Itasca County Resorts with a History ~ Leino’s Riverside Resort

Eighty-five years and counting!


Leino’s Riverside Resort, owned by Bruce and Sandy Leino, is on the Popple River in Squaw Lake. The resort was originally established by the Felters in about 1930 and might have been called the Forest Inn at the time. It has been owned by the Kananen and Leino families for eighty-five years! One of the unique characteristics of the resort is that right next to it is a building, also owned by the Kananen and Leino families, which had a dance hall on the upper level. Every Saturday night bands, such as Buddy Lawrence from Grand Rapids, provided dance music.

Early Squaw Lake Community History

Just after the turn of the century, Finnish people began settling in what is now Squaw Lake and surrounding areas. Some men, like Emil Kananen and John Hamalainen, came directly from Finland. John’s wife and children followed a year later. Emil immigrated on the Dominion in a crossing from Liverpool, England to Portland, Maine that took eleven days. The ship’s records indicate he was heading for Ely, Minnesota. By about 1903 he had settled on Round Lake about a half mile south of where the Popple River flows out. Other Finnish families that had first immigrated to Menahga, Minnesota also began making their way north as they learned that land was available.

Emil and John were both entrepreneurs and it didn’t take them long to see that the location of the Popple River, between Round Lake and Squaw (now Nature) Lake was a good place to establish a village. According to information on file at the Itasca County Historical Society, John Hamalainen, who wanted to establish a post office for the community, thought that Emil’s location was the best place for the post office. John had settled about one-mile further north, so the two men made a trade. John named the location Max, and he was the postmaster from January 1906 until December 1910. (The Max post office was later moved three and a half miles northwest, and in 1923 there was a post office established in the village of Squaw Lake.)

Emil built a sauna which he lived in for a couple years and a trading post both from logs he harvested from his land.  Emil began trading furs with the local Native Americans for essentials like milk from his cows, sugar, salt, flour, coffee, and tea. He purchased these items from towns where the train stopped, like Bena and Blackduck, both two-day trips from his trading post.

Emil and Hilda Kananen

In 1909 Emil married Hilda Uusitalo. Hilda had immigrated to the United States in August 1905 aboard the Saxonia. Her passage was paid by someone with the arrangement that she would work in Massachusetts until it was paid in full. Bruce Leino, grandson of Emil and Hilda, explained that the Finnish people were great letter writers, and that probably through an acquaintance the letter writing between the couple began. He believes Emil and Hilda, his grandparents, corresponded for several years. When Hilda was free to leave her obligation, she came to Itasca County, married Emil, and set up housekeeping in the frame home he had built.

The 1910 United States census shows that both Emil Kananen and John Hamalainen were proprietors of general stores. John of course was also listed as the postmaster. On the road between those businesses, six additional families had built homes, so it wasn’t long before the Kananen School, a log structure was built north of the house on the Kananen property. For years the Kananens boarded the local teachers. Their own daughters, Ellen and Vienna both taught school before they married. Sons, George and Toivo, had their father’s entrepreneurial spirit. Toivo expanded the fur business by also purchasing furs in North Dakota and Ontario. He sold to fur garment makers, such as Rothchild’s in New York. Other successful ventures include bullhead fishing and the sale of wild rice. George was involved in getting northern Minnesota wild rice into the markets and restaurants of the East Coast.

Eino and Ellen (Kananen) Leino 1937-1987

Ellen Kananen began her forty-two-year teaching career when she was just seventeen years old.  She taught in rural schools in the Grand Rapids District for almost ten years before she married Eino Leino.  Eino was born in Pennsylvania and was the son of Finnish immigrants. The family moved from Pennsylvania to Canada for a short while and then to Hibbing in the mid-1910s.  The 1930 US census documents that Eino was employed as a truck driver for the co-op grocery store. He was a talented accordion player and had a band of his own called the Night Hawks. Ellen heard the band play for a dance at a Buck Lake School fundraiser and asked if he would do the same at the school she taught at. He agreed.

