The Tilden Resort, Eagle River, Wisconsin
The Tilden, located in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, was a vacation resort and ranch owned by Florence and Bill Godding. There were twelve rustic knotty pine cottages nestled among the fragrant pines and sandy beach overlooking beautiful Meta Lake. The old wooden piers docked speedboats, fishing boats, and bait boxes. Off shore you could see crab traps bobbing atop the glistening waves. This was home for the three months of my summer vacation, and I felt privileged to be a part of it all as a ranch hand.
I was seventeen. Until then, had little respect for work ethics and was completely unaware of almost everything if it wasn’t related to horses. A city girl from the Chicago area, I had a dream to be anywhere but there, and was without a plan or the ambition to have one. My family was tightly knit; with no rock ever left unturned. Dinner was at five p.m. where not only food, but issues were laid out on the table for discussion. Dad was a white collar factory worker, and my Mom was at home ninety-five percent of the time making our house a home. The other five percent she spent talking on the phone, a rotary dial avocado green wall model, where she dangled from a cord on the kitchen wall.
To me, education meant I had to graduate high school. If college was offered, it must have been only an option of choice, and I chose not. I did graduate high school, barely, and that was only because my four year old Thoroughbred gelding was the weapon my Mother used as leverage to keep me motivated. It was made painfully clear he could be sold at any given time, offering up more time to fulfill my scholastic responsibilities. In other words, if I didn’t do well in school… goodbye horse. No worries, it didn’t happen.
The Tilden was a dramatic turning point for me; it was where I learned to stand on my own two feet. But I had to trip and stumble first before I fell into the harsh reality that I was on my own at the Tilden. Slackers were considered worse than the greenhorns. Lazy didn’t cut it there. You did your job or it only got tougher. What you didn’t know you better pay attention and learn quickly, as there was always a much more undesirable job just waiting to be handed out.
The cottages were equipped with all the modern conveniences. However, the help’s quarters were a bit different to say the least. We all stayed together in the old wooden bunkhouse on the grassy hill overlooking the resort, half way between the barn and the hitching posts bearing the sign Guided trail rides, ride at your own risk. Shawny, a seasoned trail horse, chewed everything, including the ‘r’ informing the guests of Guided Tail Rides. It was always worth a chuckle, which was exactly why we never fixed it.
On my first day, I stood before the deteriorating wooden screen door of that old cottage; I wasn’t expecting much of a room. But this place put a whole new meaning to the phrase buck up as the squeaky screen door slammed behind me. We had our own rooms, but the bathroom was fair game to anybody brave enough to use it. I learned quickly what the buckets neatly rowed against the wall were for. One of the ranch hands peering in the doorway of his room shed light on my dilemma, pointing to the white porcelain buckets. Finally he reached for a bucket and handed it to me, “What’s this for?” I asked.
“Fetch water up from the lake.” He replied.
The blank look on my face spurred a degrading attitude showing in his voice, as he blurted, “For the commode, cowgirl!”
“Oh, of course… the commode, thanks.” I mumbled, shaking my head in confusion.
I didn’t even know what a commode was, but after that attitudinal cowboy clunked his heavy footed, spur clanking boots across the creaky wooden floor and out the door, I managed to figure it out.
I then headed for my sleeping quarters, looking for the room off the garden as instructed. The garden was a wild and unruly vegetable garden that I later learned was far more significant than it appeared. But at this point I just opened doors looking for the room with a garden view. When I found it, it was not a disappointment that the garden was not lush with flowers; however I didn’t expect it to resemble a jungle either. But that didn’t matter, the fact that it was growing through the wall and into my room… was. The room was furnished with a bunk, dresser, and an empty oil lamp placed atop, my only source of light. No electricity and no heat in the cozy cottage on the hill… great.
