Winter trails to open at Maplelag, family uses donations to help displaced employees
Future of Maplelag lodge uncertain after devastating October fire
DETROIT LAKES — Fresh snowfall provided some form of normalcy for Jay Richards and his family. With several inches of snowfall in the past week, they were able to begin grooming ski and bike trails at Maplelag Resort in Callaway.
A few months ago, they watched a fire reduce the gallant 54,000-square-foot lodge at the family-owned resort to ash.
“We’re doing OK,” Richards said. “It was a very traumatic event and we’re taking it as expected; taking time to process and grieve. It was – is – such a shock and it is still very hard to understand what happened.”
The state fire marshal Deputy Communications Director Jen Longaecker stated “the fire is still under investigation.”
Richards recalled housekeeping saw smoke first appear in the laundry room area, and suspects that is where the end of an era began.
Richards, who lives at the resort, did not have his home or the rental cabins damaged by the fire. However, the lodge, where events were held and meals were prepared, is gone. He explained, their rentals included meals and because the cabins don’t have kitchenettes, the reservation deposits are being returned.
“Luckily, we back up our entire (computer) system to an external source,” he said, noting that practice was put in place because there was a chance that a computer may crash. “We’ve received a lot of support from our guests. We have so many repeat customers and many have been coming for almost 40 years; since day one. They are like family to us.”
Other people who are like family to the Richards, are the employees of Maplelag. The resort employs 31 people. The fire took their jobs.
When Lakeshirts, a Detroit Lakes business, created a T-shirt and donated funds from the shirt sales to the Richards, he was left as speechless as when resort guests started a GoFundMe page for them.
“My family was very touched by the kindness and support,” he said, adding the generous donations are being used to help the staff members who were displaced. “And some of the funds we want to use to hold an appreciation dinner for the first responders.”
There were 11 fire departments that responded to fight the fire shortly after 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 10.
Jim and Mary Richards purchased Maplelag, along with five others, almost a half-century ago. In 1973 the Richards decided to leave behind city life and moved to the Callaway property with their two children — Jay and Debbie. The family harvested maple syrup and began offering lodging in 1974, as others were interested in taking a vacation to harvest nature’s sweet treat.
In time, the resort became known for hosting Concordia College’s Language Village program and for its trails. Additional property was purchased (totaling almost 660 acres) and more trails were added.
In 1997, Jay Richards, his wife Jonell, and their son Jake moved to Maplelag, where they later welcomed sons, Jon, Jack and Jens.
The two Maplelag Resort founders now live in Detroit Lakes and handed the reins over to the second generation about 12 years ago. While the elders have stepped back from the business, Jay Richards said they are also struggling with the loss of the lodge as they lost many keepsakes in the fire.
“A whole life of memories were lost,” he said. “They are having a difficult time, like all of us.”
The family is uncertain if the lodge will rise again. Richards noted the family lived through the original lodge being burned down in 1999, due to a boiler fire. But, those were different times, and rebuilding now is uncertain.
“I think I was 29 when the first lodge fire happened,” he said. “My wife and I were working here then for a few years.”
Just like the second fire, the resort was blessed with no injuries. However, after dedicating their life to the resort the past 24 years, the loss this time around “hit way harder than last time,” he said.
“Last time, there was no question that we would rebuild,” Richards recalled. “We started planning right away and quickly had hope, and a future to look forward to. But, it’s not like it was before. Now, it is so much more complex and we are not 100% sure (what the future plans are).”
Rising costs are one reason rebuilding the lodge is uncertain. However, he said the family has begun considering different options, such as rebuilding a lodge on a smaller scale. However, he emphasized the future is uncertain.
The only certainty at this time seems to be that the trails will be open this winter. Richards said the resort will be utilized similarly to “the COVID season” when no services were available, but day skiing (classical and skate ski), snowshoeing and fat bike riding will be available.
Ski trail season passes can be purchased on the resort’s website. Funds from the passes help pay for equipment, maintenance costs for preparing the trails, as well as property taxes.
“It took a week to collect ourselves after the fire,” he said. “But, working on the trails, and still being able to do that, gave us a little normalcy.”
The Richards are also looking into converting an outlying building as a warming house and restroom for those that use the trails.