Northland Lodge ~ Itasca County Resorts with a History

9.19.2021 [archived ~ originally published 6.14.2018]

Neil King has been coming to Northland Lodge from southern Minnesota for 80 of his 83 years. Northland was strictly a fishing and hunting camp when he first accompanied his folks in 1938, so like or not, a lot of time was spent in the boat.  Neil took to fishing just fine, and in fact, there have been four generations of Kings spending at least a part of every summer on the northeast shore of Winnibigoshish Lake.

Besides good fishing, and experienced proprietors (the O’Reilleys are in their 35th season), the resort is known for the beautiful Norway pine log lodge, constructed by many men and great teams of horses back in 1919.  At that time, the resort was named Camp A-Be-We-Ning, said to mean “Resting Place” in Ojibwe, and was being built for a hunting club from the Twin Cities. 

The ridge-pole of the lodge is massive – it is 60 feet long, 61inches in circumference at one end, and 53 inches at the other – and it hasn’t budged an inch!  Pat O’Reilley, the current owner, along with his father Mike, explained. “This is because the log was set in place with the rise of the ‘crown’ (the slight natural bend) facing up.” Ray Callaway and his wife Lynda were the prior owners, and he added, “I used to keep a pole that was the exact height of the log, and every spring I would use it to check the distance between the floor and ridge-pole.  I was amazed that it never moved.”

The lodge is indeed impressive, and its uniqueness adds to the charm of the resort. Today it is one large room, 60×48, though the components of its 1919 construction are still in the same locations, there are no partitions separating the dining area from the living room. The walls are adorned with trophy fish, bird and animal mounts, including a moose from the 1920s in remarkable shape. There are photographs, treasures of woodland scavenging and the art of inspired resort guests.  A beautiful brick fireplace, the focal point of the living room was no doubt host to many lively discussions through the years.  “If these walls could talk,” Pat said, “I’m sure they’d have plenty to say.”

Thank goodness the walls are still here.  Ray stated that when he approached Louie Usher about buying the resort, Louie told him that if it didn’t sell that year (1978), he had planned to tear it down. One of the first projects Ray did was to replace some rotting logs. “I went to Russ Vickerman, he had a sawmill, and he told me they had been saving a log for that very project.  It had been cut two years previous, so it was dried and ready to go.  Vickerman and his son knew exactly what they were doing, we had an old time ‘log raising’ and two logs were replaced in no time.”

The History

According to an article in a 1922 publication highlighting the successes of Itasca County, in addition to the lodge (which they described as a log hotel), nineteen cabins had been constructed.  The officials of the Northland Camps, Inc. were businessmen from the Twin Cities.  Falvey Williams was designated the secretary and general manager. Falvey is the same man who several years later established the Williams Narrows Resort, also located on Lake Winnie.

It is unclear how long the group from the Twin Cities had the resort, but 1925 advertising listed A.L. Lee as the proprietor, and the Itasca News ran a good-sized ad announcing a Sunday Dinner on July 19, at The Northland Camps, Inc. “The Big Log Cabin Just a Step Across Winnibigoshish Dam.” The menu included: celery, olives, cream of tomato soup, one-half baked chicken, giblet sauce, sage dressing, garden spinach, whipped potatoes, pie ala mode, fruit salad, coffee, milk, and iced tea.

By 1927, the name of the resort was changed to Northland Lodge.  C.H. Rawson, the proprietor at the time, began having occasional ‘dancing parties’ open to the public, in the lodge during the weekday evenings.  The floor, constructed of long even planks, perfect for dancing.  Musicians mentioned include Swede Hedstrom and his Hot Points, and Gene’s Hot Rocks.

Neil explained that when his dad, Henry started coming up here, the new dam hadn’t been built yet, so one of the best places to fish was over in the bay by the Sunset.  “Northland would haul the fishermen in a 24-foot launch and drop them off, one by one on old cedar stumps that stuck out of the lake,” Neil said. “They’d have a sack lunch, their fishing stuff and a gunny sack for their catch.  At the end of the day, they come back and pick them up.”

There was a succession of short-term owners, but by the time Neil began coming up as a toddler, Lucille Woodroff and her daughter Margie were well established as owners.  They provided two home-cooked meals each day and sack lunches to the fishing or hunting parties.  The pair were extremely hard workers with a good sense of humor, and the resort flourished. 

