If anyone would have told Cloquet native Elizabeth “Biz” Harmala (now Robbins) that she’d one day be teaching school aboard a floating logging camp in Ketchikan, Alaska, she would probably have laughed, thinking it the furthest thing from her protected Midwest upbringing.
The pipedream turned into vivid reality, however, and Robbins recently published a book about her experiences that portrays a vulnerable and yet intriguing insight into her life in what still remains America’s greatest frontier.
Little could have prepared her for that experience, but her early life in Cloquet left her firmly anchored in the resolution that she could do whatever she had to do in life - and do it happily.
Robbins was born and raised in Cloquet, where her family lived on 20th Street.
“It was a very good place to live in the ’50s,” she reminisced. “The street was inhabited by families with young children, most of them younger, but several around my age - the Johnsons, Edmans, Stroms, Fultons, Pelkonens, Rosses, Petersons, to name a few. We often made our fun together, having parades down the street and playing hide and seek after dark. I walked to Garfield School for grades K-6, and then attended the junior and senior high schools, sometimes walking, sometimes catching a ride with my dad.”
Her dad, Charlie, was an insurance agent; her mom, Ragnhild, was a school teacher and she had one one younger brother, Joe. She recalls that growing up in that era was pleasant and comfortable, where kids made their own fun and life was filled with potential.
“Many 20th Street kids and I walked down to the 14th Street ice rink after dinner and skated until it closed - playing cops and robbers, pom pom pullaway, king of the hill, and the boys playing hockey,” she recalled. “I always wished there was an opportunity for me to play hockey, but I was never allowed. However, I was invited to play basketball. The Cloquet Civic Center fielded a girls team, which was very good before I got to high school. I think the stars were the Johnson twins. I was never any good, but I was tall and assigned to guard. The girls only played half court then, and only the forwards could shoot. I could stand between an opponent and the basket and put my hands up when she received the ball. While it was an opportunity for me to participate, the team never had the sparkle it did when the Johnson twins played.”
While Robbins may have lacked opportunities to play school sports (she grew up in the days before Title IX went into effect), she took advantage of the opportunities for extracurricular activities the school provided on other fronts, participating in student council, the school newspaper, the yearbook staff and class plays.
Her cousin, Karen Fulton, lived two doors down from her on 20th Street, and she introduced Biz to dances, boys, tennis and be-bop, and the two became best friends.
“I thought she was more worldly and, in retrospect, it may have been that she simply had a lot of common sense,” admitted Robbins.
“I had a circle of friends my age who were invaluable in the way teenage girls need friends,” she continued. “Perhaps the strongest group came from our participation in the marching (and concert) band. Linnea Landstrom, Karen Rosbacka and I sat in the first three chairs of the clarinet section, and we marched together in the last row when the band marched. Jack Sampson, our director, was an exacting taskmaster, and with his skill whipped us into credible musicians…and amazing athletes.
“Any Cloquet marching band alumni from the ’50s will tell you that marching to a cadence of about 120 beats per minute, wearing a dark wool suit and a heavy cap on a bright sunny humid day for any length of parade is a grueling experience,” she attested. “Yet those of us who were there did it with pride and perfection, many times. And Mr. Sampson, although he had a light-colored uniform, marched right along side us. We won several awards and were one of the headliners in the Chicagoland Music Festival one year.”
Robbins said another mentor of hers was Ludwig Hiti, her high school math teacher.
“With him, math became alive and beautiful and my favorite subject because I did so well,” she said. “I believed I could actually do something other than teach or nurse… which seemed to be the only options open for women at that time.”
And so it was that when she graduated from Cloquet High School, she wanted to work with numbers or do something in math, but what exactly that was, she didn’t quite know. Since she graduated valedictorian of the CHS class of ’59, she was awarded a Northwest Paper Company scholarship. That meant that she had at her disposal a larger number of schools to consider attending.
“I will always be grateful for that,” she said. “Not only did the mill’s scholarship provide the cost of tuition, books and fees, but it also provided a summer job in the paper mill which, at the time, paid $2.20 an hour, union wages, really big bucks for a college student.”
Robbins attended St. Olaf College for two years, majoring in math and minoring in German, but she found it to be a rough go.
