A story seldom told indeed

The thousands of people who visit the BWCA and Quetico are largely oblivious to the history that made those areas what they are today. A program at VCC Wednesday night shone some light on that history that continues to grow dimmer and dimmer.
Larry Thomforde along with his sons Eric and Steve did a fine job of telling the story of the creation of the Quetico-Superior. They used Newell Searle’s book as a basis but added plenty of additional info along the way.
To simplify, the area from Ely to International Falls could have taken a much different path. There was a plan put together by a man named Edward Backus who saw the flow of water from Basswood to Lake of the Woods as golden electricity.
Backus looked to put in dams along the way at Little Vermilion, Lac La Croix, Rebecca, Curtain, Basswood and Knife Lake to harness the power of the water and make electricity. His plan might’ve succeeded if not for the efforts of Ernest Oberholtzer and others who sought to preserve the area from development.
The battle was fought in Congress and courtrooms and in the end won by Oberholtzer. Backus was hit hard by the Great Depression and then again by the passage of legislation forbidding dams in the area.
But the battle to preserve the area continued on. There were successful resorts on lakes like Basswood and Crooked. They were unceremoniously expelled to create a man-made wilderness, despite thousands of years of use by man and a major logging boom in the early 1900s.
Thomforde and his sons gave both sides of the story to the over 100 gathered at VCC. In the hour-long presentation they attempted to cover more than 130 years of history.
The result was a realization the history is seldom told and that the gift of the BWCA and Quetico Park would be better understood if the story of how it came to be was shared with all.
There’s abundant stories to tell of how the BWCA was once the home to dozens of resorts and previously had been logged to provide the lumber to help build a country. Yet from some unknown reason, that history is covered up.
That’s the problem with a man-made wilderness. If you look at the facts and tell people what happened, there must be a great fear they won’t be able to fully enjoy what is there today.
That’s pure hogwash. The need for a BWCA history center that tells both sides of the story is as great today as it ever was. We are losing the people who can tell the stories first hand. Too many photos end up in the landfill instead of being preserved.
Even Searle who created a book filled with this history is not interested. Larry Thomforde contacted Searle and invited him to attend the presentation at VCC. His answer? “That’s a part of my life I’d just as soon forget.”
If you treasure the BWCA and want to help future generations understand the importance of it, then we all need to find a way to tell the story.
The Thomforde’s knowledge of the area involves a personal connection. They purchased property on Garden Lake that had been owned by Joe Perko who received it as part of a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service when Perko closed his resort on Crooked Lake.
The Thomfordes didn’t share the saddest part of the story. They have been in a battle for four years with the Forest Service after the agency moved a section corner and cut off access to the property. Despite pleas to Lake County and our federal representatives and senators, the Thomfordes hope for justice is fading faster than an August setting sun.
While their impartial telling of the seldom told story was well received Wednesday night, our hope is their sad tale can be heard and resolved soon.