I was saddened to hear, somewhat belatedly, that Henry Wehseler, long-time Tofte resident and the former owner of the North Shore Market in Tofte, had passed away more than a month ago.
Henry was born in St. Martin, Minnesota, in 1921, the son of German immigrant parents. He spoke German at home as a child and retained a soft German accent his whole life.
Henry served in the Civilian Conservation Corps and then enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He and Florence, his wife of nearly 72 years, moved to Sawbill Landing after the war. Sawbill Landing was a temporary town that existed to house the loggers who worked the giant Tomahawk timber sale in the country east of Isabella.
Henry told me that he brought one of the very first chainsaws with him when he came to start logging. In those days, loggers were paid by piece-work and he figured the chainsaw would give him an advantage over the other loggers who were still using 40" bow saws to cut pulp. The early chainsaws were huge, heavy and unreliable. Henry, who was always firm in his opinions, stuck with the chainsaw for a few weeks before reluctantly setting it aside in favor of the bow saw, which was still the fastest tool for the job.
The timber company would set up a skid road through the sale, just passable enough for a tractor to drag a dray of logs, and then would assign each logger a 40 acre plot on one side of the trail. Each logger was responsible for felling the trees, cutting them to 100 inch lengths and piling them on the side of the skid road for loading. When I asked Henry how he moved the logs from the woods to the skid road, I was astonished to hear him say that he did it by hand. He would fell the tree, always in the direction of the road to save distance, buck it to length and then end-for-end each log to the landing. It would be no exaggeration to say that this was among the most physically demanding jobs in the history of the world. Also, being that it was piece-work, Henry worked incredibly long days. I'll never forget that when I incredulously asked Henry how he withstood this unimaginable hard labor, he shrugged and said with simple understatement, "oh, you toughen up after a few weeks."
When the Tomahawk timber sale wound down in the mid-1960s, Henry, Florence and their three boys moved to Tofte. While Henry continued to log and work construction, Florence went to work for Albin and Edith Nelson at the Long Lake Lumber Company store in Tofte. The store mostly provided groceries for the many transient lumber camps that were deep in the woods during that era. The foreman would drop off a grocery list from each lumberjack and then swing by to pick them up the next day. Florence would pack the groceries in a cardboard box for each lumberjack, so the groceries would stay safe during the rough ride back to camp in the foreman's pickup.
Around the time it became more of grocery store for the general public, Henry and Florence bought the store and operated it for more than 30 years. They continued to supply the camps and also served as a informal social service agency for the lumberjacks. For the whole time that he owned the store, Henry continued to pack groceries in cardboard boxes, much to the puzzlement of his tourist customers. At Sawbill, for many years, we saved all our cardboard boxes and brought them to Henry. We always called them "Henry boxes."
Henry didn't believe in borrowing money, so he expanded the store a few times over the years as he was able to save the money. After the store was fully built out, Henry and Florence saved up and built a beautiful home for themselves on a large piece of property across the Sawbill Trail from the store.
The North Shore Market, which is now the Tofte General Store, was the social hub of the West End while the Wehselers owned it. They worked there all day, every day, except for Sunday afternoons. Henry knew everyone in the community, as long as they shopped at the store. It was his work life, social life and personal life, all rolled into one. I can only remember Henry taking one vacation in all the years that he ran the store. It was to attend a reunion of his navel outfit and he was gone for two days. He did love to pick blueberries and could always be found in the berry patch during the few Sunday afternoons that came around during berry season.
Henry and Florence allowed people to charge groceries at the store and pay one bill at the end of the month. I know for a fact that if a family was having a particularly hard time, especially if they had children, their grocery charge would be forgiven. Henry and Florence treated everyone the same and assumed you were a good person until you proved them wrong.
Henry had a particular friendship with Cook County's famous Sheriff, John Lyght. John liked to tease Henry about breaking the law because he knew that Henry would rather die than break a law.
Henry also had a warm friendship with Senator Paul Wellstone, who frequently vacationed in Tofte. When he was in town, Senator Wellstone would walk to the store each morning to buy the daily newspapers. He and Henry would discuss the issues of the day while the Senator drank a few cups of coffee and skimmed the news. Henry was honest and forthright in his opinions with everyone, including the Senator, and was not shy if he disagreed. Senator Wellstone told me numerous times that he held Henry in very high regard and valued his friendship, precisely because he was so honest and unfazed with the Senator's high office.
Henry and Florence eventually sold the store and started splitting their time between Tofte and Florida. A few years ago, they sold their house and moved to Little Falls to be near Florence's relatives. Henry died on October 16th at the age of 95. He is survived by his wife, Florence, sons Richard, Gary and Bill, along with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He played a big role in the lives of so many people in the West End and was instrumental in making it the lovely community that is is today. Rest in peace, my friend.
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.