BARNES, WIS. — Just a few miles from his beloved cabin on Middle Eau Claire Lake, and fittingly housed in a converted tavern once called the Northwoods Tap, sits the world’s largest Gordon MacQuarrie exhibit.
It may be the world's only Gordon MacQuarrie exhibit.
MacQuarrie, if you don’t know, was the first rockstar outdoor writer in the nation. He started at the Superior (Wis.) Evening Telegram and became the first full-time outdoor writer at a major U.S. newspaper when he moved to the Milwaukee Journal. He was also a regular writer for national magazines like Outdoor Life, Field & Stream and Sports Afield.
Under a window in the little Barnes Area Historical Society museum, MacQuarrie’s last typewriter sits, an old Underwood that still looks functional. There’s a yellowing piece of paper still in the roller with a half-written story allegedly left behind by MacQuarrie when he died of a heart attack in 1956. The story was going to be titled “Here Come the Biologists.” We'll never know how it ended.
More than 60 years after MacQuarrie spun his last yarn, a small but loyal group of followers visits the museum which opened in 2016, to pay the writer homage. The museum, about 60 miles southeast of Duluth, has a room devoted to MacQuarrie where fans can see his wooden duck boat, his old cork and wooden decoys, his smoking pipe, his bamboo fly rod and a Shakespeare open face casting reel that MacQuarrie fished with. There are photos and books and quotes and old outboard motors and an inkling of just how powerful a voice MacQuarrie was in the world of outdoor sports and conservation, not just in Wisconsin but nationwide, a writer who captured the outdoor soul of a nation for the first half of the 20th century and whose work remains eminently readable today.
“We had a guy come up from Mississippi, he was 74, a Vietnam veteran, who got a subscription to an outdoor magazine as a kid and never forgot MacQuarrie’s stories... He said reading MacQuarrie’s stories again helped him get back to normal when he came home from Vietnam,’’ said Larry Bergman, treasurer of the Barnes Area Historical Association and proprietor of the MacQuarrie collection. "He didn’t even know about the museum exhibit at first.... He just drove up here to see the country that MacQuarrie wrote about, 50 years later. His writing still holds that kind of power on some people.”
Dave Evenson is one of those people. A retired Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager who now lives in Cumberland, Wis., Evenson discovered MacQuarrie’s writing “late in life, not that long ago,’’ he said. “But I just dove in. He’s a master at telling stories.”
MacQuarrie’s writing style was folksy, homespun, some critics might even say schlocky. It was obviously based in fact — the ducks were shot and the fish were caught and only someone who has hunted bluebills in the snow could describe it as MacQuarrie did. But the stories were also loaded with additional material, from exaggerated Finnish accents to exaggerated disputes and circumstances and reputations of outdoor grandeur. But it worked. It still does. The stories were short, based on the simple "me and Joe went fishing'' formula common in his day. But with MacQuarrie you learned more about Joe and the fish than you could possibly have expected. It’s a writing style that wouldn't fly today in newspapers or most magazines; reporters wouldn't be given the leeway. And the language may be too dated for some readers. But for people who yearn for a simpler, less developed, less complicated day, it’s perfect.
“He was so self-deprecating. He never wrote a story where he was the hero. It was always someone else,’’ Bergman noted. Often, the fish or the ducks were the heroes.
MacQuarrie combined a knack for humor with a deeply emotional attachment to the outdoors and added a conservation ethic — a rare trifecta most writers can hope for but rarely achieve. And he had a nose for news: His coverage of the 1940 Armistice Day blizzard and its deadly toll on duck hunters is a masterpiece.
“The way he writes is so vivid, so descriptive, I feel like I know where he was, like I was there with him,’’ Evenson said, speaking in the present tense as if MacQuarrie was still writing.
Evenson has spent a good deal of his retirement tracking down not just MacQuarrie stories but also tracing MacQuarrie’s footsteps. Like MacQuarrie, Evenson knows well the back roads, rivers and lakes of Northwestern Wisconsin, and he’s been able to find most of MacQuarrie’s spots that were given only private nicknames in the stories.
“Dave has found most of them by himself. He leads our tours,’’ Bergman said, referring to the increasingly popular MacQuarrie Pilgrimage weekend, set for September. More than two dozen people came last year to follow Evenson and hear trivia and stories while walking the same ground MacQuarrie did.
Perhaps Evenson’s most enduring work was finding MacQuarrie’s Milwaukee Journal columns, now in an electronic library, and reviving some of the stories that hadn’t seen daylight in 60, 70 even 80 years. Evenson at first pushed the newspaper to publish the stories, but officials at what is now the Journal-Sentinel said the book would never sell. They eventually gave Evenson and the Barnes Area Historical Association permission to use what they saw fit, no charge.
So Evenson last year published “Right Off The Reel,” a collection of 85 MacQuarrie newspaper columns by the same name. More than 800 copies have been sold so far.
“This book is introducing MacQuarrie to a whole new audience... We’re hoping younger people we see this and get interested,’’ Bergman said. “But for us MacQuarrie fans, this is huge. Most people have never seen these stories; we weren't alive when they were published in the newspaper and they haven't been published again until Dave got going.”
Evenson hopes to finish his next book, “Dogs, Dink and Drivel’’ with dozens more MacQuarrie newspaper columns later this year.