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DL’s original power couple

Being the first to realize the tourism potential of Detroit Lakes back in the 1880s, John K. West befriended Detroit Lakes pioneer E.G. Holmes, and the two developed the Minnesota Hotel in 1883. Photo provided by the Becker County Museum1 / 4
John K. West took part in a pastime that has become quite popular in the lakes are - fishing. Photo provided by the Becker County Museum2 / 4
Photo provided by the Becker County Museum3 / 4
Photo provided by the Becker County Museum4 / 4

On just about any given summer Friday afternoon when Highway 10 coming into town is packed, the aroma of barbeque everything is floating through the air and area businesses are bustling with energetic shoppers, it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when tourism didn’t make the world go around in the Detroit Lakes area.

But it’s true. Roll back to October of 1881 when the town – then called “Detroit” – was only 10 years old.

“Nobody ever wanted to go down to the lake because it was swampy and full of bugs… there were only a couple of roads that even led down to it,” said Amy Degerstrom, director of the Becker County Historical Society.

But that fall, change was in the air.

That’s because a man named John Kingsbury West had just came riding into town with his wife, Jessie.

West, an established entrepreneur from Massachusetts, had a knack for seeing what could be.

“And what he noticed when he got here was the fact that Detroit had both a railroad and a great natural resource with all of the lakes,” said Degerstrom, who says West was the first person who could see the tourism potential in Detroit.

“Not ‘come here, buy land and stay’, but come here and visit and enjoy yourself,” said Degerstrom.

The railroad already provided the way in, so West befriended another well-known historical pioneer in Becker County – E.G. Holmes – to give them a place to stay.

Together, they built the crown jewel of Detroit – a place that would pull in visitors from all over the country; a place known for its beautiful, grand Victorian architecture and its modern amenities such as running water in the kitchen.

In 1883, the Minnesota Hotel opened up, boasting 60 guest rooms and a dining room that held 100 people.

The hotel itself may have been a destination spot, but West wanted people to start exploring the lakes as well, which is why the hotel was built on the corner of Washington Avenue and Frazee Street – which were then the outskirts of town.

“His reasoning was that he wanted people to use the lake,” said Degerstrom. “So in order to promote that, he worked with a few other fellows to develop the Pelican Valley Navigation Company.”

In 1896, the newly designed system of canals and locks that connected big and little Detroit Lakes with lakes Melissa and Sallie became a hot spot for steamboat passengers wanting to explore.

Other Becker County residents caught on to this new idea of tourism, and small resorts started popping up along the steamboat routes.

West, which Degerstrom describes as a one-man chamber of commerce as he printed off brochures of Detroit to send with train passengers, helped promote the new little resorts as well – for a cut of the profit, of course.