by William Ellison Scott
Editor's introduction: In fall 2010, Bob Abrahamson of Superior, Wis., was helping to move his elderly father into a nursing home when he found an old manuscript stashed in a box. The manuscript was a historical account of John Beargrease, written by Abrahamson's great-uncle Judge William E. Scott of Two Harbors in the 1950s. Judge Scott interviewed contemporaries of Beargrease, many of whom were in their 90s at the time, in compiling the collection of anecdotes about the legendary North Shore dogsled mailman. Judge Scott died in 1962 without ever seeing his Beargrease manuscript in print. What follows is an edited compilation of excerpts from the manuscript, published for the first time anywhere.
The story of John Beargrease is almost legendary. In fact, it would have been entirely so were it not for the fact that several contemporaneous pioneers are yet living and who have herein related many episodes pertaining to him. Practically nothing has been written to date of John's life, except a few short references here and there. He adhered to a simple life and believed in the way of life of his ancestors.
According to the death certificate of John Beargrease on file in the Office of the Clerk of Courts in the Lake County Courthouse, John Beargrease died at Beaver Bay on Aug. 10, 1910. This certificate also states that he was "somewhere born in Minnesota" in 1858, the same year that Minnesota entered the union.
John Beargrease was of the Chippewa tribe. Physically, John was not a big man. He has been described by those who knew him as of medium height and not heavy. He was a rather thin man but strong, sinewy, wiry, well built, and about 5 feet 10 inches in height. Ordinarily, he was a quiet man. He spoke poor English, but one could easily understand him.
On many [Ojibwe Indian] journeys in the wintertime, they used a team of dogs, usually three or four dogs to a team. Generally, through the woods, toboggans were used. Toboggans were better than sleds for such transport because they required only a narrow trail and would not sink in the snow. A type of brake was used to prevent the toboggan from running into the dogs. The harness was a system of collars and straps. Every dog wore a collar to which was attached the proper straps. By this form of transportation, it was not unusual for an Indian to travel 30 or 40 miles a day.
It was such a dog team and toboggan that our Chippewa friend John Beargrease used when he carried the mail from Two Harbors to Grand Marais. Generally, he made the 90-mile trip in about three days, which is an average of about 30 miles a day! Sometimes he walked, and sometimes he ran behind the fast-moving toboggan. His faithful dogs weathered many a blizzard as they broke through deep snows to their destination.
Tom Lind, a North Shore pioneer, said that the predecessor of John Beargrease was a man whose name he did not recall. He was accustomed to haul the mail over the ice of frozen Lake Superior with a team of horses and a sleigh whenever he was able to do so. In what would become his last trip, he had delivered the mail to Castle Danger. He then proceeded on his journey with his team. When he arrived about opposite the Gooseberry River, the ice under the horses cracked and split open. The horses sank through some thin ice and sank with the sleigh. The mail carrier barely escaped with his life, and Tom does not recall whether or not he saved the mail. At any rate, he went back shaky and shivering to Castle Danger, drank some hot coffee, warmed up, and immediately went back to Two Harbors to report his loss. He gave up his job, left the country for good, and has never been heard of since.
It was then that John Beargrease applied for the job. He signed a mail carrier's contract with the government to carry the mail during the winter months at an annual salary of $728. The mail was carried during the summer months by the passenger boats Dixon and America. John carried the mail from Two Harbors once a week during the winter months.
Mr. Dennis Dwan was a postmaster in Two Harbors for some years. He wrote and filed with the Lake County Historical Society a paper titled "The Two Harbors Post Office." In the paper he wrote: "One of the outstanding conditions of transportation which linger in my memory is when our faithful servant John Beargrease transported the mail from Two Harbors to Grand Marais and return. Good weather or bad, John was sure to arrive sometime with the mail intact. He was known to travel day and night without food. When he reached his journey's end with his faithful dog team, the dogs would rest up for a short time and would start on the return trip, regardless of the weather. He and his dogs were known to be snowbound for days at a time, but they would finally come through even if tired, hungry, and frost-bitten. Nature's wild wintry blasts had no terrors for faithful John and his dogs."
There are several people yet living in Two Harbors who distinctly recall John Beargrease. They agree that he was wiry, sinewy, strong, and not exceptionally tall. Said one: "I saw him on two or three occasions start out from the Two Harbors Post Office with his load of mail, with his dogs and his toboggan. He would call to them in his native tongue, and they would shoot out like a shot out of a gun. The dogs seemed to be very attached to John and seemed desirable to please him."
Said Mrs. Madeline James Fillinger, whose father owned one of the first, if not the first, drug stores in Two Harbors, that at the time when John carried the mail, her father's store was directly across the street from the post office. In the store was a tall, iron stove that burned wood but gave off good heat. Invariably when John arrived with the mail and delivered to the post office, he would cross the street to the store to get warm. The trip from Grand Marais took about three days. He would sit in the comfortable armchair near the stove, becoming drowsy, and soon doze off. She also recalled that at one time he had a very sick dog. Her father apparently rightly surmised what the trouble was and gave John some medicine to give to the dog. John was very grateful about this.
Among the thrills of her childhood at Beaver Bay, Mary Hangartner recalls hearing the approach of John Beargrease in the evening, after a day on the trail. Mrs. Hangartner recalls that John was conscientious and brought through the mail regularly, no matter if the weather was fair or foul. On the day of the week that he was due with the mail from Two Harbors, he generally arrived at the Bay's post office (Slater's old house) about 7 or 8 in the evening. The dogs were yipping, and John was yelling as they pulled into the Bay for the week's most exciting moments. There were up to five dogs in a team, but usually three. The dogs wore bells and could be heard ringing long before they reached Beaver Bay together, with John yelling and his dogs barking.
Elsie Sonju Williams provided another informative interview. She recalled the following accounts regarding John and his family. "The way we met John was in October 1905 in Little Marais. My mother had seen the canoe with John and a little old lady, his mother, come up on the beach. A week later, on a rainy day, we saw smoke on top of the hill. My mother said, 'Those are Indians up there under the tree.' She had seen them when she was getting the cow down from the pasture. Mother took two of the hot potatoes, which she was boiling for our dinner, and wrapped them up in her apron. She went up on the hill with us four kids trailing behind her. John Beargrease was sitting under a tree, his mother sitting under another. There was a little fire in front of them. My mother handed John the hot potatoes; he felt them and said, 'Dinnertime?' That was our first acquaintance with John Beargrease and the beginning of a good friendship."
Elsie continued, "He would often come hunting on the homestead when we moved back there. Usually, he would have his son Joe along, and his dog team was always with him. He even brought his entire family with him one time. He and his family always stayed at our house all night. Whenever he caught a deer, he would give us part of it. One time he came up with his gun without any bullets in it. He asked my mother if she happened to have any .22 bullets. My mother happened to have two bullets. She gave them to him, along with her .22 pistol. He went out in the woods and came back that snowy evening with a deer. They brought the deer into the house and skinned it on the floor, right next to my bed, where I was very ill with a stomachache. I'll never forget the smell of that raw meat from that deer in front of the bed!"
John continued to carry the mail until 1904. On one occasion, someone inquired [of me], "I have heard John Beargrease spoken of many times, but what important event or episode was he ever connected with?"
There cannot be a definite answer to this question. Perhaps it should be answered thus: "None. His fame came not by doing some specific heroic act, but rather, when he had work to do or a job to perform, however humble or big, he did so, and did it dependably, cooperatively, and conscientiously.
"He did his best. Can anything be more praiseworthy than that?"