume the cabin still stands today, although I haven’t been to that neck of the woods in over 20 years. My Dad passed away in November of 1993 at age 87 and the property was sold sometime in the late 1980s. The “For Sale” description put the appraised value of the timber at $2,000.
That’s my story and writing it has been a bittersweet trip. Dad almost always came home with a deer, so our family ate quite a lot of venison. My favorite was the chops Mom made. I recall several trips to pick berries or just go with Mom and Dad to experience the peacefulness of the wild. Sometimes my brother, my husband and our two boys would also visit…and always the dogs. I remember the haunting sound of the whip-poor-wills at dusk… sound I’ve never heard anywhere else.
A good book by Minnesota author Walter O’Meara (1897-1989) called “The Trees Went Forth,” (1947) describes lumber camp life perfectly.
Don’t let the winter weather stop you from enjoying the outdoors because it is a great time to make an outdoors memory of your own.
Please remember to keep our troops in your thoughts and prayers not only during this holiday season but throughout the year because they are the reason we are able to enjoy all the freedoms that we have today.