Dutch Cragun was 8 in 1940 when his dad bought 7 acres on Gull Lake near Brainerd and built a few cabins, launching the family’s resort business.
“I was in charge of worms, minnows and frogs,’’ Cragun, now 82, said with a chuckle.
He didn’t know it then, but selling bait to anglers launched his long career on Gull Lake, where he turned the little family business into Cragun’s Resort — one of Minnesota’s largest and best known. It’s one of several iconic resorts on Gull, a gorgeous 15-mile-long stretch of water with an unrivaled rich history that includes prehistoric Native Americans, illegal gambling, gangsters and even murder.
Combine that back story with fishing, boating, world-class golf and other activities, and you have a destination steeped in lore that has attracted scores of people for decades — one of the most popular vacation spots in the state.
Come Saturday, the storied lake and another of its fabled resorts — Grand View Lodge — will serve as headquarters for the Governor’s Fishing Opener, kicking off Minnesota’s fishing season. And shining the spotlight, again, on Gull Lake.
Northern Lake Minnetonka
Gull Lake’s beauty and bounty have been an allure for thousands of years. Woodland Indians occupied the area dating to 800 B.C., and tourists today can visit ancient burial mounds. More recent remnants of Indian history remain: Gull Lake’s Hole in the Day Bay — where 10,000 anglers fish each winter in the world’s largest ice fishing contest — is named after Chief Joseph Hole-in-the-Day, who was murdered by rival Indians in 1868 on a trail between the Gull and Crow Wing rivers.
Great stands of white pines were the enticement for white settlers. Indians relinquished their lands under treaties and moved to the White Earth Indian Reservation. Chief Hole-in-the-Day’s lands at North Long Lake and Gull Lake were sold to timber and railroad interests, spurring settlement.
A dam at the Gull River helped loggers float logs to sawmills, and later railroads were built to haul logs. Those railroads also started bringing visitors lured by the many lakes and superb fishing.
“It was said you could wade in the shallow water in spring and the northerns were so thick you couldn’t walk,’’ said regional historian Jeremy Jackson.
Wrote the Brainerd Dispatch in 1893: “The finest fishing in Minnesota is at Gull Lake and the tributary waters, and the day is coming when it will be a smart rival of [Lake] Minnetonka.’’
Added the newspaper: “The railroad now runs within three miles of it and a steamboat for pleasure parties is nearly ready to be launched upon its waters by a party of Brainerd men interested in building up and advertising the beauties and pleasures to be seen and enjoyed in that vicinity.’’
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam on the lake in 1912 to control water levels, raising Gull about 5 feet and allowing boaters to motor to 10 other lakes and bays — the Gull Chain of Lakes.
Cabins, resorts and hotels sprang up.
Among them was Grand View Lodge, launched by M. V. Baker in 1919, who owned 3,000 feet of lakefront when he built a lodge to house prospective land buyers. It later provided lodging for parents of youngsters attending Camp Lake Hubert for Girls and Camp Lincoln for Boys at nearby Lake Hubert, and eventually became a thriving resort.
More than fishing
Grand View manager Mark Ronnei has witnessed the transformation of his resort and Gull Lake. The predictions that Gull would become another Lake Minnetonka have come true. Multimillion-dollar year-round homes have replaced humble summer cottages.
And people come for different reasons.
“When it first started, it was all about fishing,’’ said Ronnei, 57, who has worked at Grand View for 37 years. “It was a Memorial Day-to-Labor Day operation. It’s evolved.’’
The late “Brownie” Cote, owner, added tennis courts, then a golf course. Nearby Cragun’s and Madden’s resorts also built golf courses, making Gull Lake a golfer’s destination. Conference centers and spas followed. So did snowmobiles and snowmobile trails.
Why Gull Lake?
“Gull is deep and clean and cold,’’ Ronnei said. “It’s a big lake with places to go. There’s 14 places to stop and have a sandwich or beer, and lots of beautiful houses to see.
“And it’s that magic distance from the Twin Cities — the northern suburbs are just over 2 hours away. That makes a lake home or weekend resort experience very doable.’’
Said John Taylor, 67, longtime Gull Lake resident and former president of the Gull Chain of Lakes Association:
“It just seems to have an allure. I’ve met so many people over the years who stay at a resort and end up buying a cabin and staying here. There’s just something unique about it. It’s hard to put into words.’’
Visitors still come to Grand View to fish, Ronnei said. And Gull is still noted as a stellar walleye and bass lake. But many guests come for the golf, spas, yoga, cooking classes, wine tasting seminars and kids programs.
Last summer, 73 percent of the boat traffic on Gull Lake was recreational, and 27 percent was fishing-related, said Marc Bacigalupi, Department of Natural Resources area fisheries manager in Brainerd.
“People used to come here to fish,’’ said Marv Koep, 72, former bait shop owner and fishing guide who helped form the legendary Nisswa Guide’s League, a roster of fishing guides that included Al and Ron Lindner, Gary Roach, Harry Van Dorn and Koep.
“Now it’s golfing,’’ Koep said. “Fishing isn’t the priority anymore. That changed when the mom-and-pop resorts quit.’’
But ice-out occurred last Saturday, and they’ll be plenty of anglers on Gull this weekend, including Gov. Mark Dayton and his entourage.
Gangsters and gambling
Not all of those who have come to Gull Lake were attracted by the scenery and good fishing. Erv Anderson constructed Big Bar Harbor, a watering hole, built partly over the water on the north side of Gull in 1938. It soon became famous for illegal gambling, including slot machines, which was not uncommon in that era. An estimated 8,500 one-armed bandits were in use around the state in 1946.
Law enforcement was left to the counties, and was sporadic and often ineffective.
“Bar Harbor is in Cass County, and the county seat is Walker, 50 miles away,’’ said Cragun. “By the time the sheriff’s posse came down from Walker, someone always tipped them off and gave them time to roll the slots out to pickup trucks.
“After the sheriff left, they’d have the machines up and running within an hour.’’
Gambling also brought gangsters.
“They were all over,’’ said Cragun.
Luther Youngdahl, who ran for governor in 1946, supposedly was hiking with Boy Scouts late one evening when he encountered the gambling at Bar Harbor and decided to stamp out slot machines. He was elected and pushed for passage of a law that allowed authorities to revoke licenses of businesses caught with gambling devices. The resorts and bars complied, sometimes posting signs: “Youngdahl was here.’’
Bar Harbor continued as a well-known supper club with the “big bands’’ such as Woody Herman, Jimmy and Tomy Dorsey, and Duke Ellington. Recently renovated, it remains a popular attraction.
Dayton and other visitors Saturday will find things tamer on Gull Lake these days. And Dutch Cragun is ready for another summer season with visitors, new and old.
“I’ve made a career out of helping people enjoy themselves,’’ he said. “I can’t think of anything better.
“It’s a good life.’’