Importance of keeping Big Island accessible echoed on trip
By Paige Kieffer
More than 20 veterans from across the Twin Cities enjoyed a June 21 excursion tour of Lake Minnetonka, which took them to many locations, including the former site of the Big Island Veterans Camp.
The veterans on the tour were from the Disabled American Veterans, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans or were from American Legion posts from around the Twin Cities.
The event was hosted by Tonka Bay Marina owner and former Orono Mayor Gabriel Jabbour, who has been taking veterans out on tours since the 1970s, and funded by the Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans fund. This summer they hope to take veterans out on three more excursions.
Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans Chair Dean Ascheman said the nonprofit is funded by the 2006 sale of Big Island, where a veterans camp was located. The island was sold to the City of Orono and the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District after the camp became difficult to maintain.
Ascheman said that the City of Orono agreed in their purchase agreement to keep Big Island as a park preserve and allow it to be accessible to the veterans. Two Big Island docks were installed after the sale to provide accessibility.
The $5.7 million from the sale went directly to assist veteran charities such as the Minnesota American Legion, Disabled American Veterans of Minnesota, Military Order of the Purple Heart and the Department of Minnesota Veterans of Foreign Wars. The nonprofit’s grant program was made possible due to lobbying by Jabbour and other individuals who were involved in the sale.
“When we sold Big Island to the City of Orono we were taken away something that was important to the veterans, but over time we found out that the money that we received from the sale has provided over millions for veterans grants,” Ascheman said. “We still want to preserve the history of Big Island because it paid a big role for World War I and World War II veterans. We try to bring some of the older veterans back out to the island who remember what Big Island was in its heyday and we’re going to continue to do that with Gabriel’s help and also make sure the island is accessible to all. This gives veterans, who played a roll with the island, to now come out and bring their families out to Big Island and talk about the way it used to be.”
On Feb. 13, the Orono City Council voted 5-0 to remove the dock access on Big Island, citing that the docks were too costly and were rarely used. The council voted to remove the docks without notifying Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans or the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District.
After the decision, hundreds of local veterans and other community members voiced opposition and forced the city to discuss the item again. On Feb. 13, the council reversed their decision and the docks were put out on Big Island for this summer.
The city has paid $8,000 a year for the maintenance of the docks, but Jabbour has donated storage of the docks at his marina until this summer when the North Shore Marina donated winter storage of the docks. Additionally $4,200 in donations has been accepted by the City of Orono for maintenance of the docks.
Despite the decision, the future of the docks is uncertain. The council voted in favor of forming a Big Island Committee who has suggested developing the island.
Jabbour said that he would like Big Island to continue to be maintained as a park preserve and questioned the City of Orono’s intentions, because they said they had no funds to maintain the docks but were in support of possibly developing it.
“Gabriel has a love for veterans and him being a nonveteran that’s very special to us,” Ascheman said. “He too wants to preserve Big Island and views it as sacred and wants to preserve it in its natural state. Veterans view him as hero.”
Ascheman said that taking veterans on this Lake Minnetonka tour allows Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans to teach local veterans the history of Big Island, but also provides them with a chance to participate in an activity that they normally wouldn’t be able to do.
Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans helps fund Southern Minnesota Disabled American Veterans chapters, which take veterans on hunting and camping trips, that are often too strenuous for older participants.
Jabbour said he wants older veterans to participate in the tour and other events to get them outside doing something that they would be able to enjoy.
On the excursion, veterans got to learn and visit the former site of the Big Island Veterans Camp and Amusement Park, Minnehaha Steamboat, Minnetonka Yacht Club, Lafayette Club and more attractions.
“The purpose of the Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans trust fund is getting the veterans and especially disabled veterans out and doing outdoor activities,” said Don Pankake with the organization. “Activities like this are what the Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans trust fund is for. We use the money to get them outside and in nature and let them do hunting and fishing. We also help out and donate to veteran’s hospice, fund grants to help veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder and suicide cases and more. We’re trying to help improve veterans lives.”
Many of the veterans said that the Lake Minnetonka excursion was an opportunity that normally they wouldn’t be able to do.
“It’s important for the veterans to get out and get to know Big Island’s history with the veterans and what it has turned into now,” added Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans Boardmember Hank Sadler. “We’re so pleased with the help we’ve received from Gabriel and I don’t think it would’ve turned out as good as it has without him. He really fought for the veterans. We need more tours like this to get the veterans out. It’s really a treasure that were able to do this and allow us to come out here and do these activities, talk with other veterans and be remembered as a veteran.”