Minnesota’s lakes have been a summer destination since the age of the steamboat. The earliest known vacation visitors came upriver in the 1830s from the South in search of the state’s cooler temperatures, picturesque bluffs and restorative lakes.  According to retired Minnesota Historical Society historian Mark Haidet, in the mid-1800s, planters from the South started coming up to escape the heat.

The Civil War dampened the influx from the South. Yet the advent of rail travel, and later the automobile, ushered in a new era of summer exploration for people from places like Oklahoma and Iowa. People in search of a summer respite and fishing holiday started venturing even further into northern Minnesota.

“Probably the greatest influence on the development of northern Minnesota tourism was the automobile,” Haidet said.

In 1910, there were 458,000 automobiles in the United States, according to Haidet. A decade later, that number swelled to eight million. By 1930, 23 million automobiles were recorded on the road.

“The automobile provided people with a sense of adventure. And it also spread the advantages of tourism from the elite to the middle class,” Haidet said.

The primary activity was fishing. The Brainerd lakes region proved to be a popular destination for this. In 1917, the 10,000 Lakes Association was formed to grow its tourism industry and market the fishing resorts to residents along the Mississippi River valley. There were about 200 resorts in the state at the time. Haidet said in 1930 – just 13 years later – the number had grown to 1,300 resorts.

“I consider that the real boom period for resorts,” Haidet said. In the 1960s, he said the number peaked to about 3,500, with the majority of the resorts with ten cabins or less.

Since then, the number of these resorts has steadily dropped. Nick Leonard, director of tourism and economic development for Otter Tail County, said today the number of resorts in existence is half of what it was in the 1980s. Soaring land values and fewer people interested in the labor-intensive lifestyle of running a small resort have contributed to the decline.

“When [resort owners] look at what their options are,” Leonard explained, “and they ask themselves, do I sell this as a resort and walk away with $750,000? Or do I parcel it out and sell it as a common-interest community, essentially an association, and I walk away with $1.5 million, it’s a no-brainer what options they’re going to pick,” Leonard said. His family owns and operates East Silent Lake Resort in Dent, Minnesota.

But small resorts like Eagles Nest Resort in Nisswa, Minnesota are bucking the downward trend. It’s currently owned by Justin and Alli Isaacson, who took it over from her parents, Steve and Audrey Masimore, about twelve years ago. The Isaacsons concede it is lifestyle choice, one that prevents them from taking a vacation away themselves during the summer months. But their jobs as resort owners also allows them to spend more time with their kids throughout the day and not have to send them to daycare.  And the family has found spending time with their guests, many of whom return each year, is rewarding. Justin Isaacson said guests become their friends.

“Anniversaries, birthdays, we’ve seen proposals,” Isaacson said. “Big moments in people’s families happen up here.”

Minnesota’s resort industry is also in the midst of change once again. Larger-scale resorts like Grand View Lodge, also in Nisswa, are undergoing a $30 million expansion push. The property already includes two golf courses, a spa and a main lodge. By next year, it will add a new pool building, a recreation center, a new boutique hotel, a chapel and rental units it will sell and manage.

“By Memorial Day of next year, we think Grand View will hold about 1,400 guests on a busy night,” Grand View General Manager Mark Ronnei said.

He said the expansion should make the resort among in largest in the state. Ronnei said they’re building what people want.

“We’re not just adding accommodations and jamming more people into our facility,” Ronnei said. “We’re building amenities first.”

Ronnei said they’re in the business of memories and helping people to make them. Isaacson said that’s also true at Eagles Nest Resort. Just which kind of memories – will be up to the visitor.

This story was published July 19, 2018.