Welcome back to the Manitowish Waters Historical Society’s podcast, Discovering the Northwoods. During each episode, we take you on a journey through our local history with the help of primary source documentation. To learn more about this rich history or about the historical society – check out our website at mwhistory.org. There you will find blog posts, our YouTube Channel, and Show Notes for the podcast with full transcriptions including photographs and maps.
On today’s episode, we will explore Keith Island which is an important part of Big Lake. As mentioned in the last episode on France C. Badger, A.S. Badger of Chicago owned the Keego Estate on Big Lake, and it is believed he told Carl Keith about the island, as both Badger and Keith were from Kenilworth, Illinois. In 1908, Carl and Cornelia Keith purchased the island for a summer home for their family. The island seemed like a wonderful place for their nine children to play, find adventure, swim, fish, and boat around their island for the whole summer. In 1910, Carl and Cornelia Keith bought 53 acres on the mainland shore to build their farm property.
In December of 2018, Kay Krans interviewed Margaret Larsen Henning a member of the Keith family of Big Lake. As a piece of local history, the interview transcript is read for this episode by Sarah Krembs and Kay Krans.
Q. Tell us about the Keith family background.
Carl Keith bought the island on Big Lake in 1908. I went to the island for 90 years. There are twenty family members.
I stayed every summer for three months and my mom managed the island for the family every summer. Her name was Cornelia Keith Larson. We were there so much that I knew the lake really well and knew how to run the boats. Uncle Alb was staying on the island. Grace and Peggy McBain were my cousins. Their parents were Houston and Margaret (Keith) McBain. They stayed at the island and then decided to have their own place. They built Scotch Point. Houston McBain was president of Marshall Fields and Company.
Q. What are your memories of meeting Dwight D. Eisenhower?
Dwight D. Eisenhower came to Moody’s because of his brother Milton’s mother in law. His brother was president of the College in Manhattan Kansas. Bud Eisenhower was Milton’s son and I met him because he came and spent time on the island. He came over to the island to play and with me and he liked to read comic books and play cards. He didn’t play with Quentin. One time he came over and said that his grandmother wanted to crochet and she needed a crochet hook. Bud said “I will introduce you to my uncle.” I was embarrassed to do that because I didn’t know what to say to him. My uncle said, “You should go!”
Bud and I got into the boat with the crochet hook. I went with Bud to Moody’s and we gave her the crochet hook. I think there were four brothers. I was introduced as Bud’s little friend. We were just good friends. Ike Eisenhower got up from the table where he was playing bridge on the glassed-in front porch. I thought, “Isn’t this great, someone who had gone through so much during the war and I get to really meet him.” He said, do you have any fish around the island?” I said we have lots if you know how to catch them. I remember that I was wearing my brown suede jacket with fringe and he told me he really liked my jacket.
There were secret service people all around the place. People were not allowed drive their cars into the resort. I think it was 1945 or 1946. He was with his family and enjoying the fishing and quiet time. I could tell he loved being in the Northwoods on Big Lake. He was just with his brothers and I never was able to see his wife. I think he came up north several more times but never to Moody’s. After he became president I don’t think the secret service could secure the area around the resort. I know that he spent time in Minocqua area and stayed with Howard Young. I am not sure if they cooked at the resort and I don’t think Moody’s served meals to guests. There was a small kitchen in the cabin. The Moody’s had the boats for the Eisenhower brothers to use. The brothers also had a guide who took them fishing. Dwight Eisenhower seemed like such a pleasant person. This was the man we had seen on the newsreels and radio leading the troops in Europe during World War II. It was such an important time in my life getting to meet such a great man. I also liked being friends with his nephew, Bud Eisenhower.
Q. What are other memories of Big Lake?
(Ms. Henning was getting tired, but these are a few of her comments.)
I remember the caretakers for Keith Island; they were Louise and Jim Blaisdell. I really remember Louise.
The place known as Keego was a camp for girls.
I remember Blaha’s Fishermen Resort. I would go over there because they had a girl about my age and we liked to play together. Once, I ran into a bobcat over there. We both stopped and the bobcat went one way and I went in a different direction.
Caleb has recently passed away. They lived in Mosinee. They bought a small house in St Louis where the mother-in-law of Roy Case lived. Roy Case had a son, Roy, with his first wife and then he married Marion. We would always have macaroni and cheese for lunch. Quentin and Jimmy McBain played together. Things were really different before the road went into Big Lake. There was a path from Big Lake to Bass Lake or Lost Rod Lake. A lumber company owns that property. Roy Case was the grandson of JI Case. They came from Racine, Wisconsin. He was a bow and arrow enthusiast and became a US Champion in the sport. He was in charge of certain props for a movie named Robin Hood. Roy made stone arrows they used in the movie. He got his name in the credits at the end of the movie. He taught me how to shoot with a bow and arrow. Caleb Akelan. He was left in charge. One of the things that really amazed me is that they would take everything out of the cottage and clean and put it all back. The murder on Big Lake happened near the Case property. The Cases could see where the Donahue grave was located. Behind Scotch Point, Donahue had a small barn and kept the horse. I knew where the cottage was. There was a woman involved in the murder of Powers. Everybody used to go to look for the grave.
The Keith family had tenant farmers, John and Emma Collins who lived at the farm. They eventually started the bar on the corner of Hwy K and Hwy W. It was named, The Oasis Bar. The train was really special. One time Jean took me on the train to Manitowish, Wisconsin. That was before she got married. We often had a cook and her niece was a nursemaid to my brother and me. I loved canoeing and I could fix the old motors when I was 14 or 15 years old. We had so much freedom and many adventures. We made our private camps. After some time, I made my old camp that I considered a secret place in the thirteen acres of the island. I learned to play the piano on the island. My friends were at home playing sports and I was writing letters home to them for three months for so many years. My mother taught me a lot about the flowers.
We went to the farm twice a day to get milk. We got fresh milk that tasted wonderful. We would come home in the fall and pasteurized milk would taste terrible. I swam a lot. We had parties. Roy Case loved playing musical chairs with us. McBains, Cases, and Ruby Ellis from the Manitowoc Club were all good friends. Manito means soul, you know. This family made a certain brand of cookware. Barbara Ellis was Ruby’s daughter and she taught me to sail. I remember our gathering spot on the island. I remember how hard it was to find a man who was a sawyer or a plumber to help us on the island. I remember Margie’s poems. I remember going to Tippy’s. I liked Tippy because he would give me some pop. We did our summer shopping in Boulder Junction and in Mercer.
We had such a nice conversation and we talked for about one hour. Ms. Henning was very tired then and I was going to call again. Sadly, I never had the opportunity to make that call because she passed away in the winter of 2019.