Oberholtzer, Ernest C. (Ernest Carl), 1884-1977

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Oberholtzer was well known as an explorer, conservationist and writer. In 1912 he settled in the Rainy Lake area of northern Minnesota. He often traveled the area with Indian companions, particularly Billy Magee, and was a friend of the Indians as well as teller of their stories and legends. He is best known for his ceaseless role in preserving the Quetico-Superior wilderness. He was instrumental in the founding of the Friends of the Wilderness Society. He worked for the establishment of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Voyageurs National Park and received many honors for his work in the field of conservation.

From the description of Oral history interviews with Ernest C. Oberholtzer, 1948-1968. (Minnesota Historical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 48386908

Oberholtzer was well known as an explorer, conservationist, and writer. In 1912 he settled in the Rainy Lake area of northern Minnesota. He often traveled the area with Ojibwe companions, particularly Billy Magee, and was a teller of their stories and legends. He is best known for his ceaseless role in preserving the boundary waters wilderness as a founder of both the Quetico-Superior Council and The Wilderness Society and as the first chairman of the President's Quetico-Superior Committee.

From the guide to the Ernest C Oberholtzer collection., [193-]-1960., (Minnesota Historical Society)

Ernest C. Oberholtzer was born in 1884 in Davenport, Iowa, and died in 1977 in International Falls, Minnesota. He is known as an explorer, conservationist, and writer. Educated at Harvard University, Oberholtzer took a B.A. in landscape architecture in 1907, and remained at Harvard to do some graduate work. In 1908 he traveled to England and Scotland with his college friend Conrad Aiken.

In 1909 Oberholtzer first explored the border lakes in the Rainy Lake watershed area in northern Minnesota and southern Canada. By agreement with Oberholtzer, the Canadian Northern Railroad bought his notes and pictures documenting canoe routes in the area.

Oberholtzer worked for a short time as a newspaper editor and in 1910 went again to Europe, this time with his friend Harry French. Oberholtzer briefly served as vice consul in Hanover, Germany, before returning to northern Minnesota in 1912.

In 1912 Oberholtzer traveled to Hudson's Bay with an Ojibwe Indian companion, Billy Magee of Mine Centre, Ontario. The same year Oberholtzer moved to Rainy Lake, spending summers on an island, "The Mallard," and winters on a houseboat at Ranier. He often traveled the area with Indian companions, particularly Billy Magee, and was not only a friend of many American Indians in the area, but also a teller of their stories and legends.

Oberholtzer is best known throughout the United States and Canada for his ceaseless efforts to preserve the Quetico-Superior wilderness. He was instrumental in the founding of the Quetico-Superior Council and the Wilderness Society; worked for the establishment of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Voyageurs National Park; and received many honors for his role in conservation work.

From the guide to the Oral history interviews with Ernest C. Oberholtzer., 1948-1964., (Minnesota Historical Society)

Ernest Carl Oberholtzer was born February 6, 1884, in Davenport, Iowa and died June 6, 1977, in International Falls, Minnesota. He lived most of his adult life on an island in Rainy Lake near Ranier, in northern Minnesota. Oberholtzer is best known as a conservationist, explorer, wilderness philosopher, and authority on the Minnesota-Ontario boundary lakes and on the Ojibwe Indians of the border lakes area.

Oberholtzer was the son of Henry Reist Oberholtzer of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Rosa Carl of Davenport, Iowa. The Oberholtzer family was originally from the German portion of Switzerland and had settled in Pennsylvania before moving to Council Bluffs. Rosa Carl was the daughter of Ernest Samuel Carl and Sarah Marckley. Ernest Carl was born in Saxe-Coburg, Germany, and emigrated to the United States at age fifteen. He married Sarah Marckley when he was twenty and soon thereafter left for the California gold fields, only to be offered a position with the American consulate at Callao, Peru. He served as vice-consul for two years before returning to Davenport. There he was engaged briefly in the grain trade before taking a position as cashier at a bank. Sarah Marckley was born in Alexandria, Virginia to William Marckley and Sarah Allison. The Marckley family eventually moved to Davenport, where William carried on a small housing business.

