Just down Federal Forest Highway 16 is one of the most beautiful spots on earth. Tepee Lake. 124 acres of clear water. Encircled by larch, pine, and balsam. Swimming below are bluegill, largemouth bass, Northern pike, and walleye.
The Federal government kept the place up for camping, boating, even grooming a small beach. We spent hours on that beach. Swimming, wading, sand castles, chasing minnows…the whole works.
We did have to share this bit of paradise. Just down the shoreline from the beach was a cabin with a wide front porch. A long pier stared across the lake. Inside this cabin lurked a mystery. Bigger than life. I had heard the stories from folks who had settled in these woods during what I considered to be the Stone Age (or more specifically the Paleolithic Period). In my child’s mind, these tales from the past left me feeling I had missed out. I marveled over these glamorous times of the backwoods when such things didn’t seem possible.
But they were.
Johnny Jacobs saw it all. Johnny’s camp was upstream from our cabin. He was a Lebanese man who had immigrated to America and found his piece of paradise on the banks of the Paint River. He owned a specialty store in Iron River, but his heart firmly belonged in his large one room log cabin that featured wide windows overlooking the stream. Even after a stroke robbed Johnny of his ability to walk, he still came every chance he could get strolling through the woods in his wheelchair. He was simply unstoppable.
Johnny was a handsome man even in his old age. He and his wife, Doris, had three boys. Each one more dreamy than the next. My sister and I sighed over the sons, but we were considerably younger, and it was simply unrequited puppy love. (The boys grew up to be a doctor, lawyer, and dentist.) Johnny loved my father and called dad, “My Dear Relative.” He affection drifted down to my sister, brother, and me. We would sit spellbound as he spoke of the wild west days of the Northwoods. He was an effusive man with kind brown eyes who talked passionately…his hands gesticulating as he emphasized a point. His long fingers mesmerized me. Each wore a sparkling diamond ring. Johnny would often point to one diamond or the other with promises that one day they would be ours. (That never happened, but Johnny was always a generous man to our family.)
The most exciting stories involved Tepee Lake and the mysterious cabin. Intermittently throughout the summer, Johnny would see long, black, stretch limousines flash down FFH 16. The limos were crammed with cooks, housekeepers, servers, and bodyguards. “There would be a regular parade of big sedans and limos,” he told us. Riding in the front vehicle was quite possibly one of the most infamous men in the country. James Riddle Hoffa. Best known as “Jimmy”. Hoffa was an American labor union leader who served as President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union.
Hoffa’s Tepee Lake retreat was his special go-to place. The home had been built in the 1930’s and passed through several owners before Hoffa purchased it. It was a large square log cabin with plenty of space for his family and staff. Outbuildings for guards and sentries surrounded the encampment.
Whether or not Johnny personally knew Jimmy Hoffa was something he would never confirm or deny. It was simply another mystery. But Johnny was an outgoing social man with many, many friends. He wouldn’t surprise me if the two had been acquaintances.
Both men embraced the outdoors. Johnny was an avid fisherman and Hoffa could also been seen rowing around Lake Tepee in his fishing boat.
Hoffa took no chances with his security at the lake. His compound was secured with a chain link fence that featured coils of steel at the top. That fence even ran into the lake. When in residence, guards were posted on the grounds.
As a child, I remember the fence and often wondered why it stuck out into the lake. The small beach we frequented sat next to Hoffa’s cabin. Of course a silly fence in the lake didn’t dissuade me from swimming around it to explore the forbidden territory. I was an excellent swimmer and had no difficulty making it over to the pier. There I would crouch next to the dock’s pylons and peer intensely at the home waiting for the specter of the infamous man. But by this time it was the early seventies, and Hoffa didn’t come up to the UP as often as he had. The place was mostly deserted and quiet. The only excitement I ever dredged up was an old tin coffee pot under the dock. It was pocked with bullet holes. I imagined Hoffa staring gimlet-eyed from the porch taking shots at his metal target.
Stories from Johnny told of feasts at the Hoffa camp. When he and his staff departed, they would throw a party for the neighbors with their leftover provisions. Apparently it was quite an event.
The laughter was over by 1975. On July 30, 1975, at the age of 62, Jimmy Hoffa disappeared without a trace. He was last seen outside a Bloomfield Hills, Michigan restaurant. Two weeks before his disappearance, federal investigators discovered hundreds of millions of dollars missing from a Teamsters' pension fund
A nationwide search for Hoffa captivated the Northwoods. FBI agents descended upon the cabin on the lake searching for signs of Hoffa’s body. Had the man been killed and thrown in Tepee Lake? Theories were as thick as the blueberries in August as to what had happened to Hoffa.
The next time we returned to our beach on Tepee Lake, I was surprised to see the chain link fence was gone. Unfettered access now lay within my grasp to the mysterious cabin. I often crept through the woods carpeted with shiny green pine needles to find myself staring at the former stronghold of one of America’s most infamous men. It was now shuttered and quiet. The windows filmed with dust. Age showing on the rough pine logs. The glory days gone for one of Hoffa’s most prized possessions. His sanctuary in the woods.
Johnny had told me the stories of the missing money and the missing man. I understood that something nefarious had happened. The scandal ignited my imagination. Standing on the porch of the cabin I wondered if the money was buried within…hidden in a secret compartment. Or was Hoffa’s body truly decomposing in a watery grave off his own pier on Lake Tepee?
Of course, I conducted my own investigation, but nothing ever surfaced. Hoffa’s body was never found. He was declared legally dead in 1982.
Johnny Jacobs is also long gone. He remained mum on the subject of Hoffa’s disappearance. There are some mysteries the Northwoods will never give up.
TERRY FISHING ON LAKE TEPEE
THE BEACH AT LAKE TEPEE. ME SITTING ON THE LAKE BENCH WITH JAY HEFEL
A FALL VIEW OF LAKE TEPEE