October 18, 2012 at 8:49 a.m.

Chance conversation led to accidental book about Lutsen; the unintended resort

Chance conversation led to accidental book about Lutsen; the unintended resort
Chance conversation led to accidental book about Lutsen; the unintended resort

At 80-some years-of-age George Nelson was pitching real estate to groups of investors when he and Robert McDowell first crossed paths four years ago, on the North Shore. As a descendant from a line of Nelsons who’d settled along Lake Superior over a century earlier-- Nelson’s presentation contained a wealth of information about the land and he mentioned that he’d been the last of his family to own the iconic Minnesota landmark-- Lutsen Resort. McDowell asked Nelson when the sales seminar ended, why he’d sold Lutsen Resort. Nelson’s emotional response to this question started McDowell, a Center City resident, on a three year adventure researching historic archives and traveling around the North Shore all in pursuit of “A History of Lutsen.” McDowell’s softcover book may be about Lutsen, the first resort in Minnesota, but it also contains many tasty details on how the community and even the recreation industry grew with it. You’ll read about Cook County politics and controversies over bonding for tourist amenities. You’ll learn that the Nelsons were early conservationists protecting miles of shoreline.

McDowell recalled, “I think when George told me about how his son had died and his daughters had gone in different directions and had their own lives-- that it all came back to him about selling the resort. And it was very emotional for him, I had reminded him of all that again, asking about it, and he got very emotional and cried,” said McDowell. But as Nelson talked with McDowell about the characters and lore of the area McDowell was hooked. He is still a little mystified by how this all transpired. “The book was accidental. I never intended on doing this.”

But then, Lutsen Resort too, was kind of unintentional. George’s ancestor, CAA Nelson, had chosen the (now resort) site for his homestead and was basically a fisherman. He and his wife soon became known for their hospitality to prospectors, trappers, boatsmen, homesteaders and others arriving by steamboat. “Many are veterans of the Spanish American War on their way to claims in the backwoods,” McDowell writes in chapter three. “They need a place to stay until their own accomodations are built...CAA builds a sawmill that enables him to construct houses as well as boats and in 1893 he erects a house for his family, with additional rooms to house his frequent visitors. Many return as paying guests.” McDowell was introduced to the magic of the Great Lakes by his wife’s mother. She insisted that her new son-in-law from London experience Sand Island in the Apostle chain...and then there was a trip to Grand Marais, Minnesota...and sure enough McDowell was soon spending free time from work in the Twin Cities “up north.” It was during a junket scoping out properties for sale in October 2008, that McDowell met Nelson. McDowell had written one book prior to undertaking this story of Lutsen.

It was a political thriller complete with Irish terrorists. Titled “Loose Cannons” it sold a few copies but he had a difficult initiation into the publishing world in that process. His wife gets credit (or blame) for that one. A voracious reader she had novels all about the house, so one day he slogged through one of her romance novels, only to proclaim it was awful. McDowell’s foray into writing was prompted by his wife chiding him that, “...if I could do better I should write one of my own. So I did” The major difference between the novel and the Lutsen book project is that fiction lets you “make up the story,” McDowell explains. In compiling factual accounts and local lore about Lutsen’s origin, McDowell was conscientiously pursuing accuracy while blending Nelson family recollections with historic written accounts. There were times, he said, when he had to exert editorial privilege and put his foot down when family members preferred an unflattering item be deleted. In total, McDowell enjoyed the many hundreds of hours of mining for facts, field trips and personal oral interviews, and it shows in the book. He has stood at locations that played a role in forming the town of Lutsen.

He has read heaps of old local newspapers. He spent time with other old-timers like Willard Nelson, 97, who lives in Grand Marais. He also met with the current owners of Lutsen Resort, but McDowell chose to end his writings in the time period shortly after Superior National golf course gets built. McDowell said, writing “A History of Lutsen” has only served to heighten his appreciation for the North Shore. He still hunts for ruins in the woods and would like to produce a map showing important sites that people could hike to, or see by car. The welcome he received from small business owners who agreed to put his book on their shelves was also a nice surprise. “My marketing plan,” he commented, “was to go around to a few shops and see if they’d be willing to take a couple books. I went up with 75 books and I thought I’d come back with about 50.” A distribution trip this summer placed all the books and he had orders for 25 additional. You’ll find “A History of Lutsen” on Amazon.com or www.lutsenhistory.com. Gustaf’s Galleries in Lindstrom carries it and of course, if you are up north look for it in Duluth at Fitger’s, at Lake Superior Trading Post in Grand Marais and various outlets. And, yes, you will learn where the name Lutsen originated.


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