“Because of my high school record, I was placed in advanced math classes,” she explained. “My first semester I earned an A, second a B, third a C, and then I thought long and hard. I didn’t understand calculus. A hard fact I learned was that I wasn’t really ‘smart’ - I just worked hard. Placed in the midst of all the other valedictorians and salutatorians, I didn’t feel that I was even average. However, I retained a sense of worth and changed my major… to education. After swearing I would never go into the field that so many in my family had joined, I thought it sounded like the best fit for me after I took a plethora of interest inventories.”
She transferred to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and graduated in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.
Robbins ended up in Colorado Springs as a result of another Cloquet connection. Her first love, high school classmate Fran Setterquist, had been admitted to the United States Air Force Academy, so upon college graduation, she decided she would move closer so the two of them could see each other more often.
“I signed a teaching contract in early summer, but when Fran and I met in Cloquet later, we broke up,” she admitted. “There I was with a job but no boyfriend. I went anyway and taught fifth grade. (Fran later graduated from the Air Force Academy, married somebody else, flew fighter jets, went to Vietnam, and was declared missing in action in the mid-1960s. His body was never found.)”
Following a subsequent marriage and divorce, she found a kindred spirit in fellow teacher Don Robbins, and later became his wife.
“We ran off one weekend to New Mexico and were married in the Raton courthouse,” she related. “I had to change schools (married couples couldn’t teach in the same building - a rule the Colorado Springs School District enforced), but was really happy. I knew I had made good decisions.”
The two had been married just three years when Don suddenly told her one day he was moving to Alaska and that he hoped she’d come along. He agreed to give a stunned Biz two years to think about it, and and the two ultimately moved to Ketchikan, arriving on the afternoon of their fifth anniversary.
“Our marriage was good, and I wanted to keep it, so I followed him,” said Biz.
The two of them taught in loggings camps off and on from 1978 to 1996, including some of the “floating” camps that were unique to that era.
“Tied to the trees behind the camp and anchored to the sea bottom fathoms below,” Robbins described one such camp in her book, “it was home to about two dozen families. Most of us lived in trailer houses bolted to large rafts, which were lashed together with heavy metal cables. A six-board walkway stretched from one end of the camp to the other….”
At times, the entire camp would be towed from one location to the next.
Robbins explained that all of the children in the camps who had not yet passed a rigorous swimming test were required to wear life jackets whenever they went outside the buildings. In the winter, snow often had to be shoveled off the floats in order to keep them level and safely above water, and food and supplies had to be flown in by float plane.
It was a happy - though somewhat unstable - existence that the two lived for many years, until Don’s untimely death from cancer in 1990. Biz made the difficult decision to go on teaching on her own and found a close circle of support in the people of the floating camps. After she eventually quit the camps and moved into Ketchikan, she sold the geodesic dome home that Don had built there as a summer and vacation home and moved into a condominium, where she lives yet today.
She was asked to teach at the University of Alaska Southeast in 1996 and she has taught there as an adjunct professor ever since, instructing students in developmental math and English and serving as a tutor in the campus learning center.
For several years Robbins nursed a growing desire to chronicle their time in Alaska, saving all of the letters home she wrote on her computer as well as those she and Don sent her mother-in-law, who they later found had saved them all over the years.
After Robbins began teaching at the university, she assigned her students to write from their personal experiences and began writing from her own as well.
“I knew that the family logging camp lifestyle was fading into history, and that our community on floats was worthy of remembering,” she said.
The material for her book began to come together when she joined a writing group about five years ago and it culminated with the publication of her book last summer. Fittingly enough, she chose the name, “Life Jacket: A Memoir of a Float Camp Teacher” as its title.
“Adrift without her partner, Biz learned to accept - and even ask for - support from the tight community,” the jacket notes on her book note. “Friends, students and nature all become her emotional life jacket, giving hope, inspiration, reasons to live fully and allowing her time to swim once again on her own.”
And indeed, when Robbins attended her Cloquet High School class’s 55th reunion last summer, she and a former classmate who now lives in the Twin Cities area kindled a relationship, and Robbins is now traveling to Minnesota much more often these days.
“Time will tell where I end up living,” she concluded.
"Life Jacket, A Memoir of a Float Camp Teacher," is available locally at the Carlton County Historical Society.