By Carla Minsky
The simple and wholesome pleasures of a traditional cabin getaway never go out of style in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. The reason is simple. Grown-ups want to re-create for their kids and grandkids the fun they had during their annual summer vacations.
That passing-down sentiment is mirrored generation after generation by the businesses here, too. If that sounds too hard to believe just ask John Thompson, who’s been vacationing at Black’s Cliff Resort on sparkling spring-fed Lower Kaubashine Lake in Hazelhurst for nearly 60 years.
Thompson, originally from Chicago, lives in the mountains of Colorado, but distance has never stopped him from making the trek back to Wisconsin every year. “My dad actually started coming here in the early ‘30s,” said Thompson. “He went to the Minocqua Chamber of Commerce and found this resort and immediately liked it because it had a swimming area and a playground and lots of kids, and it’s the same way now as it was back then, particularly the part about lots of kids having fun.”
Making memories is a family tradition
Thompson and his far-flung crew – his three kids, sister and her family, two brothers and their families – all converge at the resort the same two weeks every year. Yes, you read that right, two weeks. While most Americans are negligent in taking their allotted vacation days, the Thompsons buck the trend and reap the benefits.
“Even in college the kids want to be around us parents,” said Thompson. “Rules are relaxed, the little kids get to stay up late, and it’s okay for them to spend the evening scurrying from one cabin to another because everyone knows everyone else.”
So what are those traditions that keep even the teenagers happy? Thompson says it all centers on the lake. “Everyone starts moseying down around 10 a.m., and on any given day there will be 50 to 60 of us on the water.”
Thompson’s father wanted his kids to be strong swimmers, so he’d reward them with $10 if they could swim across the lake. The kids applied the cash to water skiing. “Today I’m the spotter in the rowboat as the kids take their swim across the lake.”
There’s also the tradition of trying to sink the raft and the sight of little kids entirely content to just dig in the sand. One of the grown-ups in the group likes to take the youngsters fishing. There’s at least one potluck dinner. And every night the group gathers for a campfire.
“We eat s’mores and swat mosquitoes,” laughed Thompson.
'Guests want things to stay the same'
Amazingly, technology takes a back seat during these getaways. Jenny Gibson, third generation to help run the 11-cabin Black’s Cliff Resort, can attest to that. She said that when the resort introduced TVs, some parents asked them to hide them before they arrived, and she only gives the internet password to the parents. Instead, she said, you’ll find kids barreling down the slide in the swim area, playing on the horse swings her grandfather built or bobber fishing for bluegills.
Thompson added, “There’s no reason to have your cell phone, nobody calls you because all your relatives are here.” Even at dinner, Thompson says they’re talking and catching up instead of texting.
“Guests want things to stay the same,” said Gibson. “If I move the furniture around, they’ll move it back, and I can tell you where each group will be sitting on the beach.”
She mentioned that one family has an annual horseshoe tournament and that everyone who happens to be vacationing at the resort at the time takes part.
“And of course you have to go for a Friday fish fry.”
Nothing tops a fish fry at a supper club
Both Gibson and Thompson mentioned Jacobi’s of Hazlehurst for said fish fry. Cierra Tullberg, who runs the supper club with her sister and dad, said the special is pan-fried walleye with lemon butter, with choice of potato, vegetable, soup or salad and a complimentary appetizer. “In other words, no one goes hungry,” laughed Tullberg.
It’s a slower pace at the restaurant, just like at the resort. “People come to relax and they appreciate that all the food is made to order. They have an Old Fashioned at the bar before dinner and an ice cream drink after,” said Tullber.
Along with the walleye and cod on the Friday menu, Tullberg also highly recommends the garlic stuffed tenderloin and the stuffed chicken marsala. “I just had the chicken last night, I was craving it and it is to die for.” Plus don’t miss out on the fresh blueberry pie in season – it’s still made using Grandmother Jacobi’s recipe.
When Tullberg’s not at the restaurant, she and her husband act like tourists themselves, taking in the scenery on their Harley–Davidson motorcycles. They also head to downtown Minocqua with their two little boys in tow when they have a hankering for ice cream and fudge.
Gibson said if she could be a tourist in her hometown she’d love to try Northwoods Zip Line in Minocqua and relax on one of the swinging porch beds at the resort and just listen to the breeze in the pines: “Kids fight over who gets to sleep on the swinging bed!”
'The kids only want to come to Wisconsin'
The Thompson family’s other touristy pursuits include heading into Minocqua for the water ski show, which Thompson says hasn’t changed a lick over the years, just as it should be. The little ones like to mini golf while the others head to Pinewood Country Club where it’s the old guys versus the young guys and the loser is on the hook for breakfast.
Both Gibson and Tullberg mentioned the thing they like most about their work is having quality time with their own families. “Others are not as fortunate as us,” said Tullberg of being able to work alongside family members. The five-minute commute doesn’t hurt either.
When asked what comes to mind when he hears the words “Wisconsin Northwoods,” Thompson said, “I first get a memory of the smell of the pine trees, then the lakes, but most of all it’s an image of all the people here for the same experience that we love so much,” offered Thompson. “These two weeks are etched in stone and the kids only want to come to Wisconsin.”
“I like returning to a place I’ve been to my whole life," he added. "We’ll do it forever.”