Tourism is currently the main local industry at Lake Mille Lacs, and has been for most of the century. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) guide to Minnesota describes the lake as a “sportsman’s paradise,” “known for tourist camps, cottages, bathing beaches, resorts, fishing, hunting, golf, tennis, horseback riding, water sports…”
Fishing tourism has long been the most important form of tourism at the lake. This has changed with the construction of the Casino in 1991, but fishing is still extremely important. Lake Mille Lacs is widely known as one of the most beautiful and impressive lakes in the state, and for the quality of its fishing. The WPA guide writes of Lake Mille Lacs: “wall-eyed and northern pike abound, as do perch, whitefish, bass, and crappies.” Hunting tourism is also a significant aspect of the Lake’s draw, as the woodlands nearby the lake are host to Deer, a few Bear, Quail, Grouse, Pheasants, and Squirrels.
Timber, Transportation and the Foundations of Leisure
The once bustling timber industry around Lake Mille Lacs is responsible for establishing the non-Indian population base around the Lake that would later allow for the boom in the resort industry in the 1920s. While there was some fur trading activity in the decades prior to the advent of the timber industry around the Lake, it was always a very peripheral location in terms of the fur trade, and timber was the first industry that had a major effect on the Lake.
The nearby town of Brainerd was founded in 1870, and non-Indians began to arrive at Lake Mille Lacs to work in timber in the late 1870s. The first post-offices were established there in the 1880s. Illustrating the effect of timber on non-Indian settlement, there were 2,845 non-Indians in Mille Lacs county in 1890. In 1895, there were 5,126, in 1900 8,066, and in 1910 10,705. Over the course of the next decade, this population would hit the 14,000s, and it leveled off around that number. The large majority of these non-Indian settlers were working in the timber industry. Around the turn of the century, many savvy non-Indians bought up shoreline property around the Lake, aware of the lake’s beauty, great fishing, and the potential for tourists and leisure seekers.
In spite of Mille Lacs’ great potential and ready entrepreneurs, the tourist industry could never take off without the appropriate transportation system to link the Lake with the thousands and thousands of city dwellers just to the south in the Twin Cities. The Cities became connected to Lake Mille Lacs, specifically Onamia, Waukon, and Isle in 1908 by rail along the Soo Line Railroad. Cars began to arrive at Lake Mille Lacs before 1910, but there was a distinct lack of acceptable, driveable roads. The many horse trails and wagon roads of the area had to be upgraded. At some point in the 1910s, the scenic highway (basically where highway 169 is today), starting in the Twin Cities and extending eventually to International Falls was extended to Lake Mille Lacs. This was the single most important transportation factor in the formation of the resort and tourism industry, and is the reason that the number of resorts, particularly along the west side of the lake, absolutely mushroomed in the 1920s. Some of the earliest hotels and resorts by the Lake included the Poots Hotel at Waukon, St. Alban’s Hotel south of Garrison.
Information about change in the Mille Lacs tourism and resort industry over time is scant and illusive, but some recent trends are crystal clear. The number of resorts along the west shore of Lake Mille Lacs has dropped dramatically in recent decades, particularly along the stretch from St. Alban’s Bay (south of Garrison) to Waukon, where there used to be massive numbers of resorts and now there are only a handful. Using Wigwam Bay as an example, there were once at least a dozen resorts there alone, while now there are none, and there is a single campground located there. The age of family resorts seems to be coming to an abrupt end, and most of these have been re-developed, sold off, torn down, or some combination of the three. Many of these old resorts have been replaced with townhouses. The ice-fishing industry, now huge, took off in the 1950s. At times during the winter, an unusual “city” of ice-houses on the lake becomes the temporary home of up to around 8,000 people at a time, making it a larger town than any actual town around the Lake. Today, Mille Lacs County is growing significantly in size, its population grew 20 percent from 1990 to 2000. Over those ten years, property values in Onamia on the south side of the lake increased 150 percent, as opposed to an overall 116 percent change in Minnesota. George Orning of the University of Minnesota calls the lakes the “new centers of urbanization from 1970 on. If you start at Mille Lacs, you can walk to Bemidji and never leave a township or city that hasn’t grown 20 percent in the last decade.”
The age of small, family resorts around Lake Mille Lacs is coming to an end. These results have been gradually developed, sold off and torn down in recent decades. The current development patterns on the lake in the area of tourism are exemplified by comprehensive resorts like Izatys Resort (map). There, golf courses, tennis courts, full service Marinas with wide selections of boat rentals, sport hunting packages, indoor and outdoor pools, spa facilities, live entertainment, supervised activities, facilities for holding conferences and meetings, and luxurious restaurants are all combined in a single package. Izatys Resort is probably a most extreme example of this confluence of leisure amenities all in one place, but large resorts are gradually becoming the primary mode of tourist accommodations on the Lake. All around the Lake, town homes, villas, cottages, and various large accommodations with all the facilities and amenities of home are rapidly replacing the smaller and comparatively the past.
In the early days of fishing tourism at the Lake, there were huge fleets of boats that would take fishermen out for a price, and these chartered boat services were a major source of tourist dollars. This was especially true during World War II when gas was being rationed for the war effort. Today, many people who travel to Mille Lacs to fish own their own boats. The early spring is said to bring in lots of weekenders from the Twin Cities, while the later spring is said to bring in people from further away, particularly a lot of Iowan farmers. People who come from further away typically spend multiple weeks at Lake Mille Lacs rather than weekends. Also, tourists traveling to the Lake in the summer tend to stay longer than those traveling at other times of the year. The period of mid June to mid August brings up huge numbers of families, and weekends from mid May to mid June are huge tourist times, as the weather heats up.
In addition to the growth of transportation systems to accommodate rural tourism, its also important to look at the evolution of American conceptions of wilderness and leisure. Until the 1890s, when the frontier had closed, rural areas were seen as a liability rather than an asset by the majority of Americans. For centuries, the paradigm of those living in America, or the “new world” was one in which cities were depicted as islands of order and security, and the wilderness was depicted as a terrifying Earthly hell.
Somehow, with the closing of the frontier, the American idea of wilderness changed from that of an inhospitable, alien, mysterious and threatening place to a beautiful, friendly one with the ability to elevate and delight he or she who beholds it. The writer Roderick Nash says that the American appreciation of wilderness began in the cities, where people saw in the wilderness “what they wanted to see.” It is almost as if America came of age, and overcame its fear of wilderness, shaping it in their minds into an asset and a basis for national pride. Many famous American writers, artists, and leaders’ eager embrace of natural and rural settings played a major role in the changing American conceptions of the wilderness, and the ascent of the pursuit of leisure and sports in the wilderness can doubtlessly be partly attributed to people such as Theodore Roosevelt who said:
“No nation facing the unhealthy softening and relaxation of fibre that tends to accompany civilization can afford to neglect anything that will develop hardihood, resolution, and the scorn of discomfort and danger.” – Theodore Roosevelt