The couple began a long-term courtship. Ellen continued to teach school, and Eino worked and remained in Hibbing. After the school year ended in 1937, it made sense for them to finally get married. Earlier in the year, a fire destroyed the hotel and store in Squaw Lake that was owned by the Felter family. The loss hit the Felters hard, and they sold the property which included cabins on the Popple River to George and Toivo Kananen. A large two-story building was erected which included a butcher shop and grocery on the main floor as well as living quarters and a spacious dance hall upstairs. It was one of the only structures in town to have electricity and indoor plumbing. The store was named Kananen Bros., the dance hall was named Riverside, and the resort name changed to Kananen’s. Eino and Ellen moved into the living quarters and managed the store and resort. Eino’s band played there occasionally and at other locations in the area.

Not long after the purchase, George and Toivo built a log cabin on the resort property. It is the only one that was made of Norway pine logs and the oldest cabin there now. Although the other cabins were referred to by number, the log cabin has always been called “log cabin.” Several years later, Eino and Ellen bought the resort which, of course, they renamed Leino’s.

During most of WWII, all the cabins were rented out to “war widows,” women who had married local men before the soldiers were sent overseas. There was electricity to cook on a hot plate and running water, but only outhouses. Nancy McDonald was one of these women.  She married Toivo Kananen in April 1941. Their daughter, Patricia was born the following spring, and their son Richard, a few years later.

Because of the shortage of teachers, Ellen was called back to teach when her oldest son, Bruce, was three years old and Eldon was only an infant.  Eino, who was exempt from serving in the military because his lungs were damaged when he contracted pneumonia in 1918, managed the family businesses.  After the war, the tourism industry picked up again so a few more cabins were added. At one point there were ten. 

Eino and Ellen bought the store and dance hall in the late 1940s and renamed the resort and store Leino’s Cottages and Grocery.  Bruce and Eldon helped with the chores that most boys growing up on a resort did.  They cleaned boats, hauled away fish guts, and mowed grass.  And of course, they had a chance to fish, swim, and get to know some of the kids who came to the resort. The brothers also helped in the store and the dance hall.  One of their responsibilities was to make sure there was plenty of crushed ice (harvested from Round Lake each winter) for beverages!

Bruce and Sandy Leino 1987 – current

Bruce Leino graduated from Blackduck and then attended Bemidji State College. He met fellow student Sandy there, and they married in 1967. After receiving his master’s degree in 1969, Bruce was hired as the Director of Kooch-Itasca Headstart and later was also the Executive Director of Kooch-Itasca. The Leinos lived in Squaw Lake with their children Michael and Kari.

In 1972 Bruce and Sandy purchased the Squaw Lake Liquor Store which they renovated and established as The Hill restaurant. Both had experience in the restaurant industry and worked side by side at The Hill for nearly thirty years. Known for its wild rice soup, prime rib, and the famous Hill Burger, it was a popular place for locals and visitors alike.

Eino died in 1984 and Ellen died three years later. Bruce and Sandy took over the responsibilities of the resort. They closed the store, though still catered events in the dance hall for many years.

The Harbor Bar and Resort located just south of the store was for sale in the late 1990s. Bruce and Sandy bought the property, took down all the buildings, and repurposed it as an RV park with 4 sites.  After selling The Hill restaurant in 2001, the Leinos downsized the resort by removing the oldest cabins. They built a modern duplex, remodeled cabin #10, and renovated a three-bedroom cabin on the other side of the Popple River. The Log Cabin is still the most requested by small groups because of its traditional log walls and stone fireplace.

Sandy wasn’t quite ready to retire, so in 2012 she opened a gift shop in the Leino store. Seven years later her daughter and son-in-law Kari and Cory Smith proposed starting a new restaurant. The owners of The Hill had a fire which destroyed the building and were not going to rebuild. In 2019, the gift shop was replaced by Leino’s Riverside Pub. And what is it famous for besides the made-to-order broasted chicken and homemade potato chips? The wild rice soup, of course.

Leino’s Resort and Leino’s RV Park remains a family run business. Bruce and Sandy, along with their children daughter Kari and husband Cory, and son Michael and wife Brigette, their grandchildren Brock and Kennedi have helped throughout the years and continue to as they are needed.

Chances are likely that the Leino Resort will stay in the family for at least a few more years. After all, it’s only fifteen years until it will have been in their family for one-hundred years!

1 Comment

  1. Vickie says:

    Nice story. I like how you weave bits of history into the stories about the resorts.


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