The Devlin Family Robinson

‘Few men had so rational a grip on life as he; few women knew its circle of vicissitudes as she. For three days I lived with Adam toiling and Eve spinning, talking of the poetry of Meredith and getting their reactions on Robert Frost. Enthusiasm, joy, ambition, suffused the hours. Whatever of high things their breeding had begotten, their life had accentuated, and the bush had not broken them to laziness or low ends. They, who enjoyed music, who kept posted on politics, and were determined to see their sons wisely educated, were no malingerers of society. They had decided to know life first-hand, that is all; not to enjoy it vicariously as from a grandstand but to live it wholly, and the fundamentals first.’

From The Lake Superior Country by T. Morris Longstreth (1924)

The ghosts of proto-hippies from the Baronial Age drift along the north shore of Lake Superior.

In 1921, four Coutu brothers squatted on the beach at MacGregor Cove. They had plans to build a tourist lodge and had taken out advertisements in the American papers, but they were trappers by trade and had no idea how to handle the responses. They were also ill-prepared for winter. When Earl Devlin arrived that summer, he had little trouble persuading them to take a hundred-dollar bill each in return for their claim to the cove and the shack they had built.

The Devlins were from Detroit. Catherine was a banking heiress. Earl was a First World War veteran whose recurring shellshock led them to leave the city and seek a homestead in the Canadian wilderness.
   ‘It’s a very simple story,’ Earl said later. ‘I think it had its genesis in our honeymoon on the south shore of Lake Superior. The fascination of these waters and of the bush kept lurking in the backs of both our heads until the opportunity arrived to make a break.’
They moved to MacGregor Cove the night Russel, their younger son, turned seven. George was a year older. They hired Finns from Sault Sainte Marie to build a lodge and a camp, and settled in at the trappers’ shack for their first winter.

Catherine was more stout-hearted pioneer than simpering debutante. She quickly learned to feed eight hungry men from a lean-to kitchen with shelves made from wooden packing cases. Her reminiscences still carry the tang of a city girl’s shock. She had to knead 36 loaves of bread a week, and split the wood to bake it in the oven too small to hold more than two loaves at a time. She lists with wonder the breakfasts these woodsmen required every single day: eggs, bacon, pancakes, porridge, as much toast as she could feed them, syrup, and fruit. Then there was butter to be churned, water to be fetched from the lake, and boys to be schooled. Sometimes she was so tired she would set her alarm clock for a twenty-minute nap while the bread rose. Eventually Fanny the Finnish cook was hired, and was so indispensable that Catherine chose to overlook her tendency to get very drunk on beer and run off with strange men on the Algoma Central Railway.

Their supplies came in on the same railway that regularly claimed Fanny. The Bussineau family lived at Agawa Bay and at first Dave Bussineau brought Devlin goods over by boat from the Mile 104 rail station. But weather, or Bussineau’s fear of the weather, made supply runs infrequent and finally Earl cut his own four-mile trail to the Frater station over a hill that was said to be impassable. (The car-chewing Frater Road runs parallel to it today, and the settlement there, scene of legendary park-staff parties, is hardly less remote.)

At the time, the Canadian government sold 50-acre parcels of land along the coast very cheaply. The only requirement was that the buyers had to put up a building worth more than $500 within a year. The Devlins bought several plots in the names of family members. Over two winters, they built a camp in a clearing at MacGregor Cove. Nobody calls it by that name: it’s called Beaver Rock after the unmistakable shape of one granite arm of the cove. Their camp was the Beaver Rock Club—not that it was really a club, explained Catherine, who retained some of the instincts of her Detroit days. The name was picked to dissuade people from thinking just anyone could come to stay.

They named the main lodge Pawatiniki, Ojibway for ‘Land of Heart’s Desire’. There was a gravity feed from a nearby stream, and Catherine even managed to get an upstairs flush-toilet. There were several cabins for family and guests, a workshop, a bunkhouse for the boys and another for the staff, a boathouse down on the shore where they held summer parties, and a sauna. The Finns asked permission to use lumber that floated up on the beach to build the sauna on their own time. Though Catherine had no idea what a sauna was, she agreed, and the Saturday night steam bath turned out to be a great hit with guests (who did not, she reports, flog themselves with birch twigs like the hired hands). On Sunday nights they walked the trail to the Laughing Brook cabin for fishing and picnics.

