About a half dozen years after World War II, Uncle Joe rattled through some woods around Minnesota’s west-central lake country and started to frame a cabin.
It was to be about 600 square feet in a clearing with a southern exposure. In winter, the struggling sun would bathe the windows facing the lake, making even a February day a little more cheerful.
It took a woodsman’s hardiness. He had to drive material and equipment down a forbidding road that billowed flakes of dirt behind him no matter the speed, then haul it all by foot the length of half a football field to the clearing.
My sister imagines the first structure was the outhouse.
I vividly recall the cabin, and often told how “every Christmas” Joe would set up a Lionel train around the perimeter of his living room a block from our house.
Eventually, I realized that “every Christmas” might have been one. Maybe two. It’s surprising that I recall anything about Uncle Joe. He died near that cabin when I was 3.
My aunt went to the neighbor’s cottage a couple of doors down that late February day in 1958. Joe went ice fishing. He didn’t return at dusk, so they went looking. Joe had died of carbon monoxide poisoning at 46.
Years later, I’d visit his grave at Fort Snelling National Military Cemetery and wonder how many guys had survived World War II battles only to return home to short lives.
I’d imagine what he thought at war’s end when he traveled across France to Margraten, Holland, to photograph his brother-in-law’s grave. Mom’s first husband had died in the last push to Berlin and was buried there.
Any G.I. looking at the panorama of black soil rectangles, each containing a fallen American, likely got to thinking of getting something done when he got home.
Joe returned to a blue-collar job. Was a volunteer fireman. He created a sturdy cabin where thin air stood. He just didn’t get to enjoy that spot mingled among high trees for long.
My distraught aunt sold the place that summer. My sister lamented it and later tried to locate it. She came near, but was thwarted by 50 years of change that included paved roads and looming, year-round homes.
She sometimes, testily, assumed the cabin had been razed for a 2,500-square-foot Cape Cod.
A guy can take only so many years of listening to this.
Armed with a family document from 1958 that contained enough coordinates to allow a Soviet satellite to photograph the spot, the Otter Tail County records office matched the numbers in my hand to a current address.
The 100-foot lot had been subdivided. The east portion boasted a $330,000 home. A structure on the west half was about 600 square feet and built in the 1950s.
I called my sister. “It’s still there.” She was delighted.
The owner lived not far from me. We had graduated from the same college.
(As comedian Steven Wright said, “It’s a small world. But I wouldn’t want to paint it.”)
They invited us to see the place. We hadn’t set foot there since 1957.
If you wanted to disappear to a quaint lake cottage with an updated interior, this would be it.
“It’s well-built,” they said.
In five years of ownership, they hadn’t noticed the weather-worn concrete before the first step down to the lake. My sister did. It revealed the faint date on which Joe laid that slab and etched his initials into it.
Joe was a fun guy who loved dogs and was enough of a kid that he put up a train at Christmas. My aunt would give him a new car for the set each December.
They were cheated out of many summer nights when the last dusting of light filtered hues across the living room. They missed the splendor of many late autumn days, with the movement of geese overhead.
Seeing that sturdy little dwelling tucked among all those big houses after nearly seven decades was a bit of triumph, though. The owners know Joe’s story now.
And if you own a unique cabin, visitors can’t help but ask about the guy who built it.