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Resorts have rich history in area: But number of resorts continues to slide

Alexander and William Kinkead built a cabin on the shore of Lake Agnes in 1858, ushering in an era of resorts, hotels and lake homes for those seeking rest and relaxation.

Although area lakes still draw in a lot of tourists, the number of resorts has declined over the years.

Bruce Olson, who was the executive director of the Legacy of the Lakes Museum in Alexandria for a dozen years, remembers how many resorts were in Douglas County when he as a UPS driver in the 1970s. He said that in the Three Havens area alone (between lakes Carlos and L'Homme Dieu) there were 11 "mom and pop" resorts. Now those are all gone, he said.

"I think those days are pretty much over," said Olson, who now works part time as director of special projects at the museum.

Olson explained that resorting in the area really started with the grand hotels in the early 1880s. One of the first was the Letson House (now the Alexson Apartments) on Sixth Avenue West in Alexandria. The first train had arrived in Alexandria in 1878, and the depot was only a few blocks from the Letson House, making it a convenient place for travelers.

According to a display at the Legacy of the Lakes Museum, "The Letson house became the center of summertime activity in the area for locals and paying visitors alike, with fishing boats and shore picnics standard fare, and extravagant banquets and glorious balls helping patrons pass the time."

James Letson, owner of the Letson House, soon built a resort hotel on the south end of Lake Geneva. Opening in 1883, it was first known as Hotel Alexandria, and later became the Geneva Beach Hotel.

Another grand hotel, Hotel Blake — located between lakes Carlos and L'Homme Dieu — was built in the early 1900s and included lawn tennis, a bowling alley and a bath pavilion.

"It was a different clientele," Olson said, noting that at the time it was mostly wealthy people from across the country who stayed at the resorts, often for the whole summer.

Other smaller resorts and fishing clubs followed and the area soon became known as a summer resort destination.

Olson explained that the early resorts had an important role in the development of the lakes area economy by both providing employment and bringing new people here.

"It sold people on the community," he said.

As Douglas County communities grew in the early 1900s, tourism remained strong, and wealthy people begin building summer homes on the shores of area lakes. However, it wasn't until the 1950s, after World War II, that smaller resorts aimed at the middle-class really begin to flourish, Olson explained. These resorts gave more people the chance to experience life at the lake.

"They had their own little cabin for a week," he said.

However, three or four decades later when many of the resort owners reached retirement age, Olson said it was often more profitable for them to sell the real estate than the resort itself.

According to data from the Minnesota Department of Revenue, there were 64 resorts in Douglas County in 1985 and 71 resorts by 1993. However, in the next nearly-quarter century from 1993-2016, the number of resorts in the county had dropped to only 24. That represents a loss of 66 percent over a 23-year span.

The disappearance of resorts was not confined to Douglas County, but was symptomatic of a trend that was seen across Minnesota. In 1985, the state boasted 1,378 resorts. Similarly, the number of resorts in the state dropped by 46 percent, from 1,378 in 1985 to 740 by 2016.

Greg Bowen, owner of Brophy Lake Resort and a member of the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce board, said that despite the trend, the future looks bright for resort owners who want to stick with it and work hard. In addition, he said the whole community benefits from the resorts because every week new people are in town shopping, and buying food, gas and other services.

But for Olson, who has spent many of his days in a museum dedicated to the glory days of resorts and boating, it's kind of sad to see how things have progressed over the years.

"I think the trend that we've been seeing over the last 20 years is going to continue," he said.

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