No Dull Days at Dunn’s

It was shortly after the turn–of–the–century when pioneer Wilson E. Dunn and his young son Roy began work on their dream. Twenty–odd years before, Wilson Dunn, newly arrived by oxcart from Wisconsin, had bought out a discouraged homesteader for a mere forty five dollars. That claim north of Pelican Rapids included 160 acres and over 2,500 feet of shoreline along beautiful Lake Lizzie. Hunters, fishermen, and vacationing families from as far away as Chicago and Des Moines had already discovered the Lakes Area and were coming in droves, camping along shores and on islands, even renting sleeping space in farm haylofts. The elder Dunn was a skilled carpenter; his son insightful and ambitious. There was an abundance of native timber on their property. The pieces were all there. Father and son began putting them together.

That first cabin went up in 1908. When summer vacationers anteed up to pay rent, the Dunns built others, sometimes one a year, sometimes two. Before long, two dozen cabins stretched along the Lizzie lakeshore. And there was more––docks, boats, newfangled outboard motors, pavilions, a main lodge built in 1929 in the style of a California mission, and an experimental water powered–generator from the University of Minnesota that lit up the night nearly forty years before Lake Region Electric brought the miracle of electricity to nearby farms. Dunn’s Lodge, as it came to be called, was soon a favorite destination for vacationers from all across the Midwest––as well as a curiosity for nearby farmers, who would often hitch teams to wagons and bring wives and children over to Dunn’s, just to see the lights come on.

A 1930 brochure described Dunn’s attractions. "… a modern Summer hotel… the finest and best to be found… drinking water from a well recognized as the best in the state… fishing as good as to be found anywhere in the state… good bathing beach with sand bottom… fresh produce from our own farm every day." A concluding banner proudly proclaimed, "There Are No Dull Days At Dunn’s!"

But as many local resort owners can sadly testify, there are extreme seasonal variations in the business. Summertimes, there is work aplenty and sometimes a modest profit. Winters, there is nothing, nothing at all. To even out cashflow and workload, Roy Dunn took a government job in 1912––he was appointed Lake Lizzie postmaster. Something about public service stirred his spirit. In 1922, he ran for the legislature––as he often claimed, "just to see if I could get elected. He couldn’t. But defeat steeled his resolve. Two years later, he won a seat in the Minnesota House, a position he was to hold for forty years––an astounding twenty terms. Power the in legislature being based upon seniority, Dunn eventually rose to majority leader and to chair influential committees on rules and taxation and from those seats of authority watched the rise and demise of eleven governors.

Dunn declined to seek reelection in 1966, "retiring" to devote his full attention to Dunn’s Lodge. But times were changing. Those first cabins were badly in need of repair. And there was the disconcerting prospect of a battle with Lakeshore Management over the resort’s aging and inadequate sewers, a battle––in spite of Dunn’s considerable influence––he was sure to eventually lose. In 1973, after nearly seventy years in the business, Dunn sold to Robert Rife, a native of Forest Lake, Minnesota.

Bob Rife had big plans for Dunn’s. He dropped Dunn’s name from the marquee, hired architects to draw up plans for condominium development, spent $300,000 to remodel the main lodge, updated the leaky sewers with a system that disposed of effluent by routing it beneath the right–of–way to the north side of U.S. 59. But Rife ran short of money before he ran short of plans. After spending nearly three quarters of a million dollars, he deeded the property to the Pelican Valley State Bank rather than face bankruptcy proceedings.

A later plan to convert the resort into a massive travel trailer park raised the ire of neighbors, who turned out in raucous and successful protest. The bank leased out the main lodge to various restauranteurs who produced excellent fare but insufficient profit. Finally, in 1989 Robert Bergquist, the president of Pelican Valley State Bank, bought out the bank’s interest upon his retirement.

Bergquist was able to succeed where Rife had failed. He held an auction, sold the cabins that could be moved, razed the others. The first six condominium units went up in 1992. Units were built as they were sold. Plans call for up to thirty––the most opulent offered for an astounding quarter million dollars.

The rise and fall of Dunn’s Lodge parallels the history of much of the Lakes Area resort business––a family owned and run operation, getting bigger, then older, and finally unprofitable, collapsing into insolvency, then rising again as permanent residences, as increasing numbers of tourists seek year–round what they previously enjoyed only for a few precious summer months.

Old Roy Dunn was not around to see the gavel fall on his dream. Confined to a St. Paul Nursing home, he died in 1985, a few months short of his centennial year.

~Roger Pinckney