Henry and Rosa Carl Oberholtzer were married in 1882 and had one other son, Frank, born in 1886. Frank died in 1891 and Henry and Rosa separated soon afterward. Ernest apparently never saw his father again. Rosa and her son lived in the Ernest Carl home until Carl's death in 1900. Ernest Oberholtzer attended elementary and secondary schools in Davenport. At age eleven he began playing the violin, an interest he pursued all his life. In the spring of 1900 he suffered a severe siege of rheumatic fever and doctors advised him to avoid all strenuous activities.

On the recommendation of Davenport friends, Oberholtzer attended Harvard University, 1903-1907, receiving a bachelor of arts degree. He stayed on for one year of graduate study in landscape architecture under Professor Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. While at Harvard, Oberholtzer became close friends with Conrad Aiken and Samuel Eliot Morison. In the summer of 1908 he accompanied Aiken on a bicycle tour of England and Scotland.

Oberholtzer made his first trip to the Minnesota-Ontario border lakes in 1906, a short trip out of Ely with his Davenport and Harvard friend Harry French. In 1909 he took his first extended canoe voyage through the border lakes and the Rainy Lake watershed, traveling 3,000 miles that summer. Arthur Hawkes, Canadian journalist and publicity agent for the Canadian Northern Railway, arranged for the company to purchase Oberholtzer's notes and photos for use in its promotional material. After this trip, Oberholtzer briefly served as editor of a newspaper in Moline, Illinois.

In the summer of 1910 Oberholtzer resumed his exploration of the border lakes, traveling for much of the time with Billy Magee, an Ojibwe Indian from Mine Centre, Ontario. When Oberholtzer returned to Rainer in late October, he found an invitation from Harry French to accompany him on a trip to Europe. Oberholtzer spent some time in London at the British Museum studying accounts of the exploration of the border lakes area and the Canadian "Barren Lands." The discovery of geographer J. B. Tyrrell's account of a trip through the Barrens fired Oberholtzer's ambition to make a similar journey. While in England Oberholtzer also presented a series of lectures/lantern slide shows based on his 1909 canoe trip, and lectured to the Zoological Society of London "On the Habits of Moose." In 1911 Oberholtzer served as American vice-consul in Hanover, Germany.

The spring of 1912 found Oberholtzer at Rainy Lake once again. He had wired the Mine Centre post office asking if Billy Magee would accompany him on a canoe trip to Hudson Bay. Billy wired back simply: "Guess ready go end earth." On June 26 Oberholtzer and Magee left The Pas, Manitoba, in a canvas canoe, embarking on a five-month trip that would take them through Nueltin Lake and the Thlewiaza River, Northwest Territories. Oberholtzer kept a detailed journal of the trip.

During the period from 1908 to 1915, Oberholtzer wrote a number of articles and short stories, some under the name Ernest Carliowa. Most of the stories were of the "boys adventure" genre and several were published by Youth's Companion and similar magazines. Many of the stories and articles were based on his canoe trip experiences.

In 1913 Oberholtzer moved to Rainy Lake permanently. At first he camped on various islands during the summers and lived in a houseboat on shore during the winter. About 1916 he began working for William P. Hapgood, owner of a group of islands near Ranier. Eventually he became a partner in Hapgood's project to develop the islands for agriculture and as a tourist camp. Oberholtzer was to landscape the largest island and supervise construction of buildings, clearing the center of the island for farming and preserving the shoreline for wilderness campsites. Owing to reverses in Hapgood's business, the venture was abandoned in the early 1920s.

Oberholtzer purchased one of Hapgood's islands, "The Mallard," in 1922. With the aid of local craftsman Emil Johnson, he began constructing a series of buildings that utilized native materials and conformed to the natural landscape. Given names like "Cedarbark House," "The Bird House," and "Old Man River Cabin," these marvels of native architecture served as home for Oberholtzer, his mother, and his many guests. Rosa Oberholtzer joined Ernest at Rainy Lake in 1916 and lived there until her death in 1929.

Summer generally brought a steady stream of visitors to The Mallard. Oberholtzer entertained his guests with canoe trips, violin concerts, and his gift for storytelling. He often arranged for his friends' sons and other boys to stay at The Mallard and accompany him on canoe trips.

