Sand Island: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
"Would you folks want these for
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."
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
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
Except for the album's owner, we don't know much
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
Names and nicknames are all we know about them …
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.
The albums, it turns out, belonged to a brother and
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.
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