2013 Summer Book Series
6:23 am
Wed June 5, 2013

'Are We There Yet?' Memoir Recalls Family Vacations

The cover features Mamminga's mother, Eleanor, nicknamed Woody for her red hair.
The cover features Mamminga's mother, Eleanor, nicknamed Woody for her red hair.

450 miles. That's the distance Marnie Mamminga's family traveled every summer from suburban Chicago to their cabin in northwest Wisconsin.

Mamminga recalls the cabin, and the long journey it took to get there, in her latest book Return to Wake Robin: One Cabin in the Heyday of Northwoods Resorts.

In the 1950s, America's Interstate highways weren't completed, so Illinois families headed "Up North" drove rural roads for much of the trip.

For a young Marnie Mamminga, that meant nine hours packed inside a station wagon loaded with suitcases, and topped with a canoe tied to the car with rope.

The human cargo included a dad, a mom, Marnie, and four siblings:

"Got off me!"

"Move over!"

"You Smell!"

All of the above became our continual backseat whines.

"Knock it off!" our father commanded.

For. Nine. Hours. More than once, Mamminga recalls, they got a flat tire and had to unpack the car to free the spare. But before they could jack up the car, they had to untie the canoe. Invariably, the knots on the rope had grown tighter during the trip.

For all the inconvenience, Mamminga insists their destination was worth the torturous journey. "It was like going to the land of Oz," she says. "You had forests and lakes and wildlife. Every night you heard the haunting music of the loons and the occasional call of a wolf."

The cabin, of course, is the star of the book. Built by her grandfather in 1929, Wake Robin was made of tamarack logs and named after a white wildflower that grows in the woods. The author's grandmother filled it with log furniture, kerosene lamps, metal beds and Spode china -- all of which remain. Over the years, Mamminga says, they made limited improvements such as adding electricity in the 1950s and a telephone in the 1980s.

You'll find no big screen TVs here. No DVDs or video games, and don't even ask about Internet service. As Mamminga writes in the book's Epilogue, they insist on keeping it rustic:

Some might say we are overly sentimental, that we cling to a vanished era, that the cabin is a museum to the past. But I think not. There is a wonderful authenticity in being surrounded by living history, to know that those who loved and laughed before us shared the same simple joys and pleasures. Not only do we relish these treasured charms, but we also know from experience that it is all we want and need.

The Heyday in the book's subtitle refers to a time stretching from the 1930s through the 1960s when vacation lodges were a popular destination for families. "In our chain of lakes," she says, "there were at least 13 resorts, and they were affordable."

In a recent interview with WNIJ, Mamminga cited figures from a University of Wisconsin study from 1949. "In that year 1,125,000 visitors came to Wisconsin. 53 percent of them came from the Chicago area, and the average stay was 20 days."

The author says all that changed after the 1960s, when cheaper air travel made trips to Hawaii and the Caribbean more popular. "Suddenly it didn't seem so exotic to go to Wisconsin," she says. "Soon the resorts were torn down or turned into condos."

A few resorts remain on Mamminga's chain of lakes. The old lodge that predates Wake Robin is under new ownership. Mamminga's family has a new cabin across the lake from the original one, and she still makes frequent trips up there. As for Wake Robin, she says, family members continue to use the original cabin.

Marnie Mamminga in the WNIJ studios
Marnie Mamminga in the WNIJ studios

The book is published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

Marnie Mamminga will read from her book, and sign copies, at Just Goods in Rockford this Thursday from 3 to 5 p.m.

Next Wednesday, our Summer Book Series continues with poet John Bradley. He'll discuss his new collection of poems about the Wild West outlaw Billy the Kid. Listen during Morning Edition, right after NPR news at 6:30 & 8:30. Then come back here for audio links and other information.