Early into my infatuation with Sawbill, while I am still living in Nebraska, I come across a simple metaphor that Lawrence Buell, an environmental critic, uses to think about place. I find the description in the first chapter of a book on environmental literature, and, as I sit in my apartment, my mother in Minnesota and my dad in St. Croix, it seems to suddenly explain my longing.
In Sawbill Jennifer Case watches her family suddenly exchange their rooted existence for a series of relocations that take them across the United States. In response Case struggles to “live in place” without a geographical home, a struggle that leads her to search for grounding in the now-dismantled fishing resort her grandparents ran in northeastern Minnesota. By chronicling her migratory adulthood alongside the similarly unpredictable history of Sawbill Lodge, this memoir offers a resonant meditation on home, family, environment, and the human desire for place in the inherently mobile 21st century.
Cultures of earlier times, Buell says, had a sense of place akin to concentric rings. At its center was a home that they knew well—the intimately known region where they lived and worked—and the further they distanced themselves from that point, the less they felt bonded to the environment.
In contrast, today—in an era of modernization and globalization—Buell argues that we hop from location to location, which causes that sense of place as concentric rings to instead take the shape of an archipelago. We know a small place, and work at another small place, and move to another small place, but those locations are islands, isolated from one another. Our understanding of the world is stretched out and thinned.
My family, I realize, is living on islands. We have lost an intimately known homeland and the sense of bonding it would have provided.
When I first sit down to read about the Argobust family and to find where the story of Sawbill began, I, as a result, expect to encounter concentric rings: information about people who built the lodge and loved it. People who poured their sweat into the making of the area—the roads and the lodges that then, in the early 1900s, were considered one of the “unsettled” parts of the United States. People who devoted so much work to the area that they stayed. Because that is the assumption made by so many of the environmental writers I love: Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and Scott Russell Sanders. Physical labor and local knowledge creates a profound and beautiful bond, allowing you to enter into a community, and if you devote yourself enough to a location, it becomes impossible for you to separate yourself from it. “People who stay in place may come to know that place more deeply. People who know a place may come to care about it more deeply. People who care about a place are more likely to take better care of it,” Robert Thayer, Jr. writes, and I believe him. Or at least I want to. I recognize how much environmental harm results from lifestyles that don’t facilitate that kind of attention and care. Environmental harm that results from the way my own family pops through airports, hardly noticing where we are, how the noise patterns of the planes might affect certain neighborhoods, how the coffee we drink from disposable cups is affecting farmers in Latin America and landfills here. How the histories of the regions we live in and travel through—great swaths of the Midwest, southeast, and even Caribbean—might require more thoughtful uses of our natural resources.
Surely, the Argobusts, builders of Sawbill lodge, which my family once ran, were people who cared. And by researching them, I expect to find a family that might serve as a parallel to my own, had my own been transported to something other than the twenty-first century, when the world erupted into movement: those transcontinental flights, international job postings, the average American working nearly a dozen jobs over the course of a lifetime. In the Argobusts, I expect groundedness. A perhaps-more-settled understanding of how the world works and how family functions.
And at first, the Argobusts do seem to offer that parallel. Theirs is a story about longing. About the way a place can drag you in, can bring your arms to the ground, your knees to the rocky soil. About place as a way to locate and center family.
Before Sawbill, the Argobusts were scattered. Strewn across the Midwest, they struggled to survive. George lost his job in Ohio, his wife died, and suddenly he had five kids he couldn’t feed as the world slumped into the 1930s and the Great Depression. George moved his family to Chicago in search of employment, but even there—in that vastly unfamiliar cityscape—they struggled. Eventually they moved to Wisconsin, where George left the kids in a cabin during the days. The children played by the lake and fended for themselves. They were happy. But when the authorities discovered five kids not enrolled in school, the Argobusts returned to Chicago.
Yet their second try at a large city was no better than the first. George couldn’t find work. The oldest children sold newspapers and magazines door-to-door in order to eke out some sort of existence in the world they had. They were drifters in need of place. In need of grounding.
Reading their history, I am simultaneously saddened and pulled in.
After I move to Nebraska and my father moves to St. Croix, our family struggles to get together. That first summer I can’t get back to Minnesota until August. By that point, my father will have returned to St. Croix and my sister will already be back at college. My mom calls me in July, when my siblings and dad are home. We play a game of Yahtzee on speakerphone; my siblings, Jeff and Emily, bicker in the background.
