The Fort Wilkins Fort

The Fort Wilkins Fort

Sigh. It’s sometimes hard to figure things out.  Especially when you come late to Fort Wilkins in Copper Harbor and the guided tour has already started.  I had just enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the Harbor Haus overlooking Lake Superior.  Scribbled extensively in my journal on the blue tableclothed table, a party of one eating a succulent feast of seared grilled whitefish, wild rice and mixed vegetables. 

Our tour guide, returned from the nineteenth centure just to share tidbits of history with us

Our tour guide, returned from the nineteenth century just to share tidbits of history with us

Our tour guide had already led the small group through the first of the fort’s buildings.  It was 1:45, and the tour started at 1:30.  Obviously I should have finished the whitefish quicker.  Because then I would have known the date.

The fort was built ‘way back in 1844.  Oh dear.  You’re going to want real factual historical information, aren’t you?  Even though you know that’s my weak point…  Never mind, I’ll mutter through something and we can only hope it’s accurate.  The fort was only occupied for a few years after its construction in ’44.  I believe the nice costumed interpretive guide said it was built to help protect the mining interests which were just beginning to go full-steam ahead.  It closed after a stretch (mostly because it was so expensive to keep running ‘way up here on the peninsula!) and opened again somewhere after 1865 for a few post-Civil War years as a place to send some wounded soldiers.

The blacksmith's shop

The blacksmith's shop

The costumed interpreter, I believe, spoke to us from the year 1870.  But he also spoke as if he’d been stationed at the fort ‘way back in ’44.  He told us lots of entertaining stories as we wandered through the white painted buildings.  One of my favorites had to do with Fanny Hooe. 

Fanny Hooe was a beautiful seventeen year old relative of a camp commander back in one of those years.  Half of the fort fell in love with her on the spot.  When it came time for her to return to Virginia, apparently she didn’t say “fare-thee-well!” with enough muster.  So rumors began to surface.  The natives had stolen her away, a bear ate her…and so on.  To memorialize her beauty and presence, they named the adjoining lake after her.  Lake Fanny Hooe.

The enlisted men's quarters

The enlisted men's quarters

The above photo is where the enlisted men slept, probably dreaming of Miss Fanny Hooe.  Our guide told a fascinating yet terrible story about the way the wind and snow and ice and cold would blow through the fort buildings.  Men were even known to get frostbite while they slept!!  Can you just imagine how cold it must have been?  Even though it was one of the warmest afternoons of this summer, all of us shivered.  We could imagine.  We felt, for an instant, like we suffered along with the soldiers.

Checkers for those long freezing winter nights...

Checkers for those long freezing winter nights...

So they played checkers.  And cards.  And dreamed of their sweethearts far away.  Counted the days until they could return to their homes elsewhere.  Maybe a few of them fell in love with this farthest-most northern outreach post and decided to settle here.  Maybe some of their descendants live in Copper Harbor now.  Maybe they served me lunch at the Harbor Haus…

The ice house (lots of shadow play going on here!)

The ice house (lots of shadow play going on here!)

As the guide continued to regale us with stories, I saw the shadows playing on the ice house.  He had just shared yet another fascinating story about the delivery of maybe 25 sheep to the fort.  And how the pen was not built to hold the rather short-legged creatures and how they all immediately discovered that they could escape and…are you ready for this??…jumped in to Lake Fanny Hooe, all two dozen of them!  And how the soldiers dove in after them and the heroic rescue of all but…excuse me, facts are disappearing now…a handful.  And how one of the camp commanders was going to have to pay for the sheep out of his own salary (almost his entire year’s salary!) until officials determined it really wasn’t his fault.

Our guide said,  “I like mutton as well as the next fellow, but…”

They put the butchered sheep or cows or other animals in the ice house to keep the meat fresh.

All we are is just a feather in the wind...

All we are is just a feather in the wind...

So I went over to take a photo of the shadows playing against the ice house wall, and–the next thing you know, I was looking for beads and baubles in the dirt alongside the fort’s perimeter.  As the rest of the tour continued on its way. 

The feather says it all, doesn’t it?  We’re just feathers blowing in the wind.  One minute it’s 1844 and the next 1870 and suddenly it’s 2009 and who knows what is coming next?

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