The Story Behind my Isle Royale Lighthouse Story

The Isle Royale Lighthouse on Menagerie Island. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

I recently had an article published in Lake Superior Magazine about a family of lighthouse keepers who spent their summers on a remote, rocky island that’s part of Isle Royale National Park. Here’s how the story (“Romancing the Stone”) came about.

Last December, I was hawking my books at a table at Fitger’s Bookstore in Duluth. Many holiday shoppers passed by, but one couple stopped to chat. Somehow, we got on the topic of Isle Royale, and I told them that my first novel was set on this island in Lake Superior.

The husband said something like, “Well, I’ve got a story for you. My ancestors were lighthouse keepers for two generations on Isle Royale.” The husband’s name was John Malone. His wife was LaRayne, and she mentioned they got engaged while on a trip to the “family’s lighthouse,” which was the Isle Royale Light on Menagerie Island. John mentioned that his lighthouse keeper great-grandfather had 11 children who lived out on the remote (and very small) island.

Although intrigued, I had plenty of story ideas in my head to keep me occupied for months. I told them I’d consider it but couldn’t promise anything.

But the more I thought about it afterward, the more interested I became in the story of the Malone Family. I checked with the Lake Superior Magazine editor to see if they’d ever featured a story about the Isle Royale Lighthouse and the Malone Family. She told me they hadn’t and that she would be interested in it.

I couldn’t find John Malone in the phonebook, but I was able to connect with him through social media. I reminded him who I was and told him I was interested in doing a story about his ancestors and family. On New Year’s Eve, he replied to me with his phone number. I called him to get more information so that I could pitch the story to the magazine.

Not long after, I pitched it, and the story was a go!

Then the work began. I was lucky that the Malones had a copy of a copy of the Isle Royale Lighthouse Keepers’ log, which they loaned me when I visited their home for an interview. Also, the National Park Service had done oral history interviews with two Malones a few decades ago. These Malones were now deceased, so those interviews were invaluable. I was able to combine those interviews with the ones I did with John.

After the last lighthouse keeper in the Malone Family quit his job on Isle Royale, he piloted yachts for the wealthy in Duluth. One of those families were the Congdons who built Glensheen Mansion, which is a tourist attraction now in the city. John Malone told me a tale about how his ancestor had been aboard the yacht when it sunk due to a fire. He had this great information (which is in my magazine story), but he didn’t think that the staff at Glensheen Mansion had heard the history.

It so happens that my daughter-in-law used to be a docent at the mansion and still has ties there. I consulted with her and she consulted with the staff at Glensheen to see what they knew about the sinking. It seemed as if a meeting between John and the mansion staff was in order, so I arranged it.

We met at the mansion and met with a Glensheen historian and the education manager. John got to tell his tale and I recorded it for my story. The mansion staff was excited to learn this new information. I hope they work it into the information that they provide to the public. And I think John was touched to have someone value the historic information he was privy to.

The Lake Superior Magazine editor only wanted a 1,200-word story, but I gave her more like a 2,000-word story. I apologized, saying the more I learned, the more there was to tell! But it paid off in the end because she dedicated much of that issue to maritime history.

Trying to sell books to people passing in a hallway can be depressing. I sometimes feel like one of those poor souls who stand on a street corner with a cardboard sign. My sign would say, “Will write for pay.” But this is one case where several good things came from putting myself out into the world.

Architectural drawings for the Isle Royale Lighthouse. This did not make it into my magazine story. Illustration courtesy of the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Isle Royale Light Building Proposal, ISRO Archives, ACC#ISRO-00999, Cat#ISRO 20175.

Meandering Through David Copperfield

I’m reading “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens in preparation for reading this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Demon Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver. Although it’s not a requirement to be familiar with Copperfield before reading Copperhead, the latter is based on former so I figure it can’t hurt.

Given my blog’s name, imagine my delight when, in the opening of Copperfield, I found a short treatise on meandering. David Copperfield was born with a caul (amniotic sack) around him. Back in the day, cauls were thought to have mystical properties, one of which was to protect whoever possessed it from death by drowning. They had value. David’s family sold the caul in a raffle. It was won by an old lady who died triumphantly in her bed years later at the age of 92. She was triumphant because she did not drown. But drowning would have been difficult for her even without a caul since she never went in or near the water except to cross a bridge.

