A loving look at Minnesota family resorts: Neil Johnson’s book gets kickoff at Twin Lakes church

Neil Johnson posed with his son Isaiah and labrador at Long Lake Lodge, a hunting resort.

by Bruce Strand, Sports editor

In this land of ten thousand lakes, resorts are as much staple of our culture as cornfields, good schools and the Twins. Fishermen, hunters and their families love to break away for an afternoon, a weekend, even a week,  on the lake.

An homage to the people who provide those peaceful getaways — “Resorts of Minnesota: Exploring the Heritage and History of Minnesota’s Family Resorts” — has been written by Neil E. Johnson with help from another writer and three photographers.

Neil Johnson (middle) and Adam Swenson signed books at the Twin Lakes Church release party.

This stylish 234-page, 10-by-12 book, featuring profiles of 36 resorts and the families who’ve run them,  along with hundreds of photographs both vintage and new, and many interesting sidebars, is now available at Borders and the website resortsofminnesota.com. It was published by Johnson himself (NLJ Books of Hibbing).

The book release event was hosted by Twin Lakes Church north of Elk River, which was Johnson’s home church while he lived in Oak Grove for five years, last Saturday. The church made a party of it with refreshments, kids games, book signings, and a short program in which Johnson spoke about the book and showed photos.

“What I like most about resort vacations,” said Johnson,”is what they do for the family. You can block out the world and leave electronics behind and get back to nature. It’s an experience second to none. And with 10,000 lakes, we’ve got so many great places.”

Johnson, 37, and wife Lora (to whom he dedicated the book) have six kids under age nine, including a newborn.

This is the first book for Johnson, who had a successful career in the corporate training industry in the metro area but left it because the travel limited his family time. He’s also done consulting and business management. An avid reader and gifted writer, he has written several articles on faith and family and about people and places in Minnesota.

Johnson started to focus on a book about resorts a year and a half ago. His love of history, writing, resorts, hunting and fishing, and family stories added up to “an idea that kept nagging me — could I really drop everything and do this?”

But once he decided, it was an “all-out effort for 16 months — I drove 40,000 miles, and we took 20,000 images.”

One of the long-ago resort photos in the book

Johnson enlisted a solid team to help him — Adam Swenson, an accomplished writer and editor, along with three talented nature photographers, Mark J. Harlow, Doug Ohman, and Scott Pederson.

Not all resorts are for fishing, Johnson was pleasantly surprised to learn. Long Lake Lodge, where the hunting photo on this page was taken, is for shooting sports (and they hosted 25 weddings, too last year). Another example is Cedar Valley Resort, which is located in a southeastn Minnesota county with no lakes, but has great bike trails and many migratory birds.

Johnson is a native of Bemidji. After living in St. Paul for many years, the Johnson’s moved to Oak Grove and joined Twin Lakes Church. The Johnsons lived there until March and are now living on a resort near Paynesville (the Bugbee Hive, one of those profiled in the book) while building a house near Hibbing.

Cabins at Lake Florida Resort.

Resorting is a tough business, Johnson learned. From a peak of 4,000 resorts in Minnesota, there are just 900 now, said Johnson. Lakeshore taxes are high, big corporate operations crowd out the mom-and-pop operations, and inexpensive plane tickets also compete for vacation dollars. Johnson feels great respect and reverence for the family resorts that have survived and writing their stories has been “a labor of love.”

The book is not a listing of resorts, but histories and personal stories of 36 of them, all of which were visited by Johnson and his cohorts.

One of many old-time photos in the book

“I wrote about the resorts where I would want to take my family,” he said.

Among them:

•Lake Florida Resort near Spicer is a fourth-generation business started by Norwegian immigrant Jens Dickerson in 1924 and  operated since 1976 by Bob Dickerson, who left a good Minneapolis job in financial services to take over the resort. Johnson writes that Bob and wife Connie offer “thirteen charming cocoa-brown cabins, a fabulous beach, and golf-course green grounds” along with beautiful flower boxes and gardens, chocolate chip cookies in the rooms, and no mosquitoes at all, because, as Bob says, “There’s nowhere for them to hide” with no standing water on the place and grass neatly trimmed to the foundations of the cabins. Jens and his 10-year-old son Arlo, Bob’s grandpa, found the site on a fishing trip and bought it from a farmer the next day.

•Westridge Shores on Lake Mary, near Alexandria, was purchased by Erin Fredrickson in 2003 when she left the teaching profession, seeking something new, after a painful separation from her husband. Her love of children was transferred from the classroom to the resort where families mingle and kids make new, fast friends each summer. Johnson writes: “Erin Fredrickson smiles when you get there and cries when you leave.” Erin remarried when a career woman from California chose her resort because it was run by a female and brought her brother on the second trip. Erin’s three sons all work there. The resort was a broken-down mess when Erin bought it, but family and friends helped her get it up and running, and they’ve made it a first-class operation with many improvements  including the recent construction of a four-bedroom cabin.

The book is filled with side stories on the enterprises resorts have branched into, such as family reunions, scrap-booking events (in winter), weddings, Northern Minnesota-style luau’s, and many more topics including a brief history of the resort industry. Johnson is particularly proud of page 148, an essay on “Kids i Nature: The Best Education” — getting kids away from TV’s and video games and into the real world.

The back cover includes praise for the book from respected outdoor voices Jason Davis, Ron Schara, Al Lindner, Peter Mayer and Roger Cournier. Schara also wrote a foreword.


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