As most everyone who lives in Itasca County knows, recreation and tourism have been important facets of our community since before World War I. There was a significant rise in the number of smaller, mom and pop type resorts in the 1930s and early 1940s.
In his book Early Resorts of Minnesota, Ren Holland provides information regarding the resort population. “In June 1916 the Minnesota Game and Fish Department published a list of 564 summer hotels and fishing resorts. By 1930 there were 1,176 resorts listed in the Ten Thousand Lakes Association’s Minnesota Book.” [Early Resorts of Minnesota, Ren Holland, pgs 7-9]
After World War II resorts of all sizes flourished, but not all are in business today. “Gone But Not Forgotten” is a companion to my “Resorts With A History” series. I had intended to feature two resorts in this column until, during my research, I discovered that the Jack-the-Horse Resort near Marcell is still in operation! For sixty years my family has driven past the stone entryway of the resort with such an intriguing name. Gramps told the story of how the lake was named and explained that there had once been a resort. I was thrilled to learn the resort has stood the test of time and will feature it in Reminisce later this summer.
Willow Beach Resort
In the mid-1920s, Charles and Ruth LeMaster, along with their son Glen and his wife Oda, took a vacation trip to Northern Minnesota to explore resort possibilities. The LeMasters were from Ottawa, Kansas where they jointly owned a successful automobile garage business. It was on that trip that they met Levite and Anna Daigle who lived on the south end of Ball Club Lake just north of highway No.8 (now highway 2). The Daigles had homesteaded on a 46-acre parcel and received a land patent for it in 1916.
Charles and Glenn thought it was an excellent location for attracting visitors and proposed an agreement that would be advantageous to both the Daigles and LeMasters. In April 1926 construction of the Willow Beach Hotel was well underway. It had ten rooms on the second level and a large dining room and kitchen on the main floor.
“In addition to the hotel, seven cabins of latest improved type have been built, and another will be added within a month. These cabins are 16 x 18, with a screened porch addition of 8 by 16. The cabins are built of selected tamarack logs about seven inches in diameter, peeled, and carefully fitted tongue and groove fashion so that chinking with plaster is unnecessary. All cabins are lighted by electricity, and each is so arranged that a stove can be installed for cooler weather in the fall of the year.
The resort has a bathing beach that is second to none. There is a splendid white sand bottom, and one may walk hundreds of feet from the shoreline without getting to a depth of waistline level. This makes it especially suitable for little children. There is no drop off, which makes the beach extremely safe. A 14-booth bath house has been built.
The owners have a fleet of 23 row boats, flat-bottomed, which they have built of special type, with high seats and oarlocks, and which ride the water remarkably well. Each boat is equipped for outboard motor, and in each is an enclosed fish box which does away with the nuisance of fish flopping in the open boat.” [5-27-1926 Itasca News]
The LeMasters planned to introduce a specialty to the tourists and locals – barbequed meats. They had a large brick oven built outside near the hotel. The inside dimensions of the oven were three feet by six feet with a height of six feet. The Itasca News described what barbeque was. “The principle is somewhat that of a fireless cooker. In the oven it is possible to roast large portions of meat, or even entire carcasses. Barbeque lunches will be a specialty at Willow Beach and will prove a pleasing and appetizing novelty.”
And indeed, Willow Beach became well known for its barbeque.
By July 1, the hotel and restaurant were fully operational. Eager to familiarize the locals with the new restaurant and barbecued meats, Willow Beach advertised their location as a “Fine Place to Spend a Safe and Sane Fourth.” For two days dancing, airplane rides, and a lunch stand where “deliciously barbequed meats of all kinds will be served,” were available.The airplane rides must have been a significant draw. The pilot, Clarence Musser, was to make a nonstop flight from Kansas City, Missouri and land on an aviation field at the beach. “He will take you up at unheard of low prices. You can afford to go up if you want to.” Row boats and motors were available to rent, and a launch would take parties for trips on the lake.
The resort’s grand opening was held on July 31, with the focus on the barbequed meats (including chicken), and dancing to music furnished by a first-class orchestra in the fifty-foot screened-in porch with a brand-new hardwood floor.
In 1927 a campground was added which included a kitchen and two shower bathrooms. The kitchen was screened-in and contained a wood range, gas stove, and hot and cold running water. The following year, the Willow Beach hotel and restaurant were winterized and remained open throughout the winter.
Charles LeMaster died in 1930, and Levite Daigle died in 1938. Whatever arrangement the gentlemen made regarding the partnership remained in place until 1946 when the cabins were sold to Tony Daigle, one of Levite’s sons. They were renamed Willow Beach Cabins.
In 1947 Paul Christian bought Willow Beach Cabins. At the time of the sale two of the original log cabins had been dismantled and removed. Three frame cabins had been added. Two years later, Glen and Oda sold the Willow Beach Hotel and restaurant to Paul Christian. The land continued to be leased from Anna Daigle, wife of Levite.
There were numerous owners during the next fifty or sixty years. Eventually the cabins were gone, and for a while there was a small mobile home park. At some point there was a fire in the upper floor, where the hotel rooms were. Because it could not be salvaged, that portion was removed, and the roof was lowered.
The tradition of barbeque continued through many owners. In the 1970s and 1980s Willow Beach was a very busy restaurant which boasted seafood and steaks along with their specialty, barbequed ribs and chicken. Although I did not eat in the restaurant, I do know that my grandma Marcotte was a cook there, for at least one summer. She lived in the mobile home park, and I got to spend a couple of days with her when I was eleven. Grandma made me one of her favorite meals, and one I had never had before nor since – frog legs. I wrote a short memoir piece that has been published about her and our meal. If you would like to read it, send me a message firstname.lastname@example.org and I will share it with you.
Jim Daigle, grandson of Levite remembers the years when the restaurant was busy. As a teenager living next door, he was sometimes called over in a pinch to help with dishes. His brother Jerry worked there for a while and had the title of maître d’. Maybe a bit fancy for Ball Club, but Hugh and Mary Cain had a lucrative business, and Willow Beach had an established reputation for fine dining.
And speaking of reputation, if you heard that there were go-go dancers at Willow Beach, you would be correct. That was in the later years. Eventually it was more of a bar than restaurant, and last summer the vacant building was taken down. Owners include, but are not limited to: Ray and Inez Gardner, Hugh and Mary Cain, Erik Meyer, Larry and Sharon Leonard, and Joe Villeneuve.
The name and barbeque sauce recipe live on. Old Willow Beach BBQ Sauce became available to the public about ten years ago. Jim Daigle grew up enjoying the barbeque sauce and learned to make the recipe years ago. In about 2010 he began making bigger batches and bottling it for family and friends. Those who had eaten at Willow Beach were thrilled to use it at home. Those who tried it for the first time and liked it, were pleased to be able to purchase it.
Jim’s Old Willow Beach BBQ Sauce took second place in the 28th Annual American Royal World Series Barbeque Contest in Kansas City, Missouri in 2015. The contest is the largest of its kind in the world. His entry was in the tomato mild category where there were 150 entries. Old Willow Beach BBQ Sauce also placed fifth overall against 390 entries. Jim was delighted that he won in such a prestigious competition and proudly labels his BBQ sauce as award winning! And it is. Yes, I speak from experience.
If you have a favorite Itasca County resort that is no longer open, but has a fun history and a few memories, please let me know ~ email@example.com