I decided if the commode was good enough for everyone else, it was good enough for me. After all, some of the plumbing worked. The corner shower spit three streams of water that was just perfect for washing my hair that was almost to my waist. The tiny sink in the corner stood on legs, and had a convenient time saving leak that allowed me to wash my hands without ever even having to turn the water on. Yep, things were looking up, because I knew deep in my heart this job was everything I wanted, and I wasn’t about to crumble over a few inconveniences. Adjusting to the living conditions was not at all my biggest problem and I knew it, fitting in was. I had the credentials, but the real deal I was not, at least not to those guys; to them I was sure to be considered a berry pickin’ flatlander from the city. It really didn’t matter that I could ride at all. It didn’t take much skill to walk an hour through the woods on a dead broke plumb wore out mount, that’s for sure. My Hunter-Jumper background wouldn’t impress them, more likely it would rub them the wrong way. My horsemanship skills were not lacking by any means, but I boarded my horse and all the work involved in horse keeping was magically done by someone else. I looked more like a spoiled brat, and I was beginning to think that’s exactly what I was. I quickly unpacked my stuff, gathered my hair into a long braid down my back and sported a baseball cap. I changed into the tightest pair of jeans I had, figuring I could use all the help I could get, pulled on a pair of boots, and headed out the door, to where… I had no idea. There was an old familiar red wooden sign hanging on the porch down the hill reading ‘office,’ and that seemed like a good place as any to begin.
The rickety screen door opened to a huge room, vaguely resembling an office, but it was indeed a suitable common area for the staff. The walls on three sides were top to bottom, row after row of horse show ribbons and trophies. Against the fourth wall, there was a huge old fashion white porcelain double sink on legs. There were no cabinets, just two aisles in the middle of the room stacked with dishes on open shelves. Restaurant style pots and pans hung overhead from a ceiling rack set off to the side of the biggest iron stove I’d ever seen. Both were a few steps away from the walk-in pantry and the area designated for resort business. It was where the guests checked in and out and was nothing more than an old wooden desk covered with bills, mail, a phone, and a big jar filled with money labeled Florence and Bill’s vacation fund. The pantry was dark and dingy with enough food to feed an army, tightly packed on old shelf paper lifting at every edge. A light bulb hung from a wire overhead, but it never worked. I guess nobody figured there was any point in organizing the dry and canned goods if you couldn’t see them anyway.
We all worked together, but housekeeping, cooking, and laundry duties were just assumed to be a responsibility of only the gals. What that amounted to was, we did everything indoors plus barn duties. There were three of us and two guys, and two of the five were at the very least in their sixties, Florence and Bill.
Each day started before the sun came up, seven days a week, rain or shine. The horses were fed three times a day starting at five-thirty a.m. The corral and stalls were cleaned by six thirty and Florence cooked a hearty bacon and eggs breakfast by seven a.m. We all met in the office and sat around a big table with a picnic style red checkered plastic tablecloth beneath an array of dishes that didn’t match. Bill did the dishes, always.
Florence fancied horses; the ribbons and trophies wallpapering the walls were all hers. On the resort she complained there was never enough time to get everything done, but come weekends it was quite a different story. She was a competitor at the local rodeos where she was a respected barrel racer, still running against the clock, but there, less time was nothing to complain about. It made her a winner, always placing her at the top of her game.
Cleaning cottages and catering to the guests’ every need was Florence’s responsibility. She kept order, handed out chores, and undoubtedly was in charge of everything. Her attire was the traditional rodeo dress code, not just on the weekends but everyday. Polyester slacks in bright colors and short sleeved plaid blouses with pearl snaps. Personalized with her own special trademark, white stitching on her slacks, and her belts always with white lacing around the edges. Even her saddles were trimmed with a contrast of leather lacing, and of course the more silver the better.
I knew Florence since I was child; she ponied me off her lead horse for those hour long trail rides through the woods and told me stories only a real cowgirl would know. She taught me everything I was willing to learn about horses year after year during the two weeks my family vacationed across the road at Tremel’s Resort.
I wasn’t really sure why she asked me to join the staff that year, but I knew because she did, I never questioned my place in life… my only struggle was how to get there.
I didn’t know much about Florence’s husband Bill. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know him at all. I thought him to be odd, but in an interesting way. His humor was even odder than his character, but I was intrigued by his uniqueness.
I quickly learned my usefulness was quite limited regarding everyday common chores. Simple things like laundry, fixing a basic lunch, or offering help to someone else, especially if it wasn’t my job.
Every Monday was wash day, right after breakfast till as long as it took to finish. If it was just ours, it would have been simple enough. But the linens for the entire resort using a wringer washer gave me first hand experience what it must have been like in Bedrock as Wilma Flintstone. There wasn’t a clothes dryer, everything was line dried and Florence used a mangle to press. I hadn’t a clue how to do any one of those vile things, and because I didn’t, it became my job to learn. It took all morning for Florence just to teach me how to hang clothes properly on a clothesline. Forget the wringer washer, I think she knew I would have probably fed my arm through it and been more trouble than worth. After a few times, what once took all day, together we finished by noon.
