Nature provided the basic necessities, pristine lakes, towering forests and fine fishing and hunting. Railroads and early farmers and homesteaders provided the basic foundation for the Brainerd lake country resort industry.
The history of the Brainerd resort country is laced with intrigue, of gambling days, prohibition, days of the big bands, tales of timber wolves howling across the waters, and when the skies were filled with thousands of migrating ducks and geese.
It is filled with tales of meeting early trains at Deerwood, Merrifield, Hubert and Nisswa when resorters picked up patrons and transported them to resorts by horsedrawn carriage or launch if a resort happened to be on a railroad line.
Before railroads penetrated the northland, originally to haul logs out of the forests, there were no resorts and few people.
Lakeshores were wild and natural and the land for the most part was still undeveloped. Although it is difficult to determine exactly which resort was first, it can be said that the first commercial use of the water resources was a canoe outfitter who operated out of Old Crow Wing -- long before there was a town called "Brainerd".
FUN AT THE BEACH IN THE 1890s--This picture was taken on a beach at Parkersville on Long Lake in the 1890s. Although the resort business was just getting under way, residents of Brainerd and this area were enjoying the lakes. The scarecrow is not explained.
The rental of canoes and guides was advertised in a New York magazine in the mid-1800's. At Old Crow Wing, rugged individuals could travel into the heart of the wilderness, and fish and camp along the shores of the Mississippi River.
This was at a time when Indian battles were not uncommon and when fur traders were the main patrons of Old Crow Wing. To get the Old Crow Wing canoe rental, meant a long excursion up the Mississippi by boat or along the banks on the Red River Ox Cart Trail.
The earliest resorts started along the railroad routes and the majority did not appear until after World War I or after 1920. If lakes were off the main route, they were generally shunned as travel by other than rail was just too difficult.
Gull Lake for instance, was one of the last to see resorts along its shores. The lake was about 10 miles from the stations at Lake Hubert, Brainerd and Nisswa and the long horse-back or buggy ride on logging roads winding around the marshes was too difficult for most people.
RUTTGER'S IN 1899--Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge started because walleyes were plentiful and so was the hospitality of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Ruttger who didn't really intend to start a resort. They moved to the mainland from an island in Bay Lake in the early 1890s and lived in a tent (right). The old log cabin (center) was the only building on the property when the family moved here.
The first official resort was Ruttgers at Bay Lake near Deerwood. Before the last spike was driven connecting the track from Deerwood to Brainerd, fishermen were getting off the train at the end of the line in Deerwood.
From the station, they'd walk or rent a horse to Bay Lake. The word was out that Joseph Ruttgers' wife, Josephine was a fine cook and that the Ruttger farm on Bay Lake was a good place to stop for cordial hospitality, a good free meal and a place to bunk down for the night.
That was back in the 1880's when the Ruttgers farmed about 40 acres on land homesteaded by Joseph, a former logger and machinist from Germany.
It wasn't long before the Ruttgers started charging a slight fee, $5, for their hospitality as it wasn't easy to feed the grow- ing numbers of fishermen who took advantage of the friendly family and good food.
Automobile Tourists near Gull Lake before 1920.
This is the way many of the early resorts were started -- by having a wife who was a good cook, some land where hunters and fisher men could pitch their tents, and excellent fishing and hunting. Many early resorts were started by farmers who supplemented their income by taking in fishermen and hunters. And many farmers were formerly loggers, or rail-road people.
In one case, however, an early resorter was a Shakespearian actor, from New York and London, Benjamin Heald, whose following was other actors who came with Heald to his establishment, Minnewawa on Clark Lake, for a few free meals and lodging.
At the Hubert station, the little store was the main means of getting supplies and the mail. The highlight of the day was when the train brought the mail and when local residents and resorters greeted vacationists.
It was often a day's trip for the resort owner to the railroad station where he met his guests then rode back by horse-drawn carriage. Then, the next week, or so, he'd repeat the trip, see his guests off and pick up the next week's guests. Some resorters like Sol Marques from Pelican Lake met the train at Nisswa every day.
Knickers were right for golfers when this picture was taken in the 1920's at Ruttgers Bay Lake course. The course first had sand greens with fences around each to keep livestock off.
Besides the Ruttgers at Bay Lake Resort, Minnewawa and Marquis, other early resorts included Shady Rest Resort on Upper Whitefish, started in 1896 or 1897 as a hunting and fishing camp; Piney Ridge Lodge, also on Upper Whitefish in 1902 or 1903; Rocky Point Resort, on the west side on Gull Lake in 1911; Pucwanna (now the Alaska Lodge) started in about 1900 on Lake Hubert; Oxonite Resort, on the north end of Gull Lake, in about 1911 or 1912, and Knieff's Resort on Bay Lake.
