The Shore Thing
In recent years, the Brainerd Lakes region, long the heart of cabin country, has boomed. The resorts are bigger, the food is better, and wine now comes in more varieties than “red” and “white.” But the rustic cabins, small-town traditions, and hidden charms remain. You just have to know where to look.
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We’re sitting on a broad wooden patio at breezy point resort on Pelican Lake, north of Brainerd, waiting for burgers. It is indeed breezy here next to the beach, to the point where I don’t dare let go of anything lighter than a peppershaker. My husband, Mike, has given up trying to control the newspaper.
The bay in front of this sprawling resort—it has its own water tower and a faux log skyway—is awash in pontoon boats, Jet Skis, and every type of inflatable device imaginable. The beach is populated by children jacked on soda, men in golf wear, and bikini-clad women with Hawaiian Tropic sheens. It’s just past noon, and already the crowd is pie-eyed. Two guys pass our table dragging a leaden cooler. One glances over and smiles. “We’re locked and loaded,” he says, drawing a knowing chuckle from the friend bringing up the rear.
Breezy Point was built almost a century ago by wealthy publisher Wilfred Hamilton Fawcett, who founded a magazine called Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang. Breezy Point’s interior is festooned with framed Whiz Bang covers and full-page cartoons. One shows a dancer who’s fallen in a nightclub, her skirt up over her knees. The caption reads, “A good floor show.”
The original lodge, which burned down in 1959, featured an enormous dining room and dance hall with two towering rock fireplaces and a stage for the in-house orchestra. Back then, the likes of Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Jack Dempsey stayed here. Vacationers can rent Captain Billy’s 10-bedroom log home, which has been preserved in all its rustic glory, otherwise there isn’t a lot the stars of yore would recognize about present-day Breezy Point.
Like many anchors of the Brainerd lakes area, the resort has super-sized and modernized, expanding both its physical footprint and its appeal to a wide swath of Minnesotans: golfers, business people, families, partiers. With two golf courses, four tennis courts, a convention center, three restaurants, a marina, an ice arena, and an Elvis impersonator on Saturday nights, today’s Breezy Point is less a debouched hideaway than an up-north Disneyland.
Brainerd’s iconic resorts, owned by dynastic families like the Kavanaughs, the Ruttgers, the Cotes, and the Craguns, have grown into self-contained small towns, often with their own real-estate offices. Privately-owned cabins have swelled right along with them, so that most built after 1980 resemble suburban homes or country estates. Yet even the biggest abodes tend to sport the requisite Brainerd touches: handmade signs bearing family names, decorative canoe paddles, and great expanses of what Mike calls “O.P.”— ostentatious pine.
Brainerd has never been a haven for fancy taste. People don’t come here to be stylish; they come here to escape the need to be stylish. They fight traffic all the way up from the Twin Cities to relax—to drink too much, eat too much, and forget the job for a while.
In the 1970s, my father—who wore Wrangler cutoffs and Holiday Station tennis shoes even as he listened to Chopin and sipped Liebfraumilch—owned a cabin on Round Lake, part of the Gull Lake chain. He himself was a force for modernization. He bought a quaint log cabin, intentionally burned it down, and with the insurance money built a much larger place with a Mansard roof and wall-to-wall carpeting.
As a kid, I spent most summers with Dad at the cabin. We canoed and swam in our shallow lake and frequented every amusement park, petting zoo, and miniature golf course within a 50-mile radius. We took long walks in the Pillsbury State Forest and feasted on prime rib and au gratin potatoes at the area’s best supper clubs. Usually Dad managed to polish off a carafe of Gallo with his meal. (This was when “white” or “red” were the choices.) On the way home, Dad would race his Cadillac DeVille over a series of paved bumps on County Road 77, trying to lift me out of my seat. Such is what passed for entertainment in Brainerd in the 1970s.
It’s no secret that the Brainerd lakes area has seen massive changes in recent decades. One need only view the palatial welcome center and rest stop on Highway 371, complete with flat-screen televisions framed in pine, to know that. Travelers who continue on through Baxter will encounter a daunting string of box stores and chain restaurants, a transformation locals refer to as “Baxterization.” I have to admit, these days, when Mike and I travel to our cabin near Bemidji, we almost always take the long way in order to avoid Brainerd and Baxter. For years, I have literally averted my eyes.
Yet now here we are in the heart of the beast, munching on giant hamburgers at Breezy Point. As I finish my last French fry, I wonder, is the summer escape of my youth still around here somewhere? Does a semblance of Brainerd’s old charm remain?
My questions are answered in the affirmative the moment we arrive at Samara Point Resort on Gull Lake. A peaceful throwback, the resort consists of eight cabins—most built of pine in the late 1950s—strung lightly along a forested stretch of sandy beach. Samara has been owned since 1975 by the Bombenger family, the patriarch, Bud, aka “Mr. Bubs,” and his daughters, Sue and Laura.
This may be Gull’s last holdout. There is no golf course or spa here, and wireless Internet is available only at the office. We’re greeted by fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies and a hand-drawn chalkboard sign that reads, “Welcome home, Jennifer and Mike.” The attention to detail is impressive. It seems there isn’t much Bud can’t cobble from a coffee can or a hunk of wood, including several tables, a barbecue grill, and wall lamps in the living room and bedrooms.
Mike and I unpack into the cabin, which has a wood-burning fireplace and a screened porch facing the lake. Immediately, time loses speed and we are overcome by the desire to lounge. We empty our bags of books and magazines and settle in. Before long, I’m so relaxed, I’m nearly asleep. So I pull myself up like a good city person and set out to find one of my favorite summer spots of old: Ski Gull, near the Pillsbury Forest.
I haven’t been here for decades, but the terrain hasn’t changed. I walk a narrow gravel road, absolutely alone, the wind shushing through stands of paper birch, sugar maple, and red pine. That holy trinity, I realize, is the image that comes to my mind whenever someone utters “forest” or “woods.”
Finally, I’m atop Ski Gull, at the edge of a steep drop. I plant myself on a wooden platform under a row of limp blue lift chairs, next to a seasonally abandoned shelter strewn with beer bottles and benign graffiti, like “Bob was here” and “Kevin was too.”
From my perch, I can see for miles, across the entire Brainerd area. This is what draws people, I think—the crisp air and clumps of trees as thick as broccoli. It’s utterly peaceful, except for the occasional shotgun blast from the nearby Lakeshore Conservation Club.
Brainerd began as a railroad town, founded around 1870 by Northern Pacific Railway president John Gregory Smith, who named the city after his wife, Ann Eliza Brainerd Smith. At one time, Brainerd was home to a station that serviced trains for the whole Northern Pacific line. The railroad helped forward the local lumber industry and cleared the way for iron-ore mining.
If jobs first brought people here, the terrain and cool northern climate made them stay, especially in the days before air conditioning. Within 25 miles of Brainerd, once dubbed “the city of the pines,” there are more than 460 lakes. Crow Wing County’s tourism business brings in nearly $200 million annually.
This, spread before me, is the cradle of Minnesota’s cabin country.