HIBBING, Minn. — The fire that enveloped Mary Lou Ysen-Freyholtz’s detached garage in the pre-dawn darkness Dec. 5 was shooting flames high into the snowy night sky.
Ysen-Freyholtz woke up thinking she heard noises, and wondered why a security light in her house had gone out, when she rose to see the flames just 30 feet from her house.
When it was over and firefighters from four fire departments had returned to their stations, the garage was a pile of ashes. Only a charred skeleton of her car remained and 12 of her 13 chickens had perished.
The fire burned so hot that it cracked all the windows on that side of her house. The home's vinyl siding facing the garage melted and buckled.
Also lost were many bags of bird seed that Ysen-Freyholtz uses to feed hundreds of wild birds that come to her feeder every day. Burned, too, was the port-a-potty that she brought in for the throngs of birders who come, nearly every day of winter, to see the birds here on the edge of the Sax-Zim Bog.
“The firemen said it was a miracle that the house didn’t burn down, too. So I guess I’m lucky,” Ysen-Freyholtz said.
As word quickly spread among the Northland birding community that there was trouble at Mary Lou’s Feeders, which is how many people have come to know her yard with the 25 bird feeders and perhaps the best place in Minnesota to see evening grosbeaks, Ysen-Freyholtz’s luck was about to get even better.
Dozens of birders and other friends have typed in their credit card numbers and donated to help rebuild the garage and replace her bird seed, chickens and car as well as pay for the repairs needed to her home. Insurance will cover some of the loss, but not all. And, as Christmas approaches, they haven’t stopped giving. A GoFundMe site with a goal of $5,000 has surpassed $23,000 and is still going up.
It seems Mary Lou’s Feeders aren’t just a popular place to watch birds. Ysen-Freyholtz is pretty popular, too.
“She just treats all the birders like extended family, and invites them onto her property with no reservations,” said Mark "Sparky" Stensaas, naturalist, avid birder and founder of the nonprofit group Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog. “She has put so much good karma out into the Sax-Zim universe that I am not surprised that the birders responded the way they did.”
Ysen-Freyholtz moved into the little house on 20 acres southeast of Hibbing 35 years ago with her daughter. They had horses and dogs and cats and rabbits and immediately started feeding the birds.
Over the decades, Ysen-Freyholtz added more feeders. A few birders would stop by on occasion, if they happened to drive by and see the bright-yellow evening grosbeaks, a boreal forest species that’s been declining in recent years and a special bird for many people to see.
About six years ago, “Mary Lou’s Feeders” started showing up on maps and blog posts about the Sax-Zim Bog, and birders started flocking there to see the grosbeaks, jays, hairy and downy woodpeckers, chickadees and other birds that gorge on her sunflower seeds and suet cakes.
In a good winter, when more of them wing down from spruce and tamarack bogs to the north, as many as 100 evening grosbeaks can be seen in her yard at one time. (The location is also one of the few confirmed summer nesting sites for evening grosbeaks in the area.)
So many birds come here that Ysen-Freyholtz, 69, is probably the best bird seed customer at the L&M store in Hibbing. She goes through 150 pounds of sunflower seeds every week, all year long. That’s 7,800 pounds of seed annually, nearly 4 tons.
“And then there’s the deer feed I buy and hay bales and other bird seed,” she noted. “I have an expensive hobby.”
Two donation boxes outside her house have helped defray the cost of feeding so many birds, and the Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog group also has helped with grants. Ysen-Freyholtz even let them build a blind in her yard, a comfortable hiding spot for people to sit and take photographs of the more shy birds that come in to eat.
At times, more than 25 cars are crammed into her driveway along County Road 444 as people come to add to their bird list or simply to get a glimpse of that brilliant-yellow bird on otherwise gray and white winter mornings.
On a recent Friday, even at mid-morning and past peak birding time, a steady stream of cars were stopping by.
“Welcome to the feeders,” Ysen-Freyholtz would greet everyone who stopped.
“Thank you for doing this,” most would respond.
“I’m glad I can share it with you,” Ysen-Freyholtz would add. “Just wander around all you want. Take your time.”
Ron and Robin Marteney, of Emporia, Kansas, had already had a great birding day on their first-ever visit to the bog, seeing both a great gray owl and snowy owl. They topped off their morning by watching the evening grosbeaks at Ysen-Freyholtz’s before heading 800 miles back home.
“This is fantastic that you do this,” Ron said to Ysen-Freyholtz.
Giving goes both ways
Ysen-Freyholtz has always been a friend to critters, especially birds, even growing up on a farm near Bagley, west of Bemidji.
“We couldn’t afford bird seed, but we’d string popcorn up for the birds,” she recalls of her childhood. "I like to take care of things."
So many people have been so generous toward her recovery from the fire that Ysen-Freyholtz says she now feels a little guilty. But she says it affirms her belief that her feeders have helped many other people enjoy nature a little more. Despite so many bad things happening in the world, she noted, the world is still full of many good people.
And she puts most of the birders she’s met at the top of the list.
“I’m so happy I got involved in their (birder’s) whole world,” she said. “It gives me a new appreciation of life and people in general. … I feel like I’ve contributed something by sharing something I’ve created. That I’ve left a little legacy.”
She’s such a trooper, Stensaas noted, that Ysen-Freyholtz immediately put word out to the birding community that the fire wouldn’t impact her bird feeding duties and that she still wanted people to come and enjoy the birds.
It may be many more months before her garage and siding and car are replaced. But the bird feeders are still filled with seed each day. Ysen-Freyholtz also ordered a new port-a-potty to replace the one that burned. (Because of her remote location, there’s really no other places to go for miles in any direction.)
“It’s already been well-used,” she said with a smile.
People from every state in the U.S., most Canadian provinces and countries all over the world — Europe, Asia and Africa — have come to see the birds at her feeders, Ysen-Freyholtz noted. And that makes her appreciate what she has even more.
“I’m in awe at how excited people are to come here, and how far they have come, to see what I have in my yard,” she said. “Some of them have driven through some horrifying snowstorms, in rental cars, to get here. … Birders are very passionate about their hobby.”
For more information on birding in the Sax-Zim Bog, go to saxzim.org.
To donate to Mary Lou’s garage fund
Go to gofundme.com and search for “Help Mary Lou recover from Garage Fire.”
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.