Elton Brown & This Beloved Country
Updated: Jul 21
People who have had the pleasure of meeting Elton Brown may be surprised to know that he was once shy. Perhaps he wasn't always as outgoing as he is now, but he has always been observant, and thus he learned how to be, as he says, not shy. He knew that pastors of small churches can’t be shy. They need to be good at inviting, welcoming, and connecting people.
Elton attended Yale Divinity School, graduating in 1968. Ultimately, Elton was appointed to a little church in south Minneapolis and off he and his wife Emily went to work and raise their family in Minnesota.
In those days it was expected of Methodist ministers, particularly the younger ones, to put in a week each summer as a camp counselor, which required training. Elton signed up for a mid-May Boundary Water training trip. “It was magical!”
Elton was immediately hooked on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Emily was not far behind. Slowly they amassed enough packs and supplies to be able to outfit themselves and their four children. They got smarter about backcountry travels with practice, becoming more and more efficient. Since they could outfit themselves, Elton jokes that it was actually less expensive to go on a vacation into the Boundary Waters than it was to stay home.
Eventually, in his role as a minister, Elton guided youth and adult groups into the Boundary Waters, which emboldened him to become a solo Wilderness traveler. One epic summer he took eight canoe camping trips. We can all agree that paddling canoe country is a worthy endeavor because it helps one gain valuable skills, grow competence, experience true adventure, and earn stories (and, goodness, does Elton have stories!).
“One of my goals in this beloved country was to create a mental map. How does this all work? In other words, where does the water flow? How does this route connect with that route?” This curiosity fueled his ongoing desire to try new entry points, including some in Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park.
“I never had an answer when people would ask which is my favorite lake,” Elton tells me. “They’re all wonderful. When guiding people who aren’t experienced in the Boundary Waters, they often have the impulse to find a campsite and stay there, assuming that all the lakes are the same. But every lake is different! Every lake has its own personality. Even though it’s the same building blocks – rocks, water, trees – the variations of the basic combinations are amazing.”
As retirement drew nearer, Elton and Emily bought a cabin north of Ely. On the first Sunday of a 6-month Sabbatical, Elton attended Ely United Methodist Church and mentioned that they had purchased the home, but didn’t have any furniture. Next thing you know – that afternoon in fact – a fellow named Lyman Childers, who made diamond willow furniture, brought them a chair. Then Butch and Lucy Dieslin donated a bed frame and a few other things. Such is the neighborliness of this place.
Emily likes to tell the story about the day she and Elton moved to Ely. After unloading their things, they went to town for the Farmers Market. A City Band concert was scheduled to take place there, but it was moved indoors on account of rain. Wayne Marshall was typically the tuba player, but on that day he was conducting. Although Elton was new in town, he knew him well enough and said, “Well why don’t you grab my tuba and play in the concert.”
“On our first day!” Elton exclaims.
After the band concert they went to The Chocolate Moose to celebrate. Locals Rosario and Florencia were there, singing with their guitars. Elton will never forget how celebratory it felt, how welcome their new community made them feel.
“Here we are, I’m in the band!”
Moving to Ely was something Elton and Emily felt deeply compelled to do. They knew they would love the four seasons, the variety of outdoor activities, and all that comes with living in the north. What they didn’t know was, what would it really be like to become a resident of a rural community?
“Well, any hope or expectations we had have been far exceeded,” Elton assures me. “I always brag about how many concerts and theater performances, educational opportunities, festivals, and chances to volunteer in this community – plus our growing circle of great friends.”
Meanwhile, Elton had become an avid cross country skier a few years after moving to Minnesota in the early 1970s. Some young adults affiliated with the Minneapolis churches planned a skiing retreat and urged Elton to get some skis and join them.
The rest is history.
Elton has completed over 90 full ski marathons. While they were still going, he regularly participated in the 50K Wilderness Trek ski races from Ely to Tower.
Since retirement 13 years ago, Elton has offered free adult skate ski lessons at Hidden Valley Recreation Area, something he’s able to do by virtue of the fact that he appears to go to Hidden Valley daily throughout ski season.
Ely is a special place
Elton talks a lot about Ely being a special place in terms of access to nature and outdoor recreation, but he recognizes there is more to what makes Ely special than all that.
“The college is really a blessing,” he reminds me. Local theater productions and dance performances are often hosted at the college. Professors share their expertise as featured speakers at our weekly community forum called Tuesday Group. Additionally, the college makes a major contribution to our economy. “Consider graduation weekend, when 600+ people come to town to engage in pomp and circumstance!” Elton would know; for several years his brass ensemble, The Largemouth Brass, played for the VCC graduation ceremony.
Elton recognizes that Ely is also blessed by the many camps that surround it. They bring busloads of kids into town to buy the raincoats they forgot, or ice cream at the end of the week. What’s more, a lot of those kids come back 50 years later to retire to the place where they had some of the best experiences of their lives. Many camp staff remain in the area long after their posts have ended. “These gifted and energetic people love Ely, marry each other, and stay here to raise their families. Ely has a lot going for it. The camps and college are something to celebrate.”
Elton also celebrates the fact that Ely’s Public School is small; no one gets lost in the shuffle. “Students who graduate from Ely High School are successful. Some go on to good colleges, some have other kinds of ventures. They are doing great things. They are not behind when they get to that stage of life; they excel. I’m just amazed at how successful our youth are when they go out into the world!”
The unique combination of all these things produces another factor that makes Ely a special place, and that is that we have a larger-than-average share of really interesting – astonishing, even – human stories. Sigurd Olson, Bob Cary, Mike Hillman, Jim Brandenberg, Will Steger, Paul Schurke, and so on. Adventurers, storytellers, artists, and more. Present too is a rising generation that aren’t even recognized among us yet – like Jason Zabokrtsky and Peta Barrett, and so many others: Remarkable people whose stories are worth disseminating. These are larger than life characters that we get to live among.
Elton didn’t really understand what Tuesday Group was when he first heard about it in the Ely Timberjay. He thought it was something that required membership, but did eventually make it to a Tuesday Group program and realized that it is free and open to anyone.
Nowadays Elton and Emily attend almost every single Tuesday Group program throughout the year, because they always learn something, see old friends, and make new friends. They value the in-person, face-to-face community contact provided by the Tuesday Group gatherings.
“So how did you become involved with Tuesday Group?” I ask Elton.
Elton doesn’t remember exactly when or how he became the de facto coordinator for the semi-regular “Meet New Elyites” Tuesday Group sessions. That’s how I was introduced to Elton. He caught wind that there was a new employee working at Piragis Northwoods Company, and subsequently stopped in to chat with my spouse Eric every-so-often until Eric agreed to introduce himself as a new Elyite.
And so we did; Eric and I joined a handful of other people in telling Tuesday Group attendees about how we came to Ely, what we do for work, and what we do for fun. It used to be that New Elyites sessions were hosted once or twice a year, but momentum has been building. Thanks to Elton and an apparent growing interest in relocating to the area, Tuesday Group has hosted seven Meet New Elyites programs in just the last year!
“What I’m doing now is using the skills I learned to build up the community of a small church to build up the community of Ely.”
Elton continues to seek out new residents, introducing himself and welcoming them to our community. But on the off chance he’s not able to scout out every single new resident, I ask if he has a message for them. Indeed, he does:
“Welcome! Congratulations on your decision. I feel confident based on our experience that you will thrive and love it here, and you can do whatever you want. In moving to Ely, I found I could be fully who I am, and I think you’ll find the same is true for you. Identify opportunities to make a difference, and go for it, because you truly can make a difference in a small town!”