Fire destroys main lodge at popular northern Minnesota resort

Firefighters battle a fire in a large building
Flames are visible through the windows as firefighters battle a fire in the main lodge at Maplelag Resort near Callaway, Minn., on Monday.
Michael Achterling | Detroit Lakes Tribune

Updated: 4:30 p.m.

The main building at a beloved northern Minnesota resort that has hosted cross-country ski retreats, language camps, weddings and conferences for years was destroyed by fire Monday.

News of the fire prompted an online outpouring of stories, memories and sympathy from people who had visited Maplelag Resort over the years — whether once, or year after year. The owners of the resort, east of Callaway, Minn., said they plan to rebuild.

But in the immediate aftermath of the fire, Jay Richards — whose parents founded Maplelag — told MPR News on Tuesday that the blaze was “totally devastating. (I’m) still kind of in shock. Everybody's in shock today.”

That includes longtime visitors like Brad Moening, Nordic ski coach at St. Paul's Highland Park Senior High School. He’s been taking his family, and ski teams, to Maplelag for two decades.

"I feel like MY house burned down,” he said.

Moening said it was a nearly ideal Minnesota winter retreat.

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“It's like a little piece of home. It's so hard to describe,” he said. “We go there every year, we go for like a three-day weekend and we usually bring about 100 kids. Kids love it to death... It's a special place.”

Monday’s fire

Valley News Live reported that the fire in the main lodge at Maplelag, about 15 miles north of Detroit Lakes, was reported just after 8:30 a.m. Monday.

Jay Richards said the day started like any other workweek.

"Just the normal routine for a Monday, and (we) noticed some smoke in the center part of the lodge, and called 911,” he recounted Tuesday. “Fire departments came out and they worked all day, basically keeping it from spreading into the outlying cabins.”

But as for the main lodge, “it was kind of too far gone for them to save anything."

Jay’s father, Jim Richards, told WDAY-TV that he thought the fire started in the laundry room.

Photos and video from the scene Monday showed the massive three-story building engulfed in flames. There were no reports of injuries.

Maplelag beginnings

Jim and Mary Richards didn't set out to build a Minnesota landmark. When they moved to the property near Callaway nearly 50 years ago, they started a maple syrup business, and accommodated a few local skiers eager to venture through the woods.

They soon also started hosting guests on their maple syrup farm, leading to what became Maplelag.

“We’ve had people from all over the world here,” said Jay Richards, who now runs the family resort.

The lodge that burned Monday was built after a previous fire, 23 years ago. It housed event space and was the hub of support facilities for the resort that can host hundreds of guests. It also housed decades of accumulated decor that gave the place a one-of-a-kind feel, part nostalgia and part north woods retreat.

Varied events

It hosts an incredibly eclectic variety of gatherings, from mountain bike races to scrapbooking retreats to destination weddings. Maplelag has also hosted summer sessions of the much-beloved Concordia Language Villages dating back to 1976.

And just last weekend it hosted a quilting retreat. Kirsten Hansen, an attorney from Minnetonka, was among those attending. She’s been traveling up to Maplelag with her family for much of her life.

"We went up there to go cross-country skiing in the winter and fell in love with the place, and that was before the first fire in 1999. And they rebuilt beautifully until, unfortunately, this new fire,” she said.

Hansen told MPR News that the resort’s setting is a big part of the draw.

"It's on a beautiful lake, they have enormous acreage that's beautifully wooded with all the maples and the sumac and all of that," Hansen said. "And it's just stunning. It's stunning in the fall, but it's also stunning in the winter. Year-round."

Maplelag has also hosted summer sessions of the much-beloved Concordia Language Villages dating back to 1976.

But it’s perhaps best known for its trails through the woods — spectacular in the fall, and among the state's best skate and classic cross-country ski track in the winter. From its start as a 56-acre maple syrup farm, Maplelag now has more than 40 miles of mountain bike and groomed ski trails that bring cyclists and skiers from all over.

Neighbor Steve Kohlhepp, who has known the Richards family for 50 years, said the lodge was an economic hub for the area.

“You drive in the driveway half a mile, three-quarters of a mile, and all of the sudden it’s like a little village that you have in there, that they’ve created in there,” he said. “It’s employed I don’t know how many people off and on over the years.”

Ski camps and other events are on hold for now. Jay Richards said they are still trying to sort out what the next steps will be.

The 1999 fire shut down Maplelag for the winter — and actually led to the family rebuilding in much grander style. Although the fire Monday didn't damage more than 30 other buildings at the resort, they depend on the lodge as a hospitality hub, and it isn't clear how they can host guests without the main building.

Richards said even trail access remains uncertain, although they could be open for daily skiing activities this winter.

Jim Richards told WDAY-TV that there was "no question" his family would rebuild the lodge.