Progress: Family celebrates Ruttger's 120th anniversary
DEERWOOD—Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge is a community in and of itself.
It is believed to be the longest, continuously owned family resort in Minnesota—started 120 years ago by Joseph and Josephine Ruttger. Today their great-grandson, Chris Ruttger, runs the resort and his parents, Jack and Ann Ruttger, continue to live on the property. Jack Ruttger, 88, isn't quite fully retired from the business—he can be seen driving around the resort in the golf cart working on smaller projects.
This past spring, Ruttger's renamed its 18-hole championship golf course Jack's 18 to honor Jack Ruttger. Other parts of the resort are named in honor of influential people in the resort's history and include Ruby's Dining Room, named after longtime hostess Ruby Treloar; Auntie M's, named after Jack Ruttger's sister Mae Heglund; Zig's Restaurant and Bar, named after longtime guest and golf course designer Haas Ziegler; and Alec's 9, the original nine-hole resort course, named after Jack Ruttger's father Alec Ruttger.
Ruttger's has a lot to celebrate in its rich history. The resort is situated on 500 acres on the north end of Bay Lake, off Highway 6 on Tame Fish Lake Road in Bay Lake Township. The resort offers 170 guest rooms, with a full occupancy of more than 400 guests. Ruttger's employs about 300 during the peak season and as few as 20 when the resort is closed for the winter.
The resort offers several different types of lodging and golf, and there also are four restaurants—Ruby's Dining, the regular dining room, Bear Pine Bar and Grill and Zig's Restaurant and Bar. It's home to four retail stores—The Country Store, The Garage, Lobby Shop and Ruttger's Pro Shop, along with coffee and ice cream shop Auntie M's, Fine Line Salon and Spa and a conference center. Then of course there is the lake with a large beach, a swimming pool, fishing off the dock, boating and an activities director on site coordinating an abundance of events for families to partake in.
Ruttger's has it all with the goal that guests don't have to leave the property if they don't want to.
So what has kept this family resort going for 120 years?
Guests and employees would say the Ruttger family is the reason for the resort's success.
Jack Ruttger says good, clean accommodations and hospitality.
"People on vacation want to have fun," Jack Ruttgersaid. "Treat them well. Hospitality is a big deal. I think we have done pretty well with that. Chris is really good with people. My daughter is the same way, but she is not here."
Jack said he has been in the resort business for a long time, but he is starting to slow down.
"Chris is doing a good job and we have good people working here," Jack Ruttger said. "We're doing real well. ... I'm happy. We keep the property clean."
Slowing down, but not stopping—Jack Ruttger said he still enjoys doing things around the resort.
"I have to do something useful," Jack Ruttger said. "At the end of the day I want to feel like I have done something that is worthwhile. At my stage in life I am not too active anymore. If you rake up something you feel like you have done something."
When asked what the biggest challenge has been over the years, Jack Ruttger said cash flow. The resort is a seasonal business, with income starting in April and ending in November. Jack Ruttger said over the years Ruttgers have expanded their season, but they have to be careful as they need enough cash flow to pay staff when they have guests and to pay the extra expenses.
Ruttger's opens about Easter each year and closes after Thanksgiving.
For the past 33 years, Ruttger's has celebrated Oktoberfest in October with live German music, beer and food, entertainment, craft shows and activities for all ages. More recently, the resort began a Thanksgiving buffet, along with special packages for lodging in an attempt to expand the season.
President Chris Ruttger said there are a lot of traditions throughout the resort's history, and many families come back year after year. One family through its generations will be approaching its 100th year of coming to the resort.
When asked why the families keep coming back, Chris Ruttger said families like that it's a smaller property, all in one area. And the fact some things at the resort have stayed the same, while other things have changed.
"People can stay in their cabin or a condo and it's an easy walk to where they want to go," Chris Ruttger said. "Their kids can wander around and they can hang out with other kids at the resort with no concern.
"Things that have changed is we used to have formal dinners, now it is less formal. Things change with the times. There are some families who come here for the week, and others for a few days. Before there was no alternative, you had to book a week. But times have changed and now we have a mix. It's a whole different operation now."
Chris Ruttger said back in the day when Ruby's Dining Room was formal the guests would eat at the same table for each meal at the same time each day. Ruttger's began adding more condos and didn't have enough seats for everyone, which was challenging, Chris Ruttger said. Now families don't want to eat at the same time everyday in a formal setting, so the resort has adjusted to accommodate families' needs and wants in today's generation.
Chris Ruttger said his 14-year-old son Sam is starting to help around the resort, but it is different from when he and his siblings worked at the resort.
"We grew up living here and (today) my parents still live here," Chris Ruttger said. "We don't live on the resort now so it is a little different and we have to get Sam here.
