When Winter Field Day was a YL lifestyle

Discussion in 'Amateur Radio News' started by W0PV, Jan 4, 2020.

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  1. W0PV

    W0PV Ham Member QRZ Page

    Hardy north country hams planning for a snow country Winter Field Day, or those followers of the most excellent Nordic adventures of Julian @OH8STN, may also be interested in this true story.

    A 1930’s Diary Reveals What Life Was Like During an Isle Royale Winter

    The link embedded in the bold title above leads to excerpts from the book "The Diary of an Isle Royale School Teacher" by Dorothy Simonson. Well rated, it chronicles the lives of a small commercial fishing community that lived on Isle Royale, an extreme "off grid" QTH in Lake Superior on northern border with Canana, which is now a National Park. This was in 1932.

    The story frequently mentions their use of "shortwave radio" for communication with the outside world. Usually via W9YX, which at that time was the club station of Michigan Tech University (now @W8YY) across the lake in Houghton MI.

    However, I have been unable to determine the call sign of Dorothy, or if she was even ever licensed. Instead, in old call books it's evident that at least two of her neighbors and students were licensed, sisters Violet Johnson W9IIT, and Vivian Johnson W9PCU (later married name Klemetti)

    Perhaps Dorothy was a guest op under their supervision, or maybe someone else knows her call sign if there was any. Apparently Dorothy passed away in 1984 at age 81.

    Hope you enjoy reading it all and your holidays were safe comfortable.

    73, John, WØPV, now in Florida :)

    Below are excerpts from the book and examples of Dorothy's diary entries related to amateur radio, a few pics included. Click the link for the full article, or, buy the book!

    Dorothy Simonson was a 29-year-old divorced mother who, to make ends meet, took a state-appointed job to teach the children of Chippewa Harbor in the wild reaches of Lake Superior. Besides her own six-year-old son, Bob, Dorothy taught the children of island innkeepers Holger and Lucy Johnson: Jerry, Violet, Vivian, Holger Jr. and Kenyon. Dorothy and Bob lived in the back of the one-room schoolhouse and ate meals at the Johnsons’s house. After dinner they listened to their favorite radio programs, or tried to make contact with the mainland via a shortwave radio. Occasionally, Dorothy wrote articles about island life to be published in The Detroit News. ...


    October 26, 1932
    Nothing to record—rain, rain all day—mud, slush, dirt, cold. Is Isle Royale romantic? Not today!

    November 10, 1932
    Our radio set arrived! Now I am anxious to get it going—and feel much better!

    November 11, 1932
    It snowed most all day. Mr. Johnson and I set up the shortwave and it works. I could hear Houghton as well as many other stations. It is a fine-looking, very neat and compact job and I’m beginning to get much interested in operating it. We are to have a schedule with Houghton Wednesday. Here’s hoping he can read me and I him!

    November 14, 1932
    The Rock Harbor men came down this afternoon and all are pleased with the radio set. Listened to several good programs tonight— sewed, wrote several letters and articles.

    November 16, 1932
    Tried to get W9YX at noon but couldn’t raise him. I know our antenna has to be shifted—also, the “lost comet” seems to be a disturbing element, atmospherically speaking. We’ll try for W9YX tomorrow. Came up to bed early—read and started a “boat book” for Bob for Christmas.

    November 19, 1932
    Radio signals from everywhere except Houghton. Oh, well, I had time to get acquainted with the set anyway! Listened to the Michigan-Minnesota game and it was a dandy, ending 3-0 for Michigan! Spent the evening getting ready for our last batch of mail for 1932, for tomorrow Winyah will make her last trip. Temperature is rising now and snow is falling softly, Wonder whatever happened to that famous comet?!!


    November 21, 1932
    The Winyah arrived at 11 a.m. on her last trip and brought us many letters and packages, but no word from the Chicago folks and not the radio licenses. They blew five whistles and departed at 11:30—to return April 1, or thereabouts, 1933. Bob and I watched her out of sight and took pictures of her, realizing that we are now indeed isolated. But I didn’t feel nearly so let down as I had expected, for with a broadcast receiver and a shortwave set, we do not lack contact with the outer world entirely. And at 1:00, I had a good conversation with operator Cook at Michigan Tech, so feel much better. Our licenses are there, so it is safe to operate now.

