Big Balsam Camp

The Resort Series

In 2017, I started a series about resorts that have stood the test of time. For two summers, I visited and wrote about resorts that I found listed on a 1925 advertisement and that were still in operation. This article is number 11 in the series.

Throughout the rest of the summer, I will be featuring four other resorts that got their start before 1930: High Banks Resort, Pine Grove Lodge, Sugar Lake Lodge (formerly Otis Lodge) and Wildwood Resort. If you have any photographs or memories of vacationing or working at any of them, please share by emailing reminiscewithchris@yahoo.com.

The first resort to be featured is Big Balsam Camp on Big Balsam Lake. Established in about 1927, it is the oldest resort on the eastern side of Itasca County that is still operating. The Davis family has owned the resort for 68 years. Bought by Floyd and Ruth in 1951, it was passed over to Gordy and Jackie Davis in 1993.

From the resort docks you can reach seven other fine fishing lakes containing northern, bass, crappie, bluegill, perch and some walleye.

McCall ~ 1927-1928

According to land documents, John William McCall and his wife Laura purchased the property in 1923. By 1925, the McCalls decided to build a resort and made arrangements with the King Lumber Company to finance over $500 of “materials for the erection of summer cottages.” It is not clear as to whether any cottages were rented out in 1926, but the following year Big Balsam Camp was fully operational.

The first known advertisement for the resort was in a 32-page brochure put together by the Minnesota Arrowhead Association. Resorts and hotels were listed from the North Shore and Canadian border to Cass Lake and Aitkin. The only resort listed for Bovey was Big Balsam. The description is short and to the point. The rates are similar to other resorts in the region.

Big Balsam Camp ~ “J. William McCall, proprietor. Located nineteen miles north of Bovey on Big Balsam Lake. Near King, Hunter, Spring and Brandon Lakes. Roads marked to resorts from Bovey. Telephone. Bass and great northern pike fishing. Free camping accommodations for motorists. Accommodations for twenty guests. Furnished cottage and main dining room system. $15.00 per week per person. Room in lodge, meals included, $3.00 per day, $18.00 per week per person. Boats $1.50 per day. Guides $5.00 per day. Motor boats, $3.00 per day. Season May 15 to Dec 1. Good fishing and hunting.”

Pettit ~ 1928-1944

At about the same time the McCalls were building the resort, they also homesteaded on a couple acres nearby and were granted the land patent in March 1927. It may be that John and Laura never intended to be long-term proprietors but saw the development of the resort as a good investment. In April of 1928, they sold the Big Balsam Camp to Harry and Maude Pettit.

The Pettit family came from the Twin Cities. According to the 1900 United States Federal census, Harry was a grocery salesman. By 1910, he had his own grocery store in Minneapolis, and in 1920 owned a home and grocery store in Minnetonka. At the time Harry bought the resort, both he and his wife were in their early 50s. It is possible the family had previously vacationed at Big Balsam with their young daughter, or that Pettit responded to an advertisement in a Twin Cities newspaper. Maybe Harry thought running a small resort would be more satisfying than a busy retail business.

The resort business seemed to agree with the Pettits and it is believed that the lodge was built under their ownership. On the 1940 census, when they are almost 70, Harry is still listed as a proprietor. Their daughter Carol is married to John Plank, whose occupation is an entertainer in show business. The Planks are residing at the resort along with a young couple who are helping run the resort.

Short-Term Ownership, 1944-1951

In November 1943, John, Harry’s son-in-law, enlisted in the army, as did many other young men from the area. Without help to keep the resort going, and not knowing when the war would end, Harry and Maude decided it was time to sell. John and Beulah Benston bought Big Balsam in May 1944. John was employed as a postal clerk in Rochester and it’s possible the family of six had previously spent a vacation at or near the resort. It was not a good fit for them, and within a year they sold it to Norman and Gertrude Anderson from Chicago. Apparently, it was more work than the Andersons thought it would be as well. In 1948, Max Unger bought it. Max was a local man who worked in the mines near Bovey. Max and his wife Pearl ran the resort for a couple years and it was during this time that the Davis family became familiar with Big Balsam Camp.

