Northwoods Pride – Starts and Grows

by Bill Tefft

I was born in 1947 and spent my childhood and school years living less that a small-town block from the banks of the St. Joseph River in Michigan. The river, the town, my family, and the people were and are an integral part of who I am today. Next month I will return to Michigan to connect as one of the older community members of my family, the town, the river, and the people.
Next month, the river will provide my paddle connection from its headwaters to my hometown and on to my brother’s family before reaching Lake Michigan. I have lived in many watersheds and explored the rivers there during my life before living the past 45 years of my life in Ely. Exploring St. Joseph River is connecting to over 200 plus miles of its natural history and cultural history.
Living in the Arrowhead of Minnesota close to the divide north of Virginia where three of North America’s major watersheds flow out across the continent has been symbolic. Lives, like the rivers and watersheds, take in, transform, and play out all that flows through them.
Appreciation of northeastern Minnesota begins at some point after childbirth. Growing up here may begin then or it may grow out of visiting or living here that begins later. For me it began during my college years with reading about this region. I probably would not have arrived here with my family in 1977 if not for receiving a teaching position in a new degree program at Vermilion Community College. It seemed that Ely was possibly the one place that I knew most about without ever having visited it.
Then life took over and people demonstrated their deep connections. Many of the people, both lifelong and recent residents, I met through work at Vermilion Community College and summer work at the Kawishiwi Ranger District and Soudan Underground State Park. Everything in a region of small communities is part of their larger history, connection to the land and connection to each other.
The personal histories go back to before the existence of Tower, Soudan, Ely and Winton, the surrounding townships. That history contains the story of national forests, provincial parks, national parks, reservations, state parks, state forests, and other public lands. That history includes local institutions like Ely Junior College started in 1922 which had become Vermilion Community College when it moved and before I arrived. Now after its 100 years of service to the area and a much larger geographic pool of students, it is transforming into the Vermilion Campus of Minnesota North College.
I love learning about the flow and changes occurring with time. By following the lives and stories of people, I learn from students, faculty, residents, visitors, and the broader community of connections to the Ely Area. A short-term or long-term on life in the Arrowhead Region, the Northwoods, builds a wealth of human resources of common connection to the history of the land.
I am still hungry, especially during this 100th Anniversary year, to learn more. Please share with me and this community, your knowledge of any aspect of the college – one of Ely’s many valuable resources recognized locally and elsewhere.
Bill can be reached at