Earl and Paula Mosgaard were the last owners to serve food on a daily basis, and unfortunately, no old recipes have been found, but Lucy King, Neil’s wife, recalls that she was a very good cook.  “I remember one meal in particular when she made a baked northern stuffed with wild rice and seasoning.  It was excellent!”

All told there have probably been a dozen owners, but a fire in the 1960’s destroyed the records, including guest registry books that went back to the beginning of Northland as a privately own resort. The names of owners located between 1924-1983 were: A.L. Lee, C.H. Rawson, Lucille & Margie Woodroff, Walter Beinke, Earl & Paula Mosgaard, Louis & Diane Usher, and Ray & Lynda Callaway.

The O’Reilley’s 1983 – Now

Mike and Mary O’Reilley bought the resort in 1983.  Mike had worked for the Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern Railroad for about 20 years when they decided they would like to own a resort in northern Minnesota.  It was another eight years before everything fell into place, he retired, and they were the very proud owners of Northland Lodge.

From the very beginning, they knew they had made the right decision, and their dedication is indeed evident by the improvements.  Their genuine enthusiasm turned guests into lifelong friends.  Though Pat was working in the cities and had a family of his own, he came up to help his folks get ready for the opener every year.  He jokes “I have been doing dock work for 35 years, even my dad can’t say that!”

The fishing opener has always been a big deal at Northland, and Mike always invited Ralph John Fritz, a sports announcer for WCCO radio to come up.  “Ralph would bring an unfolding antenna and dish and broadcast a fishing report during the opener.”   The O’Reilleys started a tradition of a fish fry on the Sunday of the opener, and also continued the ‘get to know your neighbor’ potluck near the beginning of each week, started by the Callaways. “One time,” Mike said, “we ended up lots of potato salad! Now we have a sign-up sheet.” And families have their traditions, not just fishing contests and campfires.  “One family brings frozen pizzas to the potluck, as a joke because that’s what their parents did, but it is always the first to go!”

Mary died in 1998, but by then the die was cast.  There was nowhere Mike wanted to be but at the resort.  Pat continued to help out when he could, and in 2006 he moved north to become a partner in the operation. The father and son duo work well together, and plans are to continue the O’Reilley ownership for years to come.  The lodge received a new roof to prevent deterioration from the Minnesota winters, and the floor is still as solid as it was when people were dancing to the ‘Hot Rock’ and ‘Hot Points’ ninety years ago.  In fact, last summer, Ray celebrated his 70th birthday with the live music of Steve Pratt, and the floor undulated with the nearly one hundred dancing feet.

Neil and Lucy now have a camper in the Northland Lodge camping area and like to visit as much as they do fishing.  Neil has contributed to the wildlife art with his intricate scenes carved in antler, bone, and wood.  They know a lot about the resort and have many stories to tell, and though some may be unbelievable, there are also photographs.

If These Walls Could Talk

“Al Capone did not stay at Northland,” Mike O’Reilley explained, “but when I bought the place there was a ‘hood’ here from Chicago, and the only name I knew him by was Blackie. He’d come with two or three others, and they all wear suitcoats because they were packing all the time. He’d go into cabin 5, it was the only one he would stay in.  You’d never see him come out of the cabin until he was going to go fishing, then it would be with the guys in suits, and they’d go with him. The last year he was here being in1984.”

Ray recalled a story told him by Louie, of a guest he had in the early 1970s. “Louie was behind the bar one day, and Bugsy Matthews came in.  He was a bank robber from the 1950s.  He sat down and had one beer, looked around the lodge and left.  Louie’s theory was that maybe Bugsy hid money or other valuables here from his last heist, and was returning now, after getting out of jail to claim it, but because so much of the resort had changed, he didn’t even know where to look.”

Pat and Mike have updated cabins, removed the ice house and old storage buildings, and installed a swimming pool, but have not come across Bugsy Matthews hidden cache yet.  There is a ghost who haunts the lodge occasionally makes himself known. I am still attempting to discover his identity and will save that for another column. Next year Northland Lodge will be 100 years old, a significant achievement for any northern Minnesota resort.

1 Comment

  1. Vickie says:

    Lots of fun history in this piece and legends about the hidden loot and the ghost. The big lodge sounds amazing. It would be a neat place to visit!


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