History of Minnesota Resorts

(submitted by Kim Bowen to CMR Resorter Reporter, a state-wide resort magazine published spring 2016)

I've been doing a little research this year on Minnesota's resorts.

I wondered "When was the 'hey-day' of Mom & Pop family/fishing vacation resorts in our state of 10,000 lakes?"

Was it 1946, just after World War II, when suburbs of cities really started developing and folks might have felt the need to go north to lake country to cool off in hot summer months? (When did air conditioners become common household appliances?) Was it 1955, a decade later when perhaps word had spread that going 'up north' with the family to a cabin by the lake sounded like a good idea (and anyway the neighbors could afford it, why couldn't we?) Perhaps 1972 was the year in which the highest resort count was recorded. Maybe it was pre-WWII? And if so, what were the socio-economic factors in our state which might have played a hand in affecting the rise of our Minnesota resort culture, emphasizing a value on lakes and family recreational opportunities?

Here's what I've found out (going backwards in time 'cause it was easiest):


MN Sales Tax Records (report published from MN Revenue Dept. March 27, 2015):

2013 - 810 resorts
2005 - 955 resorts
1995 - 1,248 resorts
1985 - 1,378 resorts

After contacting my local Hubbard County Property Tax department I found out that resorts were not classified as their own status (separate from commercial hotel/motel/lodging) until a proposal amending the language on the statute got approved on May 27, 1977. The MN Dept. of Revenue adopted a new classification class for "commercial seasonal property" sometime between 1953-1973, but I haven't found a clear date, and no real annual reports of this data yet. MN Dept. of Health was a little challenging to navigate through and I got stumped in attempts to find historic data on number of resort licenses issued through the years. However, what I DID find was this:

Historic CWC Luna tree circa 1958

A snapshot of MN resorts 1960-1970: Pat Simmons, a researcher at Explore Minnesota Tourism linked me up to a wonderful little gem of a report, done by the University of Minnesota extension (Uel Blank, Helen Jensen, Susan Wagenhals - Minnesota's Lodging Industry, Statistics and Characteristics: Extension Bulletin 386-1975, Hospitality Series No. 1, published 1975). This is 44 pages of EXACTLY the kind of data I was wanting to find! Yippeee! These guys did some very intense research, bless 'em. Here are some highlights:

  • 1970 - 2,527 resorts
  • 97% had less than 10 cabins/units
  • average number of cabins was 7.4
  • 10% of resorts stayed open all year (90% were seasonal)
    • 10% of establishments were built before 1930
    • 33% of establishments were built between 1930-1944
    • 46% of establishments were built between 1945-1959
    • 11% of establishments were built after 1960
  • 1966 - 3,002 resort licenses issued by Dept of Health (between 1966 and 1973, there was a 26% reduction in number of resorts - very comparable to Wisconsin's numbers)
  • of Minnesota's total lodging capacity in 1970 (including motels/hotels/b&b/resorts) over one half of capacity was available in cabins
  • Ownership: 93% of resort proprietorships were individual. Partnerships were not popular (fewer than 5%)
  • Between 1960 and 1970, 56% of MN resorts did not change hands (less than 13% had more than two owners)
  • in 1970 motels and resorts controlled 435 miles of Minnesota water frontage (large proportion above average quality)
  • 91% of resorts were cabin only resorts
  • 618 of the 2,527 resorts had trailer sites (125 of them had over 21+ sites)
    • average number of hook ups: 8.7
  • 334 of the 2,527 resorts had tent sitesHistoricCWC_oldcabin4from1-1200dpi

As to what year was the 'hey-day' of Minnesota's resorts? Well, we can't point to a single year, per say, but here is an excerpt from the bulletin which gives us a great macro view:

"Minnesota resorts reflect changing travel and recreation patterns. Some resorts were built before 1900 in the steamboat-railroad era. Improved roads and more automobiles between 1930 and 1944 created the first wave of volume resort construction. One-third of present resorts {in 1970} were built during this time. The resort building boom flourished from 1945 to 1960 in this post WWII era. {almost half of resorts in state were built during this time} Since 1960, Minnesota resort construction has been sharply curtailed, thus reflecting:

  1. interregional competition from other states and nations (other areas now offer water and resorting facilities) and the loss of Minnesota's advantage of natural air-conditioning due to technological advances
  2. trends toward mobile, sightseeing vacations in which national parks and historical shrines are visited
  3. improved long-distance travel on freeways
  4. increases in air travel - people seeking different travel and tourism experiences"

Lodge_DiningTablesHistoricCWCThere are all kinds of other data correlating construction improvements to success rates, breaking down resort numbers and establishment ages, etc. into ten different regions around the state. I laughed when I read about how they labeled some of the general areas of our state: Vikingland (Ottertail County - western/north), Heartland (from Alexandria north through Leech Lake, Itasca State Park, through Red Lakes and onto border), Arrowhead (iron range, boundary waters, Duluth and north shore area), Pioneerland (southwest corner of state) and Hiawathaland (southeast corner of state.) If there's any interest in this kind of article, I could maybe break it down a little more in future snippets from this fascinating collection of facts. After all, those of us 800 resorts in Minnesota have to stick together, right? This is a way to connect us all with knowledge, while appreciating our own unique resort's amenities. Resorters helping resorters, yes?

I am considering ongoing research efforts into the history of Minnesota's resorts. MN Historical Society has lots of pamphlets and reports I've spotted of which I'd like to request a viewing. If you have articles, links or leads on data of this subject, please contact me as I'd LOVE to collect 'em and add into a possible subsequent article. Kim Bowen at relax@crowwing.com

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