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Aaron Shapiro explores the history of North Woods tourism

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.

“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.”

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by mark wallek on 05/15/2013 - 09:26 am.

    The myth is dead

    How long will the myth be milked. Anyone who has lived in Minnesota their entire lives can tell you that what was once the “wilderness of up north” is really now “little cities around the lake.” Private ownership of lakeshore property means no walking around the lake. Enjoy walking the service roads instead. “Cabins” are part of the myth as well. Where are they? There are a few left, but “homes” have replaced them, and rarely are they the small humble abode of years past. So enjoy the little cities on the lake, and the growing cities nearby. And soon you’ll be able to use that cell phone in the Boundary waters. So relax, the urban world is thriving in Minnesota’s “wilderness.” Enjoy.

  2. Submitted by jody rooney on 05/15/2013 - 11:24 am.

    Mr. Wellek you need to get out more

    After having worked in Northern Minnesota I can tell you there are still cabins and there are still tourist based communities.

    There are seasonal homes around many of the lakes. The conversion rate from seasonal to permanent according to a University of Michigan expenditure study done perhaps 15 years ago was pretty steady at 3% a year. You do the math. Aitkin County has a large percentage of seasonal homes so many that the Center for Small Communities at U of M Morris did separate expenditure surveys for them 6 years ago.

    My grandfather’s resort on Mille Lacs is now under private ownership but the cabins are all seasonal and may not be converted. There are also still seasonal homes on or within walking distance (all homes in a couple of the communities have access to the lake) to White Bear Lake. I would be surprised if there weren’t still a few seasonal homes with access to Lake Minnetonka and its connecting lakes.

    There are still many tourism based communities in Minnesota and many of them are struggling. The fact that their more profitable season may now be winter when it snows has to do with the changing preferences of the recreating public. Did I mention that bicyclists and canoers are notoriously cheap and not supportive of the local up north economies. To have up north economies you need people who spend their money there. A quick look at the U of M tourism study done for the DNR shows who would be more welcome by the local folks.

    It is tough to live in Northern Minnesota where so much of the land is publicly owned so there is no tax base and your competition for having a campground or “camper cabins” comes from the state and is highly subsidized. Sorry off topic,

  3. Submitted by Art Bandini on 05/18/2013 - 03:17 pm.

    conversion of cabins to homes

    I did the math as Ms Rooney suggested on the conversion rate from seasonal to permanent according to a University of Michigan expenditure study done 15 years ago, which she states was pretty steady at 3% a year. At a 3% annual conversion rate, 70% of the seasonal cabins that existed in 1973 would have been converted to permanent residences by now, and thus permanently lost as seasonal housing stock. Ms. Rooney, your research seems to bear out Mr. Wallek’s point. The cabins are disappearing – not totally, and you are correct, they are still out there – but Mr. Wallek’s thesis is valid. The world of the small cabin on the lake is rapidly disappearing.

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