Like a small castle, Naniboujou Lodge presides over a broad, level clearing on Lake Superior's shore just off Hwy. 61, 15 miles northeast of Grand Marais, Minn.
The lodge, with cedar-shingled siding, arched red window frames and yellow shutters, is a regal presence, but it doesn't dominate the scene. Instead, it's framed by it. Red and white pines stand sentry at either end of the clearing, giving the sense that you've entered a sanctuary.
The open lawn invites a walk toward Lake Superior. Adirondack chairs line a crest that overlooks a long, open beach. After the 4 1/2-hour drive, I thought I would be in a hurry to check in. But instead, drawn to the hazy blue horizon, I sat in one of those chairs, and just stared. No matter where a beach is, there's something about the empty vista that also empties a busy mind.
I sat there for a half-hour in the sun, and felt all 285 miles of driving and a whole week's worth of cubicle-induced anxiety drain away. Waves broke on the shore, kids arranged rocks in beach sand, and a brave, gray-haired couple dashed in and out of the icy water in a series of very brief dips.
There was something odd and old-fashioned about this arrangement. Most of the North Shore is either the exclusive province of second-home owners or a crowded jumble of condos and resorts. Only Lutsen's old main lodge -- another stately dowager, but not in such good repair -- has this kind of grand presentation on as big an expanse of Superior lakefront.
Naniboujou looks pretty much as it did when it opened as a private gentlemen's club in 1929.
Why it hasn't changed much is a story of lost fortunes and lost lives, near-tragedies and leaps of faith.
Naniboujou is a family-run hotel, with an old-fashioned check-in counter. My room rate in early September was $89 a night. The clerk procured my key from a row of boxes behind the desk. I took it and carried my bags upstairs to the room, simply furnished with solid oak furniture: a queen-sized bed, a desk, a chair and a window facing the lake. No phone, no TV.
I put down my bags and went back downstairs to the office, where owner Tim Ramey was working on the books.
He graciously stopped what he was doing, led me into the hotel's solarium and started talking. With forearms like hams and the shoulders of a linebacker, Ramey was an imposing physical presence, but his voice was gentle and his words carefully chosen.
"They broke ground in July of '28 with a lot of fanfare," he said. "They say it was the largest single gathering of people on the North Shore to that point."
The hotel opened with 24 rooms. The star attraction then and today is the cathedral-like dining room, which has a psychedelic display of Cree-inspired Art Deco murals and reputedly the state's biggest stone fireplace.
The club had bought more than 3,000 acres of North Shore real estate. Naniboujou was to be exclusive, open only to invitees, who paid $200 each for a 99-year membership. Charter members included Babe Ruth, Ring Lardner and Jack Dempsey. "I only know they were invitees, I don't know if they ever made it here," Ramey said. "They say Clark Gable stayed here, but without some documentation, I can't claim it."
Despite the glamorous start, Naniboujou's timing was off. The stock market crash in October 1929 wiped out the fortunes of most of the would-be club members and left Naniboujou rudderless.
The building passed through the hands of several owners and even sat empty for a couple of years after World War II, Ramey said. During the '60s and '70s, under the ownership of a couple of refugees from Los Angeles named Luther and Susie Wallace, the hotel revived. The Wallaces raised their kids at the resort, building a reputation for hospitality and good food. It appeared that their two sons, Luke and Bill, would continue to run Naniboujou after their parents retired.
It wasn't to be. In the fall of 1977, the sons, 23 and 28 years old, died when their canoe capsized in the icy water at the mouth of the Brule River, which empties into Superior adjacent to the lodge property. The Wallaces, heartbroken, held onto the hotel for three years before selling it to Campus Church, a nondenominational Christian church in Minneapolis. This is where Ramey and his wife, Nancy, enter the picture.
A matter of faith
The Rameys knew Bill and Luke Wallace through the Campus Church. After the canoeing tragedy, the Rameys went to Naniboujou to help the grieving parents run the hotel. After the church bought the hotel, church leaders asked the Rameys if they would manage it. They accepted.
For several years, they ran the hotel, but Tim Ramey had doubts. He found the work all-consuming; he missed spending time with his young children. When the church decided to sell the hotel in 1985, the Rameys weren't sure they were interested.
"We didn't have any money and I didn't really know if we should be here," Ramey said.
Just as Ramey was ready to walk away, several investors appeared, offering loans to buy the hotel. "That and some other things made it obvious we'd been called to be here," Ramey said.
The couple and their seven children have made a life out of running Naniboujou. All of the kids have worked at the hotel. Three are still working there.
"It's been a good life -- not always easy, but good," Ramey said, in a classic case of understatement.
Place of refuge
Ten years ago, Ramey was one of the volunteer firefighters who answered a call to a burning house on the nearby Arrowhead Trail.
By the time he arrived, there was little left of the house, and the fire was under control, Ramey said. He was helping wrap up the job when the overheated cinderblock chimney exploded. "I was buried in bricks up to my chin," he said. "They were so hot they had to pour water on me to move the bricks." At first, doctors thought Ramey might not recover or that he might have suffered brain damage. He was in intensive care for six weeks and in the hospital for nine months. Recovery came slowly, and Ramey never regained the use of his legs. Eventually, he returned to running the hotel, now from a wheelchair.
He told the story as an aside, just one chapter in the larger story of the hotel he manages with certain ideals held in the forefront.
"We try to run the hotel in accord with our convictions as Christians," Ramey said. "That's presented some difficult choices, like why we don't serve alcohol. We're not Baptists, and we don't think drinking is wrong, but we didn't want to attract partiers or rowdy people.
"That's also why we've never followed the trend of building condos, either. We wanted to keep the land open. We could make more money if we did those things, but we want this to be more of a refuge, where people can breathe and walk around and not be constricted by a lot of cement.
"We got called here to do something, and we want to be held accountable in that sense."
Chris Welsch • 612-673-7113