Strength comes, healing comes, from aligning yourself with the grain of your place and answering to its needs. —Scott Russell Sanders from Staying Put
It was like meeting an old friend again—for the first time. I initially got to know Casper Bloom about thirty years ago. It was my custom then to take Saturday morning bike rides in nice weather and one of my favorite destinations was White Bear Lake, about fifteen miles from my home in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. At 2,417 acres, White Bear was, and still is, the largest lake in the eastern part of the St. Paul/Minneapolis metropolitan area. It is the closest place where I can experience “big water.” On some days during the summertime, colorful sailboat regattas cover the lake and breezes blow across the water with enough velocity to cause whitecap waves to form, just like on the really large bodies of water I have known.
I usually scheduled my bike excursions, however, to arrive at White Bear Lake well before the breezes began to blow and the sailboat people arrived. My intent was to be at Manitou Island within an hour or so after sunrise, and to walk my bicycle across the small wooden bridge to the island, which was located just offshore. I then would pedal around the Island’s single road admiring its impressive Victorian houses and cottages. It was also my goal to leave the Island before its residents were up and about and would discover my presence. Intruders were frowned upon, and in more recent years a security guard has been posted at the bridge on weekends to turn away anyone who is not a resident or invited guest.
Yet on one such venture, I lingered on the Island beyond my usual time. I think it may have been in the fall when the leaves of the Island’s mature maple trees were in their full glory of yellow and orange. On that occasion, I stopped beside the lovely small community park near the center of the island to take in the scene. That space reminded me of an idyllic New England Village Green. I laid my bike beside the edge of the road and walked into the park exulting in the rich morning sunlight and tranquility of that moment. Then I saw an egg-shaped boulder on which a small plaque, green with age, was mounted. I walked over to the marker and read:
FOR 38 YEARS
TRUSTED & FAITHFUL
KEEPER of THIS ISLAND
1884 – 1922
I stood for a few moments beside the marker and thought about this man. That it represented a “trusted and faithful” man who had lived a life dedicated to his place for so many years impressed me even then. I recall wanting to know more about this Casper Bloom and his connection to the Island over that time in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.
Over the next few years, I made other bike excursions to the Island and each time I recalled that initial encounter with Casper Bloom and his monument. I even considered then doing some research about him and writing something of his story. But the security controlling access to the Island increased over time, and it became more difficult for me to bike there even at an early hour; maybe twenty years passed during which I made no visits to the Island. But during that time, I never forgot the man, his impressive marker and that wondrous Island.
Fast-forward. My wife, Mary Ann, and I were celebrating her 65th birthday at a bakery in downtown White Bear Lake. It was softly raining outside, and after finishing our cake, we decide to go next door to a small, local bookstore to browse and wait for the rain to stop before continuing our outing. We had hopes of taking a walk together beside the lake as a finale to our afternoon.
As I entered the bookstore, I asked the proprietor if she had books about the local history, one of my favorite subjects. She guided me to a section of the store with only a few books, and although disappointed, I survey the titles. One immediately called to me—it was a paperback, locally- published, with a title indicating that it was about White Bear Lake. I took that book off the shelf and briefly leafed through its pages. Something prompted me to look at the small index in the back for the name Casper Bloom.
I felt a tingle of excitement, which experience had taught me meant something special was about to happen. I found Casper Bloom’s name and a single citation. I turned to that page and there, in a photograph, he was—my old friend whom I was meeting again—for the first time. The caption under the photo read “The First Caretaker of the Island.” I noticed his kind eyes. He was older in the photograph; he had a snow-white beard, although his hair and mustache were darker. His thin face was deeply creased, which gave the appearance of a perpetual smile. His expression suggested that he was slightly amused at the time the photo was snapped many years ago. He was seated in an old-fashioned wicker chair and I had the feeling he was looking right at me. I sensed an invitation to sit with him for a while, and this is what I learned from my friend.
He was born in Switzerland in 1841. His parents immigrated to the United States when he was a child in the late 1840s and they lived in Green County, Wisconsin. By 1860, the family consisted of his father, Peter, his mother, Elizabeth, and five siblings. Casper later married a woman, Mary (who was about 16 years younger than he), and after spending time in western Minnesota, they moved to White Bear Lake in the early 1880s where Casper established himself as a cabinetmaker. The carpentry business must have been booming in White Bear at the time. The town was described, in the words of one tourism periodical of the time, as “One of the most popular resorts in the magic northlands…” Several hotels and other facilities opened along the lakeshore during the 1870s, and summer residents built a clubhouse in 1881 to offer meals and serve as the social center of their lives on the lake. Many houses were also constructed during that time, including the 1879 summer cottage built for St. Paul businessman Charles Noyes, which still exists along the lakeshore now.