"When we were kids we got up in the morning and it was free range for us. Then when we got a little older we would help out with something and pretty soon we were in our teens and we had a summer job. My first job on payroll was in the marina—then it was called the boathouse. A lot of fun memories. I did front desk, kids programs, different jobs throughout the years. I supervised the dining room and that was demanding."
Chris Ruttger recalls when he was young his parents left the house and told him he was in charge of answering the phone with two lines. It was winter so it wasn't busy, but Chris Ruttger said he was petrified. He said it rang once—and he survived.
When asked if Sam will take over the resort when he gets older, Chris Ruttger replied, "He said he would like to take it over as he has heard this all his life. But I don't know. When you are 14 you are still figuring stuff out. And us kids, when we were growing up my parents tried to not make it seem that it was expected of us to take over the resort. ... We each have to find our own way.
"There are four of us kids originally. Our brother Sandy (Alexander John III) died in a car crash in 1973 when I was younger. My sisters, Julia and Mary, and I worked at the resort and things fell into place. My sisters (both work outside of the resort) and I was privileged to be running the resort."
Chris Ruttger looks up to his parents, like many do.
"My mom and dad are tireless," Chris Ruttger said. "They are always there to meet and greet people and they genuinely love seeing the guests. My dad is especially gifted with reaching out to new guests or staff. I think they just have a sense of what is right and what the right thing to do is.
"It's fun to still be in (the resort business). There are a lot of Minnesota family resorts and I am thankful for the ones who survived and it's a great way to live.
"My dad is slower moving, but he's 88 and he still gets around. It has been 30 years since I have been taking over and he is very good at trying to let me run things. Some family businesses have had to have consultants come in when they pass it down to the next generation.
"(Jack Ruttger) is well loved."
Resort life - Employees share their views
Ruttger's Marketing Manager Dave McMillan guided a reporter and photographer on a tour of Ruttger's to offer a glimpse of what resort life is like for staff.
The first stop was the beach to talk to Tim Lasky, in charge of the marina. This is Lasky's first summer at the resort and he works 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week.
"I enjoy it because I get to work with people," Lasky said, whose full-time job is as an instructor at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. "People are very nice here. I needed some extra income for the summer and Dave called me and provided me with the opportunity so I took him up on it. My family has stayed here in the past."
Lasky said a normal day for him is making sure boats are ready for guests to take out onto Bay Lake. He said if they want to go water skiing or tubing, he can take them out. The resort has four pontoons, two speedboats and five fishing boats, as well as canoes and kayaks.
"When it's really nice out all the boats are out," Lasky said. "When I am not checking people in, I am doing maintenance and making sure the gas is full in all the boats.
"We take care of our guests, and when it's nice they want to spend time on the lake."
Activities and events, oh my
Activities and events are happening at the resort daily. Laura Marsolek is in charge of it all as the activities coordinator. Marsolek has a staff of about 22 employees who help run the activities smoothly, seven days a week. Activities include Summer Concert Series, movie nights, and events like Beer and Bacon Bonanza and Blues and BBQ Bash.
The list of activities are long and broad and include pontoon cruises, choose-your-brew cruises, family portraits, water tubing, yoga on tap, Zumba classes, bingo, karaoke, guided nature hikes, kayak/canoe tours, bonfires with s'mores and games large in size, such as Giant Jenga, dominoes, Angry Birds, dartboards and cornhole.
Marsolek also runs Kids' Kamp, which is an outdoor interactive summer camp for children ages 4-13. Kids' Kamp is celebrating its 80th year and it runs every day but Sundays. Children do a variety of activities from swimming, to scavenger hunts, to hiking and having a kids' night out. Marsolek said the camp offers children a fun-packed day and allows the parents to do adult activities, such as playing a round of golf, tennis, pickleball or shuffleboard.
Marsolek said new outdoor activities were added this season with resort staff planning excursions for families, such as a canoe or kayak challenge. Marsolek said they also promote activities outside the resort, such as the zip lining with the Brainerd Zip Line Tour at Mount Ski Gull in Lake Shore.
Marsolek, who has a theater background and performs in local productions, loves her job and being able to spend time outdoors.
"I get to set up fun performances and get to do creative problem solving," she said. "I love seeing things come together, like events like the Beer and Bacon Bonanza. We're doing a new event coming in October called a zombie apocalypse that should be fun."
Cooking for the guests
When families are not out on the lake or doing an activity, they are typically eating.
Terry Dox has been the resort's executive chef for the past 36 years and Michael Murnane has been the resort's food and beverage director for two seasons. There are about 40-45 employees in the food and beverage department.
Dox, who has become a legend at the resort, will retire at the end of this season. He has had a great run and has fed a lot of bellies, he said.
"I like the people, we have a great staff," Dox said as he was cutting up raw walleye, preparing them for dinner. "My sous chef has been here for a long time. Walleye is our No. 1 speciality. People come here and think they need walleye."