The largest majority of the resorts did not develop until after the roads were improved and after the automobile became the main means of mass transportation.
Before this time there were a few resorts and a few private homes on the lakes. There were also a few boat rental services, used mainly by Brainerd people who rode horses out to the rental site, used the boat for the day, then rode back to town, or stayed at the "half-way" house for the night.
Two of the first such boat rentals were those of Buff and John McNaughton.
Buff's livery was first located at the Gull Lake Dam, built in 1910 then moved to Pikes Bay where the Cast-A-Bait Resort is now located. John's livery was at the mouth of the Gull River on Gull Lake, where the Gull Lake Resort is now.
Both men later built a few cabins and provided meals and lodging plus the boats.
This was also a popular place because of its historic logging activities. The last logs were boomed out into the Gull River and on down to processing plants along the Mississippi River from John McNaughton's boat livery.
Stewart Mills brought picnickers to the dam from Nisswa Lake in his two-cylinder launch, the first of its kind in this region. Here they picnicked, then rode back with Mills through the channels to Nisswa.
Mills provided an important service to early resorters and private lakeshore residents and campers by bringing them supplies, mail and by delivering' guests from the Nisswa railroad station. The roads were poor and resorters depended on Mills and his boat.
Running a resort, was a difficult task by today's luxury living standards.
A family had to have a team of horses, a buggy, plenty of gasoline for lamps, stacks of logs and a strong arm for chopping several thousand tons of ice from the lake to use for food refrigeration.
The ice was a necessity for shipping fish caught by resort visitors back in the summer. It was stored in saw dust and delivered to the resorts by ice harvesters each spring.
Although many of the early resorts were started by farmers, or people who simply enjoyed the fishing and hunting, other resorters started in the fish business and sold netted walleyes to markets in Duluth and St. Paul.
Lakeshore property before the turn of the century was unbelievably cheap. A foot of prime Gull Lake shoreline went for under a dollar. However, when transportation began to improve, prices began to skyrocket and have gradually increased until on today's market the same foot of lakeshore property might sell for over $100.
One of the earliest blocks of shoreline to be divided into private homesites was at Grand View Lodge in 1915.
Grand View started first as a hunting camp with a considerable amount of adjoining property. M. V. Baker, the original owner, promoted the property through a Twin Cities advertising firm and attracted mainly people from that area.
Grand View itself was the first large scale, multi-purpose resort on Gull Lake.
Another early endeavor to develop the lake shore on Gull, was by T. W. Harrison and Chester Start who spearheaded the development of the land along Wilson's Bay and Steamboat Bay, on the south end of Gull Lake.
The first development to appear under their management was a golf course in 1924 and the Island View Resort in 1926. No story in the history of the resorts of the Brainerd area would be complete without an account of the famous flamboyant, Captain Billy Fawcett and Breezy Point. Fawcett brought big-time names like Gene Autry, famous singers of the day, professional football players to the area in an era that rang with the sounds of the big bands and roulette wheels.
He bought the Breezy Point property on Pelican Lake in 1922 and built the resort on the fortune he made in the publishing business. Fawcett got his start through a magazine called "Captain Billy's Whiz Bang" that skyrocketed to popularity in about 1920.
The Breezy Point property was developed into a highly complex resort community under the management of promoters from Chicago and by Don Eastvold, Seattle, Washington. It floundered when the owners went bankrupt, and complicated court cases resulted that involved hundreds of people.
Another important part of Brainerd's resort history centers around Bar Harbor on the north end of Gull Lake between Lake Margaret, a large log structure that burned to the ground in 1969. Famous big bands brought thousands of resort visitors for evening entertainment.
The days when Stewart Mills and his boat carried essential supplies to resorts, when vacationing in the Brainerd area was a trip into the wilderness by rail and horse, when Fred Pothoff met the train at Hubert with his launch and bustling railroad stations are gone.
Today, the sounds of the big bands no longer ring from Bar Harbor, the one-armed bandits have long since been removed and wolves no longer howl out across the waters.
Four-lane highways, airplanes and sea planes, bring guests to Brainerd's resort country. High-powered speed boats, air-boats and seadogs glide over the waters and recreation has taken a turn to the highly developed, multi-purpose quest for activity.
But tales of life at early resorts will be told from generation to generation, of brave men and women who weathered the times at the early resorts in a land that was barely settled.
Reproduced from the Centennial Edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch (1871-1971).