In 1881, the Manitou Implement Co. began developing lots on Manitou Island, which is a large island near the western edge of the lake. These were intended for wealthy people from St. Paul and included water and sewer utilities, a rarity in rural areas at the time. More houses were built on the Island, and residents soon saw a need to hire a caretaker to oversee the Island’s grounds, maintain its structures and provide security. In 1884, Casper Bloom began as the Island’s first caretaker. A small cottage was built near the only bridge accessing the Island from the nearby lakeshore, and Casper, his wife and their three young daughters moved into it. He lived in that house and served the island community continuously for the next 38 years.
Casper Bloom’s obituary, an excerpt from which was contained in that book I found in White Bear Lake on Mary Ann’s birthday, states that he only left Manitou Island once for longer than a day during his entire tenure as its caretaker. If that is true, it’s hard for me to comprehend. His mother and other extended family lived with him and his family during some of his years on the Island, so he didn’t need to leave to attend to family matters. He likely walked or took a wagon and team into White Bear Lake whenever he needed supplies, but it was just a short distance, so he could easily return in a few hours, even in bad weather.
Having been captivated by Manitou Island during my bicycle rides there, I think I can understand its likely attraction for him and his family. As one circles the Island by bicycle or on foot, it is possible to obtain multiple vistas of the lake in almost every direction. There is a small marsh to the west that, even today, attracts water birds and other wildlife. Bald Eagles are known to nest upon the island. White Bear Lake is large and deep enough to serve as habitat for about every kind of fish common to lakes in Minnesota—Northern Pike, Bluegill, Crappie, Walleye Pike, Muskellunge Pike, Rock Bass and Largemouth Bass.
And there is history in the area too. The name for the lake—White Bear—is derived from an old Sioux Indian legend that tells of a warrior who killed a large white bear on Manitou Island. According to that story, his and the bear’s spirits still inhabit the place. I like to think that Casper Bloom came to know those spirits as he walked the Island over his years of living and working there. Since the Island is little more than twenty acres in size, it’s reasonable to expect that Casper hiked over almost every piece of it at some time or other during his 38 years as its caretaker. He knew the Island in times of abundant rainfall when the lake was high, and during drought when the lake fell and expanses of its sandy bottom close to the Island’s shoreline were exposed. He knew it in each season. He knew it at sunrise and sunset, by moonlight and in the darkest night. He knew it in fog and in the clearest of days. In the words of author Scott Russell Sanders, Casper Bloom aligned himself with the grain of his place, and I expect he did draw strength and healing from that.
Casper’s obituary also notes that he inspected the Island twice a day throughout each year. If the snow became too deep for walking, he simply strapped on snowshoes and continued his appointed rounds. I envision him in wintertime making some of those daily inspections during the waning hours of daylight when, just as I have done on my cross-country ski outings in winter, he stops and lingers while watching ephemeral pinks of the alpenglow and brilliant reds of the sunset play on the snow and in the sky over the lake. In autumn, Casper may have paused to appreciate the stunning maples, just as I did during my bike excursions on the Island many years ago. I also think of him during the summer returning from running his errands in White Bear, and stopping on the bridge leading onto the Island in order to watch the sunlight dance upon the water. I have done that too. And in spring, he and his three daughters possibly hiked together over the island looking for wildflowers that grow there—plants like wood anemones, bloodroot, trillium, and wild geranium. I did that on a number of occasions with my three daughters too when they were children.
I also see Casper in the late 1880s during one of his daily walks over the Island He stands on the southern shore looking to the southwest over the lake. He is imagining what that landscape had been like before the Europeans settled the area just forty years earlier. And he is amazed at how much things have changed in such a short time. So many hotels and homes built along that shoreline in just the few years since he moved to the area—and even more are planned. He knows that his Island’s name—Manitou—originated from an Indian word meaning “the habitation of the Great Spirit.” He has listened to the settlers tell of battles that occurred there in earlier times between the Sioux and Ojibway Indian people. He has heard that Manitou Island was one of the most strongly-contested places because of its strong spiritual significance to both of these tribes. He also knows that Indian people continued to come to Manitou Island as late as the 1860s to collect maple sap for syrup, but they have not come back since then.
