Documenting an Historic Landscape
Preservation professionals gathered during the summer of 2017 for a second year at Mallard Island on Rainy Lake Minnesota to document the cultural landscape of Ernest Oberholtzer’s island estate. Ober, as he was known, was instrumental in the battle to preserve the wilderness along the international border between Ontario and Minnesota. To learn more about last year’s work on the island click here.
This year’s team included disciplines of landscape architecture, archeology, and history. Fieldwork included documentation of an arched stone bridge and stone retaining walls, inventory of island vegetation, confirmation of the location of an historic building site; and a window-survey of the Old Man River House, Ober’s residence.
Fred Quivik, a retired history and preservation professor at Michigan Technology University, specializing in the history of technology, and Sheena D. Simmons, alumna of the University of Florida with an MS in Forest Conservation and a Graduate Certificate in Historic Preservation, documented the 1949 stone bridge and conducted a general assessment of its structural condition.
They also documented the stone retaining walls surrounding the 1.5 acre island. Ober constructed the retaining walls to widen the island’s livable space and provide areas to grow produce and ornamental gardens. The pair measured the height of the stone walls both above and below the water line, and assessed the walls’ physical conditions. Remarkably, the tallest wall measured seven feet high, with five feet extending below the water line.
John Koepke, professor of landscape architecture at University of Minnesota and Xuan Jin, a master of landscape architecture student at University of Michigan, inventoried the island vegetation. Several species found on the island, both ornamental plants and native trees, are known to have been planted by Ober, verified through documents in the Ernest C. Oberholtzer archival collection at the Minnesota Historical Society.
Teresa Martin, an archeologist with Minnesota Department of Transportation and David Driapsa of David J Driapsa Landscape Architecture, located and recorded a set of concrete steps at the site of a small building discovered during archival research the previous summer. The building is depicted on both a c. 1940s insurance map and in several historic photographs; however, its purpose remains to be determined.
Another interesting project was an inventory of windows in Old Man River House conducted by Sheena Simmons and Xuan Jin. The three-and-a-half-story house is the largest building on the island, built by Ober for his year-round home and office, from which he wrote hundreds of letters related to his conservation work. Analysis of window survey, when complete, will shed light on the evolution of the building, from its humble beginnings in the early 1930s to the major structure it became later in the decade.
Our work has continued off island. David Driapsa is digitizing into AutoCAD the stone walls and stone bridge documentation and the vegetation inventory. These drawings, along with drawings already digitized from last year’s fieldwork will amend the original Mallard Island Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS MN-06) submitted to the Library of Congress in 2011. Additionally, Driapsa and research partner Deborah Dietrich-Smith are continuing an extensive project initiated last summer to document the evolution of Mallard Island’s cultural landscape and to understand the broader context of Ober’s life on Rainy Lake.