In 1925 Oberholtzer became aware of industrialist Edward W. Backus' plans to construct a series of dams to harness the Rainy Lake watershed for power generation and industrial development. Oberholtzer and others spoke in opposition to the Backus plan at a hearing of the International Joint Commission held at International Falls in September 1925. In 1927 Oberholtzer was invited to a secret meeting with Minneapolis businessmen who were organizing opposition to Backus' activities. The result of this and subsequent meetings was the formation in 1928 of the Quetico-Superior Council, with Oberholtzer as president. The Council's program called for preserving the wilderness character of the boundary lakes area by setting aside Quetico Provincial Park, Superior National Forest, and parts of the Rainy Lake watershed as an international park.

Oberholtzer's activities for the council included carrying on a voluminous correspondence, lobbying Congress and the Minnesota legislature, testifying before the International Joint Commission and other bodies, and building public support for the council's program. In addition, he made frequent canoe trips to gather first-hand information on developments in the Quetico-Superior area.

In 1934 President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the President's Quetico-Superior Committee to advise and coordinate government activity concerning the Quetico-Superior area. Oberholtzer was its first chairman, and served as a member until 1968.

Oberholtzer was one of the founding members of the Wilderness Society and served on that organization's executive council from its inception in 1937 until 1967.

Throughout his life at Rainy Lake, Oberholtzer maintained a deep interest in and affection for the Ojibwe Indians of the border lakes, especially Billy Magee's family and band from the Mine Centre area. He visited their camps frequently and they often stopped at The Mallard. Oberholtzer spoke fluent Ojibwe and was a serious student of their culture. As a young man he had been so eager to collect their lore that the Ojibwe named him "Atisokan," meaning "legend."

Ernest Oberholtzer, who never married, died without heirs in 1977 after an extended period of poor health. Following his death the children and grandchildren of his old Indian friends gathered at his Mallard home, made medicine, and placed a protective and reverential spell over the island.

