Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge: Family-owned for 116 years

DEERWOOD - It may be hard to believe today, but when Joseph Ruttger first settled on Bay Lake in the 1880s, he had no intention of operating a resort.

Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge
Founded in 1898, Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge on Bay Lake features manicured gardens around the family resort near Deerwood. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

DEERWOOD - It may be hard to believe today, but when Joseph Ruttger first settled on Bay Lake in the 1880s, he had no intention of operating a resort.

As was common in the early 1900s, resorts evolved to accommodate a growing number of tourists, and specifically fishermen. That included Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge, which has remained in family ownership since Ruttger and his wife, Josephine, started it in 1898.

Ruttger came to the United States from Germany, eventually ending up in St. Paul where he worked as a machinist. When respiratory illness threatened his health, he left the city and arrived in Bay Lake as part of a cooperative farming colony experiment. His job was to revive a former sawmill.

That didn't pan out, but Ruttger never left the area. He had homesteaded Big Island on Bay Lake, known today as Malkerson Isle of the Pines and located across from today's resort. He married and the couple lived on the island. In 1894, Ruttger traded the island to be on the mainland.

"Being on the lake, it was attractive to people here," Chris Ruttger, Joe Ruttger's great-grandson and current president of Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge, said about his great-grandfather's property. "They came by rail to Deerwood. They came for the fresh air and fishing. It happened that people wanted to stay here, so the resort evolved."


As more people ventured to the area to fish and to keep cool by the lake, they sought a place to stay and meals. First they stayed in tents, and then Joe and Josie rented their four sons' rooms and Josie began charging for the meals she cooked. Thus, the Ruttgers found themselves in the resort business.

Soon families started to vacation at the lodge, mainly to fish, and also to escape the heat. The Ruttgers' original home, built in 1901, remains part of the lodge offices. The fireplace was once in their living room. The log dining hall built in 1922 is still used today.

Joe and Josie's oldest son, Alexander (Alec, Chris Ruttger's grandfather) took over the resort on Bay Lake. The three younger brothers, Max, Bill and Ed, started their own resorts, one on Whitefish Lake (Ruttger's Shady Point Lodge) and two on Gull Lake (Ruttger's Pine Beach, which later became Madden's Resort; and Ruttger's Sherwood Forest Lodge).

Alec and his wife, Myrle, invested in expansion of the resort. They took over in 1920, and Alec borrowed $3,500 from a bank to build 12 cottages and remodel the property.

"They took it to the next level, more as a business, and growing it," Chris Ruttger said.

Alec and Myrle's son, Jack, and his wife, Ann (Chris' parents), took over management in 1955 and grew the conference facilities and doubled the number of rooms. A conference center and indoor pool were built in the early 1970s, and 10,000 square feet of conference space was added in the mid-1980s.

The two generations of Ruttgers bought a motel in the Florida Keys in the early 1950s, which they operated in the winter for 20 years, selling it in the late 1970s. The family tried a couple of times, in the 1970s and 1980s, to keep the resort open year-round.

The current generation of Ruttger's on Bay Lake includes Chris and his wife, Joanne, and their son, Sam, 9. Chris took over resort management in 1992.


"As kids, we all grew up here and worked summer jobs here," Chris said of himself, his brother and two sisters. "We always ran around the resort. Then when we were old enough we worked."

Chris said fishing is still a draw for people who stay at the lodge, which is open April-November. Lake activities and the lake setting are also what people like.

"As much as anything it's seeing the lake," he said. "The view is always beautiful."

"It's such a big, clean lake; quiet on this end," said Erin Mahoney, executive assistant at Ruttger's. "There are a lot of families with long legacies here, and an active lake association."

Golf is a big draw as well, and the first nine-hole course was built in 1920.

"It was very rudimentary," Chris said. "At the beginning it was a cow pasture."

Alec's Nine is named after Chris' grandfather. The Lakes 18-hole championship course was built in the late 1980s.

Today, the goal is to grow and improve upon what the resort offers. Chris Ruttger said group business has changed over the years, and technology has changed. Incentive trips changed with the recession.


"We're continually figuring that out," he said.

The resort is still popular as a family summertime getaway.

People just don't take long vacations anymore, Chris said, noting four-day vacations are more the norm than weeklong stays.

Like many other lakes, the 2,435-acre Bay Lake once was home to more resorts. Today, along with Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge, the lake is home to Woodland Beach Resort, which is open year-round and dates back to 1937; Indian Point Resort on Indian Point; and Sissebagamah RV Resort, offering seasonal RV sites.

Knieff's Shore Acres Resort was once a main resort on the lake. It got its name from the Indian name of Sissebagamah, which meant "lake of many bays."

Ruttgers is situated on 500 acres and offers 170 guest rooms, with a full occupancy of more than 400 guests. Ruttgers employs about 300 during the peak season and as few as 20 when the resort is closed for the winter.

Chris Ruttger said, "In many parts of the world the term resort refers to a town or area that is a vacation destination. Individual businesses such as hotels, restaurants, stores and recreational facilities combine to meet the visitors' needs. But here it usually means one business that provides for all of these needs on its own. It provides lodging, food and drink options, recreation, shopping, spa and other services.

"The resort also provides all the infrastructure and support services such as water, waste treatment, road systems, transportation, communication systems, TV and Wi-Fi service. The administrative structure is similar to a city, with an executive and departments for the various functions, each with its own director and staff structure. Examples are rooms department, engineering, food and beverage, recreation, retail, property and grounds, sales and marketing and accounting."


Ruttger said what makes their resort unique is "Our historic log lodge sits right on the shore with a surprisingly natural view of Bay Lake, which has a more wilderness feel than some lakes.

"Our family founded the resort in the 1800s and we still own and operate it, now in the fourth generation."

Resort name: Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge.

Year founded: 1898.

Owners: Ruttger's family and today Chris Ruttger, Joe Ruttger's great-grandson, is the current president of Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge.

Amenities: An 18-hole golf course called The Lakes and a nine-golf course called Alec's Nine; The Fine Line Saloon and Spa; and custom designed group activities, such as volleyball, tennis, high ropes course, hydrobiking and more.

What sets the resort apart: Ruttger said, "Our historic log lodge sits right on the shore with a surprisingly natural view of Bay Lake, which has a more wilderness feel than some lakes." And that it is family owned and operated and in its fourth generation.

Number of employees: 300 at peak.


Number of rooms: 170.

Size in acres: 500.

How many can sleep there at full capacity: 400.

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