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How Minnesota marketed itself to tourists in the century before World War II

Three key developments fueled the growth of Minnesota’s tourism industry in the early Twentieth Century: increased leisure time for the middle class, the automobile, and a Back to Nature Movement that encouraged city-dwellers to escape into wilderness settings.

image of brochure cover depicting golf and lake swimming
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Cover of "Minnesota’s Ten Thousand Lakes: the Nation’s Summer Playground" brochure, ca. 1926. From “Pamphlets relating to lakes in Minnesota, 1900–” (F604.3), pamphlets collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Minnesota’s scenic beauty, more than 11,000 lakes, and favorable summer climate have attracted tourists for nearly 200 years. The tourism industry flourished between World War I and 1930, when Minnesota developed its reputation as the Land of 10,000 Lakes and one of the nation’s premier summer vacation destinations.

In 1835, artist George Catlin traveled from St. Louis to Fort Snelling by steamboat. He described the trip as “the Fashionable Tour”—one that provided travelers a “fair sample” of the “Far West.” During the 1840s several panoramas (large unwinding rolls of painted canvas) of the Upper Mississippi toured the East, and steamboat companies began advertising “pleasure excursions” to the Falls of St. Anthony (Owamniyomni).

In June 1854, former President Millard Fillmore led 1,200 prominent Easterners on “the Grand Excursion” celebrating the completion of the first railroad to reach the Mississippi River. Excursionists traveled by train to Rock Island, Illinois, before taking five steamboats to St. Paul, where they visited the Falls of St. Anthony and Fort Snelling.

In the 1850s, Minnesota became a summer haven for wealthy Southerners seeking to escape the heat and diseases that plagued the South. Accompanied by enslaved people, many stayed at the Winslow House, an elegant five-story resort hotel that opened on the east side of St. Anthony Falls in 1857. The Winslow House closed in 1861 with the outbreak of the Civil War.

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Following the war, railroads supplanted steamboats as the primary means of tourist transportation and promoted Minnesota as a summer resort destination. Lake Minnetonka, White Bear Lake, and Alexandria developed as resort destinations.

Lake Minnetonka was “The Queen of Minnesota’s Resorts.” Several dozen lodging facilities opened on the lake in the 1870s and 1880s, including three grand hotels built between 1879 and 1882: the Lake Park Hotel (Excelsior), the Hotel St. Louis (Northome), and the Lafayette Hotel (Minnetonka Beach). The grandest was the 300-room Lafayette Hotel designed by Leroy S. Buffington for James J. Hill and his St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad. Wealthy tourists, many from the South, enjoyed fishing, picnicking, steamboat excursions, daily concerts, lawn and indoor games, and socializing on hotel verandas. Lake Minnetonka’s tourism industry declined following the financial Panic of 1893. By the end of World War I, only six resorts were still operating.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, outdoorsmen discovered Minnesota’s lake country. Many early resorts began when settlers were called on to host parties of fishermen. The Ruttger family is Minnesota’s most noteworthy example. In the late 1890s, Joseph and Josephine Ruttger, homesteaders on Bay Lake, began providing boats, sleeping accommodations, and meals to anglers who arrived at the Deerwood train station. As their reputation spread, the Ruttgers and their four sons embraced the tourism industry. During the 1930s the family operated five Minnesota resorts. As of 2020, Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge is the oldest Minnesota resort operated by its founding family.

Three key developments fueled the growth of Minnesota’s tourism industry in the early Twentieth Century: increased leisure time for the middle class, the automobile, and a Back to Nature Movement that encouraged city-dwellers to escape into wilderness settings. The creation of the Minnesota (name changed to Chippewa in 1928) and Superior National Forests in 1908 and 1909 helped foster Minnesota’s reputation as a North Woods destination. Government officials, regional boosters, Good Roads enthusiasts, resort pioneers, and real estate developers recognized that tourism presented a sustainable alternative to northern Minnesota’s declining lumber industry and unsuccessful attempts to farm the Cutover.

The automobile transformed American life during the first decades of the century. Between 1910 and 1930 the number of registered automobiles in America increased from 500,000 to twenty-six million. The automobile encouraged a sense of adventure and spread the advantages of tourism from society’s elite to the middle class. Auto trips and auto-camping became a popular pastime, and Minnesota communities eager to attract tourists opened municipal campgrounds.

Before the creation of national and state highway systems in the 1920s, Good Roads enthusiasts “blazed” named highways. Many out-of-state tourists arrived by way of two famous national trails: the Jefferson Highway (New Orleans to Winnipeg) and the Yellowstone Trail (Boston to Seattle). In 1921, Minnesota had twenty-eight registered automobile trails. Road construction opened northern Minnesota to recreational development, and by 1930, Minnesota boasted 2,600 miles of paved roads, up from 183 in 1921.

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Prior to World War I, railroads played the leading role in promoting Minnesota as a summer vacationland. When the federal government nationalized railroads during the war, railroads ceased advertising the state’s recreational opportunities. Civic organizations and tourism boosters led by Patrick H. McGarry, a resort owner and state senator from Walker, filled the void by creating the Ten Thousand Lakes of Minnesota Association in 1917. Funded by contributions from more than fifty communities, the association undertook a national campaign in 1918, placing ads in major Midwest newspapers and in a dozen national magazines. In 1919, the state legislature created the Land and Lakes Attraction Board. Its annual appropriation of $15,000 (later increased to $50,000) helped fund the association’s annual advertising campaign.

Tourism exploded following World War I. The number of out-of-state tourists increased from approximately 17,000 in 1917 to nearly one-and-a half million in 1930. Spending by out-of-state tourists grew from approximately $937,000 in 1917 to an estimated eighty-seven million dollars in 1929. The number of resorts increased from about 200 in 1917 to 1,275 in 1931 and then to more than 2,500 in 1940. Many resorts simply consisted of a few housekeeping cabins; others took on the classic configuration of a rustic lodge/dining hall with sleeping cabins. In the late 1910s and 1920s many larger resorts, especially in the Brainerd area, began offering recreational activities for the entire family, including golf, boating, tennis, swimming with waterwheels and waterslides, dancing, children’s programs, and gambling. Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge added a nine-hole golf course in 1921, a log dining hall in 1922, and the Green Lantern Dance Hall in 1925.

In the 1910s and 1920s, real estate developers—many from the Twin Cities—platted lakeshore properties for cabin sites. They often built resorts to entertain potential buyers. The Baker-Seaton Realty Company built Grand View Lodge (later listed on the National Register of Historic Places) in 1921 as part of its Gull Lake Park development. In 1920, Thorpe Brothers platted lakeshore on Itasca County’s Deer Lake, built Pinehurst Lodge, and marketed its development in Tulsa, Oklahoma, selling lots and building cabins on what became known as Oklahoma Hill.

By the 1930s, Minnesota promoted itself as “The Summer Playground of the Nation.” As an important part of the state’s economy, tourism provided employment for thousands of area residents, cash markets for area farmers, business for local merchants, and tax revenues for state and local governments.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.