Neil Johnson frames the 'Resorts of Minnesota'

"Resorts of Minnesota"
Neil Johnson's "Resorts of Minnesota."
Photo courtesy Neil Johnson

We're at the start of winter; there's a little freezing rain or snow falling around the state this morning. It's not what you think of as typical Minnesota resort weather.

But many of the state's resorts remain open year round for snowmobiling, skiing, snowshoeing and ice fishing.

A new book celebrates the history and heritage of Minnesota's many resorts. "Resorts of Minnesota" author Neil Johnson spent a year traveling around the state visiting family-run resorts and gathering their stories.

The mom-and-pop resort experience is unlike any other, Johnson said.

"Every week, the whole resort is like the extended family," he said. "That's the magic." The first resorts opened in Minnesota in the 1870s, Johnson found. At its peak, there were nearly 5,000 resorts in the state, he said, but now the number is closer to 900.

Johnson learned that running a resort takes hard work. In recent years, many owners have struggled to stay in business, he said, and successful owners often handle much of the maintenance work themselves.

"It's a ton of work," Johnson said, "And I don't think people even realize. I think they think resort owners get to fish all summer."

Johnson, a Minnesota native, said his favorite resorts are in remote areas, like the Wilderness Bay Lodge in Ely. The resort sits on Snowbank Lake and is accessible only by water.

"You come up there. There's an old phone booth. The phone is wood. You pick up this old phone. It rings two miles across the water. And they come and get you in their 1984 covered pontoon," he said.

"Everything at that place is old, but nothing is tired," he added.

Johnson hopes the book will encourage families to develop their own vacation traditions. He is currently working on a similar book about family resorts in Wisconsin.