The first time I became aware of Mary Smilanich-Batinich of Lake Vermilion was on a Timberjay press day when she came swooping into the office on her own deadline, wanting us to help her with one of …
The first time I became aware of Mary Smilanich-Batinich of Lake Vermilion was on a Timberjay press day when she came swooping into the office on her own deadline, wanting us to help her with one of her many projects. Many times when she would come in to the office, her shoes were half-on, with the backs rumpled under her bare heels. In my memory she rarely wore socks....although she disputes this. It occurred to me that she didn’t mind any chill on her feet and was too busy to concern herself with such things. My employer, Jodi, said, “I don’t mind doing anything for Mary because she does so much for the city of Tower.” As time went on I adjusted my perspective to agree with Jodi. In the spring of 2017, she asked my then-husband Bill and me if we would be interested in being the winter managers for her business, The Vermilion Park Inn, located in Soudan. A great friendship began and I have been co-managing the Inn with Mary and have been a part of many creative adventures with her....such as Midsummer performances, concerts, dinners and fundraisers we have hosted at the Inn, and a fabulous trip she hosted to northern Ireland in the fall of 2018.
This past September, while our very busy season at the Inn was wrapping up, Mary announced she had sold her Lake Vermilion home on Birch Point and needed to be out by Dec. 7. One beautiful fall evening I made a point to pick up some ice cream and head out to see Mary. We sat in front of the crackling fireplace, telling stories and laughing as we had done on favorite occasions. I soaked it up...for I knew it would soon end. In the fall, this SAME past fall, Mary also sold her home in Arizona and purchased a condo in Minneapolis in a building where she had previously lived. She wants to be near family and friends in the metro area as well as up north. You go, girl! Details of these moves had to be worked out as well but for now, Mary’s main residence will be the Vermilion Park Inn. Her news of selling properties set in motion a large scale process of planning, lifting, hauling and dispersing a multitude of treasures, largely from her 3,000 sq ft lake home known as Dacha Batinich, which is Slavic for country home. In addition to the house, there was a packed garage with an upstairs apartment to deal with, plus a shed Mary had turned into her late husband Alex’s antique tool museum. The property with all its treasures had so many stories to tell.
The lake house was built in the 1950s by Alex, a native of Eveleth, and his Italian born father-in law, Jim Mancina. Alex and his first wife Mary Ellen Mancina-Batinich occupied the lake home until her death in the 1990s. Then in 1999 after having been friends for several years, Alex and Mary Smilanich married. They winterized the home, built a large great room two-level addition and lived there until Alex’s death in 2016 when Mary became sole owner and occupant.
The exteriors of the buildings are painted red with white trim and the house features a true Swedish Halsingland porch off of the kitchen. It’s authenticity is reflected in the intricate wood trim brought from Sweden and painted red, forest green and mustard yellow. In true style, a rising sun incorporated in the trim of the porch must always face east. The beautiful stone fireplace in the cathedral-ceilinged great room can be admired from the loft that has a unique wood and glass panel crafted railing. The master bedroom suite is amazing. The walk-in closet was perfect for Mary’s clothing and all her luggage! The huge artistic white and blue tile accented Jacuzzi bath is a dream for anyone. This large bathroom with nooks and crawl space held a special secret when one of the moving crew discovered Mary’s set of sterling silver flatware that had been missing for quite some time. A sigh of relief was shared by all.
There were other surprising discoveries in the process. When a friend of Mary’s kids from the cities was cleaning up high in the tool museum, she came across a wood box of old letters, memorabilia and personal effects from a deceased WWII veteran. Mary-Ellen Batinich’s brother Tony had been attending Vanderbilt University when he was drafted into the Army. The box held letters written from his sweetheart back in Eveleth. He had gone to California for paratrooper training and perished with eighteen other young men when parachutes had no time to open due to the plane being too low to the ground. A devastating end. Finding such historic personal items in the old shed was a humbling moment for all who were present that day.
Many of Alex’s wonderful antique carpentry tools from the shed will eventually be on display at the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center (LVCC) on Tower’s Main Street. Several items have been sold with monies being donated as part of the ongoing fall fundraiser “Raise the Roof for Alex”....honoring Alex, an Iron Range philanthropist, on what would have been his 100th birthday on Nov. 10, 2020. We had a two-day Covid-With-Care garage sale in early October that was a combined effort of masked family and friends. Funds raised from that sale were also gifted to the LVCC.
Over the past couple of months, as we cleaned and sorted through thousands of books, tools, china and other collectibles, we heard many stories, such as Mary and Alex having the massive antique Swedish floor-to-ceiling white tile stove (Kakelugn) dissessembled and shipped across the ocean. Mary advised that the older stoves are now considered national treasures and not allowed to be sent out of Sweden.
Treasures equally as valuable although not as large as the stove were throughout the home. Mary operated a tour company in the cities for fifty years and her collections reveal this. The lower level windowsills display inset tiles from travels to Jerusalem, Gibraltar, Europe, Scandinavia, Africa and Peru. The tiles on one of her master bedroom windowsills are of the Canterbury tales while other sills in the room feature replicated tiles from Machu Picchu. The two blue and white pottery light sconces on one bedroom wall were wrapped and carefully tucked in her carry-on luggage when she traveled from Spain on one occasion. The bedroom fireplace was built by friends from Sweden with special craftsmanship. The unique features of Mary’s home go on and on. On the main level, a one-of-a kind wood corner hutch and a nearby beautiful blue buffet were hand-painted by noted Norwegian Rosemaling artist and friend, Teresa McCue Thompson. The lovely keepsakes have been enjoyed by many! Friends, relatives, politicians, artists and luminaries from all walks of life who have visited and stayed at Mary’s passed by the painted pieces. The dark walnut grand piano which accompanied more than one song-fest will remain with the house after the closing. Purchased in Chicago after WWII, it belonged to Alex’s first wife who was an accomplished pianist. Family photos were displayed on its surface, set upon a beautiful olive green patterned silk shawl with ten inch silky black fringes. This gorgeous piece from Chicago which draped the piano for decades was gifted to me, its greatest admirer. I look forward to a trip out of town where I can wear it somewhere besides the grocery store or the gas station!
It is now past Thanksgiving, the autumn colors have given way to snowflakes and blue waves have turned to ice. The closing of the property sale is just days away. The Magic Erasers, Pine Sol, paper towels, vacuums and mops have done their inside duties and we cleaners are easing our sore muscles. The outdoor crew with trucks and trailers is hauling the final garage items away. We are now in the calming wake of a job well done and can look back on helping our friend move through this time of change in which she is anticipating the next chapter in her life. She will continue to help advance the progress of the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center, operate the Inn, and do a multitude of other projects. I will continue spending time with an amazing woman and friend.