Resorts with a History ~ High Banks Resort

5.21.2023 [archived ~ originally published 8.11.2019]

“Where the Big Pike Lie and the Wild Ducks Fly!” was the motto Ingwald Nelson used in advertising the High Banks Resort. It is believed that in 1929 he leased land from the U.S. Forest Service and built a lodge which would accommodate a handful of sportsmen.  In the ninety years since then, the High Banks Resort has catered to fishing and hunting enthusiasts and vacationing families year around.  The catch phrase of the current owners, Rick and Kim Leonhardt is “Spectacular Sunsets Guaranteed.” This is absolutely true because the resort is located on the east side of Winnibigoshish, with an expansive view of the western horizon. 

The lodge is still the focal point of the resort. The grand staircase to the upstairs accommodations hasn’t changed, and the banister shines from the thousands of hands who have touched it through the years.  Guests taking a break from preparing their own meals can eat in the dining room.  The original split rock fireplace built by a local man details his artistic touch as well as his craftsmanship with the head of a deer worked into the design above the mantle.

Ingwald and Emma Nelson ~ 1929-1947

Ingwald Nelson was born in Norway and at about the age of seventeen he came to the Iron Range of northern Minnesota.  He worked in the mines for a while but, for some years prior to the resort, Ingwald owned a pool hall in Greenway.  About the same time Ingwald decided to build the lodge on Winnibigoshish, Melvin Olson, who knew Ingwald from the mines, started Little Winnie Resort.  In an interview with Mel conducted by Stanley Johnson, Mel explained why Ingwald was called Nancy.  “He was a great guy to shake dice and when he’d shake dice, he’d always say, ‘come to Nancy,’ and so they nicknamed him Nancy.” [12/30/1975]

It is believed that when Ingwald started High Banks he was single.  Before long, he returned to Greenway and married Emma Besser.  Together they ran the resort which soon consisted of four log cabins in addition to the rooms in the lodge.  Twelve rowboats built at the Cass Lake Boat Works were ready in time for the fishing opener of 1933.

Ingwald was a good businessman and used advertising to his advantage.  He had business cards with resort information on the front, and a map of how to get there on the back.  He purchased colorful custom-made souvenir notepaper for guests, and the first known brochure, circa 1933, is in full color.

One of the most interesting points brought up in the brochure was: “Invest in Health! The invigorating air of this far back north woods and the healing fragrance of the great pine forests bring comfort and relief to a great extent to asthma and hay fever sufferers.”

Lydia Krinke, a sister of Emma Nelson spent time helping her sister cook and clean cabins.  Lydia and her son Roger were at the resort in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In a letter to the current owners, the Leonhardts, Roger recalls working at the resort as a young boy.  “I remember the huge icehouse and shoveling sawdust around to keep the ice covered so it would last through the summer. We had a big flock of chickens that needed daily feeding which was an easy job for a six- year- old.  The tourists could eat fish only so many days and then they were fed the chickens.”

Roger is well aware of his uncle Nancy’s fondness of gambling and has one of the slot machines from the resort in his home.  It is rumored that some of the machines, possibly containing $20,000, are still buried somewhere on the property.  Slot machines and other games of chance were illegal in Minnesota in the late 1920s.  The headlines of the July 11, 1929 Deer River News stated Slot Machines Are Banned in County. But according to a report to the Minnesota legislature in the early 1940s, many slot machines were operated in resort areas with little interference from local law enforcement. Carson and Caden Leonhardt have searched but have not found them yet!

Postcards of resorts have been around almost as long as resorts have, and High Banks has some that have come back into their hands after they were sent by guests.  These are the messages on two during the time the Nelsons owned the resort:

~ “We’ve been up here now a little over a week.  We are having a lot of fun!” [7-24-1939]

~ “We arrived here at 5 am.  Had a nice trip. Jenny and Richard behaved so good.  It is too windy to fish here today and cold, but we keep warm in the cottage.” [7-2-1945]

In March 1947, Ingwald and Emma sold the resort and moved to town by the time their son was ready to start school.

In Between Years 1947-2004

For the next fifty-seven years there were at least eight different sets of owners of the High Banks Resort.  This includes but is not limited to James C “Lucky” and Howard Helfrich, Bill and Ann Molzen, John Whitesell, Wally and Della Barnett, Lloyd and Nona Paulson, John and Robin Tully, Charles and Gail Evans, and John and Pam Humphreys.

