Pine Grove Lodge, located on the south end of Sand Lake, was the third resort to be built on the lake known as an exceptional place to hunt duck. It was started by Rees Williams, aka “Steamboat Williams,” a professional baseball player. His career in baseball had come to a natural end, and at the relatively young age of 33, Rees wasn’t ready to retire.
On Sept. 5, 1925, he leased a plot of land from the Forest Service. “They would lease you a lot, 100 feet each way – 100 feet of shore and 100 feet back – well that isn’t much room to build on, but we were going to build something somewhere.” [All quotes from Rees are from an interview with Stan Johnson March 13, 1976.] The Williams borrowed money and had a frame cabin built. They also erected two tents, one for themselves and one to rent, and were ready for duck hunters that year. After leasing additional land, a lodge and more cabins were added.
Pine Grove Lodge has been in continuous operation for 94 years and can proudly boast that the lodge and three of the cabins are original log structures built in 1926.
It has been owned by eight entities. Rees and Peg had it for the first 20 years, the Wahlstrom family has owned it for the last 33 years and a handful of others had it in the intervening years.
Rees and Peg Williams 1925-1945
Rees Gephardt Williams was born in Cascade, Mont. on Jan. 31, 1892. Rees found his way to Minnesota because he was a good baseball player, and in 1915 he started with the St. Paul Saints.
It was while Rees was in Minnesota that he met Percy Augustus “Peg” Fulton, daughter of James and Martha. Rees and Peg were married in St. Paul, on Dec. 20, 1915. He continued to play for various teams until 1925, when he decided it was time to end his baseball career. “I got so I couldn’t throw a baseball so good anymore.” The Williams sold their cabin in Cass County and bought some camping equipment with the plan to start a resort in Itasca County. “We didn’t have any money, but we were going to do something.”
In the spring of 1926, Emil Haataja, who lived in the area and was known for his Finnish log cabins, built the lodge. “First we built a little cellar. We dug the frozen ground out, about 8 feet deep. There’s a lot of logs in that main building, I’ll tell you that. With those two partitions running through it.”
Rees admitted he was not a cabin builder and needed the expertise of Haataja and his sons. “We had the two main logs in, the two long ones, and we put one across to start at the end. I was on one end and he was on the other end. I cut my notch out and he cut his out and we finally got it down to where it was supposed to fit pretty good and he’d come over and look at mine, and I’d say how does it look, and he says it looks like hell! He went ahead and finished it up and got it to fit.”
Working 10-hour days, they usually completed a row all the way around in one day. The roof was on by the 4th of July, and by fall, Peg was cooking and serving meals to the duck hunters in the lodge instead of in the tent she used the year before.
Three more log cabins were constructed by Haataja and ready to rent for the fishing season in 1927. At some point, Rees had vertical slab wood added to the outside of the cabin built the first year to make it look more like a cabin. A dock and duck boats were added to the amenities. “We charged them $3.50 a day per person and they had a cabin and a boat and all they could eat.” Later, the buildings were updated and rented as housekeeping cabins at a rate of $15 a week.
The lore that passed from one resort owner to another is that Rees lost the resort to Leonard Hultman in a poker game in 1945, and it changed hands on Sept. 5 exactly 20 years after he signed the original lease. A few years earlier, Rees and Peg had purchased 68 acres of land on the point about a mile to the east. This is where the Williams later built another resort, Sand Lake Lodge, which opened in 1951.
*Note: There is so much to tell about “Steamboat” Williams that the July 28 Reminisce column is dedicated to him.
Leonard Hultman was an electrician from St. Paul. He and his wife Hazel kept the resort through duck season, and then sold it to Don and Marian Duell who were also from the Twin Cities. The Duells sold it after just one year, bought a summer place on Pokegama, and eventually moved to the area year around. Cliff Anderson owned it from 1947-1954, and then a man by the name of Ellis sold it to Bill and Dee Berdt in 1956.
Bill Berdt was born in Russia and immigrated to the U.S. in 1913 when he was five years old. His father, a bookkeeper, settled in St. Paul where Bill later met and married Delores. The 1940 census shows Bill and Dee in St. Paul with their young daughter Jean. Bill was employed as a truck driver and though it is not known what brought him to Pine Grove, Rees shared that Berdt did a lot of work on the cabins.
In a brochure circa 1965, the Berdts boast catering to families as well as sportsmen. “Playgrounds…shuffleboard, badminton, horseshoe, basketball, swings, slides and teeter totters. Safe sand bathing beach. Beautiful grounds and no steep hills.” Their rates for a two-bedroom cabin with “well equipped kitchen, sunporch, modern bathroom with tubs and a 16 foot boat were $70 a week for 2 persons, add $5 a week for each additional adult and $2.50 a week for youngsters.”
As Bill and Dee approached their 70s, they sold the resort to Bob and Valerie Burge in 1978. The Burges advertised the sale of Pine Grove Lodge in Twin Cities newspapers in 1986 and sold it to Wayne and Sue Wahlstrom in October of that year.
Wahlstrom Family 1986
Wayne and Sue Wahlstrom were in their early 30s when they decided they wanted to move away from the Twin Cities. Wayne had worked at a resort in Wisconsin when he was a kid and had also spent time in Marcell. Both he and Sue loved the outdoors, so when Wayne saw the advertisement for the resort, he had no problem talking Sue into packing the kids and heading up north to take a look. Sue said, “When we rolled down the driveway, we were sold!”
There were six cabins by then. One of the original log cabins had been destroyed by a fire and three others had been built. Wayne and Sue felt it was the right size for them to manage. For the first couple years, the Wahlstroms came north on a seasonal basis, but in about 1989, they moved to Pine Grove permanently, lived in part of the lodge, and rented the six cabins.
In 2015, Wayne and Sue sold the resort to their son Shawn and his wife Megan. Although Megan, an RN, had limited knowledge with resorts when she met Shawn, she enjoyed camping and easily adapted to the lifestyle. Their children, Sabryn and Caleb, have been coming up since they were young and now enjoy the year around experience. Part of the lodge is still open to guests who are encouraged to visit Ben the Bear and look at the artifacts that have been collected from resort owners and guests since Rees and Peg started the display.
Ben the Bear is a fun photo opportunity. He is a real bear who was encouraged to leave the Pine Grove property repeatedly in the summer of 1988. When the bruin didn’t heed warnings, and instead stood ready to charge with snapping jaws, he was shot, professionally stuffed, and now guards the enclosed porch of the lodge.
Shawn and Megan continue to manage and maintain the resort with no outside help. The weekly potluck tradition with guests started by Wayne and Sue is truly ingrained in the resort experience of their longtime guests. Sue’s contribution was often wild rice hotdish, which before long became an expectation. Megan said, “I knew I didn’t want to be expected to make the same thing every Monday all summer long, so I purposely decided to do something different each time.” Shawn is quick to add that the culinary specialties of the guests are eagerly anticipated. “We have one family who does homemade pies and now they also make homemade ice cream!”
Pine Grove Lodge has an established clientele who love the rustic log cabins and family atmosphere. One family has been coming for over 50 years, covering multiple generations, and another family with over 30 years of Pine Grove Lodge memories is taking over the entire resort at the end of July! Shawn and Megan love that their guest have become their friends and they look forward to many long-term relationships.