James Reid Ballentine set the wheels in motion 100 years ago. A century later it has come full circle.
That circle continues to grow as the years go by - in strength, in numbers and in family ties. And it is a secluded piece of land on the shores of Lake Darling that has perpetuated its orbit.
Bordering what is now the Alexandria Golf Club, this peaceful sanctuary was the beginning of a tradition that has kept a family together, despite time and geography.
Eventually, this picturesque haven would become known as "Camp Ballentine" - a place that many generations to come would one day call home.
James Ballentine came to Minnesota from Nova Scotia, Canada in 1871. He first settled near Lowry and later bought land near Lake Winona and then in Alexandria Township.
He and his wife, Anna Watson Kennedy, had five daughters and three sons. The eldest was born in 1862 and the youngest in 1879. Anna died in 1888.
In 1892, Ballentine purchased 80 acres of land on Lake Darling for $2,000. He and his family moved into the farmhouse located there. Before his death in 1901, he arranged to leave several acres of the lakeshore property to his eight children.
Thus, the Camp Ballentine circle was set in motion.
Alexandria history takes its course
In 1908, Ballentine's lakeshore property was officially platted into eight sections - one for each of his children.
In the meantime, the farmhouse and a section of the Ballentine land were sold to an outside party, who in turn sold it to the Alexandria Golf Club, which incorporated in 1915. The original Ballentine farmhouse is now the present site of the golf club's clubhouse.
"Below [the clubhouse] there is still some old stone from the original farmhouse," said Mary McElwain Owen, one of Ballentine's great-granddaughters and a summer resident of Camp Ballentine.
Today's front nine of the Alexandria Golf Club was once part of the property owned by Ballentine.
But the eight plats left along the lakeshore for his children remained in the family - and still do - 100 years later.
Through the years
The first cottage at Camp Ballentine was built in 1911 for $800. It was soon followed by five others.
"My mother's generation were the ones who were the first generation to be raised here as kids," Mary said.
She and her sister-in-law, Ruth McElwain, sat on the porch of the Owens' cabin on a recent sunny July day and reminisced about the history of the place they love so much.
Ruth is married to Mary's brother, James McElwain, Ballentine's great-grandson. Like the Owens, Ruth and James spend their summers at Camp Ballentine and reside in Florida during the winter.
"I'm here by marriage. I'm an outlaw," Ruth said as she and Mary shared a laugh. "The outlaws rule the camp."
The two women explained that as each of Ballentine's eight children had children of their own, the property was passed along to them, and then on to their children.
"Every bit of the property is still in the family, plus more," Mary said, referring to one more plat that was added to the original eight 30 years ago.
There are now nine cottages at Camp Ballentine - six of them the original homes that have been added on to and remodeled.
After a few minutes of calculations, finger counting, and writing down names, the women determined that today, there are 72 direct descendants of the Ballentines who frequent the camp - most of them occasional visitors June through October. Two descendants have year-round homes - Jim Wirth and his son, Tyler Wirth. Others are full-time summer residents.
"It's been a love of this place that keeps drawing us back," Jim said. "Most of us as children who traveled here and experienced each other as young cousins have a profound love of Alexandria and this place. I couldn't wait to move here."
To the Camp Ballentiners, it's more than being lucky enough to have a beautiful lakeshore getaway to which to escape. It's about the bond that the family has because of it.
"I'm closer to my third cousins than most people are to their first cousins," Mary said. Then she pointed to the children frolicking in the water by the dock and added, "These kids are close to their fifth cousins."
"She's just like my sister," Ruth agreed as she put an arm around her sister-in-law. "It's been a wonderful situation."
A centennial celebration
A couple years ago, a few of the die-hard campers decided that in 2008 they needed to celebrate the 100th year anniversary of the beginning of Camp Ballentine.
Months of organization culminated in a huge Ballentine reunion held July 23 to 26. From a 9-week-old baby to an 82-year-old man; from as far away as Hong Kong to as close as the camp itself, 83 family members (including "outlaws") traveled back to where it all began to celebrate.
The four-day soiree included a welcome picnic, golf and fishing tournaments, baseball and volleyball games, poker, boating, burying a time capsule, and a family dinner at the Alexandria Golf Club.
"I think it's exciting that we could get this many people together," Mary said at the picnic the first day. "This land is the key in bringing us together."
"This is the first time I've seen everybody in one place at the same time," Jim Wirth agreed. "It's the first time we've all, or at least as many as possible, have been together. Everybody who could come did."
There was only one thing missing from the reunion - a Ballentine.
"No one has the last name of Ballentine any more," Mary lamented. "That's the sad part."
And so it goes
Although the name hasn't carried on, Camp Ballentine has, and will continue to do so. Written into the deed of each plat is the agreement that if an owner chooses to sell, it has to be sold to a family member.
"There is so much interest within the family for this land that I don't think it will ever leave the family," Mary said.
Tyler Wirth, who is "picking up the banner" for his generation, agrees.
"It needs to go on," he insisted.
And so it will.
Last week at the place that is so close to their hearts, the Camp Ballentiners all gathered together to celebrate. Some of them played together as children. Some have known each other for years. And others just met for the first time. But they all have common ground - and it's on Lake Darling.
They clasped their hands together, bowed their heads in thanks, and formed a circle - a circle that started a century ago.