Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 20, 2021
When Bob Kruh, the retired dean of the graduate school at Kansas State University, sent me a congratulatory note on my
retirement last year, I was surprised as we hadn't spoken in some time. I mentioned being at our place in Northern Wisconsin
and he replied, "I wonder where you are in the North Woods ... because, years ago our family knew people in St Louis who owned
a girls' summer camp, Minne Wonka Lodge, at Three Lakes..."
Bingo! We are three miles from where the lodge was! The name was purported to be Native American for "Happy playground."
... my parents met there one summer in the early Twenties. My father was a major summer staffer, and my mother was the dietitian. They were married in 1924 - I was born in 1925. Later on, as little kids, my sister (younger) and I would be part of our family's summer visits, where we could play, swim, etc.
While the "small world" aspect struck immediately, it took longer to realize that his family's sojourn from Missouri to
Wisconsin was during the Great Depression. Weren't people struggling just to survive?
Psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman often references WYSIATI - What You See Is All There Is. In America, the mention of the 1930s only brings to mind three things: the Depression, the Dust Bowl and President Franklin Roosevelt. It seems like the whole story because it is the one told, retold and retold again.
My Freeland forefathers lived in sod houses in Western Kansas near the end of the nineteenth century. Poor people - that's what comes to mind ... poor people, eking out a living in a hot, dry, dusty place. But if they were so poor, how did they attend those large family reunions sprinkled across the Midwest that I have photos from? How did they manage to buy the photo supplies and cameras?
While some lived colorless lives in rural America or worked the mind-numbing factory jobs in big cities, why was it called the Gay Nineties? Who were all those people at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago? Two of them were husband Art's grandparents on their honeymoon. Some of those "poor" Freelands were there as well!
The Chautauqua craze had exploded during those same years, the name arising from the large gatherings on Chautauqua Lake in New York. City dwellers rushed there in the summer, not to relax, but to exercise and take in lectures featuring educated folks like William Jennings Bryant.
Dr. Frank Ewerhardt, a Sheboygan, Wisconsin native, attended the one in 1904. He had a physical education degree from Yale University and an M.D. degree from Washington University in St. Louis, where he also taught and studied the impact of physical activity on health. The culture and physical activity at the Chautauqua appealed to him.
Jessie Crankshaw and family had attended these gatherings for years. They were not rich. Her father, an Akron, Ohio, beat policeman with eight children, operated the baths. In 1904, Jessie and her mother Mary left in mid-July for New York. On Aug. 23rd, Frank and Jessie married. How can that be? I thought whirlwind courtships were a more modern thing!
I also think of 4-H and other camps as something of my youth, but Frank and Jessie opened Minne Wonka on Virgin Lake near Three Lakes in 1912. Cities were considered, with some justification, unhealthy places with unpaved streets, heating and cooking powered by smoky coal or charcoal, and streets befouled by those new-fangled automobiles. In this boys-only camp, the youngsters slept in tents, played games, canoed, and breathed the clean believed-to-be-health-giving pine air.
The Ewerhardts' St. Louis home was a stone's throw from Soldan High School where Kruh's dad would later teach chemistry. Leslie Lyon taught physics, but he and his wife Viola were most passionate about the outdoors. Their Michigan honeymoon was a canoe trip down the Au Sable, a river so wild there were no maps of its course.
How the Ewerhardt and Lyon families met is unknown, but the Lyons helped staff Minne Wonka in 1916. The Ewerhardts' corporation bought a hotel on Big Fork Lake to provide a place for the visiting parents of the boys to stay. But in 1921, it was converted into the Minne Wonka girls' camp.
This all seems like a tale from the 1950s. In the 1920s, wasn't Northern Wisconsin about lumbering and a place where Chicago gangsters went to hide out? The Lyons brought in young people working on college degrees as counselors and had nutritionists - like Kruh's mother - design the meals - meals served in a spacious mess hall.
At the start, all roads between St. Louis and Three Lakes were mud or gravel, so a chartered train transported the campers, picking up youngsters along the way. From Chicago, it traveled northward through Milwaukee and Green Bay and then northwest to Three Lakes, where wagons, in the early days, and buses, in later ones, completed their journey.
Campers enjoyed old friends and making new ones, while swimming in a crystal-clear lake, walking the trails of pine forests, canoeing, singing songs, engaging in various crafts, and occasionally bringing those from the two Minne Wonkas together for social events.
And unlike the camps of today, these lasted eight weeks!
Both camps eventually passed into other hands and then closed decades later, victims of the spiraling cost of liability insurance. But one sign of what they meant to the founders is the fact that while they worked at their "day jobs" in St. Louis, the Ewerhardts, Lyons and even some of their descendants are buried in the Three Lakes cemetery.
And my digging into Kruh's story highlighted the failings of WYSIATI. Thumbnail impressions of things both past and present often obscure a much richer reality.
Bob closed with:
It is such beautiful country. One of the things I enjoyed so much was our long walks in the pine woods, with the needle-cushioned forest floor. And the clear, starry nights. I hope it's still like that!
That made me smile. It's an impression that is still accurate!
Top row (l-r): Robert Kruh; Frank Ewerhardt; 730-mile rail trip from St. Louis to Three Lakes. When the camp opened, the same trip by automobile took 5 days; Building where meals were served was previously a hotel; hotel/eating facility is today a private home. Bottom-left: Minne Wonka campers in a "friendship circle" on the grounds. Right-middle: plaque in Three Lakes cemetery expressing gratitude to Ewerhardts for the impact the summers in Three Lakes had on their lives. Bottom-right: The Lyons created the "In a Nut Shell" advertising booklet shaped like a nut that provided the essential information for the parents of prospective campers. (photo sources in same order: Kansas State University, Newspapers.com, A. Vaughan, Milwaukee Public Library, A. Vaughan, Minne Wonka Facebook site, G. Freeland, Three Lakes Historical Society museum)