A girl biked up to the tree and placed a note for the “little guy” earlier this summer.  Photo by Caryl Hunter

A girl biked up to the tree and placed a note for the “little guy” earlier this summer. Photo by Caryl Hunter

Mysterious figure by Lake Harriet is friend to many

Stories often begin in the most unexpected places.  In a small opening at the bottom of an oak tree growing on the edge of Lake Harriet, a tale was born.  I had never noticed the tiny door with the brass door knocker and hinges – and certainly didn’t know anything about the fantasy elf who wrote letters to children on little pieces of shiny silver paper.  As the years went by, a few letters grew into over a thousand a year, each personally answered and each ending with “I believe in you.”

When I first actually saw the tiny door, I was taken aback.  Only about 6 inches tall, it opened to reveal a tall stack of letters.  Around the bottom of the tree were carefully planted pink and white impatiens, a tiny sign that said “Gone Fishing,” and a small plastic doll in a toy lawn chair.  As I stood and marveled at the little entrance, noticing the intricate care and detail put into it, I watched as children scurried up to the door to see if a note they had left had been answered yet.

A jogger who stopped by told me the history of the little guy.  She said he had “moved in” several years ago and had become a child’s ultimate imaginary friend.  She told me how a real man who lived nearby had been collecting and answering the letters since the mid 1990s when the little door appeared.  His wife had originally noticed the opening in the tree and suggested they put a door in it.  What began as a fun idea for their family grew into a treat for all the families who walked the lake.  With Lake Harriet’s paved walking and biking paths, canoes and sailboats, and concerts at the band shell, it is no surprise that this lake was picked to place a little elf and watch a story develop.

Addie, a 9-year-old from northern Minnesota, gave me my first opportunity to personally deliver a letter to the little guy.  Children are so in touch with that magical realm that adults dismiss for reality, and she was quite taken with the little guy.  In the note, she described herself and drew a colorful picture of the lake and the little guy’s house, as she saw it.  Her letter – written in different colors of gel pens – contained several questions and suggestions for him:

“How do people find out about you at first?  Do kids try to give you things in the winter?  What did you make your door out of?  Do you put a lock on your door in the winter?  Do you know everything – like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus?  Do you have a family?  Do you have a little town?  If you do, what do you call it?  Where do you go for the winter?  Who planted the flowers around your house – you or someone else?  You should have a little bonfire ring that is not lit up next time you decorate your house.  Who decorates your house – you or someone else?”   I grinned as I read the letter and carefully placed it in the growing stack inside the door.

A couple of weeks later a letter was written back to Addie on his famous silver paper carefully placed in a sealed plastic bag in case it rained before it was received:

“Dear Addie, who wrote the huge long letter in different colored inks: How nice of you to write.  Sorry I missed you.  Boy do you ask a lot of questions. Are you a detective?  You should be when you grow up.  The door is made of pine and copper.  People found out about me when they saw the door.  Kids give me all kinds of things.  In the winter we move to our castle to the east.  It has marble walls inside and a copper door.  My name is Thom and I live with my wife, Martha, a great elf, and our daughter Alta Lucia, age 7.  She is a princess elf.  I am taller than my younger brother and shorter than my older brother.   Enjoy the summer.  I believe in you.”    Mr. Little Guy

A tree by Lake Harriet has regular visits throughout the year. The tree has a tiny door and brass door knocker and is home to the “little guy.” Letters are left for little guy, who writes a reply to each letter.

A tree by Lake Harriet has regular visits throughout the year. The tree has a tiny door and brass door knocker and is home to the “little guy.” Letters are left for little guy, who writes a reply to each letter.

On a long walk around the lake a couple of weeks later, I saw a man ride his mountain bike up to the tree, collect the letters, and ride away.  He had windblown gray hair and wore long khaki shorts and a white T-shirt, and was – surprisingly – just a normal-sized man.  I thought of how he must visit on a regular basis, collecting the letters and touching the hearts of all those children.  How he probably worked a regular job and had a regular life, yet he took the time to read and answer each letter sent to him.  He was keeping a fantasy alive that everyone delighted in.

It always makes me smile when I walk by the little door in the tree now, and I always stop to take a peak behind it.  Oftentimes there are children and adults crowded around it.  Usually I have my camera or journal in tow.   As I cross the little footbridge and approach the next set of stairs near Queen Avenue, I know the tree I had walked by unknowingly for so long is right there. And there is always a new treasure a child has left there, a new set of flowers, and a fresh stack of letters carefully placed behind the hinged door.  In the winter, the only difference is a small sign posted on the tree telling everyone that the little guy has moved into his winter castle for the season.  Notes can still be sent to a post office box.

Today was a beautiful June day in Minneapolis. As I finished my regular weekend errand-running for the day, I treated myself to a leisurely walk around the lake.  When I walked by the tree today there was a small plastic bag of popcorn propped up against the little door. On top of the bag sat a small scribbled note written in blue crayon that simply said, “I love you, Little Guy of Lake Harriet.”  I smiled as I turned to leave, and thought how that child really spoke for everyone.