Cullen Lakes and Nisswa Memories
by Mary Ryan
The Quinn Resort, now Good Ol’ Days, was owned by Bridget and James Quinn. Bridget Quinn, Aunt Bid, was my mother’s aunt. In 1933 my mother’s siblings and their families rented the Quinn lakeside cabin 1 and 2. It was a side by side with a connecting door. So, 1933 was my first time at Lower Cullen Lake. I have been on Lower Cullen every year since 1933 except for 1935, 1951 and 1952.
In 1934 our family rented Emily McCabe’s cabin and cute one room log cabin (now Benedict’s, across the creek from Good Ol’ Days). I was just 8 years old and walked across the rickety bridge daily to watch Uncle Jim Quinn build two boats. One was an easy task, a flat bottom boat. But the second boat, a regular round bottom boat, took many days. I remember that he soaked the wood slats in a trough of water so that they would be supple enough to round. I was fascinated watching but also intrigued by the lean-to ice house filled with 50 pound chunks of ice and thick saw dust to keep the ice insulated from the heat. The ice was kept frozen even in the record breaking heat of 1936. He had cut the ice during the winter and had enough to furnish his 14 cabins. The train tracks were just behind the resort and the McCabe cabin. The train ran a couple of times a day and once during the middle of the night. It blew its whistle a couple of blocks before crossing Poplar Road and nearly blew us out of our beds. The train tracks have been removed and replaced by the Paul Bunyan Trail. From our dock we liked seeing the train in the clearing on the southwest end of the lake.
In 1933 Dr. MacGibbon purchased land on Lower Cullen and built the existing MacGibbon cabin. In 1936 Jim Ryan, my dad, purchased land and built the Ryanland cabin on the north shore of Lower Cullen. They both purchased the land from Ralph Quinn, son of James and Bridget Quinn. Ralph Quinn still owned a parcel of land between MacGibbon’s and Ryan’s and eventually Dr. MacGibbon and Jim Ryan purchased the land so that now their two properties abut.
In 1936 the now Wilderness Point Resort was owned by Wayne and Mary Dietz, hence its former name, Way Ma Dee Point. Grandma Dietz is buried on the point.
From Highway 371 to Pine Acres Resort the road was very narrow, curvy and had very loose sand. We would honk the horn of our Model A Ford summer car to alert oncoming cars that we were approaching. The road from Pine Acres to Bailey’s was wider, firm gravel and had two small hills and one big hill, so going fast gave us a roller coaster thrill. Mr. Olson, from Olson Farm on County Road 107, worked for the county or township and scraped the sand roads after each rain. Just east of Pine Acres were three tall pine trees — and a great crappie fishing hole about 75 feet out from shore.
Pine Acres, like Quinns Resort, was a Ma and Pa resort. It had a homemade tennis court and ball field. I do not know when the cabins and land were sold off individually (editor’s note: 1961), but Mr. Loomer, a retired Industrial Arts teacher from Iowa owned John MacGibbon’s cabin before John. Mr. Loomer remodeled the Ryanland kitchen in fall of 1974 and spring of 1975. The Sherman cabin and Bolger cabins date to before 1936. The Bolgers had three daughters: Katherine, who used to put out buoys and swim laps daily; Betty, who married Ken Hirschey and built a cabin next to her dad’s cabin; and Virginia, who married Phil McGuire and took over the Bolger cabin. The McGuire’s second generation have built a larger cabin on the property. The full log cabin in the channel from Lower to Middle was built in 1936 or 1937.
On the east end of the lake was Swartwoods South View Resort, six or seven cabins that ran vertical to Lower Cullen and the property extended to lakeshore on Middle Cullen. Swartwood sold to Bedner who moved the cabins to face Middle Cullen and sold some of the lakeshore on Lower Cullen. The Rich and Dorothy Johnson home is on the former Bedner property and Dorothy is a daughter of the Bedners.
Dr. Rutherford built the red brick faced cabin on the east shore. He used the front room of the cabin as his doctor’s patient room. My sisters went across the lake for hay fever help.
The channel from Lower Cullen to Lake Nisswa was wider and very navigable by rowing or canoeing and even slow motoring after you got under the old 371 highway bridge. We screamed and covered our heads as we rowed through. Uncle Jim Quinn made a dam with rock and boards to hold the water level in the Cullens. Mr. Lundberg, who lived near the channel from Middle to Upper Cullen, during the dark of night, would pull out the boards to lower the water level and give his shoreline more land — or just to be ornery. After Uncle Jim died, Quinn daughters Emily and Marge ran the resort and cared for their mom, Aunt Bid. Aunt Bid died just before her 100th birthday. They sold the resort and it was renamed Sikaren.
A summer at the lake was not complete unless we boated to Gull Lake and had our picnic lunch on Lake Margaret. We always stopped at the same dock — the owners were never there — but year after year there would be a swarm of tiny baby bullheads in the shallow water.