From the guide to the Ernest C. Oberholtzer papers., 1854-[198-]., (Minnesota Historical Society)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Sigurd F. Olson papers., 1920s-1989. Minnesota Historical Society
creatorOf United States. President's Quetico-Superior Committee. Committee records, 1927-1987. Minnesota Historical Society, Division of Archives and Manuscripts
referencedIn McLean, Effie Falconer, 1892-. Grand Portage history, 1929, 1931. Minnesota Historical Society, Division of Archives and Manuscripts
referencedIn Minnesota. Attorney General. Case files concerning international boundary flowage, 1908-1942. Minnesota Historical Society, Division of Archives and Manuscripts
creatorOf Ueland, Brenda. Brenda Ueland and family papers, 1857-1993. Minnesota Historical Society Library
creatorOf Minnesota. Attorney General. Highway 61 relocation file, 1935-1943. Minnesota Historical Society, Division of Archives and Manuscripts
creatorOf Oberholtzer, Ernest C. (Ernest Carl), 1884-1977,. Oral history interviews with Ernest C. Oberholtzer, 1948-1968. Minnesota Historical Society Library
referencedIn Winston, Elizabeth M., 1905-2000. Elizabeth M. Winston papers, 1928-1992 (bulk 1973-1979). Minnesota Historical Society, Division of Archives and Manuscripts
referencedIn Robert Marshall Papers, 1908-1939 Bancroft Library
creatorOf Quetico-Superior Council. Quetico-Superior Council records, 1906-1967 (bulk 1927-1950). Minnesota Historical Society Library
creatorOf Bagley, William Richardson, b. 1870. William Richardson Bagley papers, 1923-1972. Minnesota Historical Society Library
referencedIn Wilderness Society (U.S.). Wilderness Society records. Series 1, Governing Council, 1917-1999. Denver Public Library, Central Library
creatorOf Minnesota Emergency Conservation Committee. MECC records, 1927-1974. Minnesota Historical Society, Division of Archives and Manuscripts
referencedIn Quetico-Superior Council. Pamphlets relating to the Quetico-Superior area in Minnesota, 1931- Minnesota Historical Society Library
creatorOf Albright, Horace M. (Horace Marden), 1890-1987. Isle Royale papers, 1885-1955 (bulk 1921-1946). University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library
referencedIn Kobbe, Philip. The Quetico-Superior story research project, 1966 October 6. Minnesota Historical Society Library
referencedIn Elizabeth M. Winston papers., 1928-1992 (bulk 1973-1979). Minnesota Historical Society
creatorOf Christie, James C., 1811-1890. James C. Christie and family papers, 1823-1975 (bulk 1861-1920). Minnesota Historical Society Library
creatorOf Friends of the Wilderness. Friends of the Wilderness records, 1917-1981. Minnesota Historical Society Library
referencedIn Quetico-Superior Council records., 1906-1967. Minnesota Historical Society
creatorOf Olson, Sigurd F., 1899-1982. Sigurd F. Olson papers, 1920s-1989. Minnesota Historical Society, Division of Archives and Manuscripts
creatorOf Wallace, Tom, 1874-1961. Tom Wallace papers, 1925-1960. The Filson Historical Society
referencedIn Gene Ritchie Monahan and family papers., 1884-1993. Minnesota Historical Society
creatorOf Ernest C Oberholtzer collection., [193-]-1960. Minnesota Historical Society
creatorOf Kelly, Charles A., 1932-. Charles A. Kelly Papers, 1936-2008. Minnesota Historical Society Library
referencedIn Committee records., 1927-1987. Minnesota Historical Society
creatorOf Oral history interviews with Ernest C. Oberholtzer., 1948-1964. Minnesota Historical Society
referencedIn John Edwin Bakeless papers, 1913-1977 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
creatorOf Ernest C. Oberholtzer papers., 1854-[198-]. Minnesota Historical Society
referencedIn James C. Christie and family papers., 1823-1975 (bulk 1861-1920). Minnesota Historical Society
referencedIn Marshall, Robert, 1901-1939. Robert Marshall papers, 1908-1939. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Morison, Samuel Eliot, 1887-1976. Papers of Samuel Eliot Morison, 1807-1976 (inclusive). Harvard University, Archives
creatorOf Oberholtzer, Ernest. Oberholtzer, Ernest : [photography bio file]. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas J. Watson Library
creatorOf Monahan, Gene Ritchie. Gene Ritchie Monahan and family papers, 1884-1993. Minnesota Historical Society Library
creatorOf Nolan, W. I. (William Ignatius), 1874-1943. W. I. Nolan papers, 1900-1943. Minnesota Historical Society Library
referencedIn Brenda Ueland and family papers., 1857-1993. Minnesota Historical Society
referencedIn William Richardson Bagley papers., 1923-1972. Minnesota Historical Society
referencedIn Isle Royale papers, 1885-1955, 1921-1946 Bentley Historica Library University of Michigan
referencedIn Charles A Kelly Papers., 1936-2008. Minnesota Historical Society
referencedIn Wilderness Society (U.S.). Wilderness Society records. Series 2, Administration, 1874-2002. Denver Public Library, Central Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Andrews, Frances, 1885-1961, person