As Casper looks to the west at the most distant shore of the lake, he can barely make out the outline of a large Indian burial mound built by prehistoric people long before white settlers arrived. Such earthworks are numerous in the area and they have served as a continual reminder to him of a continuing “presence” of these people even though they are now physically gone. He also knows that the town of White Bear is debating whether to remove those mounds over the next few years to make improvements to Lake Avenue, the principal street serving homes and hotels along the lakeshore. And I wonder if Casper feels a tinge of regret and sorrow as he considers the prospect that those mounds, and all they contain, might soon be gone.
Casper Bloom was described in the book in which I met him again during that birthday outing to White Bear with my wife as a “caretaker,” which is a powerful word for me. It conjures up all kinds of probable responsibilities. I expect that as a skilled carpenter, Casper’s greatest gift in the eyes of the Island residents was his ability to construct and fix things made of wood. I think of him having a hand in building many of the Island’s docks and other structures for the homeowners. Possibly he also consulted with them about various building and repair projects they undertook on their houses and cottages. During the 1890s, I imagine him speaking with the famed architect, Cass Gilbert, who lived for a time in White Bear, and who designed several houses on the island that are still there today.
I envision Casper swinging a scythe and cutting brush before the advent of herbicides. Once that park space on the Island had been established—the same place where I first met Casper on my bike ride many years ago—I see him pushing an old-fashioned reel-type lawnmower back and forth in the summer over that ground as he kept the grass there trimmed and neat. It’s probable that he cleared many large trees that had fallen during windstorms over the years—and by hand since that was before the time of chainsaws and other powered tools.
As I consider Casper’s various responsibilities as caretaker, I can’t ignore the fact that one of them was to also maintain security on the Island. I have to recall those troubling words I read in the obituary excerpt printed next to the photograph through which I met him again in that White Bear bookstore:
“It was on such a tour of inspection, when a house had been broken into, that he received the injuries that contributed to his death.”
I have chosen not to learn more about the circumstances through which Casper died on the Island in 1922. It doesn’t look good; his death appears to have been unexpected and was possibly violent. I prefer, for now, to think of my friend as he was on his Island in happier times. Perhaps someday I’ll change my mind.
My wife, Mary Ann, and I again recently returned to White Bear. This time the occasion was another milestone of our lives—the 40th anniversary of our marriage. It seemed right that we should go back to that place on this occasion—and it also seemed right that I should somehow meet again with my friend Casper. His almost 40 years of faithfulness through his life and work on Manitou Island have become symbolic to me of my own life journeys of dedication, such as with Mary Ann in what poet Wendell Berry calls “the long affection of the other.”
I initially thought about trying to gain permission to go back onto the Island once again. But I decided against that idea when I learned that the cottage in which Casper reared his family and lived during his time on the Island—the same house I used to pass and admire each time I rode my bike there years ago—had just been moved off the Island during this past year. It had been lifted from its foundation, placed onto rollers, pulled across the lake ice during the dead of winter, and relocated to a vacant lot somewhere in White Bear. I guess someone concluded that the lot on which Casper’s house stood for so many years was too valuable for it to remain there. That’s akin to the rationale used by the White Bear founding fathers in 1889 when they decided to remove the Indian burial mounds along White Bear Lake because they too were in the way of new and better things. The one reminder now left on the Island of Casper’s long and dedicated duty there is that marker in that small park where I initially met him thirty years ago.
Mary Ann and I decided that we would go to Union cemetery in White Bear as part of our anniversary excursion there. I had learned that Casper’s grave marker is located in that cemetery and I thought it might be good if we looked it up as a way of connecting with him around this significant milestone in our lives. We parked our car near the entrance and divided the cemetery between us; Mary Ann took the west half and I took the east half. We each walked up and down the rows of markers looking for the one bearing his name. After some time of searching, I found it and immediately hailed Mary Ann to come and join me.
It was small, simple stone inscribed with the name “Caspar Bloom.” There were no birth or death dates given. I knelt beside the stone and rested my hand upon it. I asked Mary Ann to take my picture. I felt a sense of gratitude and completion. It was like meeting an old friend again—for the final time.
This essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2010. All rights reserved.