At the far end of the Grand Marais harbor, where busy summer sidewalks give way to a rocky path leading to Artist’s Point, a determined woman has been inviting people to stop for a moment on her covered porch to reflect, connect, and engage in the lost art of postcards.
So far this summer, she’s persuaded a few thousand writers to spend time at the Letteracy Deck, a well-appointed outdoor space filled with assortments of postcards, colored pens, and beautiful stamps.
“I didn’t know how to write a postcard,” said 11-year-old Emma Rayleen, visiting from Wisconsin. “My aunt had to tell me how to put my address on it. I sent it to my brother. And I sent one with my aunt to my grandma.”
And that’s it. That’s what Anne Brataas was hoping for when she sent her small-town tourism grant application to the Blandin Foundation. As “President and Chief Curiosity Officer” of the Minnesota Children’s Press, which matched the Blandin Foundation grant, Brataas hoped to weave together literacy, a place for quiet reflection, and meaningful conversation into an unique and memorable tourist experience.
“And it’s free!” Brataas said. “A vacation is not inexpensive. Here at the Letteracy Deck, all you have to do is be. Picking a stamp is sometimes the best part. I have endangered species, Buzz Lightyear, and what’s left of 400 George Morrison stamps. Are you familiar with his work?” she asks enthusiastically before explaining his place in the pantheon of great American painters.
Brataas is a whirl of ideas, stories, and inquisitiveness. She seemingly has a natural ability to inspire participation.
“I’m a bit of a carny. I hope in a respectful way,” she says laughing, “but when people at first say no, I say, ‘Oh, come on, you can write a letter to yourself. You can write a letter to your future self.’ I start just giving them prompts and then there’s this reflection and then they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I could do that. I could send it to myself.’”
Tourists and locals alike have flocked to the Letteracy Deck, where no electronics are allowed. In fact, if you need to look up an address, you’ll need to step away. Otherwise, you might grab a lap pad and wander off to sit on the rocks for a bit while you choose your words. Some people sketch the harbor and sailboats.
While older generations reminisce about days when vacationing family and friends would send postcards, this is new stuff for most kids. Often, Brataas said, there’s a lot of coaching as adults help the young ones sort out the how-tos of postcard writing. Some kids send themselves a postcard and tell Brataas that they’ve never received anything in the mail before.
She’s especially keen on bringing the kids to the forefront. Story Scouts, another of her organization’s projects, teaches kids to write, publish and sell their own books. The Letteracy Deck perhaps is an abbreviated writing experience.
“I worry that children are not getting deep connection with each other. Screens are not nourishing. They’re certainly stimulating. They’re fun. But they’re just not nourishing. They’re not growing the kind of fundamental structures in the brain and the emotions that we need.”
People arrive with strollers, dogs, wheelchairs, shopping bags, ice cream cones, and once even bagpipes. They tell her stories, which she collects and delights in. When asked, Brataas said one of her favorite summer memories was sailing with the kids from Camp Warren on a beautiful summer evening.
Camp counselor Eli Conrod-Wovcha agrees, saying that the Letteracy Deck was the best part of a Lake Superior sailing adventure for himself and his six teenage campers. With engine troubles, the crew was waylaid in Grand Marais for two days and found the Letteracy Deck as they explored town.
Before long, Brataas convinced the crew to staff the Letteracy Deck – and she would pay them – so that she could grab some lunch. When she returned, the kids were reluctant to move on. Before long they returned, with an invitation.
“We got some fish from the market, and taco makings from the Co-op,” Conrod-Wovcha said. “We picked her up at the lighthouse and sailed. We were all over Lake Superior for a few weeks, and the true highlight for the boys was their experience with Anne, writing notes and sending them, and making friends. The whole idea is so brilliant.”
For Conrod-Wovcha, the vintage postcards were the best, piles of which have been donated from local businesses or left by visitors. The Fisher Map Company, which produces popular BWCA maps, cleaned out a storage room and sent years worth of old postcards. Think scalloped edges and mid-century fishing advertisements.
“I’m someone who really values letters and postcards in this day of texting and phones. I think the art of writing is becoming lost. There’s vulnerability in handwriting that isn’t communicated in a text. Right now I’m staring at a postcard I brought home with me,” said Conrod-Wovcha, now back at college.
Brataas has counted sent postcards as a way of measuring the success of her summer project – she was aiming for 1,400 postcards, but has surpassed 3,000. The crowds are dropping off, and the days are shorter, the wind more insistent. Blandin representatives have visited a couple of times, and Brataas is, as always, enthusiastic about possibilities. Plans are not firm yet in regards to what the Letteracy Deck will do next.
The Letteracy Deck is open on weekends in Grand Marais – Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1-5 p.m. – through Oct. 1.
Jana Studelska is a freelance writer based in northeastern Minnesota.
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