In 1921, a determined 25-year-old Gertrude Wellisch, who had just graduated from the University of Minnesota to start her teaching career, decided that the abandoned Sand Island Lighthouse, on the northern tip of one of the eight Apostle Islands near Bayfield, Wisconsin would make a great summer home. But, in order to do that, she had to somehow wrestle the control of the lighthouse from the federal government, which would not be an easy task for a young single lady.
Gertrude’s love of Sand Island came from the time when, in 1910, her father joined three other businessmen to build a lodge on the island that they named The West Bay Club, which still stands to this day. However, in 1922, the West Bay Club was dissolved and her father sold his interest to another member. But Gertrude did not want to give up her summers on Sand Island, so she contacted the Bureau of Lighthouses and requested that they lease the abandoned Sand Island Lighthouse to her for use as a summer home. And, she even put pressure on her United States Senators to come to her aid.
Gertrude Wellisch figured her request was a “no-brainer.” After all, the Sand Island Lighthouse had been automated on April 23, 1921 and its keeper and family had moved out, leaving the station closed up and left to the elements. But convincing the federal government, with its slow- moving bureaucratic process was no easy task. Finally, in 1925, with some help from her influential father, she was able to secure a lease for the lighthouse from the federal government for $25.00 per year, plus upkeep.
By that time, the lighthouse had already been sitting empty for four years with its interior needing lots of repairs and the grounds were in a desperate need to be cleaned up. The 29-year-old school teacher had her work cut out for her. Gert did much of the work on her own, but she had friends and her brother “Bun” who helped out, plus, there was her beloved dog, Sandy, who was always by her side. And as time went on, more and more of her cadre of female city friends came out to the lighthouse to not only help her, but to just have fun.
After the outbreak of World War II, the government decided to raise the rent on the lighthouse to an amount that Gertrude felt was unacceptable. For all practical purposes, she had spent 18 summers maintaining and caring for the lighthouse. She said, “My living there has kept the place from becoming a ruin.”
Gertrude’s ties to Sand Island were strong and she wanted to continue to spend her summers there. So, she purchased a parcel of land on the island and hired a carpenter to build herself a summer home. In describing the property, a National Park Service report stated, “Gert Wellisch gave her new cabin a name: Plenty Charm. It had two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a roomy screened-in porch. Most impressive, however, is the living room. A cathedral ceiling gives the room a sense of spaciousness that belies the cabin’s compact dimensions, while pine paneling and a fieldstone fireplace create a rustic ambience that prevents the space from becoming overwhelming.” When Gertrude Wellisch passed away in 1966 and she left Plenty Charm to her companion, Muriel Korfhage, a fellow high school English teacher like herself. Some years after Gertrude Wellisch passed away, the National Park Service purchased the property and has used it as a ranger station and housing for park employees.
Some years ago, a man named Kent Olson of Buffalo, Minnesota, stumbled across a pair of photo albums in antique store. The albums contained nearly 600 photographs from 1913 to the 1940s, many of them depicting life on Sand Island. Further investigation confirmed that the photo albums once belonged to Gertrude and her brother Walton “Bun” Wellisch. Mr. Olson subsequently donated the photo albums to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Just how these albums ended up in an antique store is unknown, but for the staff of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the albums contained a treasure trove of life at the Sand Island, including many photos taken at the lighthouse, many of which they shared with us. It also contained the only known photograph of the 4th order Fresnel lens that was once in the lantern of Sand Island Lighthouse and has since vanished without a trace.
Perhaps the best description of the life and times of Gertrude Wellisch is given by David J. Cooper, archeologist for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, who wrote, “In her raffish (if somewhat theatrical) version of a sailor’s ‘Cracker Jack’ uniform and white sailor hat, accompanied by her police dog, Sandy, she was the face of a new generation of young and empowered females, emerging from the First World War era with the vote and the many social freedoms, compared to the stiff Victorian and Edwardian roles of their mothers and grandmothers.
“Wellisch’s status as a school teacher and her long association with the island all helped make her a leading and much-loved summer resident. The Bayfield newspapers carried frequent stories about Gert Wellisch, attesting to her status as a leading citizen of Sand Island. The children of East Bay fishermen performed many of her outdoor chores, and were rewarded with coins, books, and various treats. Her Chevrolet coupe motor car served as an oft-borrowed island communal vehicle. She exemplified the sharing, generosity, and love of place that characterized the island community. Her unmarried status, and (in later years) the presence of her long-time partner Muriel was accepted, valued, and not judged by the eclectic and inclusive Sand Islanders. Theirs was a discreet relationship, called in the jargon of the times a “Boston Marriage.”
“Gert Wellisch’s life traced the continuum of the Sand Island community from the rustic Adirondack lodge of West Bay; the arrival to the island of young urban women exploring new social roles in an era of enfranchisement and new attitudes towards women’s roles in society; the departure of the lightkeepers; then through the Great Depression; the slow decline of fishing and farming. The disruption of the Second World War; the resumption of peacetime life and lakeside recreation; leading finally to the arrival of preservationists and park planners.”
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2023 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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