Tom’s Burned Down Cafe: What happens at art camp stays at art camp-Part 2b

An adventure worth telling provides at least one sterling moment when participants have the option of choosing the path to notoriety. At the 2012 Moonlake Art Camp and Pie Festival, a trip to Madeline Island and Tom’s Burned Down Cafe offered that moment. The following is one account of what happened on August 24, 2012.

Art Camp: Friday, August 24, 2012

8am-ish  No bell heralds a new day at Moonlake. Campers are at there leisure as to when the day commences. Awake at my own pace, notoriety is not on my radar. Our hostess has prepared us for a civilized outing promising the experience of beauty and excellent food. The rest is up for grabs.

Leftover pie makes a great breakfast and our collective accomodating natures make a discussion about the day’s activities a stressless and organic process. The plan is simple, direct and elegant–an early afternoon drive to Bayfield to visit Judy’s favorite jewelry artist. Then a ferry ride to Madeline Island, a place I have heard about all my adult life but have never visited. After a little sightseeing, we will board the the ferry and return to Bayfield and evening reservations at the Wild Rice Restaurant.

Uniform for the day is also civilized. Comfortable, artistic, and enough she-she to get us in the door of an Urbanspoon’s 5-star establishment.

The Drive

If you believe in God, then the Iron River/Bayfield area of northern Wisconsin must surely be evidence of divine magnificence. You can still travel miles of spectacular birch groves, pine forests, and long shorelines. Hawks. Sea gulls. Golden fields. Wild vines and berry pocked bushes. Miles of it.


The drive is eye candy. Massive tracks of forest, deer, turkey and vast fields of hay, grasses, and marsh. First stop in Bayfield is Donalee Designs Silversmith Jewelry. Friend Judy had trained her sweet David to rely on Donalee for any occasion gifts. I, myself, was the fond recipient of Dave’s and Judy’s generosity when a beautiful Donalee pendant and earrings showed up to commemorate my phd.

The current trip to Donalee’s is bittersweet. She is packing up shop after 20 years in Bayfield. This is our last chance to add a Donalee original to our collection. On this occasion, Judy shows restraint. Linda and I gravitate to the clearance case and we both get lucky. Linda settles on a beautiful pale blue sherbet colored frosted baubles hanging from a large angularly bent oval ear wires. I quickly settle on a carved wood ring and reluctantly walk away from a statement necklace of large organically shaped clear quartz beads. This is a modern version of a great pearl necklace. Something you could wear with absolutely everything. Yes. I showed great strength in walking away. My knees didn’t cave until two days later when I called to have them send it to me. Trinkets in tow, we head for the ferry.

The Madeline Island Ferry

A fine day. The weather has been more than pleasant. 70’s-80’s. The intense heat of the plains has not found it’s way to Lake Superior. The sun gleams on the blue waters and the sky is nearly cloudless. The ride over is an opportunity to catch candid snaps of my co-campers and log a few shots that will never do justice to the size or glory of the great Superior lake and its quaint islands. My secret hope is that, in the future, a glimpse will resurrect memories of what it is like to skim the waters with my hair flying and two dear friends nearby.

The waters create a place of meditation even amidst a ferry full of people. The shores are not hilly but from a distance even the slight variance in forest fields creates layers of subtly different blues.

Oh to be on the deck of that sailboat with my watercolors, a pad of Strathmore, the shore before me, and only the sound of lapping waters. Sheer bliss.

Tom’s Burned Down Cafe

Twenty minutes gets you to Madeline Island‘s main settlement, LaPointe. Off on foot, we have a few hours. Madeline is the largest of the Apostle Islands. It is the traditional spiritual center of the Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, and was one of the earliest settlements in the area. We pass the LaPointe post office headed toward a visitor center with hopes of finding a little place to grab a cup of coffee and a snack. Closed but only a block  east there is a motley circus of structures connected to a tent. “What’s that?” “Oh, Tom’s Burned Down Cafe,” Judy responds. “Let’s go there,” agree the curious three.

As we get closer, Judy fills us in on the history of this strange and bizarre place. “It’s burned down three times.” Clearly the stubborn proprietors have a sense of humor. Tom’s looks like a collection of everything everyone else wanted to unload–a wrecked car semi-buried under the bar, used tarps, old wood fencing, leftover plywood, unwanted lawn chairs, tired signage. All covered with urban adages. We love it! And so do bikers, groupies, aging rock ‘n rollers who long for the good old days— any one who wants a laugh and a few hours away from responsibility and reality. We are decidedly over-dressed and in critical want of tattoos based on our cohort.

Margaritas in pint jars will make those differences disappear. Soon we are sucked into the sport of crowd watching. A 40-something is into
dancing by herself and oblivious to bystanders. Molly thinks we’re city snobs until Judy ambles over to tell her that she likes her moves–soon we are buddies. She and her chain smoking sidekick, Debbie, are band groupies. They follow the mostly aging blues players who are setting up behind us but not before ceremoniously stripping off a few shirts. Initially, Molly comes off as a light-weight but in conversation we learn that she has a quality control job in a large firm in Minneapolis and a talent for drawing. We are outed as artists and now the mutual admiration has grown. She whips out her smartphone and summons her drawings. The surprise is –she is really good.

Our kindredness and the margaritas have mellowed us all including the aging blues players. Pretty soon the 60-ish bass player is making his rounds flirting and working hard to impress upon us that he comes from money. When he gets to Judy, she tolerates a few minutes and determines an exit is in order. Molly and Debbie beg us to stay, but Judy has her eye on reservations and keeping us out of trouble so that we can actually make them. We have had a successful trip to the island — stockpiled amusement and also worked out the plans for a cottage industry inspired by the vintage bead necklace Judy made and is wearing. And so we leave our soul sisters to serve as our proxies at the night’s activities in Tom’s Burned Down Cafe. It is my belief (and not so private hope) that this will become a pilgrimage trip on all future camps at Moonlake.

I leave you with these quintessential images of  Tom’s and in fond anticipation of the final installment of What Happens at Art Camp, Stays at Art Camp entitled “The Art of Dining.” There will, of course, be art, dining, and much more including a feast at the Wild Rice Restaurant and an unforgettable breakfast at the Delta Diner.


About vbassoc

Donna Van Bogaert is a researcher and consultant in the field of cognitive styles, health communication, and organizational communication and behavior. Her business, Van Bogaert & Associates, Inc., specializes in cognitive-based coaching, management consulting, and leadership development. When the winds are blowing her way, she travels and talks about workplace potential and creative problem solving. In another life, Donna sings jazz. For a very long time, she fronted two 18-piece big bands —All That Jazz (Madison, WI) and The Gardenia Big Band (Rockford, IL). She currently resides in Cincinnati, Ohio where, in a third parallel universe, she leads a media branch of a national research institute. Mostly she has returned to painting, poetry, and plotting the next chapter of her life.
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