By David Horst, firstname.lastname@example.org
DE PERE -- Author Martha Greene Phillips is extraordinarily attached to history.
Her father was 79 when she was born. She is just one generation removed from a man who was alive as the Civil War was ending and served in the Spanish-American War.
|Martha Greene Phillips|
There’s an even stronger connection -- eight leather-bound journals of canoe excursions her father took with a group of friends, his sons and his sons’ friends. She turned the journals into Border Country, the Northwoods Canoe Journals of Howard Greene, 1906-1916, University of Minnesota Press. The 408-page history includes 366 photos, plus maps and sketches, and fully reproduces six of Howard’s journals, with summaries of the other two.
She described the book and her father’s adventures in a presentation at the North East Wisconsin Paddlers annual meeting Saturday (Jan. 27) at Legends in De Pere. NEWP (www.wisconsinpaddlers.com) is a nonprofit dedicated to advancing paddle sport education and safety and the sponsor of kayaking instruction and an annual series of public paddles.
Howard Greene, born in 1865, ran a wholesale drug company in Milwaukee. In his day, that meant dealing mostly with herbs and other botanicals. His release from the rigors of running a business was to take trips into nature. Three or four men and four to eight boys, paddling off into the wilderness for four weeks.
Howard – or Dad, as everyone in “The Gang” on the trips called him – shot photographs and took notes throughout the trips and produced leather-bound journals for each participant. The trips included:
- Wisconsin River, Wis. (1906)
- St. Croix River, Wis. (1907)
- Presque Isle River, Mich. (1909)
- Rainy Lake Region – Ely to Ranier, Minn. (1910)
- Dawson Trail, Canada (1911)
- Pigeon River, Duluth, Minn. (1914)
- Tower to Ranier, Minn. (1915)
- Chippewa River, Wis. (1916)
In Greene’s day, photographing nature was nothing like pointing a digital camera and making it work with Photoshop later. He processed 4-by-8-inch negatives, and even glass plates, out on the river banks.
Some of the boys participating in the trips were Phillips’ half-brothers. There’s no way girls would have been included, but when Marti read of their adventures, “I was so envious of the boys,” she said. Their experience was one of total freedom in nature.
She knew about the journals growing up. They were almost revered in the household.
“There was a lore in the family,” Marti said. “My dad wrote very well.”
Marti was 13 when her father died at age 93. He had been a very involved father, she said, so her five years of work with the journals only confirmed for her that he was the same man in his younger years, rather than revealing the man to her.
“I wasn’t looking for that,” she said.
The journals featured other characters she enjoyed getting to know.
There was Doc, a gynecologist who has an avid hunter and collected art. One of her half-brothers grew up to run for governor and another boy became a prominent Chicago lawyer. Carl, another of her half-brothers, went off to World War I, suffered what was then called “shell shock” and never fully recovered his sanity.
Marti makes the distinction that these were not the kind of trips when men of privilege took guides and servants into the woods and came back to the club to brag about bagging a moose. Howard’s gang did take a logging camp cook along, but their adventures were self-reliant.
They engaged farmers with teams and wagons at some of the portages. As educated men, the group knew about plant identification. They also recorded the species of birds and other animals they saw. In one four-week wilderness trip they encountered only one deer, but saw many moose.
A list prepared for a customs check for a trip into Canada details what their menu was like. Items on the list included three pounds of coffee, four pounds of tea, 10 pounds of navy beans, two boxes of chocolate, 30 pounds of bacon, a dozen cans of Underwood devilled tongue, 50 pounds of oleomargerine and 25 pounds of California prunes. They carried wool blankets for bed rolls. Sleeping bags were just starting to be available. Their canvas tents had no floors or mosquito netting. They carried shellac and white lead to patch their canvas canoes.
Marti did substantial research just to understand some of the terminology of the day. They spoke of eating dynamite. That turned out to be sort of a de-watered pea soup stuffed into sausage skins, giving them the appearance of a stick of dynamite. It was kind of the power bar of its day.
She praised the job the University of Minnesota press did in designing and laying out the $40 book, but also owes a debt to the Wisconsin Historical Society. One of her brothers had accumulated the photographic negatives and was making prints. A fire at his house destroyed almost all of the negatives. The Wisconsin Historical Society agreed to shoot all of the available prints to make them available for printing.
She said publishing her father’s collection verified her feeling that the journals were important and historically influential. Her father summed it up this way:
“Experience in fields, camps, and sundry places has taught me that the best form of recuperation for a tired mind and body is to break loose from the usual manner of life and to go away with men who live outdoors in the great open places where the postman does not come. … I admit that in the years since our last camps on Lake Superior, I had grown weary, I wanted to go to places not clearly marked between night rests, the distance and a day’s travel by horse and pack train.”