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Aaron Shapiro explores the history of North Woods tourism

The book is illustrated with iconic images of happy visitors camping, canoeing, fishing and relaxing in North Woods settings.

This summer, as thousands of Minnesotans drive north to partake in the recreational rituals of the season — or note the southern edge of winter, as it may be this year — they’ll be proving the success of a marketing campaign that goes back more than 100 years.

As the age of abundance ended for the forestry, mining and commercial fishing industries in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the region discovered a new source of revenue in tourism. Local and national governments, along with resorts, camps and the accompanying businesses that catered to the needs of travelers, created a deeply compelling image of relaxation in the North Woods that continues to lure us in, no matter how bad traffic on I-35 might get.

Aaron Shapiro explores the history of this transformation to tourism in “The Lure of the North Woods: Cultivating Tourism in the Upper Midwest” (University of Minnesota Press). Growing up in Chicago, Shapiro traveled extensively in northern Wisconsin, and as an adult, he explored northern Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

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“In Minnesota, the Gunflint Trail and Boundary Waters areas are very compelling, not just from a natural standpoint, but from a historical and ethnic standpoint. They are one-of-a-kind places that I had a curiosity about,” said Shapiro, who worked as a historian for the U.S. Forest Service earlier in his career, and currently directs the public history program at Auburn University.

His interest in natural places and history led him to explore the rise of North Woods tourism. A tour of historical societies, museums, old newspapers and books gave him a rich background in the conservation, recreation, resources, politics and policy, and social and ethnic issues that affected development in the early 20th century.

After the trees were cut …

shapiro photo
Aaron Shapiro

“I read William Cronon’s ‘Nature’s Metropolis,’ about the rise of Chicago in the 19th century, and he’s got a wonderful chapter on lumbering in the region,” he said in an interview. “But then the trees were all gone, and yet the story continues. I found that I was interested in exploring what happened next, what shaped the Upper Midwest region in the 20th century. And I found that tourism was a huge part of that.”

Shapiro’s book picks up the story in the 20th century, following travelers north as they sought out relaxation from a landscape traditionally associated with hard work. The book is illustrated with iconic images of happy visitors camping, canoeing, fishing and relaxing in North Woods settings, and he gets to the heart of why, for so many people, these images are not just about regional identity, but personal identity. A lot of that has to do with the power of marketing.

“Early on in my research, I stumbled upon a series of oral histories about the resort industry in Minnesota that the Minnesota Historical Society had done in the early 1990s, before a lot of those local resort owners were gone. They realized that this was an important thing to capture in the history of Minnesota,” he said. “Historians who look at tourism often think that tourism strips an area of what makes it unique and wrests control from locals. But those resort owners were locals, too, and I found the story to be much more complicated. Outsiders do play a role, but local individuals were also very involved as advocates for tourism. Local people are equally involved, for and against tourism. So there’s abundant conflict in this story.”

Conflict is a steady undercurrent

As Shapiro’s story moves from the beginnings of North Woods tourism in the 1920s to the heyday of small resorts in the post World War II family vacation era, to the conservation movement and passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, that conflict is a steady undercurrent. Even as people are beginning to discover the beauty of the North Woods, development, exploitation and pollution threaten it, and Shapiro discusses the role that key voices — such as Sigurd Olson, Ernest Oberholzer and Aldo Leopold — played in preserving the places and shaping our feelings about those places.

“Today, we have a more consumer-based environmentalism — whether that means feeling good about recycling or a host of other activities — that really has its roots in the creation of a recreation landscape in the North Woods,” says Shapiro.

“We feel connected to those places. And we look at them as pristine, natural, untouched. But in fact, these places often have been specifically crafted for our enjoyment, like any other product or experience, and there are a whole host of actors behind that. This summer, when people go up north to vacation, I hope they take another look at the land and the history of the place. I want people to see themselves as part of that story.”