A few weeks ago, the Cook County News Herald ran a picture of the so-called “Lady of the Lake” statue that used to be a prominent feature on Brule Lake. It brought back a lot of memories for me. When I was a young child, I used to spend weeks at a time on Brule Lake with Vi and Ken Osman, who owned a beautiful cabin on the far west end of Brule. The Osmans retired to Brule Lake around 1955. They had married late in life and had no children, so they adopted me as kind of a surrogate grandchild.
As we fished and commuted across Brule Lake, we would see the “Lady of the Lake” statue, as it was visible from miles away. I remember that the Osmans were casually dismissive of the statue. When I commented on its beauty, Ken detoured the boat so we could see it close up. It was actually a crude and frankly ugly statue, amateurishly constructed from cement and chicken wire. It was one of many life lessons that I learned from the Osmans. Sometimes things that look beautiful from a distance are actually quite ugly when you see them close up.
A few years later, I had a conversation about the statue with Art Osman, Ken’s younger brother. It turned out that Art had helped construct the statue in 1942. Art said that when most people asked him about the statue, he told them that it was an Indian maiden, built to watch over the lake. That was probably the basic truth of the matter, but Art told me that it was also part of an elaborate practical joke.
Art was part of a group of friends from Rochester were regular visitors to a private island resort on Brule Lake. One of the friends had recently married. I remember Art’s description of the new bride vividly because it was the first time I heard the expression “battle axe.” Art said that the groom’s fishing buddies warned him that his new wife would forbid him from going on the annual fishing trip. Sure enough, the first year after the marriage, the groom was not able to attend, due to some other circumstance, not wifely prohibition. The joke was that the statue was built as a caricature of the young bride, who Art described as a large and imposing woman. The following year, when the friend did arrive for the fishing trip, the group pointed to the statue and said, “Look, your wife is watching you!”
Art said that they never expected the statue to survive more than a few years. He commented that they had built it around a dead cedar stump and he guessed that the stump was what gave it an unexpectedly long life. After Brule Lake was included in the BWCA Wilderness, the presence of the statue became mildly controversial, with some people calling for its removal and some hoping it would be allowed to remain. The Forest Service decided to leave the statue and let it deteriorate on its own. Apparently, that decision didn’t sit well with some people, because someone thoroughly and carefully removed the statue a short time later. All trace of concrete was removed and the site was returned to a natural state.
My mom, Mary Alice Hansen, the unofficial West End historian, is publishing a little history of the statue in the paper this week and compiling a longer history of it for the Cook County Historical Society.
The whole statue story is kind of a metaphor for the history of Brule Lake. It is pretty well documented that Bob Marshall, one of the early architects of the national wilderness system, fought hard to keep development off Brule Lake and make it a wilderness lake. Almost literally on his deathbed, Marshall expressed regret that he had “lost” Brule Lake. He can rest easy now, though, as Brule Lake is now the largest lake completely within the BWCA Wilderness, with no development except the canoe landing and a small Forest Service cabin just outside the wilderness boundary.
After all my bragging last week about the heavy blanket of beautiful snow that we had on the ground and in the trees, Mother Nature struck us low with warm and wet weather that left us with a mere 4 inches of hard, crusty snow. The driveway and paths are treacherous mine fields of ice patches that can take you down in a heartbeat, and the ground is iron hard, bringing to mind the old song lyric, “It don’t hurt you when you fall boys, only when you land.”