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.