Ernest Carl “Ober” Oberholtzer was born in Davenport, Iowa on February 6, 1884. His parents divorced when he was six, and he and his mother went to live with his maternal grandparents, Ernest and Sarah Carl, at 126 East 6th Street.
When he was seventeen, Ober had a bout of rheumatic fever so severe that his doctor gave him one year to live. However, Ober recovered enough—and caught up on his schoolwork well enough—to be accepted to Harvard.
After graduating, and with prospects of a career in landscape architecture, Ober visited the Minnesota-Ontario border for a summer and soon decided that he’d rather spend his life exploring, observing, and writing about the untouched wilderness of northern Minnesota.
His stories captivated their audiences, as did his marvelous photographs of the area, some of which are archived in the Special Collections Center of our library :
When he was thirty-five, Ober bought Mallard Island, near Quetico National Park, and lived there for the next fifty years, lecturing and lobbying for the preservation of the land and the culture of the Ojibwa tribe, with whom he had become good friends.
Although Ober never lived in Davenport again during his lifetime, he and his mother remained close until her death. She left him her house at 35 Oak Lane in Davenport and a shop at 422 West Second Street. The income from the business supported him for the rest of his life.
Ober helped form the Quetico-Superior Council, which was established to protect the area from developers and commercial businesses. He agreed to serve as president for the first few years, though his fellow members managed to kept him in that position for almost thirty. In 1934, President Roosevelt appointed Ober the leader of a Quentico-Superior Committee, giving him federal backing for his conservation work.
To make a long, interesting story woefully short, Ober continued his preservation efforts throughout his life, and was instrumental in pushing through several laws protecting the natural resources not only for Minnesota, but for the entire country.
On March 22, 1967, the Department of the Interior recognized his contribution by presenting him with their Distinguished Service Award—the highest honor they can give a private citizen.
Mr. Oberholzter died on June 6, 1977 in International Falls, Minnesota, and is buried in Oakdale Cemetery. His gravestone reads as follows:
Historical Photograph Collection, Davenport Public Library
“Oberholtzer Dies; Famed Naturalist.” Davenport Democrat, June 8, 1977, p. 30.
Paddock, Joe. Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Oberholtzer (St. Paul, Minn.: Minnesota Historical Society Press), 2001.