By Jennifer Von Ohlen
It was a tradition of ours to load up the truck and hitch the boat for a three-hour drive to the cabin. Time would pass with Michael Jackson and Disney tapes blaring through the speakers in the cozy cab. Mother always used to point out Paul Bunyan Land when we drove through Brainerd. It was a sign that we were officially in Northern Minnesota, meaning we were almost there.
You would have missed the entrance if you weren’t paying attention, as wild shrubs could mask that little sign by the rusty mailbox that read
The truck was always kissed and caressed by extended branches and wild grass as it rolled along the gravel driveway. Where there wasn’t sand, there was a blanket of brown, orange, and yellow leaves from last autumn, a cushion for little feet and padded paws. Passing two bunk houses and an outhouse with the classic quarter moon carving centered at the top, you could see the cabin nestled in the shade of sheltering trees.
The original owner built it in the 1920s and kept it until my grandpa bought it in the early seventies, when my mother was in junior high. Her family would visit that cabin almost every weekend, from Memorial Day and through the fall. My mother, aunts, and uncles would sleep out in the bunkhouses while their parents stayed in the cabin bedroom. On the coldest of nights, they would sleep under a pile of five or more thick, heavy blankets.
“The worst was when you woke up and realized you had to go to the bathroom,” Mom reminisced. “Because you had to walk to the outhouse, which wasn’t any warmer than the air outside!”
Both of the bunkhouses and the outhouse matched the cabin’s exterior. It was made entirely of wood, and still had the gentle roll of stripped logs along its edge. The body was painted the color of sweet corn, while its trimmings, roof, door, and three-step front porch with an overhang all reflected Christmas tree green. A small garden bordered by rocks ran along the front. Colors burst out of the dirt from pebbles painted by grandchildren, with old whirligigs serving as their guardians. A screened-in porch overlooked the shoulder of a hill that slid and dipped into Gull Lake’s mouth.
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Well the lake and hillside are still resting there, but the cabin doesn’t exist any more. It was demolished.
About ten years ago, my Grandma had to sell the place. She’d been widowed years before, and the cost of taxes, pulling in the dock, and storing the boat for the winter became too much for her. She needed to live on that money, which meant that the cabin had to be bought for its worth. It was too much for any of her children to afford.
I remember asking how much was needed, thinking with a child’s fantasy that I could buy it so we wouldn’t have to give up our summers on the lake and traveling by boat to a restaurant down the shore (although my Grandma distinctly remembers a time we did that when I said I was “bored plus bored”). I thought each of us cousins could pay a portion so that the pinecone-themed kitchen, where we ate powdered doughnuts for breakfast, wouldn’t be dispersed for a stranger to move in. I wanted to keep the wooden floors and paneled walls that harbored the scent of summer and Grandma’s perfume. I wanted to own the scary basement and mysterious attic so I could venture into them when I was ready.
Mother said it was too much.
I never learned the amount, but I know our story is not uncommon. I read of another cabin. It was built on Forest Lake at the beginning of the twentieth century. After a hundred years, it is still in the possession of the original family. Back when they first bought the land in 1907, the property tax was a grand total of thirty-three cents. Back in 2010, it was about two thousand dollars. Because these cabins are not their owners’ permanent addresses, it becomes difficult to own a second home; just like Grandma, owners sometimes have to sell. The very day that real estate sign was pounded into the ground at the end of our driveway was the day the cabin sold.
A year later, my mom, her sisters, and my Grandma went on their annual antiquing trip in the same area as the cabin, which was where they always stayed. Now they had to rent a cabin for the first time. But before starting on their way back home, they decided to swing by the family cabin one last time.
It was completely gone. The cabin, the bunkhouses—all had been crushed by a ginormous suburban-style lake house.
The roof towered among the tips of the few remaining birch trees, while new, white plastic siding demanded attention. Its owner had literally put over a million dollars into his project of disposing of our traditional family cabin to give birth to his lakeshore mansion. It looks spacious enough to host five families comfortably, even though the property only has a hundred feet of shoreline. When Mother told me what she had seen and showed me the hideous picture she had taken on her phone, my dreams and plans of one day buying back my grandma’s cabin were cast into the fire and mercilessly devoured.
Perhaps the pain would not have been so great had the owner simply rebuilt another actual cabin—if he wanted to preserve the traditional Minnesota vacation, where one drives for hours to enjoy being outside and lives simply, rather than spend time with the same modern luxuries found at home. It seems to have become a new trend in the northlands, however, where hand-built cabins are only purchased to be torn down, along with all their memorable markings. The only reason this particular seller bought the place was so he could flatten it.
I couldn’t help but feel a sense of justice when the economy collapsed and he had to sell (or try to) his million dollar lake house that looked like it should have been built on Lake Minnetonka, as Mother would say. The satisfaction was only short-lived, though. It couldn’t bring our family cabin back.
He wasted all that money, destroyed a true Minnesota cabin, for something he couldn’t afford to keep for even a year. Our cabin is gone. That white monstrosity rests on its gravesite, and now it doesn’t even belong to him anymore. It’s not fair.
It simply isn’t. If you did a search for Minnesota cabins on the market, some of the first results to come back to you are listings for lake houses, some worth almost three million dollars. Just recently my mother was reminded of the online real estate listing pictures that accompanied the white monstrosity, and all she could say was, “Covered in that marble stuff and those white cupboards…it was not Northern Minnesota at all.” In order to find old treasures and real up-north cabins, you have to look long and hard, since so many have met a fate similar to the Brown Cabin, where the idea of northern solace has been buried under modern convenience.
Jennifer Von Ohlen grew up in Cokato, Minnesota, and is currently pursuing a degree in creative and professional writing. If she is not reading, she can be found scribbling in one of her many notebooks. This piece is dedicated to her family members, who are privileged with memories of the Brown Cabin.