Cottage Closing Caps Summer Splendor

The first time I heard the joke was years ago on WCCO radio between Boone and Erickson.

Boone: “So, what did you do last weekend?”

Erickson: “Oh, we went up north to the cabin.”

Boone: “What did you do up there? Did you go fishing?”

Erickson: “No, we mowed, raked, painted some trim and cleaned the cabin. Then we came home.”

Yep, cabins always need at least one weekend to open, one to close and a weekend or two to clean up after a storm or for a repair project. That could consume a third of the total number of weekends available during the summer. And now it’s time to close for the winter unless you can afford a year-round cabin that’s kept warm enough so the water won’t freeze. Good luck with that. 

Now it’s time to close Catherine’s family’s summer place in Wacouta. The 101-year-old escape is more of a house than a cabin so they refer to it as a cottage. It’s conveniently located close to Red Wing. It was built for summer use only so isn’t insulated. The water must be shut off, pipes drained and antifreeze added.

Traps must be set for the various critters like mice and those nasty red squirrels. How do they always find a way in? You’d think it would take more energy piling walnuts up inside a wall than the amount of energy they get out from eating their contents.

The cottage shows evidence of a lot of use over the years. It was built by Catherine’s great- grandfather as a place to escape summer heat and the family business, Friedrich and Kemp, a grocery wholesale company that supplied the area’s country stores. Things were more formal then. Kids weren’t allowed to run around inside the cottage and most certainly, no dogs were allowed in. Dinners with guests meant dressing up, even in hot weather. It’s hard to imagine that now with dogs everywhere and shorts and T-shirts the common dress.

The house was wired for electricity when built, which for 1921 was pretty amazing. Beyond that, though, it was pretty primitive. There were no fans and A/C was still a dream. The only cooling was in the ice house where large blocks of ice cut from Lake Pepin were stored, insulated with sawdust. The ice was used in the ice box in the cottage.

A basement cistern still collects rainwater for use as soft and hot water for washing and, of course, it needs to be drained before winter and the outside downspout diverter set to drain externally. There is still a wood-burning furnace in the basement with one massive floor vent on the main floor. It was just enough to reduce the bite of spring and fall chills. It is still there, but bypassed by a natural gas furnace which itself is more than 40 years old. There’s a fireplace, too. It gives you a chance to see just how fast wood burns up.

The walls are plaster and lath. The exterior is stucco. This combination retains moisture making it the coldest house I’ve ever experienced in the winter. If I ever need to enter the house during the off-season to check on something, it’s not for long. The damp chill goes right through even heavy apparel. You also learn that wallpaper is really not designed for these conditions.

The long front porch has always been the focal point of the cottage. When it was built, it presented a great view of Lake Pepin. But there are too many trees now. Maybe that’s why it really seems like a back porch to me. The wicker furniture gets hauled inside for winter. The large screens are replaced with heavy wooden blinds which are stored in the ice house, next to where the squirrels store their walnuts. There was a time when the blinds were hauled to the house on wheelbarrows. Now they’re hauled on a trailer pulled by a UTV. I graduated from helping with that chore two shoulder surgeries ago.

The green shutters on the house windows serve as blinds when closed and when that’s done the house is almost totally dark and the temperature seems to plummet. So that is the last thing done in each room. The refrigerators in the kitchen and basement are emptied and the doors propped open. Any remaining food in the cottage is removed or mice will find a way to get at it.

Most of what’s in the cottage is of sentimental value such as photos and a couple family paintings. The worn furniture provides more memories than comfort now. The most modern advancements are a dishwasher, new gutters and a septic system.

Because there are a lot of little things to remember to do each year when opening or closing the cottage, Catherine has created a list of the tasks. That list will be handed down to the next generation soon.

If you have a cabin you’ll probably agree that it’s when opening and closing it each year that you notice the things that need attention such as the roof or screens. That can either depress you or provide you with inspiration to make the place even more inviting.

It all depends on what a cabin (or cottage) means to you.