“Well, we should probably let you go,” my mom says after the game. “We wish you were here.” I slump in my chair and stare at the parking lot outside my window. As I think of my family’s movement, my own movement, and what I am and am not prioritizing in my life, I wonder what it means to live a life of disconnection—what it means to not commit to a place. When I read about George Argobust and his decision to move from Ohio, I can’t help but wonder if he saw in his own family the kind of wandering and discontentment that Scott Russell Sanders describes when quietly, purposefully, trying to tell us about the deprivations experienced by “those who have no parish, those who navigate ceaselessly among postal zones and area codes, those for whom the world is only a smear of highways and bank accounts and stores.”
I’d like to think so, which is why it makes sense to me that in 1931, Wilson and George, Jr., the older brothers, left Chicago and headed north in search of new, more permanent opportunities. “We intended to earn money for the family,” Wilson wrote in straightforward prose, in his six-page autobiography about the founding of Sawbill Lodge. They decided to head to the northeastern corner of Minnesota, where Wilson had fished with his uncle at Gateway Lodge on the Gunflint Trail. They hoped to find work there and eventually start a resort of their own. So they loaded up a knapsack with apples and bread, spent nights in freight cars, and caught rides from strangers. They traveled through land my family knows well—Red Wing, Minnesota, and then St. Paul—as if pulled by the memory of the North Shore: the jagged red rock, the white birch and poplar. It’s almost, I think, as if the area had imprinted itself onto Wilson’s memory. The North Shore, for Wilson, like me, becomes an ideal place.
Writers of place argue that emplacement heals the wounds of displacement. That settling down offers spiritual rewards. “In belonging to a landscape,” Scott Russell Sanders writes, “one feels a rightness, at homeness, a knitting of self and world.” He compares this sense of belonging and at homeness to “what the Buddhists call mindfulness, what Christian contemplatives refer to as recollection, what Quakers call centering down.” In other words, place can ground us in more ways than one. It can give us concentric rings instead of islands.
I wish for Wilson that centeredness. The same centeredness I wish for myself. In the few photographs I have of Wilson, he is a lanky teenager, thin and slightly awkward in the way of most young adults. He wears white t-shirts and baggy, khaki pants. Though most of his hair is close-cropped, his thick bangs form a cowlick. He braces his elbows against his sides while holding a large bass, or smiles into the camera, an arm around his brothers. He deserves that happiness, so I give it to him. In my imagination, as I sit in my apartment in Nebraska and later upstate New York, his story—spliced across newspaper articles and oral histories—glows as if lit by dreams:
In 1931, just south of Duluth, heat shimmered above the road. The land rose slowly, the oaks and maples giving away to birch and pine. Wilson elbowed his brother as the truck that had picked them up made its way up one final mound. At the top, Lake Superior suddenly burst into view, the thin angle of its harbor visible like a blue lash deep in the valley. Barges filled the docks, steel machinery emptying ore into their tanks. Trains chugged along the shore, toward the port, and thin rows of houses braced themselves against the hills.
The boys leaned forward as the trucker sailed down the hill into the city with its dockyard and brick buildings and train stations. The air cooled, and Wilson could almost taste the coldness of the lake on his tongue. “Hey, Chub. If you wade in that lake, your feet will turn blue,” Wilson said to George Jr., who grinned back at him, just as my siblings and I had grinned at my father in the family van.
The idea of a wilderness area forming a sort of ideal is not new. Environmental writers, from Thoreau to John Muir to Edward Abbey to Annie Dillard have all, to a degree, purposefully left cities to try and prove themselves in nature, to enter an environment in search of insight and wisdom. Minnesota’s North Shore—in the 1930s and today—isn’t altogether different from those other iconic landscapes: Thoreau’s Walden Pond, Muir’s mountains, Abbey’s Arches National Park. Until the 1930s, highways did not extend to Minnesota’s northeastern lakes. Indeed, it was the Civilian Conservation Corps, an organization that believed physical, wilderness experiences could turn urban boys into men, that built much of the area’s first infrastructure.
In the American cultural imagination, the North Shore is a place of respite and retreat as well as a proving ground. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area and the Gunflint Trail host wilderness trips that entail hunting, fishing, canoeing, and backpacking. All require some sort of physical strength and the perhaps faulty belief that we are survivors, capable of sustaining ourselves in harsh environments. And harsh it is. Northeastern Minnesota is often the coldest in the continental United States. The Edmund Fitzgerald sank off of Lake Superior’s shores. Lake Superior is the deepest, most frigid of the Great Lakes.
