Sweet Summer Daze

Fair Hills Resort
Fair Hills Resort
Fair Hills Resort

We were delighted with the following article published in The Forum on July 07, 2007. (And we thank them for permission to reprint!)

Sweet summer daze
Melinda Rogers, The Forum
Published Saturday, July 07, 2007

Dave Kaldahl doesn’t mind when people compare Fair Hills resort to the movie “Dirty Dancing.”

After all, the fictional film shares an uncanny resemblance to the real
81-year-old family-owned resort that Kaldahl has spent the majority of his life running on Pelican Lake near Detroit Lakes, Minn.

There are rustic cabins, a string of family classes such as dance, water skiing and yoga as well as a campy musical review in which visitors sing along to tunes such as “The Monotone Lawnboy” at the appropriately named “Hootenanny” every Tuesday.

The movie’s plot is a throwback to a different time when summer resorts were the place families went to unwind and reconnect.

Fair Hills’ storyline over the years has relied on the same premise. The resort draws a steady base of customers from around the world in search of an experience adults remember from their own childhoods.

“So many people have told me, and I’ve seen the movie, too, that this resort is exactly like the movie ‘Dirty Dancing,’ ” Kaldahl said.

“There’s a lot of staff, and they put on shows. They do interact with the guests a lot. There used to be a lot of those resorts where ‘Dirty Dancing’ supposedly took place – those have just about all died out.”

Kaldahl isn’t exaggerating.

Sixty years ago the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” housed 4,000 resorts.

But in an age in which Disney cruises and trips to big-city amusement parks can be as economical as packing the suitcases for the Northwoods, old-fashioned summer resorts in Minnesota are increasingly becoming a distant memory.
The number of summer resorts in the North Star state has dwindled to 867, according to Pat Simmons, a research analyst for Explore Minnesota, the state’s St.Paul-based tourism agency.

Explore Minnesota began tracking resort data in 2002. That year summer resorts in the state numbered 1,109, Simmons said. In 2007, resort counts have further dropped. Myriad factors contribute to the state’s decline in summer resorts, Simmons said. The rising demand for lakeshore properties has put more demands on resort owners for property taxes as their land values have increased, he said.

Also, people today are looking for different amenities in a resort than they were 60 years ago. Many resorts that folded lacked amenities, Simmons said. So what helps Fair Hills buck the trend?

The resort offers what few places in America these days can: a refuge with no televisions where families play games or talk together on the resort’s lakeshores.

It’s a place where families can eat together three times a day in a dining hall and can avoid phone calls if they want to.
“I really think that Fair Hills slows people down a little bit,” said Beth Kaldahl Schupp, Dave Kaldahl’s daughter, who manages the resort full time. “There are a million things to do here, of course, but people can do them at the same place.”

History of a vacation spot

Fair Hills was born in 1926 when Kaldahl’s grandfather, Ed, decided to take a stab at owning a resort. Ed Kaldahl bought the property from a bank that had foreclosed on the resort. Kaldahl arrived to find the previous owners had sold the property’s belongings in an auction.

Owning nothing but empty cabins, minus linens and the pots and pans he was expecting, Ed Kaldahl tried to back out of the deal. He drafted a letter to the bank, but then he visited the resort on a pristine sunny day. Enchanted by Pelican Lake’s beauty, Kaldahl never mailed the letter. Dave Kaldahl’s parents took over the resort, and he started full time at the facility after graduating from Concordia College in Moorhead in 1954.

He said he never considered another profession but owned a carpentry business on the side to help make ends meet. “What a great job it is. Being here on a day like this?” said Dave Kaldahl, pausing as he gestured to sunny skies glittering off Pelican Lake’s waters.

He and wife Barbara ran the resort for years until daughter Beth Kaldahl Schupp took over four years ago.

Fair Hills is one of few “American Plan” resorts left in the nation. The “American Plan” concept means families eat meals at a nearby dining hall that churns out 900 to 1,000 meals a day, Kaldahl said.

Fair Hills has 100 cabins and this week will reach its full capacity of 230 customers with Fourth of July traffic.
The resort employs more than 100 people each summer, including positions at the Wildflower Golf Course and Five Lakes Resort, a quieter vacation spot also owned by the Kaldahls.

Changing with the times

While Fair Hills relies on its tradition to keep customers coming back, the resort has changed some to draw a fresh customer base. Large resorts near Bay Lake and Gull Lake in northern Minnesota offer the most competition, Kaldahl said.
Fair Hills started as a fishing refuge. Now hardly anyone fishes, Kaldahl said. There’s a stock of boats and water sport supplies on hand.

The resort increased its list of family activities and extended its season. Fair Hills used to open in mid-June and closed Labor Day. Now the resort opens May 1 and hosts the Pelican Rapids, Minn., prom and other weddings, conferences and events. Fair Hills stays open through Oct. 1.

It’s a challenge to keep the business afloat, Kaldahl said. Buildings need constant upkeep while revenue flows in at specific times of the year, he said. Kaldahl supplemented the resort’s revenue by running a carpentry business on the side. That endeavor helped Fair Hills pay the bills when resort revenue slowed for five months, he said.

Data from Explore Minnesota shows that those who do choose to vacation at Minnesota resorts such as Fair Hills contribute to a hefty chunk of tourism spending. A recent report from the agency that tracked 12-month spending from June 2005 through May 2006 found of the $11.8 billion in total traveler spending during that period, $872 million was done by people linked to vacationing at resorts.

Summer treat at a retreat

Fair Hill’s recipe for relaxation hooked 88-year-old Jeraldine C. Struthers from the first time she visited in 1926.
Then a Fargo school girl, her family came back periodically throughout her childhood. She returned for her 80th birthday and has visited several times since then.

Struthers, who now lives in Oak Park Heights, Minn., said she enjoys Fair Hills’ spirit. She spends her vacations there swimming, reading and visiting relatives who live close by. “Of all the places I’ve been, and I did end up going around the world at one point in my life, it’s the spirit here that is like no place I’ve ever been,” she said. “This is my home.”

Stories like Struthers’ make the Kaldahls happy. About 75 percent of Fair Hills’ customers are repeat visitors. Families that keep coming back generally have children ages 4 to 14, Kaldahl said. Schupp said she’s able to recognize families from year to year and keeps tabs on children as they grow. She met her own husband at Fair Hills when the two were playmates as children.

“The kids get acquainted. There’s nothing like a 12-year-old girl playing with another 12-year-old girl from another city and they write all year long,” Kaldahl said. “You know those kids are going to drag their parents back whether the parents want to come back or not,” Kaldahl said with a laugh.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Melinda Rogers at (701) 241-5524
 Photos by Bruce Crummy / The Forum