In the fall of 1937, Sigurd Olson converted a one-car garage located in front of his Ely, Minnesota, home into a simple writing studio that he called “the shack.” Olson spent many hours writing in the shack, and over the years it accumulated a rich assortment of items significant to Olson—old fishing hats, pipes, photos, notecards with quotations, maps, unusual rocks, and artifacts from the fur trade recovered below rapids in the Boundary Waters.
For the most part, the shack and the items it contained were left undisturbed and undocumented for more than a decade after Olson’s death on January 13, 1982. Then, in January of 1995, the National Park Service donated the services of its regional curator to inventory and assess the condition of the items in the shack. The inventory completed by the curator was one of the first significant activities of the Sigurd Olson Legacy Project.
Initiated in October of 1993, when the Olson family donated many of Sigurd’s papers, personal effects, and his professional library to the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, the Sigurd Olson Legacy Project focused on documenting and curating archival items owned by Sigurd and Elizabeth Olson and was funded by a bequest from James T. McMillan, who had been a Loon Ranger and advisory board member for the Institute.
As described in a collections plan prepared by Alan Craig, an Institute intern who worked extensively on the Legacy Project, the Olson materials donated to the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute may be divided into six categories:
- The Olson Library
- Personal effects and mementos
- Achievements in literature and conservation
- Early work and miscellaneous ephemera
- Sound recordings
The Olson Library includes several hundred volumes dedicated to the themes of nature, philosophy, ecology, and northern exploration. Many are first editions, out of print, rare, or inscribed by the authors to Sigurd Olson. A number of the volumes also contain marginal notes in Olson’s hand and original correspondence, photographs, and other ephemera between the pages.
Personal effects in the collection include Olson’s camping and outdoor gear, a thumb-woven Voyageur sash, which dates to 1860s Montreal, a pair of Indigenous snowshoes, a Finish puukko, and a set of hand-beaded moccasins. Mementos of Olson’s literary and conservation achievements include his 1974 John Burroughs Medal and his John Muir award. Notably, the collection also includes the original Ansel Adams photographic print Aspens, Northern New Mexico, which Adams personally presented to Olson when he received the John Muir award.
Other items of interest in the collection include magazines containing many of Olson’s earliest published articles, sound recordings of significant speeches, his first licenses for guiding in the Quetico-Superior canoe country, and his signature hat and Peterson pipe.
Today, many of the most significant items in the Institute’s collection of archival materials can be viewed in a beautiful display case designed by Alan Craig and located in the entry way to the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. The Olson Library has been returned on a long-term loan to its original location in the Olsons’ Ely home, which is now owned by the Listening Point Foundation. Additional archival materials of Sigurd and Elizabeth’s are held by the Minnesota Historical Society, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the Listening Point Foundation.
Work on the Sigurd Olson Legacy Project is ongoing at the Institute, and delightful tidbits of Olson’s legacy continue to be discovered in the corners of archival boxes and among the pages of his many papers and books.