My own attraction to the North Shore, both as a child and now an adult, stems from that cultural allure. Tourists still visit the area with sleeping bags and canoes, with high-performance jackets, with carefully designed hiking boots. Even today, in the twenty-first century, the resorts don’t take groups kayaking on windy days. Yet even today, canoeists get stranded and need rescuing. The danger, in fact, becomes part of the appeal. At the North Shore, we can get away from cars and cell phones, back into nature—to the aspen and birch, the sunsets reflected on water, where human life is both magnified and minimized. Where living in place does require specific, technical survival skills. Where the need for that knowledge presses on the back of your neck as you sleep.
If I want to feel part of a place, in the way that Sanders felt part of a place, to burrow myself in its history, to commit myself to its beauty and risks, this is where I would do it. This, I sense, is where the Argobusts would do it, too.
Wilson and his brother George, Jr. arrived in northeastern Minnesota only to discover from a truck driver that Gateway Lodge had burned down in a fire. Dejected, they spent the night in a fishing house in Tofte before catching a ride to nearby Hungry Jack Lake, where they hiked three miles to Gateway Lodge in the hopes they could at least help the owners rebuild.
Those last three miles brought back memories for Wilson. He recalled the summer fishing trip with his uncle. Those warm and carefree days before his mother’s death. The ease of those memories grated against the long days of hitchhiking with his brother and the desire to escape the cramped apartment in Chicago. When Wilson and George, Jr. finally arrived, Sue and Jesse Gapen greeted them warmly, offering food. But they could only take on one of the boys as an employee. In a conversation I can only imagine, Wilson and his brother decided that Wilson would stay at Gateway while his brother would return home.
Though Wilson mentions little of his time with the Gapens in his six-page autobiography, it is clear he still wanted the northwoods to reunite his family. As he and the other hired men felled trees on West Bearskin Lake, pushed and pulled and maneuvered the felled logs into the water, floated them across the lake, and portaged them a mile to the burnt remains of Gateway Lodge, Wilson continued to dream of a resort of his own. On Saturday evenings, when the other men drove into Grand Marais, he stayed at Gateway and practiced peeling the logs with a draw knife. He watched his muscles strengthen, and every month, he sent most of his $15 pay back to his father in Chicago, waiting for the bits of news he received in reply: Chub and Hedge found work at a grocery store. They get paid in food. I’ve met a woman. Marriage is a possibility.
That January, Wilson hitchhiked back to Chicago to confront his father and his father’s soon-to-be second wife. Although the rest of the Argobust children had taken to Jean immediately, Wilson eyed her with distrust. Nonetheless, Jean held her ground. The only female graduate of Cornell University’s program in hotel management, she was accustomed to intimidation—to closed doors she must heave open. Sawbill, in fact, became Jean and Wilson’s neutral zone—the one thing they had in common. Jean’s background in hotel management proved an asset that Wilson could support.
All January they spoke about it—at the small table in his father’s apartment, the five kids huddled around, faces glowing in the low light like they used to, George at the one end of the table, hands pressed to his nose, and Jean at the other. She showed them the books she still had from college, the plans she’d laid out—the steps they’d have to take to get started.
They spoke about schooling for the youngest Argobust children: Harry, Jane, and Robert. About telephones and electricity and running water. About financing and attracting guests. Sometimes, the setbacks must have felt so large, both Jean and Wilson thought they’d give up.
But in the end, the seven of them—Jean and George, Wilson and George, Jr., Harry, Jane, and Robert—decided to give it a try.
A week later, Wilson returned to Gateway, only this time with more purpose. As the Gapens rebuilt the lodge, Wilson etched what he saw into his head for future reference. He used a compass to mark the lines in the logs. The lines guided the ax when they grooved lengthwise, cutting notches for corner fits. He watched the Swedish workers use the double-blade ax to make the notches and grooves. They used the broad ax for steps and the fireplace mantel. They leaned into each other, rocking their feet, building momentum.
After supper, when the other men retreated to the bunkhouse and the wind moved like a whisper through the trees, Wilson carried the axes to the refuse pile. The abandoned ends of the Norway pines froze to the ground, a mountain in the snow. Wilson kicked at them, unearthed them, wiped ice off of wood with his hand. The logs gleamed in the night. He pushed and pulled, strained and sweated, felt the edge of the ax nip into the wood.
With those hands and those tools, he would make of this place a livelihood, a home.
