The existence of heaven is a matter of debate best left to theologians. But this much we know: Paradise lies right outside your door, in a place that some call God’s Country and others simply Minnesota (and, sometimes, western Wisconsin). Endowed by the Almighty or the glaciers (you pick) with a jackpot’s worth of lakes, ponds, fishing holes, and Sweet-Jesus-that’s-purty scenery, this region is a sort of Promised Land—but with state parks, scenic byways, island resorts, waffle shops, spas, and golf courses. Kingdom come, sure. But don’t hurry. We’ve got plenty to do here before then.
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Stout’s Island Lodge
This lumber baron’s retreat has hardly changed in a century
By Rachel Hutton
THE UNGLACIATED REGION of western Wisconsin is one of the most beautiful places in the Midwest—though I wouldn’t know it. A mere car window separates me from rolling hills, winding streams, and pastoral farmsteads, yet I see nothing but blacktop as I floor the accelerator.
My friend and I had planned to catch a 4 o’clock ferry to Stout’s Island Lodge, but we’ve been waylaid by a slice of pecan cream-cheese pie at the Norske Nook in Rice Lake. “Are you looking for signs?” I bark as the car’s clock flashes 3:57. Not the best way to begin a relaxing island getaway.
We peel into the gravel parking lot just as two other guests are boarding Stout’s aging pontoon. Five minutes later, we are docking at a vintage log boathouse. We follow the couple to the top of the hill, where there’s a grand, grassy lawn and a sprawling log lodge with moss-covered shingles. It looks like someplace Howard Hughes and Katharine Hepburn might have escaped to.
When we enter the lodge, a few moments behind the couple, it appears to be empty, save for an eerily staring elk head on the wall. Sure, it’s off-season, but where is everyone? We head back to the boathouse to check with the captain, only to look over the hill and see the pontoon sputtering away. Do we have the island all to ourselves?
Chicago lumberman Frank D. Stout likely experienced the same sense of solitude when he purchased the 12-acre island on Red Cedar Lake nearly a century ago. His father’s lumber firm, Knapp, Stout, & Company, was the largest in the country, and the fortune allowed Stout to spend more than $1.5 million (in 1915 dollars) on the 10-building estate, including a main lodge, guest house, children’s cabins, servants’ quarters, a schoolhouse, and recreation hall. The current lodge was built in 1912, using cedar logs imported from Idaho, and modeled after rustic-style camps in the Adirondacks. The “Island of Happy Days,” as Stout dubbed it, served as the family’s summer retreat from 1903 to 1927. Stout loved the island so much, the story goes, that when he knew he was dying, he hired a race-car driver to speed him to the island in the hopes that he might pass away there.
Today, the lodge is owned by a partnership and some of the cabins have been purchased by individuals, who rent them out to guests. A few Stout family artifacts remain on display in the lodge’s great room: county-fair ribbons won by Frank’s Guernsey cattle, a black-and-white photo of a pioneering wakeboarder clad in a dress, tights, and bonnet. After checking in at the office (which we finally discover, tucked into the back of the main lodge), we relax in the great room, pulling books off the shelves and combing through a stack of board games. The lodge’s massive timber beams make regular log cabins look like they’re made of Tinkertoys. On our way to dinner, I trace my fingers over a message carved in the wall—“So share what bounties fortune sends, all here that’s mine, is yours, my friend.” I hope we can experience all of it.
While the dining room’s dark wood and massive fireplace make it feel like ancient Bavaria (in fact, the carvings were imported from Germany), the cuisine is decidedly contemporary. The menu is sprinkled with foodie lingo, like EVOO—extra virgin olive oil, if you have to ask—and the red-and-gold beet salad dressed with goat cheese and microgreens is as haute a dish as you’d find in a downtown boîte. At this late hour, views of the lake are veiled in dusk, so we sit by the fire with a couple of beers—stouts, natch—until logs burn to embers burn to ash.