Copperfield says, “Over her tea, to which she was extremely partial, she, to the last, expressed her indignation at the impiety of mariners and others who had the presumption to go ‘meandering’ about the world. It was in vain to represent to her that some conveniences, tea perhaps included, resulted from this objectionable practice. She always returned with greater emphasis and with and an instinctive knowledge of the strength of her objection: ‘Let us have no meandering!’”

That made me laugh. Good thing the dear departed lady is not alive to read my blog. She would surely find it objectionable.

I have been doing my share of meandering lately, thus my absence from this blog. I hope to write more soon about my adventures traveling around the state and culture of Wisconsin.

A Meandering Midwest Book Awards Finalist!

The book I wrote based on the best of these blog stories is a finalist for a Midwest Book Award. I can hardly believe it! “Meander North” was nominated by my publisher, Nodin Press, in the nature category. Two other books are finalists in that category also: one about Wisconsin rivers and lakes, and one about Iowa farmland.

I was surprised to see my book in the nature category. I think of it more as a memoir, but you’ve got to admit that the outdoors plays a big role in my life.

This is an annual competition organized by the Midwest Independent Publishers Association, which operates over a 12-state region. This year, they received 303 entries and 83 are finalists. Judges are booksellers, university staff, and librarians who are subject matter experts and collectively hail from the Midwest. Winning entries will be announced at a ceremony in Minneapolis in mid-June.

You can view all the finalists and purchase the books here.

I am a bit flabbergasted, but extremely honored just to be a finalist. I could not have produced the book without the help of Nodin Press, and my editors John Toren and Lacey Louwagie. Both of my editors are also bloggers. You can find their sites here:


John writes about arts, books, birds, and the outdoors


Lacey writes about books and the life of a writer. She has a freelance editing business, so if you’re in need, check her out.

Keep your fingers crossed!

Nicollet Island: A Story of Renewal and Friendship

This is the Bell of Two Friends on Nicollet Island in Minneapolis. We came across it during an impromptu walk around the park pavilion. See the rope hanging down over the archway? Ringing the bell it’s attached to signifies a prayer for world peace and continued friendship between the people of Minneapolis and their sister city, Ibaraki, Japan.

The sculpture was inspired by a 2,000-year-old terra cotta mold of a bronze bell, discovered in Ibaraki. We didn’t know all this when we rang the bell, but we could feel the friendship somehow.

Nicollet Island is supposedly the only inhabited island in the Mississippi River. I’ve had the chance to visit it on several occasions. Each time, I come away thinking that if I was forced to move from Duluth (probably at gunpoint, which is what it would take) and reside in the Twin Cities, I might be able to be happy on this island.

I love the historic feel of it, the energy of the river that runs on both sides, the roar of St. Anthony Falls, the green spaces, and old homes. My latest visit prompted me to read a book about the island (“Nicollet Island” by Christopher and Rushika February Hage). I learned that there used to be five other islands near it but once settlers arrived, two were filled in so that they joined the riverbank, two were destroyed when a lock and dam was built, and one eroded.

The view from underneath the Hennepin Avenue Bridge on Nicollet Island.

Before it was named for explorer Joseph Nicollet, the Dakota people called it “wita waste,” meaning beautiful island. They fished from its banks and tapped maple trees that covered it. Rites of transition from childhood to manhood were carried out there and the island was considered as a safe place for women to give birth. Plus, it had the added benefit of the sound of the falls to drown out the screaming. 😊

Waterpower from the falls proved irresistible to the settlers, who used it to run sawmills and flour mills. Once the home of the most fashionable and prominent Minneapolitans, the island changed drastically after a fire in 1893 that began by boys smoking at a Wagon Works. Eventually, rebuilding occurred in the form of a Catholic high school and a monastery. Once-elegant apartments were subdivided and occupied by pensioners and veterans. As the economy tanked during the Depression, the island became home to the homeless.

The Hennepin Ave Bridge in black and white.

In the 1950s, the city razed many buildings in the nearby Gateway District, forcing even more homeless people to the island. Then the razing eyes of city government turned toward the island, but the residents resisted.

