Elaine McCarthy is a good listener. In fact, she has used this talent to publish a book about the oral histories of many Lake Tomahawk residents who remember living in the Northwoods during the Great Depression and even before. Their recollections take one back when electricity was a luxury, as well as indoor plumbing; when the first telephone companies were built and hunting, fishing and gardening were not hobbies, but a means to feed hungry mouths.
Elaine herself has an interesting story to tell. She first came to Lake Tomahawk when she was 15 years old and diagnosed with tuberculosis. “I was living in Milwaukee at the time and my sister, mother and I were all diagnosed with it,” she said. “That disease broke up so many families.”
Before the McNaughton Correctional Camp was used to house inmates, it was known as the Lake Tomahawk State Camp and people from all over came to this peaceful and beautiful facility to recover from tuberculosis. “Tuberculosis was widespread when I was a youngster growing up,” said Elaine. “People were ordered to go to these sanatoriums so they wouldn’t spread the disease. You didn’t have a choice, you had to go.”
This was a frightening prospect for a young city girl and Elaine was filled with trepidation when she alighted into the Northwoods in the early 1950s. But she soon came to love it here. “Coming here really turned out to be the best thing for me,” she said. “There were 17 other girls at the camp and we all became friends and had so much fun. I also learned how much I really liked this country. I just fell in love with it.”
Back in when tuberculosis was prevalent, the “cure” was lots of bed rest, good food and fresh air, and all that was provided for patients who came to the Lake Tomahawk sanatorium. In addition, when patients recovered, they were tested to see what profession would suit them best. Elaine finished her high school career in Rhinelander and when she graduated, her aptitude test revealed she would excel as a secretary. She worked as a civil service transcriptionist for a while, but found it boring. She took another test which indicated nursing might be her forte. “I was against becoming a nurse,” she said. “I didn’t think I would be happy doing that at all. But my vocational counselor was right. Once I became a nurse, I loved it.”
Elaine graduated from the St. Agnes School of Nursing in Fond du Lac and got a job as a maternity nurse at St. Joe’s Hospital in Milwaukee. “I saw lots of babies come into this world,” she said.
And while she was happy in her career as a nurse and raising her son, Elaine longed for more adventure in her life. She also knew that Lake Tomahawk would always have a special place in her heart. Eventually, she bought a small cabin on the shores of Carr Lake, and it was her retreat and favorite vacation spot before she retired.
Once her son was raised, Elaine fulfilled her wish of big adventure and signed on to become a traveling nurse in Nome, Alaska. “The only way I could get to my patients was by plane,” she explained. “They would fly us into these little Eskimo villages and we would stay five days and then fly back to Nome for the weekend.”
Elaine loved living in this little Alaska town. “Everyone knew everyone else and we would always get together and have parties,” she said. “It was a great place to live.”
Eventually, though, this hard-working nurse had to quit. “The Piper Cub planes were not pressurized and my ears would always bleed,” she said. “You only sign on for these assignments for six-month intervals and so after four years, I had to quit because of ear problems.”
By then, Elaine was ready to retire and moved to her cabin in Lake Tomahawk, eventually relocating to a bigger house near town. But retirement was not easy for Elaine, who loves to keep busy. She applied to become an Oneida County traveling health nurse and got the job. “One of my duties was giving flu shots to the home-bound,” she said. “When I would visit these people, they always told me stories about their life living in Lake Tomahawk. Many grew up during the Depression and some were even here before that. I found these stories fascinating.”
All of these patients were elderly, and Elaine realized that when they died their histories would be lost forever. So she decided to interview and record their stories in a book. She interviewed 19 residents, almost all of whom are the children of the founders of this small lumberjack town. “They were all eager to tell their tale,” she said. “They hoped other generations could learn about what life was like in Lake Tomahawk when they were younger.”
In addition to her interviews, Elaine has also included a chapter about the Lake Tomahawk State Camp. Old-time photographs dotted throughout the chapters give a revealing look at the Northwoods during a time when lumber was king and the tourist trade was in its infancy.
Elaine retired from her nursing career a few years ago, but she keeps busy doing various volunteer duties. In fact, just a few years ago she volunteered through Global Volunteers, using her nursing skills in New Zealand and Tahiti. Another one of her favorite volunteer assignments is manning the Lake Tomahawk tourist booth in the summer months. It also gives her a chance to sell her book, especially to those who share a love of Wisconsin’s Northwoods and want to know more about its history. She dedicated her book to the families of those she interviewed and to those “making Lake Tomahawk Wisconsin one of the best places on earth to live.”
“You know, all the people I interviewed really loved living here,” she said. “Even though times were hard, they mostly remembered the good times. Everyone helped everyone else out and no one wanted to live anywhere else.”
Note: For more information about Elaine’s book, call her at (715) 277-4076.