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Classic Wisconsin lodges

In the north woods, golden oldies recall a vanished era.

Garmisch Resort near Cable.

© Beth Gauper

Near Cable, Garmisch USA overlooks Namekagon Lake.

In the north woods, only the passage of time creates a classic.

There's nothing like the feel of a vintage lodge. Whatever it comes from the burnished logs hewed by ax, the hearths made of stones picked from local fields, the faint fragrance of aged pine and cedar it can't be ordered from the local furniture store.

Jim Kerkow and Craig Mason know, because they own a furnishings business and they love old lodges. They were building a cabin near Hayward, Wis., and staying at nearby Spider Lake Lodge when its owner pointed out the obvious.

"She said, 'You'll never be able to re-create this place, so why not just make this your own?' " Kerkow said.

They bought the old log lodge, built in 1923 by Chicago auto mechanic Ted Moody  and an Ojibwe carpenter. In Chicago, Moody had worked as a mechanic at a garage that serviced Al Capone's cars; Capone's 1925 retreat is nearby, in Couderay.

The new owners fixed up the place and redecorated, but they were careful not to extinguish the personality it had acquired from years as a lake resort, hosting parties of vacationers.

Not far away, east of Cable, another lodge was built in 1927 by a Chicagoan who sorely needed a retreat from the city. Wealthy businessman Jacob Loeb was the son of German Jewish immigrants whose first job was selling dry goods in the basement of a Chicago department store.

He was an early investor in Sears Roebuck but was dedicated to the poor, leading United Drives in 1922 and 1925 that raised $6.5 million.

In 1924, his teen-aged nephew, Richard Loeb, was convicted with friend Nathan Leopold of murdering a young boy for the thrill of it.

It was Jacob Loeb who paid celebrated lawyer Clarence Darrow to save his nephew from the electric chair, which he did with a pioneering use of the insanity plea.

Loeb died in 1944, and in 1955 the land and buildings were sold to George and Ethel Funk of Chicago, who turned it into a lodge. They called it Garmisch USA, after  the Bavarian town where the 1936 Winter Olympics were held, and gave it a Bavarian look.

Today, Garmisch still has a medieval hunting lodge motif, with an iron chandelier, suits of armor and strings of muskie, foxes, stags, bobcats and ducks mounted in the two-story great room, next to the equally atmospheric restaurant.

Bent's Camp is in Land O' Lakes, Wis.

© Beth Gauper

In the 1906 restaurant of Bent's Camp, walls are covered with birchbark secured by cedar strips.

Once, the north woods of Wisconsin were full of lodges. The first were built as fishing camps, after loggers left in the 1890s, and guests were affluent sportsmen who arrived by rail.

Then roads were built in the 1920s, automobiles became more affordable and families began to arrive in droves.

The next four decades were the golden age of lake resorts.

In the '20s and '30s, many northern Wisconsin resorts were patronized by gangsters from Chicago, whose flamboyant behavior provided locals with a rich vein of lore (for more, see Chasing gangsters in Wisconsin).

In the late '40s and '50s, the burgeoning middle class made resorts with housekeeping cabins popular.

But their numbers are shrinking fast as lakeshore property values go through the roof and aging resort owners sell to people who tear down the cottages to build one "cabin."

Today, only a few classic lodges survive to give us a glimpse of a golden era.

Northeast Wisconsin still has some classic lodges, and one January, I visited two of them.

Near the Michigan border west of Land O' Lakes, Bent's Camp began life in 1896 as a camp for sportsmen, brought over from the railroad landing in a wooden scow called the Tar Baby.

A log restaurant was built in 1906, with interior walls covered by thick squares of birch bark held in place by cedar strips.

Today, it's one of the north woods' most treasured spots. In the bar, old photos illustrate the resort's early history and a fire crackles in the stone fireplace; diners sit in a room lined with paned windows overlooking Mamie Lake or in the wood-paneled big room under the gaze of a giant stag head.

Five miles east of Eagle River, on Carpenter Lake, the Inn at Pinewood was built in 1934 as a hunting and fishing lodge.

It became a youth camp in 1969, a college-prep academy in 1974 and a B&B in 1991. Today, each era contributes to its highly distinctive look.

On its sprawling main floor, part of it made of old barn planks, is a hodgepodge of curiosities. There's a big white wolf, an old trap and a lynx with a grouse in its mouth, from the hunting era.

Inside Spider Lake Lodge.


The interior of the 1923 Spider Lake Lodge near Hayward glows with the patina of polished wood.