Eight wood framed cabins were added in the early 1950s.  However, cabin six was destroyed by a fallen tree and never rebuilt.  All the cabins were moved when a major shoreline restoration and stabilization project was done in the late 1990s.  When the buildings were moved, they did not stay in the same chronological order but, the Humphreys, owners at the time, did not re-number the cabins.  Most guests want to stay in the same cabin as they had for previous years as it is an important part of the tradition for their family!

One of the most interesting stories that happened during this time was that the state record muskie was caught off the resort.  Art Lyons, a fishing guide for High Banks, caught the 54-pound fish on August 28, 1957, but it wasn’t considered a record-breaking catch until nineteen years later. This entire story will be in the Reminisce column on Sunday August 18, 2019.

Leonhardt Family 2004

Rick and Kim Leonhardt always knew that they wanted to live in northern Minnesota, and eventually decided that home would be a resort.  “We had been looking for resorts for two years,” Kim said.  “All over Minnesota, Canada, even some out of state, but none had all the things we wanted.” Rick had been ice fishing with his friends at High Banks and knew a little bit about the area.   When the resort came for sale in November 2003, the Leonhardts drove north.  “Coming down the driveway, there was snow on the pines, it was like a winter wonderland.” Everything fell into place and it was theirs less than six months later.

In addition to the spectacular sunsets, Kim explains that the night sky is also incredible.  “The stars, northern lights, winter blood moon, everything is magnified because there is no light pollution.”

One of the goals Rick and Kim had when they bought the resort was to incorporate more family activities.  “When we bought it there was such an emphasis on fishing and fishing only.  Now we have a nice balance of fishing and family.”   There are lots of activities for children (who get to stay free!) and sometimes there are guests that don’t fish at all.  High Banks also offers short term stays to accommodate the changing needs of families.

Their sons Carson age 13 and Caden age 11 have been at the resort since they were born, and the lifestyle seems to be in their blood.  Both boys enjoy conversing with the guests, gathering fishing reports, helping with the docks and in the lodge.

In addition to the work at the resort, the boys enjoy spending time with new and returning friends.  Activities geared towards families and children of all ages include scavenger hunts, naturalist program (bats, owl pellets, fish prints, water cycle, animal tracks), bingo, and crafts.

The oldest building on the property is the lodge.  The upstairs has been renovated and instead of individual rooms, the entire floor can be used to accommodate a group of twelve.  “When we were remodeling the upstairs of the lodge,” Kim said. “we found a whiskey bottle.  We had removed the bathtub surround and there was an old, old empty whiskey bottle, still in the box!” They decided to carry on the tradition.  They replaced the bottle with a newly emptied one which will be discovered during the next bathroom update.

All of the cabins are the originals.  There are four log ones built in the early 1930s and six frame cabins constructed in the 1950s.  The Leonhardts added a 20-site seasonal campground in 2007.  High Banks was the first to offer sleeper ice fish houses on Winnie in 2005, which has become very popular for ice fishing.

High Banks has a wonderful collection of vacation photographs.  The Molzen family, owners during the 1950s and early1960s, carefully documented the photos before turning them over to Kim.  She has contacted others with a connection to the resort and has received letters (i.e. Roger Krinke) and even a visit from Bernie Nelson, son of Ingwald and Emma.  An unexpected addition was a recent grouping of photos from the 1930s.  Kim said, “In March I received a phone call from a woman who told me her dad had stayed at High Banks in the 1930s when he was a boy. She said he talked so much about it, that she decided it was time her family, and her children come up.”  In June they stayed in cabin eight, the same one her father’s family did.

The Leonhardts are invested in the community in more ways than the resort.  They buy locally and believe in paying it forward. Rick volunteers as head coach with the Deer River pony league football team. In addition they host fundraising events such as pancake breakfasts, pig races, crayon drives, and support the Deer River Athletic department.  They also promote and sponsor events for those who have served.  They have offered a 50% discount for veterans in August and most recently put together care packages for soldiers in the United Arab Emirates.

Rick, Kim, Carson and Caden take pride in providing memorable vacations for all their guests. The Leonhardts are truly honored to carry on the High Banks Resort tradition and legacy that began 90 years ago.

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