Irma’s legacy: Resort owner remembered for generosity, love of arts
Irma Cragun, who owned Cragun's resort for many years with husband Dutch, died Jan. 10 at the age of 87.
EAST GULL LAKE — She was a queen, a pistol, a fierce leader.
She arranged an outdoor art show that was to become Arts in the Park and established the Heartland Symphony Orchestra Ladies Auxiliary. Her smiling face and bright blue suit graced the inaugural edition of the Brainerd Dispatch’s “Her Voice” magazine. But perhaps most notably, she took up a post at Cragun’s Resort more than 55 years ago, often working behind the scenes to keep the enterprise going and growing. And that’s just the beginning.
Irma Cragun was a staple of the Brainerd lakes community. She died Jan. 10 at the age of 87, leaving an absence that will be felt by many.
“She was something else. She was very gregarious, outgoing, fun,” said Don McFarland, a longtime friend of Irma and her husband Dutch.
McFarland once owned the Paul Bunyan Amusement Center and got to know the Craguns through the tourism industry. He fondly remembers Irma’s birthday bashes on the boat Dutch bought, as she danced the night away and always had a ball.
“I was overjoyed to be included in their friendship,” McFarland said. “... It was a hoot.”
Close friend Jeff Anhalt remembers trips on the Craguns’ boat, too, and recalls Irma always wearing her admiral hat and wanting to captain the boat.
Irma grew up in Powell River, British Columbia, Canada, working hard in her family’s garden and enjoying the fruits of her labor through her mother’s traditional Italian cooking. She grew up to become a nurse and left her hometown in 1953 at the age of 18, sailing to Vancouver to begin seeing more of the world. Various travel adventures eventually brought her to San Francisco, where she settled in 1959 and met a young military man named Merrill Cragun Jr., better known around the lakes area as Dutch.
After a long-distance relationship for several years, Dutch brought Irma into the resort world, as he had taken over ownership of Cragun’s Resort from his dad. She started on the food side of things, running the kitchen and dining room. After the couple married in 1965, Irma took on more and more responsibility, tasked with managing the resort’s finances and day-to-day operations. In a 2020 interview, Dutch credited much of the resort’s success over the decades to Irma’s flexibility and adaptability. His big ideas paired with her unstoppable ambition got the job done.
Irma’s strong work ethic is one of the first things that comes to mind when Joe Brenny remembers his friend. Former owner of Brenny Family Funeral Home in Baxter, Brenny met the Craguns in 1995 and began a close friendship.
She was something else. She was very gregarious, outgoing, fun.
When night fell on the resort, and the staff went to bed, Irma did not. She set to work writing out payroll checks by hand, often staying up until the early morning hours.
Irma’s influence on the resort was evident, Brenny said, and her acute business sense set her apart from the crowd.
Brenny recalls a memory when he was on his way home from a fishing trip in Canada with Dutch. They stopped at a supper club for dinner before finishing the journey. Back in the car, they each thanked the other for dinner, then coming to the realization that neither had paid for the meal. They quickly turned around to make it right.
“I said, ‘Dutch, the state patrol is probably in hot pursuit right now. And can you imagine what Irma’s gonna say when she reads on the front page of the Brainerd Dispatch that Dutch Cragun and Joe Brenny ran out of a supper club without paying?’” Brenny recalled.
Back at the restaurant, Dutch went in to pay the bill, but to his surprise the staff hadn’t even realized the two had left.
Brenny’s first thought? It was obvious Irma wasn’t running the place.
The Craguns had no children of their own, but Brenny thought of them as foster parents of sorts. And Irma had a way of making everyone she encountered feel like family, the lakes area at large included.
Those who knew Irma speak of her generous nature and how much she and Dutch gave back to their community. They were staunch supporters of music, usually found in the front row of Lakes Area Music Festival concerts. They donated a brand new concert piano to the Brainerd School District when the Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts opened last year and always supported high school and college music programs.
Even though close friends agree the Craguns were not a couple to seek out the spotlight with their charitable donations, they still drew attention and were honored in 2019 with the Award in Philanthropy from the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation. Foundation Director Karl Samp said he’s very grateful for all the Craguns have done for the community, and Irma will be greatly missed.
But her legacy will always live on, in the contributions she made, the lives she touched, and in name through Irma’s Kitchen, a popular restaurant at Cragun’s Resort.
And just across the bay from the resort stands the Craguns’ house, which Irma designed herself and oversaw the construction of in 2016. She always called it her house, friends recall, and teased Dutch that he could live there as long as he paid rent on time.
Kindness, generosity and strength are words that come to mind among those who knew Irma, and there was one other thing agreed on as well — Dutch’s fierce love for his wife, the emotion clearly etched on his face.
But after recent talks with Irma, Brenny believes she was ready to meet her savior, and he hopes those who loved her find solace in knowing that she’s now at peace.
According to Irma’s obituary , a memorial service will take place at 2 p.m. Monday, Jan. 17, at Cragun’s Resort. Visitation starts at noon, with a social following the service at 3 p.m. Rooms are available at the resort for overnight guests, and the service will be livestreamed as well.
In lieu of flowers, donations to Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge or the Lakes Prostate Cancer Fund are preferred.