Busy Ely is Linda Fryer’s lasting legacy

by Tom Coombe
Echo editor
Winter’s grip on the Ely area was extraordinarily clear last Saturday.
Snow was piled high and a step outside during the morning brought the greeting of subzero temperatures. Weather forecasts that morning proved to be accurate, with the coming days bringing both another onslaught of snow, followed by a return to the deep freeze and even a wind-chill warning or two.
A drive around town offered further evidence.
Covid and Omicron be damned, both locals and visitors were getting out and about. Frozen lakes were the destination for some as the trout opener ushered in the start of another local tradition.
Snowmobiles, and pickups or suburbans hauling snowmobiles, could be seen at gas stations.
People were also out and about in advance of youth basketball and hockey games, skiing on area trails, and those in Ely for dogsled excursions.
That night, more than one local lodging establishment posted “No Vacancy” signs and a trip to the Grand Ely Lodge for dinner was preceded by a long walk to the building from a parking spot near the Pioneer Mine site. That’s because the parking lot at the GEL was completely full.
Sitting down to dinner that night, it was hard not to think about the scene that day, and its link to recent and shocking news that Linda Fryer had passed away.
A former Ely business owner, Linda was probably best known for her decades in charge of the Ely Chamber of Commerce, where her passion for Ely and desire to bring visitors to the community knew no bounds.
Under Linda’s watch, the Ely Chamber made remarkable strides as a vehicle to drive traffic into the community and the area’s motels and resorts, restaurants and bars, outfitters and downtown business district.
The means were both traditional and unique.
Sport shows and billboards, advertising in major metropolitan areas such as Chicago, and alliances with outdoor writers and those who produced those Saturday morning fishing shows. If one tuned in during the 1990s or 2000s and encountered one of those TV fishing guides on an Ely lake, there’s a good chance Linda had a hand in making that happen.
Ely’s festivals took off during Linda’s tenure. Blueberry/Art weekend went from a couple dozen booths on a downtown avenue to an event that filled the park, launched a series of auxiliary events and seemed to bring people from every corner of the country.
Once the Blueberry/Art was well established, Linda turned her attention to the September Harvest Moon event, always looking for an angle that would bring a few more people to the park. I’ll never forget when she spoke, with infectious enthusiasm, about her plan for a series of stunt dog shows as part of the event. Sure enough, not long after the conversation one could stroll into the park and see captivated kids and adults taking in the show.
There were promotions. Those who’ve lived here awhile may remember when Ely was promoted to be the home of “Obsessive, Compulsive, Fishermen.”
There were many, in this corner included, who scoffed at more than a few of the April Fool’s campaigns. But one can’t argue with success. And every time a regional or national media outlet touted the April 1 jokes that Ely was being purchased by Canada, or would make a fictitious bid for the Summer Olympics, the community was getting attention. And that’s exactly what Linda wanted.
One of Linda’s most underrated skills was her diplomacy. As the head of Ely’s Chamber she walked a political tightrope, serving members who came from differing walks of life and opposing perspectives over Ely’s tourist industry, business culture and even its development future. In 2003, she was at the center of a political firestorm, when tourism destinations faced threats of cancellation over the city council’s ill-advised attempt to take a stand - that it ultimately rescinded - over war in Iraq.
Linda dealt with that and numerous other political footballs with grace and savvy. I knew her for decades and don’t have a clue of where she stood politically. That to me is the ultimate compliment.
The news last week of her passing came as a jolt and leaves another void in our community. Given an association in local media that now spans decades, it’s becoming more common to see or hear the news of the deaths of those who were key players in Ely in an earlier time. Linda’s passing follows that last month of Ely’s first woman mayor - Lolita Schnitzius - and the 2021 departure of longtime city clerk and former Winton mayor Lee Tessier. There have been many others as well, and it’s a sad indicator of time long-spent in Ely.
Linda’s work carries on in Ely. It’s ironic that on the same day the Echo included the announcement of Linda’s passing, a story on another page highlighted the recent work of Cindy Smyka and the Ely Tourism Bureau.
With a few new wrinkles, including advances that come with technology, a new logo, and more of a focus on new media, Cindy is leading an alliance that includes both the city and the Ely Chamber on a longstanding mission - promoting Ely as a vacation destination.
That indeed is a lasting tribute to Linda. Surely this winter and undoubtedly come summer, there will be more No Vacancy signs and filled parking lots in Ely.
And somewhere Linda will be smiling.