UR Here: Visiting Ober

I visited the grave of Ernest Oberholtzer today last month. I was invited to read from my new book of essays Under a Midland Sky (ok, that’s a plug) at the Unitarian Church in Davenport. This was a wonderful occasion to find the resting place of one of my heroes, especially given that Davenport’s Unitarian Church was frequented by “Ober,” as well.

Ober is one of the great environmental heroes of the 20th century, and he was born and raised right here in Iowa. Sound familiar? Regular readers of this column may recall a similar point I made about Aldo Leopold, who was born and raised downriver in Burlington. Add in the more statewidely recognized “Ding” Darling, and you see that Iowa has a remarkable legacy of great native environmentalists.

I don’t have the space to give an adequate account of Ober’s biography. For that, I refer you to an excellent biography, Joe Paddock’s Keeper of the Wild, which I enjoyed this summer on our annual family trip to northern Minnesota. But let me attempt a brief summary.

Ernest Oberholtzer took his first extended canoe trip (3,000 miles) through what is now known as the Boundary Waters in 1909 at age 25. Over the years, he explored the northern wilderness all the way to the subarctic of Hudson’s Bay. He taught himself Ojibwe and became great friends with Native peoples, earning the name “Atisokan,” or “Storyteller.” He wrote and lectured much on the natural world of the north and its Natives. He bought Mallard Island in Rainy Lake and set out building a homestead there, to which he devoted the rest of his life and which still remains in trust with a foundation in his name (

Ober became what we would now call an “activist” when the gorgeous last wilderness that he grew to love was threatened by one Edward Backus, a lumber baron who was scheming to build several massive dams along the boundary waters and flood millions of acres of pristine wilderness in order to create an energy empire. Ober became his nemesis and headed up an unlikely effort to defeat the powerful and influential industrial giant Backus. And, over the course of several years in the 1920s and 1930s, he did.

The fortuitous fallout of these efforts was the establishment of the Quetico-Superior Council, for which Ober served as its first president, followed by his service as first chairman of the President’s Quetico-Superior Committee created by FDR. Thanks to Ober and many other dedicated conservationists such as another of my great heroes Sigurd Olson, we now have the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Ober’s legacy is not limited to the Boundary Waters, however. A pioneer in wilderness conservation, he was one of the eight founding members (along with Aldo Leopold) of The Wilderness Society. Our modern conception—and reality—of wilderness owes an enormous debt to Ernest Oberholtzer.

And how many Iowans—let alone Quad Citians—know that such a great American was born and raised in their midst? Not many. Oberholtzer maintained a relationship with Davenport throughout much of his life, so it’s not like he was born here and left as a toddler. Yet as I wandered amongst the old gravesites of Oakdale Cemetery, near such august names as the Putnams and the Davenports themselves, I felt that not too many people have made pilgrimages to the Oberholtzer family plot.

That October day was quintessential mid-autumn. There was a chill in the air, and the persistent breeze sent oak leaves fluttering down on me as I spotted the statue of a woman (an earth goddess, speculates Paddock in his biography) that marks Ober’s grandparents’ monument. And there he is, amidst his family, here in this quiet spot in Iowa:
Ernest Carl Oberholtzer
His Indian name for Storyteller
Feb. 6, 1884-June 6, 1977

I stood serenely for a few moments, knowing Ober’s remains were below, but his spirit was not. But I was honored to be there in his presence nevertheless, to celebrate his departed—yet living—spirit of love and dedication to a beautiful world of natural wonders.

As you read this, a vote will take place in a few days or will have recently passed. Johnson County residents are making their voices heard on whether or not to pass a referendum to ensure a legacy of natural wonders for our local children into the future. As boys like Aldo Leopold and Ernest Oberholtzer grew into young men, they had the natural wonders of their Iowa home to inspire their spirits and minds, providing them a magnificent ground from which to accomplish great things on behalf of nature. Richard Louv in his recent book Last Child in the Woods urges us to save our children from what he calls “nature-deficit disorder.”

What would our world be like if Aldo and Ober had suffered from no connection with nature? Our world would be infinitely poorer in spirit and beauty.

I hope you do your part to ensure our children’s—and ultimately our world’s—natural heritage in the voting booth, if it’s not too late. If we have failed, our efforts to pass along the integrity and beauty of nature must redouble. If we have succeeded, we should celebrate (but never rest). And as we move forward into creating a better world, we should raise the memories of two amazing Iowans—Aldo Leopold and Ernest Oberholtzer—into the consciousness of all our state’s citizens.

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