Without the elders of his St. Paul community, Nathaniel Khaliq would never have found his piece of paradise in the North.
It started nearly 40 years ago when he hailed James Murray, a postman known in old Rondo as “The Singing Mailman” for his magnificent vocal performances.
“I would ask him, ‘How are you, Mr. Murray?” “recalls Khaliq, 78 years old. “He was like, ‘Oh, I was just in heaven.’ “
The postman was speaking then from his cabin on Lake Adney, a spring-fed gem 150 miles north in Crow Wing County. What was unusual about this lake, Khaliq would learn, was that one side of the shore was populated almost entirely by African-American cottagers.
Knowing that Khaliq was married and raising a family at the time, Mr Murray promised he would stay tuned for any leads on anyone looking to sell his cabin.
Some time later, Mr Murray put Khaliq and his wife in touch with Mrs Lillian Henderson, whose late husband had built their house on Lake Adney. Turns out she also lived in Rondo and asked to meet Khaliq and his wife, Vicky Davis, in person. When they arrived at her St. Paul home, Henderson peppered the couple with questions.
“My wife is just the most charming and persuasive person,” Khaliq told me. “I just kept my mouth shut and let it take the day away.”
“It meant so much to Nick, so it meant a lot to me,” Davis said. “I was just trying to make sure he could fulfill his dream.”
Davis’ charm apparently won over Mrs. Henderson. The couple learned they would take the next step: set foot on their 10 acres. As they drove towards the property, the sight of the lake – pristine beauty with clear water – took Khaliq’s breath away.
“I said, ‘Wow,'” Khaliq recalled. “Just, what did we do to deserve this?”
For most of his life, Khaliq didn’t think shack farming was for him. And even though Mrs. Henderson told the couple that she wanted the cabin to be theirs, Khaliq still thought it was out of reach.
“She threw a price there, and we said, ‘When do we have to pay?’ ” Khaliq recounted. “She said, ‘Well, you pay me when you can.’ It almost made me cry, just the cuteness of it.
“I also thought of Mr. Murray watching over us,” he added, “all those angels that God put in our lives to make things better for us.”
Khaliq and his wife eventually paid Ms Henderson the $20,000 she had requested. And while watching sunsets from the dock, enjoying campfires with the kids, and enjoying sunglasses and bass, they got to know their cabin neighbors and learned to appreciate the unique place of the Lake Adney in Minnesota history. Ms Henderson passed on a handmade wooden guest book that chronicled cabin visits since 1953.
“It occurred to us that we were going to be part of the legacy of this lake,” Khaliq said.
Almost 100 years of history
This legacy began almost a century ago. Many alumni credit an African American named George Gamble with putting down roots in the area. Born in Omaha, he served in World War I and moved to the Twin Cities, where he worked as a mechanic.
In the 1920s, Gamble purchased property on the south shore of Lake Adney from the Cuyler Adams Mining Co., then divided the land into parcels and sold them to black families, according to researchers at the Minnesota Historical Society. He died in 1962 in a cabin fire.
At one time, the cabins were owned by African Americans not only from St. Paul and Minneapolis, but also from Omaha and Chicago. A handful of black-owned resorts in the area have also drawn vacationers from as far away as New York and California, all by word of mouth. State senators, teachers, police detectives, doctors and lawyers have all descended on this part of the Minnesota Lakes Region.
“It was amazing,” said Patrick Patton, 86, who as a child helped his father build Patton’s Resort on nearby Goggle Lake. “The black community was really like an information highway. These people knew each other from across the country, told each other to their relatives and friends, and that’s how it spread.”
Their Up North stories are not unlike those of white Minnesotans. They came to Lake Adney to get away from the city, find solace in nature, hear the call of the loon, sip cocktails and play cards, teach their children how to anchor the boat, pick wild berries, walk in the woods under the stars, and tell stories of the colossal fish they nearly caught.
But owning lakefront property at a time when they were fighting for equality was especially a matter of pride for many African Americans, who were barred from buying homes in some Twin Cities communities due to racist lending practices and covenants. Lake Adney was one of the few vacation destinations where they felt welcome.
“There weren’t a lot of places for black families to go,” said Mica Lee Anders, a St. Paul-based artist and professional genealogist who has conducted interviews on the oral history of cabin owners in the Lake Adney for the Historical Society. “The 1940s, 50s and 60s were a divisive time. Everywhere you went you had to live with the oppression of being a black person in Minnesota.”
Lake Adney allowed those vacationers to relax and get away from it all, she said. They brought not only their children and grandchildren, but also other people from their communities – building a neighborhood away from the neighborhood.
“It was this little microcosm of Minnesota culture, tied to black culture, in the middle of a place where people don’t even associate with the fact that there are black people there,” Anders said.
Khaliq, former president of the NAACP of St. Paul, understands how special this is. The lake gave them a sense of refuge when he and Davis needed it most. Due to his activism against drug trafficking and crime in St. Paul, he and his family were targeted by gang members in the 80s and 90s. Their front porch was set on fire with a Molotov cocktail. Vandals threw a rock through their bay window.
“To get away from that and up through the woods was a wonderful thing,” Khaliq told me.
Adney’s story is also important to him for other reasons. He was just a boy when he watched his old neighborhood of Rondo, the heart of the black community of St. Paul, being torn up to build Interstate 94. A burning memory was coming home from school and to stop at his grandfather’s house, only to find policemen handcuffing his elderly grandfather because he wouldn’t give up his house.
“Because of our history, going through what we’ve been through as a people, we’ve lost so much,” Khaliq said. “We don’t have to worry about government action like a highway crossing Lake Adney. We can stick with it.”
Properties along Lake Adney have changed hands and there are far fewer black cottagers along its shores than there were decades ago. Demand for lake homes across the state has swelled in recent years, pricing in Minnesotans of all races. A lot of people probably wish they had a Mr. Murray or a Mrs. Henderson in their corner.
Khaliq says he will keep this piece of paradise for future generations because he knows how hard his elders worked to build a community there. He will do everything in his power to keep the cabin in the family forever.
The culture of the cabin is the attraction of the lake, the freedom to be.
In this case, it is also a legacy that deserves to be preserved.
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