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Fishing Families on Isle Royale


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From the mid-1800s until 1955, Scandinavian immigrants settled on Isle Royale, an island 52 miles long and 9 miles across. It’s only 12 miles from the Minnesota-Ontario shore, in the western part of Lake Superior. Isle Royale National Park was designated part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1976 and remains as an example of primitive America. Over 98% of the land in Isle Royale is designated wilderness. The immigrants, mostly Norwegians and Swede-Finns, were attracted by the rich fishing grounds surrounding the island.

The following address could not be geocoded: Isle Royale,USA. The map cannot be displayed. For three or four generations these fishing families lived on the island from April to November when the harbors began to freeze, and they returned to the mainland to wait until spring when they returned to their island homes. Year after year they shipped tons of fish to midwestern towns. In 1955 the National Park Service phased out the rights of families to live on Isle Royale, and the old fishing tradition ended by the 1960s.

When the fishing season ended each November, the island families returned with most of their fishing gear and household possessions to the Minnesota North Shore. Those winter quarters were quite small. Some people rented a place for the winter in Duluth, and some of the men found work in northern Minnesota logging camps, others took odd jobs while waiting for spring.

In the early 1900s children of the Isle Royale families had to complete nine months of school during the months they lived on the mainland in the winter. There were no schools on the island. In the spring when the steamship made its first trip of the year to the island, the families had to pack up everything for the trip: clothes, tables and chairs, nets and supplies. Even the cast-iron cookstove was taken. Sometimes the men traveled first and the women and children followed a week or two later.

The men and women worked hard. The women got up at 3:30 a.m. and built a wood fire, lit the kerosene lamp, wakened the men and sent them out in the dark morning to begin fishing. When the men came home in late afternoon, they had to dress, weigh and pack the fish in boxes, ice was added, the cover was nailed on and the boxes were shipped to fish companies in Duluth.

There were no stores, schools, theaters, police or fire stations, hospitals, taverns or churches on Isle Royale. If someone died, they were packed in ice and freighted to town. Families got together and provided their own entertainment. On the 4th of July, a potluck picnic was held on a small island and the families pitched in, gathering firewood. They wired trout fillets to birch planks for roasting. The planked fish were propped up about 10 feet away, facing the bonfire. As the fish dried, the planks were moved closer to the coals and left to cook during the sangerfest.

Scandinavian fishermen loved to sing on any occasion, especially if there was a violin handy. They started with drinking songs such as “Skoal, Skoal, Skoal”. Other songs were “Spinn, Spinn, Spinn Dater Min” and “Nikolina”. After eating, the music became more mellow. Sentimental old-country ballads were sung by rough fishermen in their 40s and 50s who had left their homeland as youngsters. Never again would they return to visit their family.

When they sang “Hälsa Dem Där Hemma” tears ran down their cheeks. It was a sailor’s lament upon leaving his homeland aboard ship for a new land. “On the deck I stand each night, while the stars are shining bright, far away from friends and home, sadly do I roam.” The song was sung to a swallow flying back to the old country, asking it to “greet my little sister, greet my brother, too, greet all the children, Father and Mother, too.” Embarrassed by their own tears, those tough old guys hugged each other. Some drifted off to watch the sun set through wet eyes. Others walked off into the woods to grieve by themselves. The families then took their boats back to the harbor where they danced until 2-3 a.m. Then they went to bed for a couple hours of sleep before work resumed again.

More than 25 ships ran into the reefs of Isle Royale and more than half are still there on the bottom. Besides aiding in salvage operations after a disaster, Isle Royale fishermen often rendered assistance to help numerous ships avoid the treacherous rocks and reefs that surround the island, saving many lives.

Excerpts from “Once Upon An Isle” by Howard Sivertson

June Pelo

SFHS member Lou Mattson has been researching the Isle Royale Swede-Finn families and has 22 inter-related surnames from the Larsmo area in Finland. The Swede-Finns lived at the eastern end in Tobins Harbor. The Norwegians lived on the western end of the island in Washington Harbor.

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