In the 1920s, two Jewish families from Cincinnati started spending their summers in a (then) very remote part of Canada called St. Joseph’s island, located on the northern shore of Lake Huron. One of those families was my mine.
My great grandfather Nathan Ransohoff learned about this part of the world inadvertently. His friend, Bob Goldman, had been a patient at a Cincinnati hospital being cared for by a nurse originally from St. Joseph’s Island, and she wouldn’t stop waxing poetic about her summers there. Compelled by her descriptions, Bob decided to go see it for himself and predictably, he too fell in love with it. He bought some land and promptly told my great grandparents about it. They did the same.
Getting to St. Joseph’s Island from Cincinnati was a three day journey that involved a train, to a boat, to a train, to an unreliable cable ferry that would shuttle travelers the short distance from the mainland to the island. When my great grandparents arrived, few amenities awaited them. Namely a ~600 square foot cabin (that still exists today), a few kerosene-fueled lamps and a sailboat to get around the lake. But it was heaven—a place to spend time with family, on the water and in nature. Nearly everyone who spent time there came to feel that way.
My grandparents, dad and his siblings sailing on Lake Huron
My grandpa, Bill Ransohoff
My grandma, Regine Ransohoff, on the sailboat, probably holding War & Peace which she read every 10 years starting at age 16
By the 1970s, word had gotten out. Other Cincinnati families had started to come up and most were bringing up their kids and now, grandkids. Things were starting to feel crowded.
Craving the quiet and isolation resembling the first few decades of summers there, my grandfather and dad started poking around for places they could expand to on the cheap. Eventually they found ~100 acres of shorefront property for sale across the lake—1.5 miles by boat. And the asking price was low ($13K) because most of the property was covered in rolling boulders of puddingstone rock, making it valueless to farmers. While it’d be a bit challenging to build a cabin on, it otherwise fit the bill—spacious, stunning, and isolated. They bought it.
The next year they built a cabin that’s essentially three square rooms stitched together—a big great room and a bedroom off either side. My grandparents sketched it themselves on dozens of little pages pulled from my grandpa’s prescription notepad. Our family now lovingly refers to this place as The Rockpile.
The Rockpile is unpainted, the wood unsanded and the structure unwinterized, making it habitable for just a few short months each year. The rest of the year it’s boarded up so that the windows that make up most of the front of the house don’t crack from the Canadian winters. In the last year 10 years, we’ve added 2 tiny cabins—each just a bed, a sink and a toilet—so that we all have a bit more space, but other than that it’s remained largely unchanged.
One of two tiny cabins, each with one bedroom and a bathroom
I’ve made an annual pilgrimage to the Rockpile every summer but one since I was born, and I’m here again this week. There are many reasons this place is special to me—the family history and the dedicated family time certainly among them. But this trip in particular I have been reflecting on how formative my summers up here were to me as a kid, how I’ve lost this a bit in my adulthood, and what it might look like to bring it back.