Turk’s Inn, Waswagoning: tales of two endangered gems

turks1When a business loses its owner, it’s heart and survival also are at risk. Wisconsin lost two gems this winter, and their stories have very different endings.

Marge Gogian’s life was all about style. She was a New York City fashion designer for decades, until her father’s heart attack in the 1970s, when she moved home to help run the family’s restaurant near the Namekagon River and Hayward.

This was no casual, log cabin setting, and it was remarkably out of place for Northwoods Wisconsin. Marge’s parents were Armenians, but born in Turkey, and their arranged marriage lasted 53 years.

Turk’s Inn lasted almost 80, until Marge’s death in late February at age 85. The last time I saw her was in 2010, when she was filling in for a waitress who didn’t make it to work.

The restaurant was as much of a piece of art as Marge’s world of fabrics and runway models. Most ceilings and walls were hues of red. Linen napkins were light pink. Chairbacks were nearly lime green. Holiday tree lights twinkled all year, on archways and pillars.

The menu was exotic for its time and location: Appetizers of flaky, cheese-filled borek. Kabobs of lamb, served with nutty pilaf. Slices of baklava, served with thick Turkish coffee for dessert.

With the passage of time, the restaurant’s Persian textiles, Byzantine art and souvenirs from worldwide travels became artifacts. The once-common celebrity sightings – verified by many framed, autographed photos – turned into snapshots of heyday history.

Turk’s Inn patronage crossed the political spectrum: Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun to the Kennedys – John, Robert and Ted. How some of them found their way to Hayward remains a mystery.

In Wisconsin are at least 12,000 places to eat and drink, and most of the businesses that are independently owned fail within the first year. Turk’s Inn did more than just survive.

The menu stated that “the art of cooking is an art to be proud of” and “eating should be an unhurried pleasure.” My last meal at Turk’s Inn lasted almost three delicious hours, with the gracious Marge doing it all: taking orders, pouring wine and serving food from a cart wheeled carefully from kitchen to table.

For all I knew, she was also preparing the food. The other dozen diners that night were celebrating a birthday and a soldier’s recent return from war – special occasions that deserved a special setting.

You could call Turk’s Inn an at-risk tourist gem and not be wrong. You also could argue that keeping it open wouldn’t be right.

“It probably won’t open again,” acknowledges Tom Shuman, a longtime family friend and executor of Marge’s will. “It was such a legend in its day.”

The dairy farmer say this with regret but also knows the property was in need of a facelift because of peeling paint outdoors, duct-taped furniture and other, growing cosmetic wear and tear. It was hard for Marge to watch, but harder for her to fix.

“Her mind was so sharp and her memory was so great,” Tom says, of his childhood friend. “She didn’t like change and wanted things to stay the way they were” during the pinnacle of Turk’s Inn.

An April 23 court session will determine what happens next. Unless the will is contested, assets will be sold to finance post-high-school scholarships for worthy Hayward and Drummond students. That was Marge’s request.

She told Tom the same story she told me in 2010, about an Italian restaurant that she loved while living in New York. When revisiting years later, neither the food nor décor looked the same.

“Something was wrong,” Marge explained. “The parents had left and someone else was in charge. That’s never going to happen here.”

The fate of another unique Wisconsin attraction has a happier ending.

Waswagoning, an authentic reproduction of a 17th century Native American village, was established in 1994 by Ojibwe artist Nick Hockings, who died in late 2012. The former year-round attraction remains open seasonally, guided by wife Charlotte and daughter Nicole.

Furnished wigwams, a birch bark canoe, ricing pit and other once-typical life settings explain tribal traditions, history and rites of passage. The site survived extensive damage by vandals in 2005.

Waswagoning means “the place where they spearfish by torchlight” and is a reference to the traditional spring tribal spearfishing that attracted violent protest until the court system sided with the tribe. This is what motivated Nick to pursue an outlet for educational outreach.

He and other Ojibwe members made the site’s birch bark equipment, built a smokehouse out of basswood, dug fire pits, trapped and skinned the animals whose hides cover the wigwams. They also guide visitors through the 20-acre property.

Waswagoning, 2750 Hwy. H, Lac du Flambeau, is open mid May to late August. For more: facebook.com/WaswagoningIndianVillage, 715-588-2615.