An Informal History of Gunflint Lodge and Outfitters
Gunflint Lodge has been in existence for over 75 years and we thought you might enjoy reading about some of the historical highlights of the lodge and the multiple generations of Kerfoots who have run it.
Mrs. Doris Blankenburg and her son, Russell started Gunflint Lodge in 1925. The Blankenburgs were originally from Chicago, and at that time owned a resort called Light House Lodge in northern Wisconsin. One summer some of the guests commented that the next summer they would be going up to a new area just opening up in northern Minnesota. The name of the area was the Gunflint Trail.
Russell decided to come to the Gunflint Trail area and look around. As a result of this trip, he urged his mother to buy a piece of land on Gunflint Lake, which was the end of the Trail at that time. She bought Gunflint, but after a couple of years of operation, Mrs. Blankenburg felt that operating two resorts in two states stretched her too thin. She put Gunflint Lodge up for sale. One of Mrs. Blankenburg's friends from Illinois was Mrs. Mae Spunner. Her husband, George, had given the Blankenburgs advice on the purchase of their Wisconsin resort. When Gunflint Lodge was put on the market, Mrs. Spunner expressed interest in purchasing it.
Mae Spunner brought her daughter, Justine, up with her to discuss the purchase of the resort with Dora Blankenburg. While the two women finalized the purchase of the resort, Justine took her first canoe trip with a college friend and a guide. The trip was down the Granite River to Saganaga Lake. At the time Justine had just finished her undergraduate work at Northwestern University and hoped to become a physician. While in school, Justine had agreed to come up during the summers and help her mother run the resort.
The two Spunner women purchased a very small lodge building with a store carrying supplies for the Indians and fishing tackle for the guests plus a dining room to serve meals. They also bought three log guest cabins, an owner's cabin, and a small staff cabin. The resort had neither indoor plumbing nor electric service. Telephone service was also a dream for the future. At this point in time there were no canoe outfitters in the wilderness.
Justine wrote about the immediate improvements her mother made. "Mother made arrangements locally to enlarge the lodge by having an extension built on one side complete with a large fireplace for a lounge and an extension built on the other side with a fireplace and dining room. This also called for changes in the kitchen. Beside the changes in the lodge structure, George Bayle was hired to build tables and chairs from local trees – primarily birch that furnished the new additions. All of the table tops were mounted on large roots." An indication of Mrs. Spunner's priorities at that time is shown by the fact that both of these additions faced the incoming road, not the lake. Two more cabins and a boat house were also added at this time.
The summer of 1930 was the two women's first season at Gunflint. Mrs. Spunner acted as the resort hostess, wrote the correspondence, planned the meals and supervised the staff. Justine ordered the supplies, paid the bills, and kept the equipment in good repair. Keeping equipment in repair was a new experience for Justine. When asked how she learned to fix motors, Justine replied, "I took them apart and looked at them."
From the very first Justine developed a close relationship with her Indian neighbors. They came over to shop in her small store and she employed them at the resort. They guided fishermen, cleaned cabins, waited tables, and took care of her children. Eventually Justine would win the trust of the local Indian families. It was a two-way street. They shared their knowledge of the woods with her and she helped them deal with the outside world. She even delivered one of their babies. The most important part of this long-lasting relationship was a mutual trust and respect.
In 1930 Mrs. Spunner bought an island on Saganaga Lake for an outpost camp. A lodge and one cabin were built on the island that year. There were also tents on platforms for the guests to sleep in. The island resort was called Saganaga Lodge. Guests at Saganaga Lodge canoed down the Granite River from Gunflint with a guide and spent a night or so on the island to fish on Saganaga. At the end of their trip they would be met by a lodge vehicle on Seagull Lake and driven back to Gunflint. This island outpost would eventually be a casualty of the depression.
By 1933 the depression had severely hit the Spunner family and they were forced to give up their home in Illinois and move permanently to Gunflint. This had never been in the plans. Justine put off her continuing education at Northwestern and her dreams of a medical career for a year and then one more year and then forever. Luckily by this time she had fallen in love with the Northwoods.
Also in 1933 Bill Kerfoot, son of the president of Hamline University, arrived on the Gunflint Trail. The depression had cut short his plans of a career in the foreign service. Bill camped on the sand beach at the west end of Gunflint. He was eager for any job at any rate of pay. Justine finally took him on for room and board. According to a friend at the time, she decided he was "good with the guests." In September, 1934, Bill and Justine were married.
With two of them working together more projects around the resort could be accomplished. In 1935-36 they built themselves a log cabin home after a learning experience on a smaller building. That cabin would be Justine's home until her death in 2001. Several more cabins were added. They started sending out a newsletter to past guests around 1937-38. Bill would do the writing and Justine was the illustrator. An old mimeograph machine cranked out the copies. A large building housing a gift shop/trading post with three small units was added in the early 1940's. The outfitting of parties for canoe trips in the wilderness continued and expanded.
During those early years the guests were fishermen and hunters. Spring, early summer and fall were the busy times as these groups of primarily men came up for a stay at the lodge. Another group of guests came from outing clubs like the Prairie Club of Chicago. The outing clubs took over the entire resort while they spent a week or so canoeing, swimming and hiking. Gradually a few men brought their wives up to enjoy the fishing and scenery. The next step came when these couples returned with their families. Even during the worst of the depression and World War II, there were people taking vacations.