George is the only family member involved with the building of Sawbill that I cannot readily understand—or at least cannot readily place in my imaginative rendering of that time period. He exists on the sidelines, someone whose involvement is less enthusiastic. He doesn’t seem to have been drawn to Sawbill with the same force—to have seen it as a place that offered centering. Instead, it was mostly an opportunity, and perhaps an opportunity that required an energy he didn’t have.
When George and Jean married in April, they decided to head north near Wilson. From the various oral histories that exist, it is clear that Jean made many of the plans. She wrote letters to friends she had in New York and asked for advice, while George, it appears, followed along, attracted largely to the stability that Jean provided his family. In fact, it was Jean’s old car that they drove to Tofte, where they learned a new road had just been built to a lake called Sawbill. The forest service suggested Jean and George look for a resort site there.
That weekend Wilson came down from Gateway and the three of them drove Jean’s Nash the twenty-four miles to Sawbill. Halfway in, the spring melt turned the gravel to mud. The Nash got mired. The wheels spit mud and stone backward but did not move. George and Wilson got out and pushed. Mud seeped up their pant legs. George slipped and the mud seeped to his knee. Rain began to fall. They managed to extract the car, only to “hump and grind on” for two more hours.
Finally, they stopped near a stream—the Temperance River. They waded into the stream and along the shore, Wilson and then Jean and then George, until the stream met the lake.
The view stunned Wilson and Jean. The land rose from the lake and then flattened out, a few areas already patchy with grass. Hundreds of tall trees lined the lake and the lodge site, creating an oasis of water in the woods. “We were thrilled and excited,” Wilson wrote later. “This certainty was the right place.”
George did not say anything. Or, at least, no oral histories exist. His reaction is lost. And in the absence, I envision apathy. I wonder if George shared the group’s joy—if the view hooked itself into his chest wall in the way it must have hooked itself into both Wilson’s and Jean’s. Or if, instead, he had expected more: the start of a building, or at least a cabin, rather than the stony shore, the uplift in the land, and the darkness of the trees. For a man who had already begun new lives in four different states, what energy could he take to another beginning? How many times can we start over again?
I would not blame him for exhaustion.
In 1933 work began. Wilson quit his job at Gateway and joined George and Jean in Tofte. The step forward elated Wilson, though the pace continued to prove agonizingly slow. In what Wilson calls the “almost unendurable” months during which George and Jean struggled to secure permission from the forest service and a loan from the bank, Wilson shrunk and seethed. The knife he used to skin fish turned clumsy. He cut the wrong parts, chopped the wood the wrong size. To keep his sanity, he guided day trips west to Alton, Beth, and Grace Lake, then north to Ada and Cherokee, or east to Smoke, Burnt, and Kelly. “We found the fishing to be unexcelled, wild, rewarding, exciting beyond compare. The forest, the lakes, rivers unbelievably beautiful, many to be ‘discovered’ and explored,” Wilson wrote. The water calmed him as it must have calmed my father when he was young. Wilson dipped his paddle into the lake, skimmed his hands on the surface. He paddled hard, the front of the canoe slicing though the water without a sound. Last year’s leaves floated near the banks, and lily pads made a green sheen of the marshes.
In the winter, Wilson’s uncle paid for his schooling in Minneapolis, where Wilson met an architecture student. Wilson showed the student his father’s drawings of rock outcroppings, land levels, and trees and convinced him to draw up a design. In the weak light of the winter, with coffee and sandwiches, Wilson and the architect dreamed up the entire complex—the lodge, the log cabins, the guest dormitory, the dock and canoe racks, the living quarters… even a freshwater well. The planning and drafting carried him through the winter, until Jean and George finally got permission to start.
That summer, Wilson lost himself in the work. He and the others dug the foundation for the lodge and set it in concrete with cedar timbers. They scouted the lake for Norway or white pine, but they could only locate jack pine—knottier than they wanted, but still sturdy.
Tony, the hired man, and Wilson used the six-foot, two-person saw to cut 18 trees a day. They carried the saw 50 feet offshore, sawed until wood cracked and sweat ran down their foreheads. Once each tree fell, they topped it, limbed it, and then dragged it to the shore. From a distance, those white and brown logs looked like a pile of matchsticks haphazardly scattered in the dirt. But close up, the magnitude of those 434 logs pulled knees to the ground.
