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An epic voyage to Whiteside Island

A picnic stop on Whiteside Island. (Photo by Eddy Gilmore)

The St. Louis River, on its meandering course, drains 3,634 square miles of watershed within six counties and two states. It's a fast-mover with a big job, serving as the largest U.S. tributary to Lake Superior.

Prior to contributing to the immense bowl that holds 10 percent of the world's fresh water, the Louie slows down and spreads out among 12,000 acres to form one of the largest freshwater estuaries on the planet. At times it can be difficult to distinguish where the water ends and the land begins, demonstrating that an estuary is more than simply the sum of its water.

The river infiltrates the mainland, creating large bays of unmatched beauty. Irregular fingers of land, numerous in number, reach into the river. Ground and water have moved in partnership here for millennia, creating unique estuarine wetland and aquatic habitats.

Islands of all shapes and sizes festoon these waters. Last month, a week after ice-out, I squeezed into a kayak and made my way out to investigate the largest of these islands at 358 acres: Clough Island.

While sitting atop all this water within a small, toy-like plastic boat, I thought of the ancient sturgeons beneath me. Growing to lengths in excess of 6 feet and living more than 100 years, some of these fish were alive when human activity on this island was in its heyday.

Maps name the island after its original owner, Judge Solon Clough, but it may be more properly referred to as Whiteside Island, after the family that owned it for nearly a century. This was the home and farm of a millionaire, Robert Whiteside, who made his fortune in timber, mining and oil.

A hundred years ago this island boasted what may have been the largest farm in the area. It produced 3,500 bushels of wheat in a single season, producing an enormous surplus while providing for the basic self-sufficiency of the island's caretakers, hired help and for the wealthy family who enjoyed it as a remote — and yet oh, so close — vacation home.

They kept pigs and 500 sheep, herded black angus cattle for meat, milked 40 brown Swiss milking cows, tended an enormous vegetable garden and even had their own racetrack upon which to train a full stable of racehorses.

Though electricity was fairly new to the area in the early 1900s, a copper cable laid from Smithville all the way to the island delivered 440 volts of electricity in order to support the various enterprises and to enable the building of a grand home complete with every modern convenience. They had indoor plumbing, a 600-foot deep well, electric lights and fine oak woodwork. They enjoyed a veranda that wrapped 50 feet around the house and provided fantastic views of the river, bays and Spirit Island in the distance.

A lovely little book, "The Whiteside Island Story" by Claire Schumacher, plumbs the stories of the people and place. On the very day of my adventure, I was pleased to obtain an autographed copy directly from the hands of the 88-year-old author herself.

She interviewed Whiteside's son in the late 1960s, spoke with the caretaker who lived out there until the house burned down in 1956 and passed along numerous other firsthand accounts. The caretaker's wife was still in anguish many years later over the loss of more than 1,000 quarts of vegetables grown and canned by her.

It was thrilling to walk among the ruins of the old house, descend into the ancient basement to discover the original water pipe and trace the foundation of the gigantic L-shaped barn that once dominated the landscape.

A sense of place permeates this river. It can be found in a rich history that goes back centuries, in the wildlife that abounds upon and around it, and in the stories and lives of the people who have settled here, past, present and future. This can, and should, include you.

This column was written as part of the “One River, Many Stories” project. For information go to www.onerivermn.com. A longer version of this story and more photos are available at www.eddygilmore.com.

Eddy Gilmore

Monthly Budgeteer columnist Eddy Gilmore is a freelance writer, father of twins and husband of one. Connect with Eddy at eddygilmore.com.

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