Eighty-year-old Bill Carter has spent 79 memory-filled summers at Kelley's Kabin, a collection of atmospheric log cabins overlooking the Flambeau River in rural Wisconsin. Bill gives Taylor Hall O'Brien a tour, sharing the cabins' history and stories of summers past.
BY TAYLOR HALL O'BRIEN | 10 NOVEMBER 2023
Turning off Highway 70, the pavement disappears as quickly as your cell service and is replaced by a winding dirt road bending left and right. After a few miles, you reach the entrance to a plot of forest where two stone pillars and a rusted gate tell you that you’ve arrived. Through the gate, a narrow driveway with deeply rutted tire tracks trudges along beneath a canopy of 100-year-old-Hemlocks, Birch, and Maples. Through the haze of campfire smoke, three log structures slowly reveal themselves.
Each has a slightly different size and shape, but, like most log cabins of the time, is composed of four walls, a handful of windows, and a pitched roof with a sway like the back of a 30-year-old quarter horse. A fourth structure, once a wood shed, lies in ruin, returning slowly to the earth from which its logs grew. Field stone chimneys hug two cabins tightly, while moss blankets the roof a third. After being locked tight for the winter, fresh air flows and the summer season begins. It is here, at Kelley’s Kabin in rural Wisconsin, where 80-year-old Bill Carter has spent 79 summers of his life.
A humble galley kitchen, with a quaint breakfast table and hutch full of dishes, is visible through a screened porch. It leads to a large living and dining space with vaulted ceilings and a fireplace made of locally gathered stone, sprinkled with pieces of mica that catch and reflect the morning light. The mount of a golden eagle is perched alongside the fireplace, keeping a watchful eye over the main gathering space, while bookshelves burst with literature from a century past.
Two bedrooms connect to this central hub, and opposite, a door leads to a screened sleeping porch overlooking the river. Here in the porch, the central gathering space of the entire property, thousands of poker games, cigars, meals, and memories have been shared - the best memories of his life, Bill explains.
In 1925, Bill’s great uncle, William Swift Kelley, purchased a plot of land outside Winter, a rural region of northern Wisconsin where residents work blue collar jobs and the nearest department store is a half-day journey. On the banks of the Flambeau River, the cabin is surrounded by public land, forever protecting it from development.
Guest bedroom, Kelley's Kabin © Taylor Hall O'Brien
Between 1927 and 1930, William, an upwardly mobile entrepreneur, quickly got to work developing the site. In three short years, with the help of members of the local community, he’d built the property we see today, primarily to host and entertain his friends, family, and clients from Eau Claire, Wisconsin and beyond.
In 1943, Bill Carter, born that year, first visited the cabin, and to this peaceful corner of Wisconsin he has loyally and annually returned. Every summer, through grade school, high school, and college at Harvard, Bill returned to fish, swim, and explore, often sharing the cabin with an eclectic cast of characters. These blissful summers, and the people he spent them with, have shaped Bill’s life. It was also on these grounds where Bill married his beloved late wife, Joan.
A guestbook in the main lodge is filled with almost a century’s worth of entries, each revealing the impact Kelley’s Kabin has made on lives past and present. You read of soldiers returning from war, stag parties before a wedding, couples enjoying their honeymoon, the reunion of old friends and the making of new.
One of three log cabins at Kelley's Kabin, Wisconsin © Taylor Hall O'Brien
With each creak of the hardwood floors underfoot, a century of sounds is echoed back: laughter bouncing from tree to tree, the crack of an axe splitting firewood and the crackle of the fire it lit; the clang of silver as the table is set for dinner, and the strike of a match as candlelight illuminates a meal to be shared. After a long night, guests drift to sleep to the sound of nature.
After seventy-nine visits, or just one, the charm and spirit of Kelley’s Kabin is undeniable: its layered history, collected objects and decades’ of stories. At the age of 80, Bill is still the person filling the woodshed with dry oak before winter, repairing a broken door, clearing a fallen tree, and welcoming every single guest on the screened porch, happy to share the history of this remarkable retreat.
There was just one summer that Bill didn’t make it to the cabin - the summer of 1967, when he was serving in the Peace Corps in Iran. It is with this same conviction and loyalty to his commitments, that Bill has cared for the cabin all these years. A legacy, undoubtedly, but impossible to fully encapsulate with words and pictures alone. Kelley’s Kabin and its proud custodian are simply magical.
Kelley's Kabin, Wisconsin © Taylor Hall O'Brien
- - - - - - - - - -
Taylor Hall O'Brien is a Minnesota-based photographer and writer | Follow Taylor on Instagram: @taylorhallobrien
Creative direction and styling by Liz Gardner | Production by Kelly Dorrow
- - - - - - - - - -
MORE IN THIS SERIES