George borrowed a fishing boat from Andy Tofte, a member of the township’s founding family, and towed six or seven logs at a time the five and a half miles to the lodge site. The progress was slow. When snow and ice began to fall in November, white trunks still lined the bank. Snow flicked the water like mosquitoes, eventually giving the entire shore an icy top layer. Wilson and the crew pulled their collars up and listened for the chug of the three-horsepower motor. George hauled one load of logs, then told the crew to pack up. They filled the boat with the tents and sleeping bags, the saws and axes. Just before dark, when George came back one last time, the crew themselves jumped in. As they chugged away into darkness, the 50-some logs they left behind bobbed on the water, their tops already white with snow.
The next morning, when Wilson returned to the logs, they had frozen within the ice. At the sight, George let the motor die. Snow blew across the lake, whistling through the air with an eerie whine. If the logs remained another night, they’d be stuck all winter. The group unloaded hatchets and picks. For 12 hours straight, they gouged ice from the frozen pine until each of the logs again bobbed like an icy martyr. Then, in trip after trip, they hauled the logs to the other side of the lake and pulled them to the shore. Once they had finally salvaged all of the logs, the men collapsed on the bank as Jean brought out blankets and hot coffee. They were too exhausted to talk, but already they could see it: Sawbill Lodge, up on the hill like a dream.
It’s a beautiful moment in the story. The ice. The snow. The logs. The logs sitting there, the pieces all set for assembly. The story about to unfold and take place. It’s enough to make me want to stop my research, to say, “Here! Here it is! This is the story we must follow.” They put in the work. They found a way to make their dreams unfold. Their love for the area, their care for the place, surely, is palpable. And in caring for the place, didn’t they do what so many families during the Great Depression and so many families today cannot? Didn’t they manage to come back together? To create their own community in a place that they loved? Community with the environment and with each other?
And yet, maybe it was only in that moment of anticipation that Sawbill seemed perfect, for me and for them. For it is in the opening of the lodge, and its history after, that my expectations for centeredness flounder.
The Argobusts opened Sawbill Lodge in 1935, to minimal success. They sent 100 postcards a day to Minneapolis businessmen whose addresses they got through George’s brother’s advertising agency. Not all of the businessmen came, but some did. Wilson and his brothers guided them on fishing trips and hunting expeditions. Jean cooked fish, roast venison, potatoes, vegetables, and bread. There was always coffee and apples, cookies and donuts for dessert. The guests liked to sit in front of the fireplaces in the evenings, and sometimes the Argobusts would join them for a game of chess or checkers. It seemed promising.
But contrary to all of my hopes and expectations, the Argobusts’S stay didn’t last long.
When 1941 came around and the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the stint at Sawbill was over. The Argobusts tried to keep the lodge open that summer, but it was harder to get supplies, and with gas rationing, fewer and fewer guests arrived.
All the boys but Wilson joined the services. One in the Navy, two in the Air Corps. Even the daughter left to join the Woman’s Army Corps. Though Wilson couldn’t enlist because of bad hearing, he built military seaports and warehouses in the Aleutian Islands. By the time the war ended, the Argobust children had started lives elsewhere and never returned. “We were all scattered and there was no home to go back to,” Jane, the youngest Argobust, later wrote.
After 1942, Jean left Sawbill too. She returned to Chicago and took a job as chief dietician for US Airways. George left for Duluth. The divorce came later.
And so the location that was always meant to keep the family together failed—just as it would fail to keep my family in one place decades later, as much as I wanted it to. Sawbill was not the center of a series of concentric rings but rather one stop along a string of locations and homelands. In my romantic visions of the resort’s birth, then, I must remind myself of its end—of the comings and goings that have defined it all along. Maybe Wilson did form a strong attachment, an attachment I would like to believe mirrors my father’s or my own. But he left Sawbill, and for whatever reason, it could not reel him in again.
In fact, only Jean returned. As if the land had imprinted itself in her, forcing her to dream of birch and pine, the lodge pulled her back. After the war ended, she returned to the dirt road and the two fireplaces and the cabins with their sanded jack pine beams. She reinstated the lease and contacted old clients. Jane, the youngest Argobust, stopped by every once in a while to say hello and help out, but in the end only Jean lived the rest of her life in the area. She was the only one to die there. The only one to stay. Thus, it is Jean’s story, and even more my own family’s story, that I must turn to as a young adult in Nebraska and later upstate New York when trying to understand my longing for Sawbill, my love of the place, and my desire for the location, in moments of upheaval and change, to serve as a touchstone for family, for life.
Read Jennifer Case’s Letter to America, appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo by M. J. Humphrey, courtesy Jennifer Case.