In the 1960s and 70s, the island was a favorite with the counterculture. Musicians, artists, (dare I say writers?), and drug-users coexisted with the poor island residents. They did not want to be “improved” upon by city planners.

In 1971, St. Anthony Falls and the island were designated in the National Registry of Historic Places. A city preservation commission helped with a movement to preserve the island’s historic homes. Eventually, a city park was established on the site of vacant industrial land.

Now, people like Russ and I enjoy walking, biking, and running on the island. And we ring a bell in world friendship.

One of the island’s historic homes.

Wabasha Street Caves: Gangsters, Mushrooms, and Cheese

Russ and I meandered to the big city recently: i.e., the Twin Cities, i.e., Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. One of our stops was a tour of the Wabasha Street Caves in St. Paul.

This series of seven caves are in a sandstone/limestone bluff not far from the Mississippi River. They were dug in the 1850s to mine silica for making glass.

Our tour guide was named Lois. She began our tour not in the fancy entrance that leads to a refurbished part of the cave, but in a more primitive entrance, where we could see what the unfinished, original walls look like. While we stood in front of an entrance to a side cave, Lois explained that once the silica mining was over, the caves were used to store produce from off the river boats. Temperatures range from 50 to 55 degrees, which makes the caves ideal for storing veggies, growing mushrooms, and aging cheese.

The Wabasha Street Caves were once home to the largest mushroom growing operation in the United States. An immigrant Frenchman and his wife saw the cave’s dampness, darkness, and cool temperatures as the perfect environment for growing the delectable fungi. Plus, the streets of St. Paul provided a free source of growth medium in the form of horse manure.

Although that operation eventually ceased, the mushroom company lives on today in the form of Lehman’s Farm in Lakeville, Minnesota, which sells its marinated mushrooms to high-end food outlets like Lunds & Byerlys. The caves were also used by the Land O’Lakes Company to age Roquefort cheese.

In the 1950s, the caves fell into disuse until a flood caused massive damage to St. Paul. Lois said the caves were seen as the perfect place to store all that untidy debris. She shined a light down a side entrance where she stood to show us it was filled with old tires and dirt. But, before the flood, in the 1920 and 30s the cave was modified as a speakeasy, casino, and a nightclub. The debris-strewn side tunnel was thought to once lead to the speakeasy.

Tour guide Lois tells us spooky tales of nefarious doings in the Wabasha Street Caves.

From there, our tour moved into the refinished part of the cave. We saw the long bar, which was rebuilt based on old photos. Stucco covered the ceiling and water pipes and electricity ran through the walls. A separate section contained a dance floor, fireplace, and a stage. Lois said that famous jazz bands used to perform in the cave’s Castle Royal Nightclub.

The nightclub and casino were favorites with local gangsters. St. Paul had the reputation as a safe haven for them. The police wouldn’t arrest gangsters as long as they didn’t commit any crimes in St. Paul, although Minneapolis was fair game! The gangsters also shared their ill-gotten gains with the police department. This was called the Layover Agreement.

Despite this agreement, one notable crime happened in the caves. Four gangsters were gambling after hours. One of them apparently took umbrage at the conduct of the others and shot them all dead with his Tommy gun. At the noise, a cleaning lady ran in from another room to find three of the gangsters lying dead in pools of blood. She alerted the police who came to investigate.

Suffice it to say, with the cozy relationship between the gangsters and the police at that time, justice was not served. The police cleaned up the scene and chided the cleaning woman for filing a false report. It’s thought the bodies of the three gangsters still reside in the caves somewhere. Despite the protestations of the police, evidence of the crime can be seen in bullet holes on the cement fireplace.

Now the caves function as an event center and tourist attraction. They offer swing dancing and special ghostly tours. We were fascinated to learn about the caves and the shady history of the city of St. Paul.

Part of the fancy event center in the caves.

A Penultimate Mistake

Characters from the series “Sanditon.” Image courtesy of PBS.

In my household, we’ve been watching the Public Broadcasting Service series, “Sanditon.” It’s based on an unfinished novel by Jane Austin – the last of her writings before she died. It’s set in England, of course, with strong and conflicted heroines.

Anyway, a social media announcement for last Sunday’s program said it was time to watch “the penultimate episode of Sanditon!”