Dox works seven days a week and mainly does dinner.
"I make a lot of soups," Dox said.
Dox said the main reason he works at Ruttger's is Jack Ruttger.
"He is the reason why most of us are here," Dox said.
Even though Murnane is new to Ruttger's, he said he feels at home at the resort.
"Ruttger's is such a special place, it is so deep in history," he said. "It's been here for so long and Jack and Chris Ruttger are still very hands on. They are the reason why people come back year after year. They are like family."
Murnane moved to Crosslake from the Twin Cities when he took the job at Ruttger's last summer. Murnane oversees the food and beverages at all the restaurants. He said one of the resort's strong points with food are its buffets.
"Some people will turn their nose up when they hear buffet," Murnane said. "But it's all from scratch and we have four different entrees, a full salad bar and a full dessert bar. We have a pastry chef on board. We like to say we are a buffet on steroids. The buffets are open to the public."
Murnane said he doesn't do any cooking. He makes sure the food and beverage operations goes smoothly.
"If the guests have any special requests I take care of it," he said. "We have a little bit of everything. I get the liquor, beer and wine lists together for all our events. There may be something here or there that needs to be taken care of or staff to be managed and I take care of that."
Employees working with food and beverages are a combination of full, part and seasonal time staff. There also are international students working in this department.
"The biggest challenge for me is staffing," Murnane said. "It's hard to find enough people to cover all of the shifts. Being in a more rural area as opposed to being in the Twin Cities you don't have enough people who are available to work. Everyone wants a job and everyone is hiring. ... It's hard to say, 'Why don't you come work for us for four months and then go somewhere else?'"
Ruttger's has 31 international students, mainly from Poland and the Czech Republic, this season, with 15 working in the food and beverage department. This is the second summer working at Ruttger's for Jagoda Ostrowska, 26, of Poland. It will also be her last as she will no longer be a student next summer.
"I really like it here," she said. "People are nice. Last year and this year I worked in the bar.
"I didn't expect it would turn into such a great adventure for me for the summer. I would recommend to the people from Poland to come here for holidays because it is so nice."
First point of contact
After talking with people in the food and beverage department, the tour moved to another part of the building—an important part—the reservation desk/office. There are four people who take reservations. Reservations are taken seven days a week.
Tami Price, the reservations manager, said there may be times when one or two employees are taking reservations or all four will be in the office. Price works year-round, sometimes working an 11-hour shift, and the other three workers are seasonal.
"I have been here 22 years," Price said. "I started in this department and have stayed here and I love it. I get Christmas cards and photos of families from their stay here as you can see on my wall. I have more photos on my Facebook of these families than I do of my own. Lots of families come here year after year."
Price said there are many family stories she could share. She said on Mother's Day one year, a grandfather introduced her to his new grandbaby. She said she has watched this baby, who is now 10, grow up. She said she has seen so many children grow up who now stay at the resort as parents themselves with their children. There are several families who stay in touch with her year-round.
Price said most of the time, when a returning family calls to make a reservation, she knows exactly what lodging accomodation they want and any special requests, to make sure their stay is enjoyable. Price said one family always wants a table with an umbrella to sit in the front of the cabin, another wants a floor lamp and another wants a recliner.
Price said she doesn't get any odd requests, unless you count some of the "pet friendly" requests.
"People brought a hamster that just had babies and they couldn't leave them at home," Price said. "We have had birds. ... We try to help people out if we can."
The biggest challenge Price said in helping their guests is finding babysitters. She said she used to have a big list of potential babysitters, but now she struggles finding enough.
Price agreed with the other employees that her job has changed as the length of stay has changed for families.
"Booking full-week vacations is dwindling," she said. "We have had changes in our packages and do a lot of a la carte. People don't want to be locked into being here for dinner. After 9/11, (and the recession worsened) Grandma and Grandpa couldn't pay for everything so the kids started to pay their share of the stay."
John Adams, Fridley, is a customer who's come to the resort since 1993. Adams said his family comes for four days and they love it.
"We came up here every summer but two years when I was unemployed," Adams said. "I just think the customer service is tremendous, the views of the lakes are fantastic—my wife thinks this is the best place on Earth. The accommodations are good and it feels like almost family. The Ruttgers are always gracious.
"We started coming in October for the fest. ... You feel like you are in paradise."
Hitting the links
When guests are not on the water, they are on the greens.
Ruttger's golf professional Dave Sadlowsky is in his fifth season at Ruttger's. Sadlowsky worked an office job for 15 years in the construction management field before becoming a golf professional. Changing his career path was a good decision.
"I enjoy coming to work every day," Sadlowsky said. "It's great being in resort country and there is so much history here."
Sadlowsky is in charge of running the daily operation of the golf courses.
"I really don't have a schedule," he said. "My schedule is most days, but I love it."
