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Over the Borderline: The Little Bit of Minnesota That Could Have Gone Canadian

If you look at a map of North America, you’ll notice that the Canada–United States border is strikingly straight from the Pacific Ocean to about a third of the way across Minnesota, where it hiccups and then squiggles the rest of the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The border first started to get worked out between the U.S. and Great Britain (Canada wasn't an independent country until after most of the border was laid down) not long after the American Revolution, and was updated and amended in a series of treaties over the next few decades.

Some parts were easy to work out: that straight line just runs along the 49th parallel. In other parts, the American and British negotiators got a little fancy. Around Minnesota, they established the border as extending from the northwesternmost point of the Lake of the Woods due west to the head of the Mississippi River.

All well and good, except that the source of the Mississippi River, Lake Itasca, was farther south than where they'd expected it to be, and couldn’t be intersected by a line running west from the Lake of the Woods. (Misplacing the Mississippi was a blunder, yes, but the map they were working with, drawn by doctor and botanist John Mitchell in 1750, was the most comprehensive map of eastern North America from that era. With a lesser map, things might have been even worse, and the Mitchell map was used for settling US-Canadian border disputes well into the 20th century.)

A survey team was sent to the area to correct the error and finish establishing the border by connecting the northwesternmost point of the lake directly to the 49th parallel. When the team located the northwest point, the direct north-south line they drew to the 49th intersected a little chunk of land belonging to the U.S. and a bay belonging to Canada, cutting the American land off from the rest of the country and leaving it dangling in the breeze.

Life in the Angle

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This is the Northwest Angle and Islands, a small Minnesota exclave hanging off of Manitoba on the Lake of the Woods. Most of Angle Township’s 596.3 square miles is made up of water. The remaining 123 square miles of land (mostly uninhabited and held in trust by the Red Lake Indian Reservation) are home to 152 Minnesotans who have the honor of living at the northernmost point of the contiguous U.S.

If you want to visit the Angle now, you’ll need to drive up through Minnesota to the Canadian border and then, ignoring the little part of your brain that logically demands you stay in the United States to visit a Minnesota town, cross into Manitoba and go through Canadian customs. You’ll pass a few border towns, hang a right after Moose Lake, and continue along several kilometers of unpaved road before crossing another border back into the United States. Here, you’ll need to go through customs again, though it's a little different from the first time. At the intersection of two gravel roads a few miles past the border crossing is a place called Jim’s Corner, where you’ll stop, go into the shack on the side of the road, and call a U.S. Customs agent via videophone to make your declarations. If you don’t want to make the road trip through Canada, you can also reach the Angle from the rest of Minnesota by crossing the Lake of the Woods by plane, boat, or, when the lake is frozen over, car.

A little ways past Jim’s Corner, you’ll find the Angle Inlet School, the last one-room schoolhouse in the state. Since 1985, the school’s class has been taught by Linda Kastl and has fluctuated in size between five and 16 students. For a few years in the 1990s, the school closed because the enrollment was too low. Farther down the road, you’ll find the police station and Bob Nunn, the township’s lone cop.

At the edge of the Angle is the Lake of the Woods—and some of the best walleye fishing spots in North America. Fishing is what sustains tourism, the local economy, and the livelihood of most everyone living in the Angle, and a problem with fishing is what kicked into motion a half-serious attempt at secession during late 1990s.

The Walleye Problem

It started like this: Ontario, which shares a border with Minnesota that runs through the Lake of the Woods, was happy to let people staying at Angle resorts fish in Canadian waters, but imposed high fees, catch-and-release regulations, and loads of paperwork on them. Fishermen who stayed at Canadian resorts on the lake, on the other hand, had a much easier time getting licensed, getting out on the water, and keeping more of their catch. Resort occupancy in the Angle dropped off, restaurants were empty night after night, and fishing guides sat at the dock all day.

Angle residents and business owners cried foul to the federal government, calling Ontario’s fishing regulations discriminatory. Their complaints went largely ignored until 1997, when U.S. Representative Collin Peterson, of Minnesota’s Seventh District, proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow the residents of the Angle to vote on seceding from the United States and joining Canada.

For the next few days after that, the little town was a media circus. Finally, people were paying attention. It became clear from the sound bites provided by the locals on the evening news that they didn’t really want to secede, but they knew that throwing that word around would finally get someone to do something about their walleye problem. That someone turned out to be Jim Southwick, a Minneapolis-based attorney who had worked as the U.S. Trade Representative lawyer on NAFTA issues. Southwick saw the Canadian fishing regulations as a clear NAFTA violation and, with the help of the Minnesota Commissioner of Trade and Economic Development, the Chief of Fisheries, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and others in Governor Jesse Ventura’s administration, quickly got the Canadians to revoke their regulations.

Sport fishermen began to return to the Angle, filling the lodges and restaurants and rental boats and keeping their whole catch, no matter which side of the lake they were on. The locals, flush with cash from renewed business and still a little high from their moment in the spotlight, had just one loose end to finally tie up: Apologizing profusely to local Red Lake chief Bobby Whitefeather, whose tribe owns the lion’s share of the Angle’s land, but who was not consulted about whether or not he and the tribe wanted to go Canuck.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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