    November 22, 1932
    The world was a mass of swirling white flakes this morning and we had to break trail over to breakfast. All day the storm raged and we heard at noon of shipwrecks on the south shore of Lake Superior.
    I tried to get W9YX this noon but could not raise him. Guess this weather simply nullifies radio signals as far as we are concerned.

    December 4, 1932
    What a day! I experimented nearly all day with the shortwave set. Mr. Johnson helped me. It is okay on the receiving end but no good on transmission. I was so discouraged I simply went to pieces—but I’ve done all the work and that’s that. I’ll try Houghton
    again tomorrow and hope for the best.

    December 8, 1932
    What a day! Stormy—cold—the school is like a barn and all of us huddled around the stove, which simply gobbled wood. I tried Houghton again—heard half a message or so—then he faded completely. Guess there is still something wrong with our transmission.

    December 17, 1932
    The ice was all gone from the harbor today. Didn’t get our batteries charged in time to get W9YX today. It is so hard to charge them, as the engine freezes constantly.

    December 22, 1932
    I managed to get W9YX long enough to send messages to George Burgan, Grossmama, and the family at Wyandotte. Will have to finish the telegrams tomorrow as my ears played out today.


    Violet and Vivien (sp) even composed a "QST Play", an broadcast radio production that got mention in the Australian "Wireless Weekly" listing for January 3, 1936. See page 50 in the magazine (page 52 on the PDF viewer).
    N3DXD, AK8CW, AC7DD and 23 others like this.
  2. KP4SX

    KP4SX Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    Spring 1933 Callbook. W9LFP.
    AC7DD, KQ6XA, UT7UX and 4 others like this.
  3. W9EBE

    W9EBE Subscriber QRZ Page

    Thank you so much for the very interesting post, OM!
    K5VZD likes this.
  4. N0TZU

    N0TZU Platinum Subscriber Platinum Subscriber QRZ Page


    A neat glimpse into the harsh world away from cities in those days, especially such an isolated place, with ham radio as the only communications besides mail from a ship. I can only imagine how hard it was.

    No running water and washing in a bucket. No indoor plumbing, just a latrine - fun in a MI winter. I imagine only chopped wood as the fuel source, except for precious gasoline for the generator. She makes oblique mention of constipation which could be a serious medical problem toward spring as preserved vegetables ran out.

    Today, with our wealth and ubiquitous modern technologies, we forget that many people lived in similar circumstances not that long ago. Some still do in poorer rural areas of our country.
    AC7DD and WN1MB like this.
  5. WD6USA

    WD6USA Ham Member QRZ Page

    Great story. It's good to read about radio and how it has fit into society. So many don't know or appreciate the evolution of the technology we have today. Thanks for posting the story.
  6. W0PV

    W0PV Ham Member QRZ Page

    FWIW, some additional related info from my browsing, illustrating some interesting personal connections that involvement in amateur radio can create.

    The "lost comet" that Dorothy refers to was probably 25D/Neujmin, which apparently is still lost.

    The Michigan Tech club station W9YX license is registered in the name of George Swenson Sr. a professor who established the EE department.

    His son George Swenson Jr. became W9HTD about 1936, later became a professor at U of Illinois, and a major figure in amateur radio / professional radio astronomy.

    Accomplishments included being the first in the west to track Sputnik 1 and led the design team for the Very Large Array. He became a SK in 2017 at age 94.

    73, John, WØPV
    N0TZU likes this.
  7. K7JOE

    K7JOE Subscriber QRZ Page

    great post as always, john. Insightful!
  8. W0ELH

    W0ELH Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    I'm trying to remember the name of a book I read circa 1958 or there abouts. It was a story about a young male ham on Isle Royal who talked to the radio ops on the iron ore carriers on Lake Superior. Does this jog any memories?
    Thanks and 73, de Garry W0ELH
  9. W5RG

    W5RG Platinum Subscriber Platinum Subscriber QRZ Page

    Great story..We sure have it easy now days!
  10. NN6EE

    NN6EE Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    But unfortunately there's people in our society the REFUSE TO APPRECIATE ANYTHING including "HISTORY"!!! :-/
    KB0YYO, N7KO and K7LZR like this.

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