I got all excited and told Russ that the best-ever episode of Sanditon was coming up. In our ensuing discussion I discovered that the word “penultimate” does not mean the ultra-ultimate of something like I had been thinking all these decades. Instead, it simply means it’s the next to last episode.

I was so disappointed. Not only because the series is ending and because the episode wasn’t going to be the best-ever, but because I’d been misinterpreting this word for so long. I don’t think I’d ever actually used the word anywhere, but it was a quite a blow to someone who is a writer.

I had fun thinking up a title for this post. Does the title mean this is the second to last mistake I will ever make in my life, or does it mean I am mistaken about the word penultimate? Or does it mean I’ve made the best mistake ever? 😊

A Guide to the Secrets of Blogging

Image courtesy of Word Press.

Last week, I gave a presentation about blogging for my local writers’ group. It was a first for me, so I needed to research the topic. Thankfully, there’s a lot of info out there about blogging, much of it from Word Press. I thought I’d share some of what I learned with you since I am now this font of knowledge.

  • There are 600 million blogs out there in the world. This is so many that they make up one-third of the web!
  • Most people read blogs to learn something new.
  • 80% of new blogs last only for 18 months. Most quit after 3 years.
  • 22% of Word Press bloggers write once per week. 2% post daily.
  • Word Press is the most popular blogging platform, hosting 43% of blogs.
  • The highest recorded salary for a blogger in the U.S. in 2022 was $104,000.
  • It takes an average of 20 months to start making money with a blog, but 27% of bloggers start earning money within 6 months and 38% are making a full-time income within 2 years.
  • Posts that have “how-to” or “guide” in their titles are the most popular in general. (I am testing this with the title of this post!)
  • Images are helpful in garnering interest. Post with up to 7 images get 116% more organic traffic compared to posts with no images.
  • In 2021, the average length of a blog post was 1,416 words.
  • The average blog post length has increased 57% since 2014.
  • The trend is for increasing word count for posts. Posts with over 3,000 words get 138% more visitors than posts with fewer than 500 words.

Do any of these stats surprise you? I’m surprised by the trend toward longer posts, but perhaps that makes sense because there more words and more topics for search engines to find. But I would think that people don’t have that much time to read. Maybe they find the posts but don’t read all of them?

Okay, now I need to find an image for this post. And I should probably make it longer, but I am out of time!

The Backstory on Blogging

Image courtesy of Lake Superior Writers

I’ll be giving a Zoom presentation next weekend about blogging. It’s for our local Lake Superior Writers group as part of their monthly Writers Cafe, but anyone can attend – you don’t need to be a member. The presentation is free, and it will occur on Saturday (4/8) at 9:30 a.m. CDT. Pre-registration is required.

More deets:

Join us as we learn about blogging for writers, including setting one up, maintaining a schedule, finding your audience and more. Our guest expert is Marie Zhuikov–a fiction writer, poet, and blogger who also works as a senior science communicator for the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Program. Her most recent book is a blog-memoir called “Meander North,” which was published in 2022 by Nodin Press in Minneapolis. It features the best of her humorous and outdoorsy posts from her “Marie’s Meanderings” personal blog. 

Pre-register by emailing The registration deadline is Friday, the day before the event by noon.

You will receive an email with a Zoom link close to the event.

Hope to see you there!

The Dreaded “Racorebob” Monster

An angry raccoon. This image is from a Fox News story about a Florida couple who thought they were attacked by a bobcat, but after DNA analysis, it turned out to be a raccoon.

In his “Recollections of L. E. Potter,” my great-grandfather Laforest, who was a young settler in Minnesota tells a cute story that I didn’t have time to include in an earlier post about him.

The year was 1865. The family of 12 had moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota, settling for a time on the banks of the Watonwan River a few miles south of Madelia. One spring day, Laforest’s father John was mowing hay with a scythe about 80 rods from the house they were renting. Laforest writes (edited for clarity):


I was sent to take him a drink of water, also a watermelon. We got our water from a spring on the riverbank back from the house. I took my pail and melon to the top of the bank or bluff, laid the melon down by the side of the path and went down the path through the brush after the water. When coming back up the bluff, I heard something going through the bushes straight down to the river. This was rather startling to an eight-year-old.

Laforest Potter in his later years.