Sadlowsky, who is from Avon and who lived in the Twin Cities metro area for many years, said working at Ruttger's was perfect for his wife, Jill, and their two sons.
"My wife's family is from the Crosby and Aitkin area," Sadlowsky said. "So this was one area she would agree to move to. My father-in-law, Bill, has been a ranger here for about a dozen years. We've been playing here off and on for a number of years."
Maintaining the grounds
While Sadlowsky oversees golf operations, Joe Wollner, Ruttger's golf course superintendent, oversees the grounds.
"This is my 19th season and when I was hired here by Jack I said this is the kind of place I would love to retire at," Wollner said. "And 19 years later I am 66 and going to retire. It's been great. Jack is one of the best people.
"When people ask me what my responsibilities are I say, 'If it's on the ground, it's mine.' I don't do any of the buildings. The lawn areas, both golf courses and the grounds at the resort are my responsibilities."
Wollner has 24 employees to help him maintain the grounds. He and his assistant each work 12 days straight and then get two days off. When Wollner first started, his position was 12 months and now it is 10 months.
When asked what his secret is to keep well-groomed greens, he said a good staff and an adequate budget.
"I have two brothers who also are golf green superintendents and when we get together we talk about grass, the legal kind," Wollner said. "We're originally from Iowa and ... my mom was a manager of a small 9-hole golf course.
"As a golf course superintendent, we all rely on other superintendents on helping each other out."
Wollner said when he started he was only in charge of the golf course greens. Through the years, he took on helping the gardening/maintenance staff with the resort grounds. He said the maintenance staff does a great job with the perennial gardens around the property, though if it were up to him, "it would all be mowed down," he said with a grin.
Wollner said the property encompasses about 250 acres and he maintains about 200 acres of it. He said his staff mows the greens every day; and the fairways are mowed three times a week.
"We do have push mowers, too," he said. "I have five international students from Poland and they are the best workers. They do trimming, use the push mowers, do a lot of manual stuff.
"It's always fun, there is always something different with this job. The staff here is different and that is what keeps it fun. If I didn't like my job I wouldn't be here so long. This is my last season. I'm retiring. I have a garden at home to maintain. I do golf, but the last thing I want to do at the end of the day is golf here as I would critique everything."
Wollner said there are lots of fun stories to share that happen along with golf courses. A common story is missing golf carts that seem to get stuck and left in the water.
"This happens all the time," Wollner said. "Just have to get the tractor out and pull them out. It's just something we are used to dealing with."
Miranda Westhoff, who is the director of retail, doesn't have to deal with the types of things found on the golf course. Westhoff is in charge of the four retail stores on the property, which includes Auntie M's, a coffee and ice cream shop.
Westhoff, who grew up in Crosby and graduated from Brainerd High School, started working at Ruttger's in 1998, working in the food and beverage department. She worked there for 11 years and when the position opened for the director of retail, she eagerly grabbed it.
"My family grew up with a hardware store," Westhoff said, so she was around the retail industry and enjoyed the work.
"When I was looking for an extra job and was hired at Ruttger's I just fell in love with the place."
Westhoff said she has a staff of 10 and each store is unique. Ruttger's Bay Lake Country Store is stocked with higher-end specialty apparel, shoes, jewelry, decor and other gift items. The store first opened in 1906 and originally sold groceries.
The Garage is located next to the Country Store and is a former gas station. The Garage is filled with Ruttger's apparel for women, men and children, along with home decor, gifts and toys. The third retail store is the Lobby Shop located in Ruttger's main lodge, including a selection of clothing and accessories, gifts, home decor and souvenirs.
Westhoff said the shops are all open when the resort is open. Last year before the resort closed she added some Christmas items in the Lobby Shop.
"I love this place and I love working for Ruttger's," Westhoff said. "They genuinely care for you and that is huge to me. That makes me want to be here and work as hard as I can. Appreciation goes a long way.
"When I first started working in retail, the challenge was in buying things people would want to buy, but my numbers show I am making good choices and making money for the resort and people are buying memories of the resort."
Westhoff said two of her children also work at the resort.
Dave McMillan ended the tour by stating from the very beginning when Joseph and Josephine Ruttger opened the resort, it was important to them that they owned and operated a family resort.
"The heart of Ruttger's is it is a family resort," McMillan said.
Business: Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge
City: Rural Deerwood.
Number of employees: About 300.
Interesting or little known fact: It is longest, continuously owned family resort in Minnesota. It has been in the family for 120 years.
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, 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—120 years ago.
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 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. They came by rail to Deerwood. They came for the fresh air and fishing. People also wanted to stay there, creating the resort.
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.
Alec and Myrle's son, Jack, and his wife, Ann (Chris' parents), took over management in 1955. They 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. Chris took over resort management in 1992.