Davis Family ~ 68 Years and Counting!

“My dad first came up to the resort in the late 1940s to go deer hunting,” Gordy Davis explained. “He owned a small over the road trucking company in St. Paul, and one of his drivers was a cousin of Max Unger. Dad and some of the other guys came a couple more times to hunt and fish. Dad decided he’d like to move his family out of the city and that he’d like to own a small resort. He even looked at one on nearby Hanson Lake. Learning of my dad’s interest, Max said to him, ‘well why don’t you just buy this one.’” 

Gordy was nine years old when a deal was struck in early March 1951. His parents Floyd, whom everyone called “Davy,” and Ruth moved the family of six to Big Balsam Camp as soon as school was out. There was quite a bit of work that had to be done in the first couple years to bring the resort into compliance, more than Davy was aware of, but they worked hard to put in the necessary updates. 

As noted in the 1927 description, the cabins were still the “American Plan” and the meals were prepared by Ruth and served in the lodge.  

“We raised 600 chickens every summer,” Gordy said. “And had a banquet on each Sunday night. On Saturday, we would butcher 75 chickens; everyone got a half chicken on their plate.” Within a couple years, as the cabins were updated to include a kitchen, meals were no longer made by Ruth and Davy. 

Gordy enjoyed growing up at the lake, but in 1960 when he graduated from high school, he moved to Minneapolis to attend Dunwoody. In Minneapolis, he met Jackie and they started a family of their own, always coming north for working vacations of course. In the early 1990s, Davy and Ruth were in their 80s and asked Gordy and Jackie if they wanted to buy the resort.  In 1993, they did and built a new home for Davy and Ruth to live in, but it was not until the year 2000 when they both retired from their jobs in the Cities before they could move up north. For the seven years from 1993 to 2000, they both worked full-time jobs in the Cities and drove up to the resort for a three-day weekend to catch up on as much work as they could. Davy and Ruth stayed in their home at the resort until they died, within three short months of each other in 2007.

Like many Northern Minnesota resorts, Big Balsam boasts families that have been coming up for generations.  

“We have one family that has been coming since the second year my folks had the resort, that’s 67 years!” Gordy said.

Jackie added, “We have another guest who has been coming with her family since she was a young girl, they now have every cabin when they come in August. In fact, she painted the picture hanging there on the wall.”

The painting of a lake, loons and a cabin was a perfect north woods tranquil scene. It was signed by Mary Pettis and was marked as print number 12. Jackie explained that the cabin in the picture was of cabin 12 on their resort. It is the oldest building and one of the originals built by John McCall. “Mary has painted eight north woods outdoor pictures and every one of them has cabin 12 in it.  And we own the number 12 print of each one!”

Ms. Pettis is indeed an established and well-known painter and shared with me that even though she painted the series in the mid-1990s, she first painted her “favorite cabin” about 20 years earlier. She looks forward to the annual trip north and said, “I will be bringing my paints again this August and will paint some nieces and nephews and maybe a few favorite scenes...maybe the cabin!”

The Davises have always managed the resort, with the help of family, just as Davy and Ruth did.  

“You have to be a jack of all trades,” says Gordy. “You have to be able to fix everything. We have 10 cabins and 12 camping spots.”

As the years are catching up with them, Jackie and Gordy do employ help. “Especially on Saturdays,” Jackie says. “That is our change-over day and very, very busy.”

As far as the future of Big Balsam Camp, the Davises hope is to keep it in the family. In fact, there will be plenty of family at the resort in September for the wedding of a granddaughter.  Perhaps the event in such a peaceful location will inspire another generation. No doubt it is what their guests are hoping for.

“Our guests are the most important part of our resort,” Jackie said. “So many of them come to stay with us the same time every summer and are more than guest, they have become our friends.”

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