Sand Island: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun



The Happy Family


"Would you folks want these for your collection?"

The inquiry came to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore headquarters from Kent Olson of Buffalo, Minnesota.

Olson, a frequent visitor to Bayfield, Wisconsin and the Apostle Islands, had stumbled across a pair of photo albums while browsing at an antique store. Together, they contained nearly six hundred photographs, ranging in date from around 1913 through the early 1940s. Some pictures showed Twin Cities scenes and some were travel snaps, but the largest group depicted summer life on Sand Island.

Suspecting that the photographs might have historic significance, Olson contacted the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore to describe his find, and ask if the albums might be of any value to the park's collection. The answer was an enthusiastic, "Yes!" so Olson, as generous as he was alert, returned to the store and bought the two volumes for donation to the park.

Flipping through the albums, one immediately notices how many of the pages are filled with photos of a young woman and her friends working hard at having fun. They are swimming, boating, hiking, and climbing trees on summer afternoons. When daylight fades, they gather by the fireplace, laughing, talking and strumming the ukuleles that were the height of cool in 1922.

And they stay up late; one fireside photo is simply labeled, "3 a.m. and happy."


At The Bayfield Station

The girls - and they would have used that term for themselves - traveled to their island holiday by train and boat, lugging trunks, wearing dresses and cumbersome hats. Photos of the guests arriving in an open boat show them sitting stiffly in city clothes, a jarring contrast to the grizzled fisherman giving them a lift.

Things changed when feet touched Sand Island. First, they ditched the fancy duds. Off went the dresses and every woman climbed into a pair of pants. Trousers were the uniform of the day, along with sturdy boots.


Jo At Her Best


With freedom to move - and no men around to lecture them on "the right way" to do things - the girls let loose. They chopped wood and climbed on haystacks. They horsed around with farm implements (two laughing women play Clydesdale for the camera). They rested on the shore and gazed at the lake, arms draped around shoulders in casual affection. One sequence shows a hike around the island's circumference: a rugged, 10-mile trip that would challenge any trekker.

Except for the album's owner, we don't know much about these women at all. Penciled labels give modest hints, but almost entirely on a first-name basis. There's Tina and Jo and Dodie and Minnie - hip names in the flapper era. Some preferred nicknames like "Oscar" and "Huck."

Why Tina!


Names and nicknames are all we know about them … except, of course, about their idea of a good time. That comes through clearly. The photos in the album give a vivid glimpse of just how these young women played and relaxed at their island getaway, far from the outside world, where they could be themselves away from society and its rigid rules.

Two In A Haystack


The albums, it turns out, belonged to a brother and sister, Walton and Gertrude Wellisch - "Bun" and "Gert" to friends - children of Robert Wellisch, a wealthy St. Paul manufacturer. In the early years of the 20th century, the Wellisch family spent several summers on Madeline Island, but found that they felt out of place among the Nebraskans who dominated that community.

In 1913, Robert Wellisch joined with several other Twin Cities businessmen to build an island retreat of their own: the imposing, Adirondack-style West Bay Lodge on Sand Island.

West Bay Lodge


The earliest photos in the albums show this magnificent building under construction. Its stunning appearance is hardly surprising: Among the West Bay Club members were two of the Twin Cities' best- known architects. Charles Buechner and Henry Orth are renowned today for courthouses, department stores and theaters, but the lodge that they designed for themselves and their friends is just as grand in its rustic way.

Gert's album is packed with photographs from the West Bay Lodge, though her time there was relatively brief. In 1922, the West Bay Club dissolved, and her father sold his share to another member. A strong-willed young adult by this time, Gertrude Wellisch was not ready to to say goodbye to Sand Island, and she did something about it. Something imaginative.



Back home in St. Paul

Continue to Part Two


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