From the youth-camp days, there's a vintage electronic shuffleboard game, dart board and giant chess set. And there's a  mannequin wearing a lace wedding dress, a Geiger counter with original manual and an old sleigh, from the B&B era the owners are avid collectors of antiques.

The same weekend I stayed at the Inn at Pinewood, Tricia Olson of Pella, Wis., was there with her husband, Kenton.

Olson, who spent childhood summers with her grandparents at a lake resort near Vergas, Minn., loves the old resorts and has built a collection of nearly 1,000 vintage postcards of lodges and cottages. When she can, she visits them.

"It's amazing, with the technology and tools today, that we can't build the gorgeous places they built years and years ago," she says.

"A lot of these places don't even exist any more. So many have been turned into condos, or they tear the cottages down and build big houses on the land. You look at the shores of a lake, and now you see these big fancy houses. But they're not unique."

But the lodges are, and there's nothing as cozy as an old, well-loved lodge in winter.

Trip Tips: Classic Wisconsin lodges

Spider Lake Lodge B&B near Hayward, Wis.:  With no TVs and no cell-phone service, the handsomely restored lodge's atmosphere is intentionally quiet. A full breakfast is served.

It has seven rooms and suites and a two-bedroom cabin, with kitchen and stone fireplace, where kids are welcome.

For more about the area, see Unwinding in Hayward.

Garmisch USA near Cable, Wis.: This 1927 resort in northwest Wisconsin is only eight miles down the road from Telemark Resort also inspired by the village of Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps, where its founder, the late Tony Wise, was stationed as a GI in postwar Germany.

The Germanic romanticism of Garmisch USA, however, is borrowed not from the slopes but from the medieval hunting lodge, which melds well with northwoods rusticity.

There are seven lodge rooms, six with fireplaces; a suite; and cottages of various sizes, including the five-bedroom, five-bath Castle. It also has a restaurant that specializes in German dishes and has a great view of the lake.

For more about the area, see High color in Cable.

Coons' Franklin Lodge near Minocqua.

© Beth Gauper

Near Minocqua, Coon's Franklin Lodge was built as a hunting and fishing camp in 1892.

Bent's Camp near Land O' Lakes, Wis.: This is a great destination even for a beer, but try to make time for a meal at the Lodge Restaurant. It serves burgers and such, but order one of the specials. 

There are two cabins open in winter, patronized by snowmobilers.

Inn at Pinewood B&B near Eagle River, Wis.: This B&B on the shore of private Carpenter Lake, started in 1934, is a very good spot for a group because the main level has many areas where people can congregate. 

There are eight rooms and a three-bedroom home next door.

For more about the area, see Full throttle in Eagle River.

Voss' Birchwood Lodge in Manitowish Waters: This gracious resort on a bay of Spider Lake figured heavily in the 1934 shootout at nearby Little Bohemia Lodge, where John Dillinger was staying its owners, Henry and Ruth Voss, called the FBI on him, and the agents staged their raid there.

The Vosses founded the resort in 1910, and today it's run by their granddaughter and great-grandson. Guests stay in 20 cabins and six lodge rooms, open from Memorial Day weekend through early October.

Voss' Birchwood Lodge in Manitowish Waters.

© Beth Gauper

At Voss' Birchwood Lodge, a vintage sign readers, "Think the world is moving too fast? Well, step ashore & visit the past.''

There's a restaurant and small bar in the atmospheric 1924 lodge, and the Old Settler's Inn on the highway serves lunch. If you stop by, be sure to see the historic wooden footbridge that crosses the bay.

For more about the gangster era, see Chasing gangsters in Wisconsin.

Coon's Franklin Lodge near Arbor Vitae: This genteel resort on Trout Lake is the closest Wisconsin gets to a Gatsby-era lake resort. People who love the classic north-woods look will swoon over its log lodge and 30 cabins, surrounded by white pine and cedar.

Reached by a long, unpaved road, Coon's is perhaps the last American Plan-only resort in the state; all guests are served three meals a day in the octagonal log dining room.

All of the cabins have screened porches and fireplaces. The resort is open from the first weekend of June through Labor Day, and early- and late-season rates are discounted.

Only week-long reservations are accepted, unless there's a last-minute cancellation.

For more about the area, see Summer in Minocqua.

Red Crown Lodge near Arbor Vitae: This elegant resort on Trout Lake was established in 1922 by Standard Oil as a corporate retreat.

In 2001, a Madison developer bought it and opened it for all groups, including family reunions; it rents to just one group at a time. The Trout Lake Golf Club is nearby, and dining is in the Main Lodge.

Last updated on December 21, 2017