The Ruttger family announced Thursday, Sept. 3, the sale of Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge, Minnesota’s oldest continually owned family resort.
After owning the resort for more than 120 years, the Ruttger family sold it to 1898 Investments LLC, a Minnesota-based company with plans to renovate and expand the historic resort on Bay Lake. The name, however, will remain the same.
The sale of the 161-room traditional, up-north resort near Deerwood includes the lodge, all lodging facilities, office facilities, close to 500 acres of land, Jack’s 18 and Alec’s 9 golf courses, Zig’s Restaurant & Bar, Ruby’s Dining Room, Auntie M’s Coffee Shop, The Garage, Ann’s Bay Lake Boutique and various other buildings and real estate holdings. Only Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge is involved in the deal, and it does not include any other Ruttger’s properties.
The transaction closed Wednesday, Sept. 2, and the new ownership group will immediately begin working with the existing operational team in managing the day-to-day operations of the resort. Former owner Chris Ruttger said staffing will remain largely unchanged, though the new owners added a few new staff members this summer.
“I won’t deny it's emotional,” Ruttger said of the sale. “It’s change, in a way. It’s kind of difficult to get to that point as you’re going through the discussion process.”
Ruttger will stay on as a member of the board of directors and will provide leadership and guidance to the operational team and help with the transition.
Ruttger said the change is exciting as well, explaining he got a call about potentially selling last summer.
“We got a call from someone who had worked with some of the other resort sales and said it’s a really strong time and there’s a lot of interest in resorts right now,” he said. “So we started talking, not knowing where it would lead at that time, but at that time it kind of came together that it was just a really good opportunity. And then COVID this spring kind of made us wonder what was going to happen a little bit, and I think like everybody else wondered if our business was going to be shut down for the year.”
But the transaction came together, and now the new owners — real estate investors who created a new company for the resort sale — plan to renovate existing spaces and expand the number and type of accommodations, dining options and activities.
“We have many plans to take Ruttger’s to the next level, and make it not only one of the most beloved resorts in the state, but the best,” 1898 Investments Principal Pat Egan said in a news release. “We will share our plans for this beautiful property soon and look forward to a bright future.”
Whereas the hospitality industry has struggled due to the coronavirus pandemic, drivable resort destinations like Ruttger’s have done well, Ruttger said.
“Being so close to the Twin Cities with golf courses, and a remote and spacious facility has been appealing to travelers looking for a place to get away and feel a bit of normal,” he said. “Some guests have worked remotely while staying here. This trend is a reason Ruttger’s was appealing to 1898 Investments, and why bookings look strong for the rest of this year and into 2021.”
Ruttger said the new owners love the resort and its tradition — which made his team feel good about selling — and have the capital to continue on as well as the knowledge of property development.
“It has been an honor and a privilege for our family to have provided a home away from home to our guests. We have cherished every minute,” Ruttger said. “We would not have agreed to sell to the new ownership group if we were not certain that they would not only continue, but build upon the Ruttger’s tradition of excellence, hospitality and providing a wonderful guest experience.”
Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge was founded in 1898 by Joseph and Josephine Ruttger. Their four sons all grew to become leaders in the resort industry and were influential in the early development of the Brainerd lakes area as a tourism destination. At one time, the Ruttger family owned and operated five resorts in the area.
Joseph 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 Josephine, and the couple lived on the island. In 1894, Ruttger traded the island to be on the mainland and came by rail to Deerwood.
As more people ventured to the area to fish and to keep cool by the lake, they sought a place to stay and have 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.
The Ruttgers' original home, built in 1901, remains part of the lodge offices, and 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, while 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.
Chris Ruttger took over management in 1992. Today, Ruttger's employs about 300 during the peak season and as few as 20 when the resort is closed for the winter.