When I got to the top of the bluff and my melon was gone, boy-fashion, I did not stop to reason, but let my imagination run wild. I thought some animal had carried it off and that was what I heard going through the bushes.

I took the water to father and told him about the melon and the animal that carried it off. The more I talked about it, the better my imagination worked until I could tell what the animal looked like – what color he was, bigger than a dog. In my mind it was something terrible!

Father asked what I thought it was. I couldn’t tell him. So, he said he thought it must be a Racorebob.

Father told folks about my Racorebob for years after. Whenever my imagination would get the best of reason, I was reminded about my Racorebob. I believe it has always had a good effect on my life.

Father found the melon at the foot of the bluff, smashed against a tree. Somehow, it had started rolling down the bluff and that was what I heard.


(Marie here – I’m not sure what the word amalgam Racorebob means. Laforest never explained it, but my guess would be a “raccoon or bobcat?” Any other interpretations are welcome!)

Still Chased by Snow in Arizona

When last you heard about us, Russ and I were having past life regression sessions in Prescott. That done, we left Prescott a day early under the impending threat of ten inches of snow. We drove across the mountains to the funky mining town of Jerome. Russ had not been there before and we were so close, it seemed a must-see.

Like on my previous trip, we ate lunch at Bobby D’s BBQ. This time, it was Russ’s turn to sit in the “haunted booth” where a former restaurant owner died. Despite this unappetizing tale, we heartily enjoyed our lunch of BBQ chicken, ribs, onion rings, and zucchini fries. They make the BBQ sauce on-site. Our favorite of the four was the jalapeno, molasses and brown sugar one. Zippy but not too spicy, even for us Minnesotans.

Sated, we searched for Nellie Bly’s kaleidoscope shop, which I’d visited last time. Then, I did not purchase any of these tubular wonders. Now, I had some relatives’ birthdays as an excuse. I even bought a small polished wooden one for us. Sometimes, you just need to look at the world in multiple triangles.

A kaleidoscope image I took with my phone camera, looking through the scope when back at home.

After some more browsing, we decided it was best to hightail it to lower elevations before the snowstorm came. We drove to Phoenix where we stayed overnight. The next day we visited the Heard Museum, which specializes in Native American art. From the sculptures outdoors to the paintings indoors, it was all marvelous. But my favorite exhibit was “Stories Outside the Lines: American Indian Ledger Art.” Hidden in several upper floor hallways, the drawings show events and past achievements that Native artists recorded in ledger books.

According to the museum, this art form began in the late 19th century when several Great Plains tribes were relocated to reservations by the U.S. Government. Many of their cultures had traditions of recording events on animal hides using natural pigments. Faced with imprisonment for practicing their cultural traditions, the Natives turned to the materials they had at hand, which were ledger books and colored pencils, provided by traders and government agents.

What struck me was their two-dimensionality. They looked like something a school child would draw except for the subtle sophistication of the topics they depict.

Russ and I are both big “Outlander” book and TV series fans, so our next stop was in the suburb of Phoenix at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore. The bookstore is near Outlander author Diana Gabaldon’s home and she sometimes does events there. We found that we missed Diana by a mere day – she was going to be speaking the next evening. Although tempted to stay, we had relatives waiting for us in Tucson, so we had to content ourselves with buying a few books instead. (After I got home, I discovered that one was autographed by Diana!)

An example of ledger art, courtesy of the Heard Museum.

Later, we drove south to Tucson and stayed at a relative’s home. We awoke the next morning to, you guessed it, a few inches of snow. It was the first snow the city had experienced in several decades. It seems we just could not escape it. However, the white stuff quickly melted.

We saw my son in Tucson and toured the Sonoran Desert Museum. Both Russ and I had been there before, but my son hadn’t. It had been years since we’d been there – the exhibits seemed more numerous and larger than I recall, but I suppose some had been added since the 1980s!

Our trip capped off with a hike in Madera Canyon, which to me seemed more like a valley than a canyon in the national forest nearby. The area is known for its birds, so we made sure to take in the bird-feeding station at the Santa Rita Lodge after our hike. We saw a lot of turkeys and Mexican jays.

Thus, ended our trip to Arizona to escape the snow. We failed in that regard, but the experience was successful in so many other ways.

A stream in Madera Canyon