'Read With Me' Encore: Return to Wake Robin
Editor's note: Our original interview with Marnie Mamminga was published in June, 2013. The author returned to the WNIJ studios in July, 2018, to add the video excerpt below.
450 miles. That's the distance Marnie Mamminga's family traveled every summer from suburban Chicago to their cabin in northwest Wisconsin.
Mamminga recalls the cabin, and the long journey it took to get there, in her memoir Return to Wake Robin: One Cabin in the Heyday of Northwoods Resorts.
Her book is our first encore Read With Me selection.
In the 1950s, America's Interstate highways weren't completed, so Illinois families headed "up north" drove rural roads for much of the trip.
For young Marnie, that meant nine hours packed inside a station wagon loaded with suitcases, and topped with a canoe tied to the car with rope.
The human cargo included a dad, a mom, the future author, and four siblings:
"Got off me!" "Move over!" "You Smell!" All of the above became our continual backseat whines. "Knock it off!" our father commanded.
For. Nine. Hours. More than once, Mamminga recalls, they got a flat tire and had to unpack the car to free the spare. But before they could jack up the car, they had to untie the canoe. Invariably, the knots on the rope had grown tighter during the trip.
For all the inconvenience, Mamminga insists their destination was worth the torturous journey. "It was like going to the land of Oz," she says. "You had forests and lakes and wildlife. Every night you heard the haunting music of the loons and the occasional call of a wolf."
The cabin, of course, is the book's centerpiece. Built by her grandfather in 1929, Wake Robin was made of tamarack logs and named after a white wildflower that grows in the woods. The author's grandmother filled it with log furniture, kerosene lamps, metal beds and Spode china -- all of which remain. Over the years, Mamminga says, they made limited improvements such as adding electricity in the 1950s and a telephone in the 1980s.
You'll find no big screen TVs here. No DVDs or video games, and don't even ask about Internet service. As Mamminga writes in the book's Epilogue, they insist on keeping it rustic:
Some might say we are overly sentimental, that we cling to a vanished era, that the cabin is a museum to the past. But I think not. There is a wonderful authenticity in being surrounded by living history, to know that those who loved and laughed before us shared the same simple joys and pleasures. Not only do we relish these treasured charms, but we also know from experience that it is all we want and need.
The Heyday in the book's subtitle refers to a time stretching from the 1930s through the 1960s when vacation lodges were a popular destination for families. "In our chain of lakes," she says, "there were at least 13 resorts, and they were affordable."
In an interview with WNIJ, Mamminga cited figures from a University of Wisconsin study from 1949: "In that year 1,125,000 visitors came to Wisconsin. 53 percent of them came from the Chicago area, and the average stay was 20 days."
The author says all that changed after the 1960s, when cheaper air travel made trips to Hawaii and the Caribbean more popular. "Suddenly it didn't seem so exotic to go to Wisconsin," she says. "Soon the resorts were torn down or turned into condos."
A few resorts remain on Mamminga's chain of lakes. The old lodge that predates Wake Robin is under new ownership. In recent years, Mamminga's family built a new cabin across the lake from the original one, but she and her family still stay at Wake Robin.
Return to Wake Robin is published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press which also published Mamminga's collection On a Clear Night: Essays from the Heartland.