I don’t have enough information to write a comprehensive biography of James Edward Gaffaney, my grandfather, but I have my personal recollections and the stories I was told by my father and others.

My mother, father, and everyone I knew called grandfather “JE”. We continued that tradition in my family and my sisters and I still refer to dad as “RT”: Robert Thomas Gaffaney.

RT told me that JE and his father had an argument when JE graduated from eighth grade. He wanted to go to high school and his father thought that was a waste of time for farmer. As a result JE left home and he and his father did not speak for the next twenty years.

During that time JE attended a Business College in Fargo and also began to repair typewriters on the side. This led to a relationship with the Royal Typewriter Company and the founding of Gaffaney’s (officially: Gaffaney’s Office Specialties Company, Incorporated). JE ran this business with his four sons and son-in-law: Bob, Dick, Paul, Jimmy, and Carold. They operated a successful chain of stores across North Dakota. JE had the reputation as a tough boss.

Sometime in the 50’s JE leased some property on Lake of the Woods as a summer home. Lake of the Woods is a huge lake with thousands of islands situated on the border between the US and Canada. Much of the land is on an Indian Reservation and cannot be sold, which was the reason for the lease.

His place was on Oak Island on the US side of the border. Access to the island was by boat from Warroad, Minnesota. I remember that there were boats, the Burt Steele and Island Queen, that provided service between Warroad and the islands, and to the other towns on the lake. I remember taking the Burt Steele, to Oak Island on a family trip. It seemed like a very long trip to me as a boy.

JE also bought his own boat which he named the Wabasi, which in Chippewa means “White Bird Flying”. This was a large boat, 45 feet long and about ten feet wide at the waterline if I remember correctly. JE bought the Wabasi on Lake Superior and had it transported by rail to Warroad. The boat was eventually bought by the Lake Trails Camp on Oak Island and I traveled on it years later when I went to Lake Trails with the Boy Scouts.

JE was a very colorful man. Once he had the Wabasi on the lake he bought a very plush Pullman car, removed the rail trucks and mounted it on a barge and pulled it behind. There he entertained many groups on fishing trips he hosted. With all of the comforts of home, including wonderful meals prepared by Luella Sorlie, his personal cook, guests enjoyed the fabulous fishing right from the barge. One of JE’s guests was Aloisius Cardinal Muench of the Diocese of Fargo. Dad told me that JE bought a supply of “Lazy Ikes” and would sell these to the guests as they lost their fishing lures to snags or some of the huge fish that inhabit Lake of the Woods.

According to the story, JE was out on the lake one night pulling the barge with the Wabasi and was caught in a huge storm. The seaworthiness of the boat was seriously compromised by the barge, and it nearly went down. But the Wabasi did survive and when he got back to Oak Island, JE docked the barge and never pulled it again. He had the Pullman car dragged onto the Island and used it as a guest house. I stayed there once. I remember the deep pleated leather upholstery. My wife and I still have one of the side chairs from the Pullman car. It has green velveteen upholstery and a turnbuckle arrangement underneath to strengthen the legs.

In those years JE always had dogs: Boxers. He loved those dogs; they were part of the family. When I was in college I did yard and garden work for JE and Connie and I often shuttled Grandma Ruth around to the store or to Bridge games with her lady friends. Two of the dogs were still with him then: Murphy and Peggy. He was very, very sad when Murph and Peg finally died.

Many years after the glory years, JE would still come into the Fargo Gaffaney’s store every day. He sat in the same chain in the machine showroom and watched the activity around him, mostly in silence, but he spoke if there was something to be said. He was a sharp, shrewd businessman; he knew everything that went on. I remember one day an old Indian came in when I was working in the Stationary Store. He asked for Mr. Gaffaney. JE was upstairs in his office and I took him there. The two were behind the closed doors for some time before the man back down and left without a sideways glance. Dad told me later that the Indian worked for JE on Oak Island, and that JE gave him some money that day.

Years after the Oak Island days I went to Lake Trails, also on Oak Island. This time we took the Island Queen from Warroad. I got talking to an old timer who was going to the Trading Post on the island and it turned out that he knew JE. When he found out who I was he told me that if I turned out to be half the man my grandfather was I would be a hell of a man.

Bob Gaffaney
Tuesday, October 10, 2006