HALS Documentation: An Unexpected Discovery

Examining the stone abutments under the Japanese House on Mallard Island, 2017. / image: David Driapsa and Deborah Dietrich-Smith

During the summers of 2016 and 2017, preservation professionals took up residence on Mallard Island in northern Minnesota to document its cultural landscape. David Driapsa, FASLA, brought these groups together after first visiting the island in 2010, and subsequently preparing a Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS MN-06) of the island and submitting it to the Library of Congress.

The island was the home of Ernest C. Oberholtzer for a half century. Ober, as he was known, was an early student of landscape architecture at Harvard under the tutelage of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and James Sturgis Pray, where he became captivated with wilderness planning. As a young man, he moved from Davenport, Iowa, to Rainy Lake, Minnesota, a large lake along the international border with Ontario, Canada, to conduct an ethnological study of the Ojibwe Indians. In his exploration of the international boundary wilderness, Ober recognized the Ojibwe as a natural part of that wilderness, and saw that both this ancient culture and the wilderness were vanishing from North America. Ober devoted the rest of his life to leading the battle to preserve the international boundary wilderness. His fight to preserve the wilderness is very interesting and has been written about by others, such as by Joe Paddock in his book Keeper of the Wild. However, there are still interesting aspects of his life story that remain untold.

Lilacs, flower garden, retaining wall, walkway, and Old Man River House. Mallard Island, 2017. / image: David Driapsa and Deborah Dietrich-Smith

In 2016 David partnered with the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation and several units of the National Park Service to assemble a team of preservation professionals to gather as a colloquium for a week to document the island’s cultural landscape and to learn traditional and emerging recording technologies from each other. During the stay, the group hand-measured and laser-scanned the main building and landscape, documented paths, walls, and views, identified major plant groups, and examined historic documents and photographs located on the island.

LiDAR scan of Old Man River House, Mallard Island, 2016. / image: David Driapsa, Deborah Dietrich-Smith, and Dana Lockett, Architect, NPS Heritage Documentation Program

Again in 2017, David assembled a team of seasoned and emerging preservation professionals and returned to the island for another week to conduct additional research and fieldwork. Among the participants was a landscape architect from the University of Minnesota of Ojibwe heritage and an Ojibwe Indian with family ties to the island and Oberholtzer. From these two men, the participants learned of the landscape’s cultural significance from a Native American spiritual perspective.

Dennis Jones, local Ojibwe Indian with ties to Mallard Island, speaks to participants about the island’s cultural significance from a Native American perspective. / image: David Driapsa and Deborah Dietrich-Smith

During the past year, David and research partner Deborah Dietrich-Smith, ASLA, have extensively researched the Ernest C. Oberholtzer collection of papers preserved in the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) archives via inter-library loan. Their research is revealing how the acre-and-a-half rocky island was transformed into a cultural landscape of nine rustic cabins set in hanging gardens, where Oberholtzer welcomed friends, from the local Ojibwe Indians to the political elite, to his ‘University of the Wilderness.’ Information learned through the summer fieldwork and this ongoing research will amend HALS MN-06 and help the Ernest C. Oberholtzer Foundation manage the island’s landscape as a heritage resource.

Mallard Island Plan View. HALS MN-06 amended in 2016. / image: image: David Driapsa and Deborah Dietrich-Smith

The Oberholtzer collection in the MNHS archives is very extensive, yet there is an aspect of Ober’s early years on Rainy Lake that is barely covered among these papers, which is his involvement in the Deer Island Enterprise with Indianapolis industrialist William P. Hapgood. Deer Island is located a couple hundred yards southeast of Mallard Island. Our serendipitous find during 2016 fieldwork sheds light on that untold story. Hundreds of original Deer Island Enterprise documents we discovered in a musty storage room on the island reveal the part each man played in the venture: William Hapgood financed the Deer Island Enterprise and Ober managed the business and development of the Deer Island landscape, which combined wilderness preservation, farming, and recreational resort development.

Ober’s office on Mallard Island, from where he wrote many of the letters that are included in the Ernest C. Oberholtzer collection located at the Minnesota Historical Society. / image: David Driapsa and Deborah Dietrich-Smith

The Deer Island papers span the period from 1917 to 1922. The earliest document is a letter from William Hapgood to Ober, dated May 10, 1917, in which he writes, “I would be pleased to furnish the capital if you would manage the venture.” The latest document is a letter from Ober to Hapgood, dated June 5, 1922, with Ober writing, “I thank you for the acknowledgement of payment on the Mallard.” Additional correspondence and business documents detail day-to-day operations of the Deer Island Enterprise, financial and personal burdens it created upon both men, and strains it placed upon their friendship.

It is remarkable that these Deer Island papers have remained on Mallard Island unseen for the past one hundred years. As we have discovered, Mallard Island holds many mysteries and reveals itself gradually. The Deer Island papers are a real treasure find, and we believe the island may yield more discoveries giving additional light to Ober’s story.

For more information on the documentation of Mallard Island, see the NPS National Center for Preservation Technology and Training website:

Summer 2017 Return to the Island: Documenting an Historic Landscape

Summer 2016 Island Experience: Documenting an Historic Landscape

by David Driapsa, FASLA, Historical Landscape Architect, David J Driapsa Landscape Architecture; and Deborah Dietrich-Smith, ASLA, Chief, Historic Landscapes, National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, National Park Service

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