Border Country: Introduction

Welcome to an overview segment of The University of Minnesota Press’s recent publication Border Country: The Northwoods Canoe Journals of Howard Greene, 1906–1916. Below is their release of the book:

Image of journal.

Border Country is a collection of the remarkable, handmade journals from businessman Howard Greene’s early 1900s canoe trips to the north woods of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Canada. Reproduced with numerous photographs and maps, these journals are a window into a world at once familiar and strange, the wilderness caught on the verge of becoming the North Woods we know today.

A distinction with this collection of journals is that it is introduced and annotated by Howard Greene’s daughter, Martha Greene Phillips. Therefore, Border Country has a personal, familial tone towards the contents. Howard Greene is referred to as “dad” and Martha Greene’s background knowledge of her father’s experiences (as well as “The Gang”) gives keen insight and understanding to his life and work.

Introduction

The “Introduction” (as I am calling it) consists of the Foreword, Prologue, and Field Guide.

Image of Howard and his camera.

Author Peter Geye’s Foreward shares the “power” the photos had over him as he saw them for the first time. They reminded Geye of his first experience in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota at age 11, where as a kid he learned “to revere that wilderness.” He discusses what his approach was prior to vacation, mapping out for hikes and portages. He briefly shares times of canoeing and the overall “hankering for adventure” as he reflects on the woodsman skills he learned. You get a sense of the deep connection forged with the North Woods as he holds a “glistening northern pike,” listens to the wind “and mark[s] the lowering clouds,” and shares more about what he learned along Lake Superior.

Images of The Gang.

Martha Greene’s Prologue explains what her father’s library was like, one “nearly shingled” with framed pictures…ones of family as well as a multitude from his journeys. Also in the library were the “handsome, black, leather-bound journals (which now are exhibits at the Wisconsin Historical Society). They were “meticulously handmade, individually typed, and bound in leather or fine cloth, often with elaborate title pages.” Inside, they included many photos taken with his Graflex camera, hand-pasted to the pages with typed narratives. Howard Greene’s writing style is described as “simple and down-to-earth”. And these writings are now seen as historical documents.

The Field Guide outlines the members of The Gang. Howard Greene was a Milwaukee-born businessman, and it was not uncommon for established urban-dwellers to escape to “remote and wild areas” for adventure (something we can still relate to today). “Dad” was the leader, and though the members of The Gang varied slightly, there was a core group, and they are briefly explained here. The Gang consisted of schoolmates from Milwaukee Academy (including Howard’s sons) as well as cooks and other hired help.

The book chronicles a world familiar to many in the upper midwest, and one that has greatly changed over time. But the the journals are presented as they were created over a century ago, illuminating a land attempting to balance conservation and resource demand, one devoid of automobiles and populated with Native Americans. In fact, there is a publisher’s note about language towards Natives, language that at times, while reflective of early 20th vernacular, is seen today as “offensive and inappropriate”.

Over the next installments, I will share excerpts and insight from the various sections.

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