Accommodations on the island fall into two categories: those constructed pre-1930s, and those built mid-1990s. The new cabins are certainly comfortable, with their knotty-pine walls, log furniture, and gas fireplaces, yet they feel a tad generic. It seems a shame to visit such a place so unique and wake up not knowing if you’ve spent the night at a Brainerd hotel or Lutsen ski lodge. I booked a room in one of the original buildings, the upper unit of Allison’s Cabin, which was built for the Stouts’ youngest son. It’s a tree-house-like perch that appeals to the child within, with windows on three sides and a view of the lake. There’s no phone, television, or air conditioning. The door doesn’t even have a key.
The best room on the island is probably the one directly below our own. It’s almost always booked, for good reason: The wood floors, walls, and ceiling make the room feel cozy as a nutshell, but it also has a spacious bathroom, with a clawfoot tub, and a porch with two twin beds. If I were visiting Stout’s in a group, I’d book Harry’s Cabin, which accommodates six, or a few rooms in the lodge, many of which are furnished with canopy beds and dressing tables.
The next morning, after a continental breakfast in the lodge, we set off to explore the island. There are all sorts of activities to keep guests occupied: fishing, croquet, canoes and campfires; hydro bikes, badminton and bocce ball. If the weather is foul, there’s time for table tennis, spa services, or playing the piano. Each picturesque spot we discover—a bridge overlook, a swimming dock—is graced with a pair of Adirondack chairs, as if to punctuate its romanticism.
Stout’s property is technically two islands connected by a footbridge, a gift from Andrew Carnegie’s family. The smaller island is a narrow, uninhabited isthmus, barely wider than its hiking path. After a 10-minute walk, we arrive at the trail’s end, where, of course, there are two Adirondack chairs. On the far shore, a few homes and cabins peek through the trees, but aside from the occasional boat motor or industrious squirrel, we are able to sit in silence. Aspen branches span out like Calder mobiles, leaves rustling like muffled applause. It’s as if they’re trying to congratulate us.
Rachel Hutton is a former editor with Minnesota Monthly.
Destination: Northeast Minnesota
Northeast Minnesota is filled with placid lakes, rushing rivers, lush forests, and even small mountains, creating the perfect place to escape everyday life.
Grand Portage State Park
Travel far enough up Highway 61 and you’ll reach the tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, home to Grand Portage’s High Falls on the Pigeon River, the state’s largest waterfall. Each minute, thousands of gallons of water free-fall 120 feet and crash into the rapids below. But don’t miss the area’s real treasure: Two wayside rest stops within the final stretch of the highway offer unparalleled views of the rugged North Shore. 9393 E. Hwy. 61, Grand Portage, 218-475-2360
For nearly five decades, this family-owned restaurant has been serving up tasty food in Cloquet. With 32 different flavors and tons of toppings possibilities, this old-fashioned ice-cream parlor can dial up the right combination for just about any sweet-tooth craving. Take coffee in your ice cream? Try a Columbian Freeze: 100 percent Columbian espresso blended with either frozen yogurt or ice cream. 415 Sunnyside Dr., Cloquet, 218-879-6125
Sugarbrooke Golf Course
Near Grand Rapids, this 18-hole has helped make Northeast Minnesota a hot spot for golf. Carved out of 400 acres of pristine woodlands, Sugarbrooke combines the challenge of a top-tier course with the relaxed atmosphere of a north-woods resort. The course ranks with the best of ’em, thanks to its tight fairways and tough hole locations. The 444-yard 16th is long and straight, with hazards on the left and trees all around. Sugar Lake Lodge, 37584 Otis Ln., Cohasset, 800-450-4555
Soudan Underground Mine
Minnesota’s first iron-ore mine, Soudan now offers visitors the chance to don their hard hats and travel back in time to the early days of the mining industry. The shaft goes a half a mile down. A train ride takes you into the deepest part of the mine to see firsthand how early miners excavated iron ore and transported it out of the mine—all by hand. Daily tours of the underground physics laboratory at Soudan are also available. 1379 Stuntz Bay Rd., Soudan, 218-753-2245