Earl liked to think of the camp as a ship, and everyone called him Skipper. The Skipper’s office was the Pilot Cabin, and he surveyed operations from a broad window with a view of the shore. It’s one of the two buildings in the Beaver Rock Club still standing, and it’s where I’m typing now to the sound of waves and carpenter beetles.

T. Morris Longstreth, an American adventurer who churned out lively travel books in the twenties, visited Pawatiniki in 1924. He hiked down from the Frater railway station on the trail that Earl had cut. The lodge was empty when he arrived, and he was nervous that the Devlins would not live up to the heroic image he had built.
    ‘Then I looked through the open window and saw, ye shades of Mozart! a Steinway grand.’ Shipped in pieces from Sault Sainte Marie, apparently.

Longstreth was fully taken by the regal, rustic glamour of the Devlins.

‘Your life seems too simple to be true,’ I said. ‘Here you carry on the life of rising, bathing, breakfasting, working, playing, reading, and slicing Gordian knots, like the rest of us. Yet it seems different. There is the glamour of freedom over everything. You choose. You do nothing because it is fashion.’

The Devlins spent six winters here before they moved back to Detroit so the boys could go to boarding school when George turned 14. Earl died of pneumonia shortly afterwards. Doughty Catherine went back to Beaver Rock and turned the camp into a summer tourist operation to survive, reducing rates for guests who pitched in with chores. In the 1940s she sold it to the Elliot family. Lake Superior Provincial Park eventually bought the property. The Laughing Brook cabin stands just outside the park boundaries, and is now owned it by the Seiberling family.

George visited Beaver Rock a few weeks ago to celebrate his 90th birthday. He is frail now, was thrilled to find the Pilot’s Cabin restored and lived in. His childhood is fresh to him:
    ‘Russel and I built a sugar shack in a stand of maples back in the woods when we were nine and ten. It was on stilts to keep the firewood dry beneath, and we had a ladder up to it, but just for fun we built a ramp to slide down. One day I’m tending the pots when Russel slides down the ramp. Next thing I hear him shrieking ‘I’m on fire!’ He had a pack of strike-anywhere matches in his back pocket, and the friction had lit ’em. The only liquid I had to hand was a five-quart pan of maple syrup, and I poured it right down his pants.’

(Catherine described the sugar shack in her diaries: a model operation, she said, and profitable enough to give them a lasting taste for business schemes. But no one over eleven could stand up under the child-sized roof.)

These days I pore over the literary scraps of the Devlin family in between immigration forms, job-hunting, cooking feasts, and walks on the beach. They appear in Longstreth’s book, in oral histories of Superior, in the transcribed memories that Catherine’s grandson kindly sends. They are present in the folklore that the park guardians collect and pass on. I hear Catherine Devlin in the no-nonsense Midwestern tone of Megan, a fortysomething great-granddaughter up for a camping trip.

And I look out from the Pilot Cabin and imagine Catherine’s first snowy Christmas, in 1921, when the jays took all the discarded orange halves from the kitchen dump and decorated the birch tree outside her window, this window.

2 thoughts on “The Devlin Family Robinson”

  1. Wow! What a find. Back in about 1970 I spent about six months at Beaver Rock Lodge. When I was there many of the buildings were still there. I was also there about seven years ago and the only buildings left were the Warnikin (This is what the Elliott’s called it)a large three bedroom log home down near the beautiful sand beach, the new twin cabin, the pilot cabin and a newer home built about an eighth of a mile from the shore where Tony, the caretaker at the time, lived.

    While I was there I did meet some of the Seiberling family when they visited their cabin at Laughing Brook.

    Beaver Rock was a beautiful place and holds many wonderful memories for me.

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  2. I am related to the Elliott family that owned Beaver Rock. We too have many tales passed down from the owner Alfred Clayton Elliott(deceased) and his son ‘Buster.’ Beaver Rock was featured in George Pierott’s TV show and I am search of any remaining film from this excurion. It was shot by documentarian Dennis Glen Cooper. If any one has information, I’d be thrilled!

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