associatedWith Backus, Edward Wellington, 1860-1934. person
associatedWith Bagley, William R., 1870- person
associatedWith Bagley, William Richardson, b. 1870. person
associatedWith Bakeless, John Edwin, 1894- person
associatedWith Christie, James C., 1811-1890. person
associatedWith Detroit News. corporateBody
associatedWith Fridley, Russell W., person
associatedWith Friends of the Wilderness. corporateBody
associatedWith Friends of the Wilderness. corporateBody
associatedWith Hall, Ted. person
associatedWith Hart, Evan A., 1913-1964, person
associatedWith Heffelfinger, Pete, person
associatedWith Heffelfinger, Pete, interviewer. person
associatedWith International Joint Commission. corporateBody
associatedWith Izaak Walton League of America. corporateBody
associatedWith Kane, Lucile M., person
associatedWith Kane, Lucile M., interviewer. person
associatedWith Kelly, Charles A., 1932-. person
associatedWith Kobbe, Philip. person
associatedWith Magee, Billy. person
associatedWith Marshall, Robert, 1901-1939. person
associatedWith McLean, Effie Falconer, 1892- person
associatedWith Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company. corporateBody
associatedWith Minnesota and Ontario Power Co. corporateBody
associatedWith Minnesota. Attorney General. corporateBody
associatedWith Minnesota Emergency Conservation Committee. corporateBody
associatedWith Minnesota Power and Light Company. corporateBody
associatedWith Monahan, Gene Ritchie, person
associatedWith Monahan, George, person
associatedWith Monahan, Robert Hugh. person
associatedWith Morison, Samuel Eliot, 1887-1976. person
associatedWith Mowat, Farley. person
associatedWith Murie, Margaret E. person
associatedWith Murie, Olaus Johan, 1889-1963 person
associatedWith Nadel, Michael. person
associatedWith Nagle, Mary Dunning, person
associatedWith National Audubon Society. corporateBody
associatedWith Nolan, W. I. (William Ignatius), 1874-1943. person
associatedWith Oberholtzer family. family
associatedWith O'Hearn, Donald P. person
associatedWith Olson, Sigurd F., 1899-1982. person
associatedWith Parkhurst, Grace, ca. 1860-1956 person
associatedWith Quetico-Superior Council. corporateBody
associatedWith Quetico-Superior Council. corporateBody
associatedWith Quetico-Superior Council. corporateBody
associatedWith Roberts, Horace. person
associatedWith Rutstrum, Calvin. person
associatedWith Selke, George (George Albert), 1867-1958 person
associatedWith Spelletich, Kalman. person
associatedWith Stanley, Augustus Owsley, 1867-1958 person
associatedWith Stiles, Bert, 1920 or 21-1944. person
associatedWith Szarkowski, John. person
associatedWith Ueland, Brenda. person
associatedWith United States. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. President's Quetico-Superior Committee. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. President's Quetico-Superior Committee. corporateBody
associatedWith Wallace, Tom, 1874-1961. person
associatedWith Wilderness Society. corporateBody
associatedWith Wilderness Society (U.S.) corporateBody
associatedWith Winston, Elizabeth M., 1905-2000. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Big Turtle River (Ont.)
Rainy Lake (Minn. and Ont.)
Boundary Waters Canoe Area (Minn.)
Voyageurs National Park (Minn.).
Quetico-Superior Area (Ont.-Minn.).
Voyageurs National Park (Minn.)
Quetico-Superior Country (Ont. and Minn.)
Minnesota
Ontario
Quetico-Superior Country (Ont. and Minn.)
Boundary Waters Canoe Area (Minn.).
Subject
Canoes and canoeing
Conservation of natural resources
Wild rice--Processing--Quetico--Superior Country (Ont. and Minn.)
Timber--Minnesota
Forest reserves--Airspace utilization
Dams--Environmental aspects--Minnesota, North Central
Environmentalists
Forests and forestry--Minnesota--Flood damage
Logging--Law and legislation--Minnesota
Forest conservation
Roads--Minnesota, North Central--Location
Conservation of natural resources--Legislation
Hydroelectric power plants--Minnesota
Lakes--Minnesota--Regulation
Conservation of natural resources--Ontario
Ojibwa Indians
Animals--Quetico--Superior Country (Ont. and Minn.)
Environmental policy
Amateur films
Wild rice--Harvesting--Quetico--Superior Country (Ont. and Minn.)
Photography
Conservation of natural resources--International cooperation
Conservationists--Minnesota. Environmentalists--Minnesota
Conservation of natural resources--Minnesota
Fishing--Quetico--Superior Country (Ont. and Minn.)
Water resources development--Minnesota
Moose
Canoes and canoeing--Quetico--Superior Country (Ont. and Minn.)
Wilderness areas
Conservationists
Bicycle touring--Great Britain
Ojibwa Indians--Social life and customs--20th century
Forest roads--Minnesota
Forest reserves--Multiple use
Forest conservation--Minnesota. Wilderness areas--Minnesota
Water-rights--Minnesota
Occupation
Photographers
Activity

Person

Birth 1884-02-06

Death 1977-06-06

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