After the war, the resorts in the area felt the pressure to modernize. Old 32-volt generators were replaced by army surplus 120-volt generators. The resorts started a telephone company. Adding indoor plumbing became necessary. Justine drew plans of the cabins and went to Montgomery Wards. From her plans the store employees drew up a plumbing system and sold her all that was needed to install it. Justine went home and learned through practical experience to be a plumber. Wood stoves were replaced with "modern" fuel oil stoves. An army surplus field telephone system was installed between buildings.
Generally the resort business prospered during these years of the late forties and early fifties. After the tight depression and war years, people had money and time to spend again. The growing Kerfoot children (Bruce, Pat, and Sharon) were able to take some of the load off Bill and Justine. Improvements to the main lodge and cabins progressed at a steady pace.
In June of 1953 disaster struck! The main lodge caught fire and burned to the ground. Justine reacted to this event just as she had to the depression. She was not about to give up all she had worked so hard for. The morning after the fire, the Kerfoot cabin was transformed into a substitute lodge. In one corner was a small store with pop and candy. A cigar box run on the honor system became the cash register. Tables and benches went into the living room to transform it into a dining room.
Work started on the new lodge as soon as the fire debris was cleaned up. Everyone worked like they never had before. Workdays lengthened. Coffee breaks were unheard of. Incoming guests were greeted from the top of a ladder. Some guests came in after a day of fishing and picked up a hammer to help for a bit. The building quickly took shape. The new lodge went into operation in August. It wasn't complete but it was functional. The floor was sub-floor planks. The walls had no paneling. There were no fireplaces. Oak floors, paneling, new dining room furniture, fireplaces, and even curtains would be added in time for the next season. In August these extras were trivial. The kitchen, however, was completely finished. This building, designed on the spur of the moment, has served the resort well for many years.
As the second world war drew to a close in the 1940s, a Red Cross driver/nurse called Justine and asked if there was any way she could come up for a few weeks, working for room and board, as she readjusted to civilian life, after several years on the war front in Europe. Janet Hansen, this Duluth girl, fell in love with the northwoods and wanted to stay on. In the early 1930s Justine had bought some Old Town canvas canoes, canvas tents and packs, and had started outfitting fishermen for canoe trips. Janet showed an interest in expanding the outfitting portion of the Gunflint business that Justine had started.
Justine and Janet created an outfitting partnership that lasted for many years, and that portion of the business begin to expand. New aluminum canoes began to be manufactured, dried foods started to appear, newly designed tents came with poles, and marketing at sports shows brought new customers. The outfitting business grew to become one of the largest in northern Minnesota.
In the early 1960s, several things changed—Bruce returned from the Army and came aboard as the next generation of the family to lead the business at Gunflint. Bruce married Sue in 1968. During the first years of their marriage, Justine ran a branch of the canoe outfitters, Grand Marais Northwoods Outfitters, in Grand Marais while Janet managed the main outfitting business at Gunflint. Eventually Janet decided to move on and open her own outfitting company at Seagull, so Justine took over the main outfitting business and Bruce ran the resort. That lasted only a couple of years before Bruce bought her out. Although Justine always retained a very active interest in the business, the next generation was now truly in place. Once again an ambitious young couple was running Gunflint.
At that time, new school groups started coming to the Boundary Waters for their canoe trip adventures, and that was a nitch that Bruce grew as the outfitting business expanded. Chartered buses started arriving from Milwaukee, Chicago and the Twin Cities with students coming to the northwoods for their wilderness adventures. This changed in the late 1970s, when the rules and regulations of the BWCA were rewritten. The number of people who could visit the wilderness was restricted and the party sizes were reduced. Those changes led to new marketing challenges, with the focus now on families, couples, and fishermen.
This all happened as equipment for wilderness camping was also changing dramatically. Now everything is lightweight, environmentally friendlier, and more high tech. New nylon tents, Cordura packs, Royalex canoes, and new dehydrated/dried foods make camping and canoeing more fun, with less work.
Gunflint leads in these changes, and continues to check out new equipment and foods each season. Currently Gunflint is the exclusive outfitters using Camp Chow meals, a tasty locally made selection of meals, without preservatives. These meals are the tastiest foods we have ever been able to offer our canoeists.
Gunflint continues to lead the outfitting business in northern Minnesota, with a more diversified offering than any other company. Cutting edge equipment is used, overnight accommodations before or after a canoe trip is available, full food and beverage service at the lodge supports your arrival and departure days, the Gunflint stable offers horseback riding, and the Towering Pines Canopy Tour has 2+ hour adventure trips through platforms high in big white pine trees. Exclusive menu items are offered and environmental practices drill down to even the small items, such as eliminating all twist ties. Camp saws are used instead of axes, and the list goes on and on. The leadership at Gunflint has a combined experience of over 100 years of tripping, with many of the group active in participation and leadership in the national outfitting organizations.
We invite you to use our services for your next canoe trip, and we take a great deal of pride in being able to create the best trip you have ever had.