A piece of 'heaven' in the woods
Follow the meandering, narrow road through the woods and campers will find one of the remaining resorts in the area with rustic features and little to no commercialization.
Valhalla Resort, located on Island Lake roughly 20 miles east of Detroit Lakes off Highway 34, is nestled into 80 acres of land owned by Len and Norma Jean Grotnes. Len is a second-generation owner of the resort, and after 50-plus years, he and his wife are still running the resort, stressing rest and relaxation for their customers.
A resort is born
In 1907, Len's father, Elinas Grotnes, moved from Norway to America, and came to the area because he had three aunts here. He purchased some land, and in 1909, he got the title for 24 acres of land that would become Valhalla Resort. Elinas paid $20 per acre for the 24 acres.
"All his relatives laughed and said he was foolish because there was no farmland on it," Len recalls from his living room, which also serves as the office for the resort.
There was no timber for harvest on the land either, adding to the foolishness of the purchase, according to relatives.
"Now, it's the most valuable piece of property in the township," Len added.
In the 1930s, Elinas purchased more land for the resort, and opened Valhalla in 1930. In 1946, he turned the property over to Len and his sister, Evelyn, to own and operate.
When he started the resort in 1930, he had a few fishing boats and built two cabins.
Valhalla, named for the Viking heaven, continued to grow.
Cabins were added in 1931, 1932, 1933, 1936, 1948 and 1950. All are still in use, several with rustic features of only cold water in the facility.
"People are enamored to use those," Len said.
The last few built have modern features.
Valhalla translates from Norwegian to "valiant hall."
"Simply, it's the heaven of Vikings when they died in battle," Norma Jean said. "Evidently that's what his father thought of this place when he came here."
Some of the changes
Don't plan on the log cabins having all the modern conveniences of home anytime soon. When they were built, the lake was 11 feet lower than it is today. That, of course, brought the cabins 11 feet closer to the lake, some now only 10 to 15 feet from the shore.
With them being so close, building restrictions wouldn't allow additions, and Len said they can't afford to lose the bedroom space in the cabins to turn one or part of a bedroom into a bathroom.
Other changes over the years encompass telephones, electricity and refrigeration. Years ago, there was a phone at the dock and one at the house so boaters could call up to the house for supplies they had forgotten without having to walk to the office.
With no electricity in the beginning of the resort, Len would "put up" ice for refrigeration as well. In 1950, the cabins became equipped with fridges and electricity, but still one guest, Dr. William Long, one of the founders of Dakota Clinic, would ask ice be put up for his freezer box. Long leased one of the rustic cabins for 30-plus years.
Before Norma Jean's time at the resort, the cabins were all equipped with kerosene lamps, and would need to be filled each day. She said she's happy that was before her time at the resort.
And of course there were outhouses for cabins back then too.
Besides the physical changes of the resort, Len and Norma Jean have seen changes to land value and vacation time over the years.
The season has been cut short, with families returning by Labor Day because of school starting early.
The resort owners said they don't struggle too much with running the mom and pop operation, because there are fewer and fewer resorts to compete with each year.
"Our people just keep coming back," Norma Jean said. They added that word of mouth, Chamber of Commerce membership and now the Internet have been their best advertising strategies.
The only big financial challenge occurred a few years ago when tax assessments on resorts skyrocketed throughout the county. They hit Valhalla Resort, too.
In one year, taxes took 41 percent of the resort's gross income. Thankfully since then, taxes have been cut in half, and they say they have nothing to complain about now.
Len said that if the resort wasn't family-owned for so long and been passed on to him, he likely would have sold the land because of tax increases and the increasing value of the land, which he now estimates to be around $3 million.
Since Len is confined to a wheelchair, he can't do outdoor projects like he used to. Norma Jena has taken those over, stating she's "too active" in the day-to-day procedures. Len spends his time indoors corresponding with customers.
The couple's son, Steve, and his wife, and Len and Norma Jean's daughter, Tamie Jensen, and her son also help out with the resort.
Norma Jean used to wash and line-dry the linens, but she said, it's gotten to be too much and now has a laundry service take care of it. Norma Jean's fresh sheets even caught one man's attention, and the family comes back to have their fresh, line-dried sheets each summer, something Norma Jean says she tries to make an exception for and give him.
They have no plans to add onto the business. They hope their son, Steve, who helps with the resort, takes over the business one day, and then it'll be up to him if it's added onto or not.
"My fondest memory is sitting right there," Len said, motioning to his wife.
During his early time of running the resort, Len had what he classifies as his best experience with the resort. Norma Jean and her family lived in Indiana, but her father loved Minnesota fishing, so they came each year to Valhalla Resort.
"'I came one too many times to Minnesota,'" Norma Jean said her father used to say. He lost two of his daughters to Minnesota.
In 1956, Norma Jean married Len and moved from Indiana to help take up the family business.
In 1958, Len and Norma Jean bought out Len's sister, and sold off 20 acres of the land to pay for the transaction. Len said money was tighter then because "there were seven resorts on the lake at that time" and not a rush of customers.
Customers are not a problem nowadays, with a steady flow each season, and some into mid-October for hunting season.
Not that new customers aren't good, but it's the repeat customers that stick in Len and Norma Jean's minds.
One family has missed only four summers since they started coming in 1932. The parents came on their honeymoon, and over time, their daughter even worked at Valhalla Resort. And now children and grandchildren come stay at the resort.
"Some newer guests came, and when they left, they made reservations for next year. They said they didn't realize there was a place (like this) left in Minnesota," Norma Jena said of the wilderness setting.
Besides the rustic cabins, there are other signs that Valhalla isn't for extreme entertaining. There is a small playground for kids; no pool, just lake; no paved bike trails, just nature and hiking trails; no arcade, just a small "canteen" where guests can purchase a t-shirt to remind them of their time at Valhalla.
"There's no lodge besides our home," Len said. "No beer license or honky-tonk atmosphere."
The Grotneses keep journals in the cabins for visitors to share their experiences. As Norma Jean pages through, she comes across entries from longtime residents.
Like the airline pilots that have been visiting for 33 years. A group of four, and now three, have been coming every year. In the beginning, they came for "fishing when they were younger," she said. "Now they're content to sit and reminisce."
She said she is amazed by some of the people who enjoy their "Little House on the Prairie" cabins, as one little boy described them. People from college professors to architects love the rustic cabins. In the journals, they describe the place as "peace and quiet" and "close to God."
"These people that come back here get to be like family," Len said. "I guess that's one of the reasons we keep doing it."