14 July 2019

Guest Blog Post: Cornucopia, Wisconsin

The following is a guest blog post by Amy C. Rea about her recent visit to Cornucopia, Wisconsin. All text and photographs are copyright to her. Thank you, Amy! ~pks

60 years ago, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes undertook a road trip circling America with visits to Canada and Mexico tucked into the northern and southern ends of the expedition. (For a wonderfully detailed and researched overview of this trip, see David Trinidad's On the Road with Sylvia and Ted: Plath and Hughes’s 1959 Trip Across America.)

They began their trek on July 7, and a week later, found themselves in a small north-central Wisconsin town called Cornucopia. There they found a farm on the shores of Lake Superior owned by Andrew and Helen Nozel, who graciously agreed to let them camp on their property for two nights.

Recently my husband and I took a road trip from our home in Minnesota to Bayfield, a charming small town on Wisconsin's Lake Superior shore (called the South Shore, as opposed to Minnesota's North Shore), with access to the Apostle Islands and Madeline Island. While plotting the driving route, I noticed that Cornucopia was right on the way. Obviously we would have to stop.


Cornucopia
Ehlers Store, Cornucopia
(website)
Peter K. Steinberg provided me the name of the farmers, and some very helpful people at the Bayfield County Land Records Office helped me narrow down my search, getting to a legal property description that seemed to have two potential lots that were likely to be where Plath and Hughes camped: a stretch of road cornered by Spirit Point and Birch Hill roads and Lake Superior itself.

Cornucopia had to wait until the day we returned, as the first day we ran into torrential rains. But driving through the rain made me wonder if this was the same highway they took (in reverse). I knew from Trinidad that they left Brimley, MI the morning of July 14 and arrived in Cornucopia that night. A Google map search has the most direct route cutting inland before getting to Bayfield, but Trinidad’s article reports that they drove all day without leaving the lake. That seems to imply they would have gone through Bayfield, which is a charming, New England seaside-y village right on the lake. That means they traveled on what is now WI-13, the road we took. It's hard to imagine Plath not enjoying the view; Lake Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes, and at points, you can barely see land across it, leading many locals to refer to it as the "northern ocean."

It's a beautiful drive, densely forested with little pockets of farm land carved out of the trees here and there. You can drive for miles and not see another car or house; today, rural fire address signs are at the foot of every driveway, but those mostly came into being in the 1970s-80s, so they wouldn't have been there when Plath and Hughes came through. Traveling in early July, the trees were fully leafed out and densely green: aspen, sugar maple, birch, oak, hickory, and basswood, combined with a wide variety of pine trees (jack, red, and white pine; black and white spruce; balsam fir; and tamarack). The ditches on either side of the highway were full of white, purple, and yellow wildflowers. If that's what Plath saw too, her acute appreciation of the visual must have made the drive beautiful.


Spirit Road from Highway 13
The spot where they likely camped isn't hard to find. Spirit Point Road turns directly off Highway 13, and only a mile down Spirit Point is Birch Hill Road. Spirit Point is currently paved for the first half mile, then becomes a dirt road, well packed down. Birch Hill is a dirt road that tapers down to the lake and today ends in two rutted tire track lanes. Trinidad notes that Plath and Hughes camped on a "hayfield hilltop." Current survey photos don't show any open farmland here; it appears to have been allowed to revert back to forest. But the land does slope sharply up from the lake.

Birch Hill Road
Birch Hill Road, Lake Superior behind Amy
Birch Hill Road with view of Lake Superior
Clearly I was on private property and didn't wish to be the awful tourist who can't respect boundaries. The Nozel family no longer owns the property, so the likelihood of finding someone who remembered their visit seemed beyond small. Driving toward the end of Birch Hill Road, which dead-ends at the lake, I could see some older buildings, including a decrepit shed, and felt that was as far as I could go without being intrusive. Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel cautiously excited at this proximity to a spot Plath was at and which, according to Hughes, was his favorite stop of the trip.
Former Nozel property off Birch Hill Road



Of course, such a trip ends up asking more questions than it answers. Bayfield is located on Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay. The Bay contains the Apostle Islands, which are now mostly part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, overseen by the National Park Service. But in 1959, they were still mostly private, some still having residents and remnants of logging and sandstone mining companies. Surely Plath would have been fascinated with the stories of the sea caves, especially the large ones found around Devils Island.

However, Madeline Island was already a popular day-trip tourist destination with regular summer ferry service. Did Plath and Hughes know that? Did they consider taking a jaunt across the big lake to the beautiful island, full of intriguing history, flora and fauna?

Or when leaving Bayfield and driving through Red Cliff, did they know that they were on the reservation of the Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa, or that Chief Buffalo was instrumental in allowing the tribe to stay there rather than be forced west, as the government of the early 1800s wanted them to do? Given their interest in history, mythology, and other cultures, it seems like this would have been a good stopping point for them.

But we don't know how much they knew about the area they were traveling through. Trinidad doesn't detail their departure from Wisconsin, which occurred on the 16th, other than to say they drove through Minnesota to camp in North Dakota. Our route took us through the twin ports of Superior, WI and Duluth, MN, courtesy of a bridge that opened in 1961 and allowed us to quickly cross the lake between the two towns. In 1959, they could have crossed via the now-historic Aerial Lift Bridge.

As I left Wisconsin, I had to wonder what it would take to get the Wisconsin Historical Society to consider putting up a plaque in Cornucopia. How many other times has Wisconsin had a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a Poet Laureate camping in the state?

All links accessed 10-11 July 2019.

2 comments :

K Jane said...

Enjoyed your post! Sounds like a fun trip.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Bayfield definitely has a New England seaport feel to it, complete with gulls and fishing boats. But I'm thinking the wording about Lake Superior might be turned around. From most points along the lake it looks just like an ocean _ with a flat, distant horizon _ and only in its narrower points can you barely see land on the other side. It's the largest body of freshwater on Earth, aside from Lake Baikal in Russia, and beautiful but cold.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.

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