Bill was always leaving subtle hints to help those who may need it. Of course, I was usually oblivious to whom and where that might be. It didn’t take me all day to clean stalls, feed, and bring horses back and forth from the paddock for trail rides. Work days were twelve hours long, but there was down time, not freedom, just idle time. The other hands were busy fixing fences or plumbing, or whatever else. Florence was never idle, and still had to find time to feed all of us. Cooking was a strange territory for me, and even stranger was the food found in the pantry. Watching Bill floundering around in the kitchen looking for a way to help when Florence was too busy to put together something for lunch unfortunately was a clue for me to help, and that went right over my head.
Every night at eight thirty PM Florence and Bill went to bed, and as exhausted as we all were, we managed to sneak out of the cottage after they fell asleep. We raided the kitchen and sat around that big square wooden table and shared stories in whatever moonlight peered through the window. We had free room and board and an extremely nominal salary. There was little need for rules, since we were all too tired and too broke to do anything other than work and sleep anyway. One guy had a car, an old piece of junk Cadillac. We went to town once a week for life’s necessities, like cigarettes and junk food to share late at night. Sharing the cabin on the hill was not an issue over time. We all got along and managed to have more fun focusing on its bare bones accommodations than to complain about it.
Bill kept busy everyday doing small odd jobs, or tended to his pride and joy, the vegetable garden. His health was failing, and he retired to his room every afternoon for a long nap. None of us knew what he suffered from other than noticeable dizzy spells and fatigue. At meal time he read the newspaper, cutting out articles and jokes with a razor blade. It didn’t even matter what it was, if it was interesting enough to read he cut it out and saved it. He’d poke fun at us all, tell jokes, and read from his cut out newspaper clippings using a language all his own of made up words. Silly things, for instance, ‘Oh for heaven snakes, John Smith is in the horsepistol.’ Of course… every one of us understood John Smith was in the hospital. His vocabulary of made-up words was huge and his humor spilled from the heart adding even more character to his already eccentric ways. He wore baggy jeans and a faded flannel shirt, but his clothes didn’t fool me. Behind his tiny wire glasses was a man I grew to respect for his wisdom and integrity.
Bill died an old man, and Florence lived into her nineties. Their son took over the resort and cared for her until her passing in her favorite cottage, number ten. The Tilden is still there, sold off as summer vacation homes, but respectfully intact and still offering the two cabins up on the hill as vacation rentals, at least last I heard. The old cottage on the hill for the ranch hands was moved into town by their son, who turned it into a historic beauty as a store front for his hand-crafted wood furniture business.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized how important the Tilden experience was, and that it really had little to do with the horses at all. They were just possibly the only responsibility for which I was willing to put forth the effort. What I didn’t know was the learning experience there taught me what effort and responsibility were.
Summing up, The Tilden Resort is easy for me to understand now as an adult. The feelings of disappointment for my incapabilities were certainly valid, but were expected by Florence and Bill before I even arrived – that was why I was there. I left there knowing never to expect any more than I was willing to give, to never doubt my capabilities in achieving a goal. Lastly, and most important, life is a team effort.
I give my parents well-deserved credit for sending me to The Tilden Resort. They recognized my weaknesses and used the one available asset they had to help me grow up, through my love of horses.
Kurt, the spur clanking cowboy, I give him two credits, and shedding light upon the term commode is definitely not one of them. Before him, the only knot I knew how to tie was my shoelace. His gift of the cowboy knot was a gift that has kept on giving all these years. From a gal who wore her jeans too tight, too low, and a t-shirt way too short, I remember him as a man who deserves to be recognized as the definition of a true gentleman, and should be given a medal hands down – for hands off.
Florence and Bill, may they rest in peace knowing all the good they’ve done for others will never be forgotten. I carry their wisdom within and still hear their voices of encouragement behind me. My accomplishments to some may seem few, but I’ve never settled for less to get just enough. I hung in there long enough to accomplish the only thing that ever really mattered. A sign, on my own front porch…
THE TILDEN BAR NONE RANCH
Better Known as TBN Ranch