In Minnesota, 'the cabin' is both a place and a state of mind

Muir/Marshall cabin
The Muir/Marshall family cabin at Highland Lake.
Steve Foss for MPR

Author Sarah Stonich has written repeatedly about the cabin experience in northern Minnesota. Her latest book, "Vacationland," continues the tradition.

And with the weather putting a damper on the cabin experience this year, reading about it may be as close as many of us get.

"I don't think it's specifically a Midwestern experience," Stonich said Monday on The Daily Circuit. "There's a Vacationland everywhere you go. Here, we just happen to have this cabin culture that's so engrained. It would be odd to meet a child, when I was in grade school, that did not have a family cabin. So you didn't see your friends too much in the summer, that was for sure."

'Vacationland' by Sarah Stonich
Book cover courtesy of publisher

For some people, she pointed out, the cabin impulse leads to the social environment of a resort. "But the cabin experience for me is more of a solitary endeavor," she said. "I go there to get away from everything. And I think a lot of people do. We don't have a lot of company."

Stonich agreed that the book is heavy on nostalgia. "I wanted to pay homage to a lot these older resorts that no longer exist, that were quite affordable at one time. And if you go to any of the big lakes like Vermilion, Burntside, Mille Lacs and Leech and those places, you see all these McMansion cabins, which really change the whole tenor of the idea of summer vacations. There are all of these big places that people are expected to aspire to, and the small cabins are often listed in the real estate section as a place to be razed — a place to be torn down so you can build your dream cabin. I find that really sad. The cabin experience should be simple."

"Once you get up there, not everybody knows what to do," Stonich observed. "You see these people walking around in town, looking a little bit dazed, like they're not used to this. They're not used to so many trees, having so much time, drinking so much beer. ... They're so out of their element."

Even if it's not for everyone, she said, it's important to most people that they have a place where they can put away their cell phones and stop checking their email.

"Life seems to get busier and busier," she said. "Even up at our place, I can check my email. It used to not be an option. And now that it is an option, of course it's a temptation. ... I notice when my husband and I are both at home, we're oftentimes both sitting at a computer at opposite ends of the house. When we're up there, we really don't have a choice. We're playing Cribbage or we're talking or we're walking around. And those times are wonderful.

Listeners and readers lined up to describe their own cabin experiences.

Bill in Rochester: "When I was a kid growing up in the '70s, my grandparents had a place, and then my parents bought some property next to that. It was all family, and it was all the boondocks, with sort of a woodsy setting." Now, he said, the nearby town has encroached on the property, and "it's more a woodsy, rural lane, as opposed to the middle-of-the-woods boondocks that it was when I was a kid. ... If I wanted to do anything else about it, like really get a deep-woods, truer Minnesota cabin experience, I'd be priced out of it. That's the unfortunate dark side of Minnesota cabin culture. You've got to be pretty wealthy these days, or be lucky enough to have inherited that kind of place."

Audrey in Minneapolis: "I have a wonderful cabin that was built by my husband's great-grandfather in 1932. He and a couple of Finnish loggers built this log cabin. ... It's on a beautiful lake that's quite pristine. I grew up out East. When I married my husband and we went there for our honeymoon, I realized this was the place I had been dreaming about ... It is kind of expensive if you don't inherit, and the taxes are getting up there ... but many cabin owners aren't as wealthy as people think they are."

Jim in Grand Meadow, a chief of police: "It taught me at a young age how to find peace. ... It's a stressful world for anyone, but in my line of work, it allows you to get away and find that peace." At the cabin, he said, "the universe is a campfire. And that's a very pleasant thing."

@dailycircuit @kerrimpr I understand the cabin culture in MN now after visiting Sweden. Everyone in Sweden has a "summer house".

— Paula Vanecek (@PaulaVanecek) June 10, 2013

@kerrimpr I think you "hang on" b/c it's the one place where you can step back in time to the same fam, feelings & fun every weekend.

— Jackie Cartier (@jackiecartier) June 10, 2013

@kerrimpr Our family cabin used to have a woods on one side. Owner cut it down and built a giant Lake House..only to RENT out. Not pleased.

— Naomi Krueger (@naomi_writes) June 10, 2013

@kerrimpr Even for those who don't have a cabin, camping itself is an integral and magical part of being a Minnesotan.

— Elsbeth Krumholz (@ElsbethKrumholz) June 10, 2013

@kerrimpr - For one, I have an intense appreciation for the woods, water, wildlife & outdoors.Also, I have a heavy sauna addiction. :)

— nategoltz (@nategoltz) June 10, 2013


Sarah Stonich looks below the surface of Minnesota's 'Vacationland'
Northern Minnesota is an irresistible setting for writers. Adventure tales true and imagined take place on the jagged waves of Lake Superior. The old mansions of Duluth are ideal for housing family dramas. And countless mysteries have been set in the shady forests of the Arrowhead region. But for Sarah Stonich, setting her stories up north makes sense on a much more personal level; her grandparents settled there, and for decades her family's own stories were intertwined with the region. She knows the character of the land and the people who live there. Today she keeps a cabin on an inland acreage, and she does some writing here — some." (Amy Goetzman, Minnpost)

Stonich pens another 'north country' novel
Stonich authored the internationally acclaimed novels "These Granite Islands," "The Ice Chorus" and the memoir, "Shelter." Her work has been translated in eight languages and won many writing grants and book awards. Though she is widely known and read, Stonich is rooted in the region. Her Slovenian grandparents settled in Ely. Though she and her family reside in the Twin Cities, she maintains her connection to the area and her sense of place by keeping a family cabin near the BWCA. (Amalia P. Spagnolo, Hibbing Daily Tribune)

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