PENNINGTON, Minn. — The population of this town not far from Bemidji is listed at four people per square mile. Whether in 1994 human density was lesser or greater in this part of northwest Minnesota is unclear. What is known is that it was then, 24 years ago, that Wade and Mary Smerling sold their home in Willmar, Minn., and moved north to Moose Lake, their 8- and 4-year-old kids in tow.
“When we came up here, we figured we would only be here three years, or maybe as long as five years,” Mary, 55, said. “Then we would move on to something bigger.”
What had attracted the Smerlings so far from their west-central Minnesota roots — Mary grew up in Olivia and Wade is from Willmar — was the prospect of working for themselves as resort owners. Originally built in 1937 and debuting as “Bill’s Camp” on Moose Lake, the apple of the Smerlings’ eye had been renamed Paradise Resort by the time they bought it.
The name stuck, and remains today. As does the resort’s far-from-the-madding crowd location seven miles from the nearest paved road.
In the years since the Smerlings came north, they’ve completely rebuilt their resort, and today the lakeside complex stands in stark contrast to the shuttering throughout Minnesota in recent decades of small-time mom-and-pop operations.
In some cases, these small resorts have been replaced by condos or private homes, and in others, by bigger and fancier vacation destinations that feature golf and water sports, in addition to fishing.
“When we bought the resort it had some old rickety cabins and an assortment of trailer houses, with no beach or playground,” Wade, 57, said. “There was also a lodge, which at the time we thought was nice. But it turned out to be junk.”
Already by the mid-1990s, vacationers were expecting more comforts and amenities, and the Smerlings knew that their primary target customers (families) would want a beach for the kids, along with water toys and — horror of North Woods horrors — televisions in their cabins.
So the Smerlings determined early on to upgrade to paradise-like standards everything about their new business. But to make that decision work financially, they would have to do the labor themselves.
In that effort, Wade’s considerable skills as a carpenter, plumber, electrician and craftsman come in handy — as did, when needed, his willingness to wait tables.
Dovetailing neatly with these attributes is Mary’s aptitude for planning, bookkeeping, marketing and cooking.
Case in point: A week ago, on the eve of the Minnesota fishing opener, the resort’s custom-built log lodge hopped with anglers flush with high hopes for full live wells. Present as well were a handful of neighbors and a smattering of the 12 seasonal families who park their RVs on the resort property.
Wade waited tables and took orders, while, behind the bar, Mary cooked and filled glasses with customers’ choices among the 11 craft beers kept on tap.
“On Saturdays,” Mary said, “when we typically have turnover of the cabins, we have six cabin cleaners help get everything ready for the next week. But other than that, we have no employees. Wade and I do the work.”
A lot of work it has been.
The resort’s eight cabins are either new or have been entirely rebuilt, and now stand as iconic, pine-laden North Woods getaway edifices. Each is outfitted with satellite TVs and Wi-Fi, and some feature Jacuzzi tubs. Uniquely, each also has a dock extending into Moose Lake, which lies only a few short steps away.
And the old lodge? It’s been torn down and replaced by a grand log structure that houses the bar and restaurant, as well as a recreation room and the Smerlings’ home, which is attached.
The couple’s son, Scott, now 32 and living in Puposky, Minn., and daughter, Brittany, 28, who’s in Seattle, definitely experienced rural upbringings. During their school years, they were the first on and last off a bus that took them 16 miles each way to school in Blackduck, Minn.
Depending on the season, they might count among their close personal friends bears, eagles, otters, beavers, ospreys, ducks, geese, moose and even wolves.
As hoped for, the resort’s clientele has grown over the years. In summer, families seeking contentment far from the caffeinated pace of their metro homes descend on Moose Lake. In fall, by turns, grouse and deer hunters show up to patrol the nearby woods and trails for game. And ATV riders, singularly or in groups, stop by with increased frequency.
“We have some families who never leave the resort all week, while others might catch a day of fishing on Upper Red or Winnie or another lake,” Mary said. “There are plenty of golf courses around, and some guests go to those, while others visit the headwaters of the Mississippi.”
Moose Lake itself remains a key attraction. Primarily a largemouth bass and crappie lake, with some walleyes, the lake covers 568 acres, is spring fed, and at its deepest measures 71 feet.
Someday, the Smerlings will move on to the next phase of their lives. When that will happen is unclear.
They do know, however, that their “mom and pop” operation will continue in business indefinitely.
“Whatever we do,” Mary said, “this resort will always be here.”