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Cabin culture: A place at the lake

Updated: Aug 20, 2018

When Betsy Danielson's grandpa was 47, he built a small log-sided cabin, set high off West Twin Lake. It faced south, so they enjoyed sunrises as well as sunsets.

She spent every summer there, concocting obstacle courses in the woods, raising tepees, playing Monopoly, walking the railroad tracks with her siblings and cousins. There was no TV, but she could sometimes coax a scratchy signal from WDGY, the pop music station down in the Twin Cities.

Her grandpa always had a project going, like the dinner table built to fit under the big window overlooking the lake. Pushed flush against the wall, it was almost like being outside.

As a grownup, Danielson rented other cabins on other lakes: White Iron, Gunflint, Green, Gull, Bay, Leech, Ida, Burntside, Winnibigoshish. Always, she kept an eye open for a cabin to buy. Finally, one gave her "a feeling."

It was set high off the lake. The dinner table fit flush under the big window. She was 47.

Minnesota has more than 122,000 "seasonal recreational" dwellings, according to property tax permits. Some are hunting shacks, some are grand getaways, but most are what everyone knows, and reveres, as a cabin.

"People talk about the family farm, but in Minnesota, it's the family cabin," said Jeff Forester, executive director of the Minnesota Seasonal and Recreational Property Owners Coalition. Its slogan: "Cabins are where family happens."

Cabins are cultural, said Doug Ohman, a photographer who documented 90 of them for his book, "Cabins of Minnesota" (with text by Bill Holm; Minnesota Historical Society Press). "It's part of our language -- going to the cabin, going to the lake. I had a friend in Georgia who once asked me, 'Where is this lake that everyone goes to?'"

Of course, not everyone goes -- or wants to.

Skeptics regard them as second homes with plumbing that clogs, grass that grows, weatherstripping that rattles. They tut-tut about the absurdity of a bumper-to-bumper commute in search of relaxation, or tsk-tsk about the ability to own two homes. Longtime cabin owners bemoan newcomers elbowing onto their lakeshore, while year-round residents moan that seasonal folks don't pay their fair share of taxes.

Yet once the hook is set, there's no release.

"Our cabin culture is as distinctive as it seems," Forester said. People own cabins, on average, for 24 years, among the highest in the country for seasonal homes, according to a coalition study in 2005. More than eight in 10 owners have no intention of selling.

"These are generational," Forester said, adding that despite the finding that one in five owners now lives out of state, they keep the cabin. "It's almost like they're salmon, always returning to the spawning ground where they were born."

The romance of rustic life

The roots of cabin culture are in the late 1800s when wealthier Minnesotans emulated the great Adirondack camps with their white canvas tents and twig furniture arranged on Oriental rugs.

"It established an early romance for rustic living," said Paul Clifford Larson, a historical researcher who became intrigued by "almost the fetishism that developed around cabins," and in 1998 wrote "A Place at the Lake." (Afton Historical Society Press).

When Henry Ford's affordable Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1908, the rabble also could experience this romance, along with those who hopped on rail lines stretching north toward lumbered-out acres. "The first people in Brainerd Lakes area -- the first really huge summer area -- settled on barren land, but immediately planted pine and spruce trees," he said.

Larson, of Stockholm, Wis., said cabin culture was inevitable given the number of deep, glacial lakes that provide excellent habitat for game fish. But lakes are not a given.

"Practically before I married my husband, I said I had to have a cabin," said Danielson, 58, of Sandstone, Minn. She didn't think she needed to specify "lake," but her husband grew up in Henderson on the Minnesota River, and thus favored the sort of water you can never step in twice. "He loved to be outdoors, too, but his was more of a Mark Twain experience."

Still, vista trumped current. "I like the expanse of a lake," she said. "You can see what's coming. With a river, you can't see what's around the bend."

Ohman said Minnesota's cabin ethic harks back to Scandinavian stugas, or mountain cottages. Like their ancestors, early city dwellers also wanted to escape the heat of the streets, with some wives and kids staying for the summer while the breadwinner commuted.

"The cabin became a family tradition, as sacred as the crown jewels," he said, then broached a delicate subject. A cabin "has to have kind of a roughness to it. Otherwise, it becomes a 'lake home,' and to me that implies something different."

A cabin, he said, has a screen door that bangs. There's no Internet and little cellphone coverage, but stacks of games and decks of cards. Mobiles of driftwood hang as evidence of the occasional rainy day, as do the superfluously helpful signs: "Shed." "Dock."

"It's about cabin fever," Ohman said, upending the term to describe the need to get inside four walls. "We've put up with the 40-belows and scraping the windshield, and it's like we've earned the right. Sure, I-94 on a Friday afternoon can be cabin fever at its fullest, but we get off at Monticello, and we enter the zone."

Heirloom, or asset?

On average, owners spend 55 days a year at cabins, but Forester said he's gotten more use out of his Lake Vermilion place by lending it to his plumber, doctor, a Boy Scout troop and friends. Every married relative has honeymooned there.

Early Foresters built the cabin in 1912, after their great-great-grandfather settled in Tower to work in the iron ore mine. There's no electricity, although there are solar panels, and everyone uses the outhouse. "People ask, 'Why don't you want electricity?' and I tell them, 'Because then someone would bring a television.'"

The cabin is a portal to the natural world. "The kids take off in the morning," he said. "We have a horn that we blow, or they're gone till dinner."

If this sounds impossibly idyllic, Forester blows another sort of whistle. "A tax assessor once told me, 'We used to mine iron ore; now we mine lakeshore,'" referring to the demand for seasonal properties. "We're in the midst of the largest intergenerational transfer of land in the country, and it's not going well on the lakes for these little cabins," as parcels are divided and property taxes rise.

The coalition advocates for lake families, arguing that many cabins are owned by retired people whose incomes don't keep pace with the rising worth of a cabin. At the same time, they have little interest in reaping the financial benefits of demand. "These are heirlooms," Forester said, "not assets."

There's always an Ed

One more thing about cabin culture: You're never as alone as you think you are.

Ohman learned this while photographing cabins at midweek, after making arrangements with the owners to poke around with his cameras. Inevitably, within minutes, he had company.

"There's always one guy who knows you're there," he said. "He's the guy that's at every cabin's shoreline and when he sees a vehicle he doesn't recognize, he comes over to check you out. He's 150 years old and he knows everybody," Ohman said. "And he's always named Ed."

However much people love their cabins, romance and realities sometimes collide.

Danielson ended up selling when she and her husband decided to open a landscaping business and a dog kennel, which meant moving to a 40-acre plot in Pine County where the neighbors weren't so near.

"I cried buckets," she said, even as she was excited about their venture. She set about re-creating what she loved about the cabin life.

"There's the simplicity, the unclutteredness," she said. "You don't need a whole lot to live -- a few clothes stacked in a pile, a few dishes, a connection to the outdoors, to pines and to water. The most important thing is living in a peaceful, quiet, private way."

She dug a lake for herself, getting the permits to build a large pond she can gaze upon. The first thing she did was push the dinner table flush against the wall, right under the big window overlooking the water.

Sitting there, it's almost like being outside.

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