There was a small bait store that sold minnows and worms and a very minimum of groceries, mainly milk and eggs. It was owned by Jimmy and Pauline Johnson. It was named Jimmy’s and was on old 371 just south of the channel to Lake Nisswa. They also sold ice which was in sawdust in the garage out back of the store. We often bought ice on Friday to augment our small propane gas operated refrigerator. We put the ice in a wash tub, covered it with gunny sacks and a rubber mat. It was our basement fridge. Why the propane fridge? Crow Wing Power Electric did not come to Wilderness Road until 1940 or 41. We had an Onan electric power machine on the hill operated by kerosene. We ran it sparingly, mainly to run our water pump. The telephone line went in about 1958. The first lines were party lines with one to three parties on a line. Each party had a different number of rings.
The real grocery store was Mahlum’s, where Lundrigans is now. It was small, about 20 x 25 feet, with the family home behind the store. They sold milk, bread, eggs, a minimum of canned goods and had a penny and nickle slot machine. The Rite Spot came much later, where Zaiser’s is now. Swanson’s store was across the railroad track, behind where the turtle races are now, and they sold next to nothing. We usually went to Brainerd on Thursday afternoon to do major grocery shopping and buy meat at Schaefer’s butcher shop, the forerunner and start of the present Schaefer’s grocery store.
Martin’s gas station was where the shops are now, including the Chocolate Ox. Jim and Ted Dullum worked at the station. Ted was about five years old and always wore a baseball cap. The boys’ dad’s first name was Martin. Gas was 25 cents a gallon and the boys checked the oil and tire pressure as routine service. Their mom, Florence Dullum, ran a small ice cream store and served five cent ice cream cones. Ice cream came in only three flavors: vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.
The Nisswa post office is where Adirondak is now, the same dark brown building. Vera Parks was the Post Mistress. Her husband was Dick Parks. He owned the propane store. The post office was like the front room of their home.
Eva and Bill Moran owned a full service, very nice restaurant with dinner and dancing music, located where Martin’s Sports is now. Morans also owned a couple of small cabins on Lower Cullen Lake, east of the Stone Container Corporation property, formerly Lennans. I think that they housed their orchestra there. Howard Wallentine, the original turtle race master, was Eva Moran’s nephew and owned the Totem Pole.
On old highway 371 there was a long white building called Wildwood Acres. They had a sign on the road that said Lake Street. On occasion we would boat over, tie our boat to a tree, climb the hill and buy a five cent ice cream cone. Once we bought a cone for our mother and it was completely melted by the time we
got home. On Middle Cullen, just east of Walleye Bay, was Brown’s Resort, later sold to Werner. Old man Werner drove an old pickup truck and he drove it fast. Our mom’s warning, “Watch out for Werner!” was given as we left for town. Werner sold the land and cabins individually.
The resorts had their name on their boats, but even boats with no name we could identify as to whose they were. Boating has really changed. Now fast speed boats, jet skis, and the leisurely family pontoons are at almost every dock. In 1936 and for many years, a Johnson nine horse was the biggest motor on the lake.
The Woog grandchildren, Harley Woog and Rich Gustafson came down from Middle Cullen and always ran out of gas in front of Ryanland, an excuse to see our sister Patty. One day they came with a homemade surfboard. Our dad wanted to try it and did. Just as they got up to speed the rope broke and the board hit and bloodied Dad’s nose. So that gave us an idea for our dad’s 4th of July birthday. We bought him a surfboard, with a bit of dollar help from our mother. I don’t know if Dad ever tried it, but we sure did! I got it out of storage last summer and our grandkids laughed at it and went back to their wake boards and knee boards.
Waterskiing followed the surfboard, then tubing and double tubing. In 1972 the MacGibbon crew of Baileys, MacGibbons, Conroys and the Ryanland crew of Ryans, Hurleys and Hufnagles skied 10 skiers pulled by Chuck Bailey in the Bailey boat. In 2011, the Ryanland 75th year celebration, our ski crew broke the record of 10 skiers and pulled 13 skiers all around the lake. Two of the 13 also were part of the 10 skiers in 1972. And can you believe it? We have three guys that barefoot ski and one gal, Dan’s daughter Kerry, in training.
You Middle Cullen folk listen up! How many of you are familiar with the Witches’ Castle, a “Who can spy it first?” as we excursioned to Middle Cullen. Last year it was hard to spot as the trees have nearly covered it over. We learned that it had been a gas station in Elk River. Maybe one of you owns it and doesn’t even know that it is the Witches’ Castle.
An excursion road was the road past the turn to Wilderness Point, a narrow rutted road that ended at the drivable bridge across the channel between Middle and Upper Cullen. We called it the excursion road because we always got stuck in the sand. The road has been closed to motorized traffic these last few years.
Our dad loved to take guests to Upper Cullen for a fishing expedition and an expedition it was! Upper was the Cullen for real fishermen. We helped load the boat: rods and reels, cane poles just in case the walleye were not biting, life preserver cushions, our own seined minnows, large minnows from Jimmy’s Bait Store, tackle box, fish net, gaff, small 3 horse motor for trolling, 9 horse motor on the boat to get them to Upper, and of course Mother sent them off with a lunch. They were ready for Upper. Coming home after dark was a trek, finding the channels by moonlight. We anxiously waited to see the catch — usually a few walleye, a northern or two and possibly a bass. It didn’t matter the catch — they had been to “Upper”.
Does anyone remember the bamboo fishing poles? Does anyone fish with one anymore? And what happened to the fireflies? Nights used to be filled with their light.
One summer during the early years of World War II (gas was rationed and unless you had a B or C ration card you did not have enough gas to make weekend trips to Nisswa) the Burlington Northern Railroad ran a Friday Night Special passenger train from downtown Minneapolis to Bemidji. It was called the Paul Bunyan Special. It left Minneapolis about 6:30 Friday evening and arrived in Nisswa about 10:00 p.m. It was really a big event. Lots of excitement. Fathers who worked all week took the train to join their vacationing families. Moran’s Restaurant band walked across the street to the depot and played as the train arrived. Our dad, Jim Ryan, took the train a couple of times, also Gordan Mangan. Mangan’s cabin was
on Lower Cullen between Quinn’s Resort and Crescent Beach, now Eagles Nest. Our family went to meet the train even when our dad was not on it. Big excitement for a Friday night. Side note: B and C ration cards were issued to defense workers and to people who worked nights where the street cars only ran to midnight.
The Billie Brown Legion Hall was formerly The Blazer. Our dad bought it in about 1941 and made a home and business for an old veteran friend, Tommy Thompson, and his wife, Nellie, who were down on their luck. Dad had 6 one room and bath cabins built on the rear of the lot. Tommy and Nellie were to run the restaurant and rent out the “overnight cabins”. In 1944, Dad had the present Legion parking lot turned into a large Victory Garden. Nels, the handyman from Quinn’s Resort tilled and planted the garden. We Ryanland gals were to be the weeders. Lucky me, I took a couple of summer classes at the U and left the weeding to my sisters, Patty and Phyllis. The fresh corn on the cob was the best. Dad didn’t want the local people to know that he owned The Blazer — he probably knew that Tommy couldn’t cook and didn’t want The Blazer to reflect on Dad’s Minneapolis restaurant, the Covered Wagon.
After a couple of years he sold it to two women, The Blondes. It never was much of a goer and they in turn sold it to the Legion Club.
Jack Brombach, as a college student, ran a boys’ camp for a year or two on his Lower Cullen property. The campers slept in the top of the boathouse. Jack sold part of the land for the public access, much to the disappointment of most of the Lower Cullen residents. Many of us met at Soteroplos’s to plan ways to defeat the access. Some of us drove to Nisswa for the “rigged” hearing on January 18 (note the date). “Rigged” because how many summer residents would make the trek on that snowy, very cold January night? Obviously our efforts were in vain. Personal observation, I think that the influx of weeds in our Cullen Lakes is a result of boats using the public access.
The MacGibbons owned a large sailboat, possibly an E class. John MacGibbon (Tom and John’s father) and their uncle George were good sailors. One late afternoon the boys were sailing and had their father, Dr. MacGibbon with them. A sudden burst of wind came up and the sailboat topsided. Mrs. MacGibbon hurried through the woods to the Ryan’s all out of breath, frantic and very white. She wanted us to take our motorboat out to help them. My remembrance is that she fainted. Phyllis remembers that Mother sent her in to get a glass of water and that she didn’t faint. The story ends with the sailors righting the boat before the Ryan rescue boat was only half way to them.
Labor Day Weekend of 1946, some of our college friends took our small rowboat out. The motor fell off the boat about 40 feet from the dock. The guys dove and dove for it but never found it. Many years later, the O’Shaughnessy boys pulled it up on their fish line or anchor. Home they went with it. Later we saw it at Martins service station being rejuvenated.
Yes, there have been many changes since my first visit to Lower Cullen in 1933. Many more cabins with families enjoying our lakes. Ryanland now enjoyed by the 5th generation. But some things remain the same. It still gives us a thrill to hear the sound of the loon. It’s fun to see the mother loon with its baby and maybe even two babies on its back, with daddy loon swimming guard nearby. Seeing the full orange moon come up over the opposite shore, and this year seeing the biggest moon ever, called a super moon. As the moon rises over the lake, its path on the lake is spectacular. Occasionally seeing the northern lights over the McGuire and Hirschey cabins. Swimming in the clean cool lake. Listening to the rain on the roof.
All of us Cullen Lakers are blessed!