BREEZY POINT — What do Walter Hagen, Clark Gable and Harry Truman have in common, besides their famous names?
They’ve all stepped foot inside the gates of Breezy Point Resort. And those names are just a few of the long list of celebrities who have trekked to small-town Minnesota to experience the spectacle that is the 100-year-old resort.
The year was 1921, the man was Wilfred Hamilton Fawcett, and the price was $500. That’s how the story of Breezy Point Resort’s founding goes. Fawcett, known primarily as Captain Billy, bought an 80-acre parcel of land — site unseen — on the western shore of Pelican Lake. He was an Army veteran, a journalist, a publisher, an Olympian and, eventually, a resort owner.
Though he didn’t necessarily have the head for business, Captain Billy did have Hollywood connections and the desire to build a playground for his famous friends.
“He didn’t build it to make money,” said George Rasmussen, the resort’s resident historian who writes the annual Breezy Pointer newsletter. “In fact, I was told, and I don’t remember who told me this, that when he was running the show, he had one profitable year, and that was 1929. Otherwise, it was a loser, and he didn’t seem to mind.”
Captain Billy had enough money from his publishing empire — Fawcett Publications — and his humor magazine “Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang” that he didn’t need the resort as an income source. Instead, he brought his Hollywood friends up by train to Pequot Lakes and eventually paid to have the road to what is now Breezy Point paved so they would have a smoother limo ride to the resort, which predated the city there today.
The village of Pelican Lakes was incorporated in 1939, nearly two decades after the resort’s founding. It was renamed to Breezy Point, after the resort, in 1969.
Minnesota author Sinclair Lewis is rumored to have worked on his famous novel “Elmer Gantry” while staying at Breezy Point, while stars like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford signed the guestbook in the 1930s.
The resort’s colorful history is perhaps made even brighter by the various rumors that have amassed over the years.
Some say the Fawcett House is haunted.
Theories abound of perhaps float planes or maybe hearses with booze-filled caskets bringing liquor in from Canada during Prohibition.
But the one rumor known to be just that — a rumor — is that of gangsters staying at the resort.
After a conversation with Captain Billy’s son Roscoe, Rasmussen will confidently say the gangster stories aren’t true.
“I asked him point blank, ‘Were there gangsters here?’” Rasmussen said. “And Roscoe said, ‘Father would not permit it.’ Because it was a hobby and not a business, he was very selective on who he let stay here. So he did not cater to the gangster elements.”
But Captain Billy did cater to partying, gambling and an all-around good time, even during Prohibition.
There are no records of the resort ever having been successfully raided, according to Rasmussen. He heard the county sheriff’s office once had a plan to raid the place, but thanks to an anonymous tip to Captain Billy the day before, all the liquor and gaming machines were safely hidden away.
The stories — whether true or not — are part of what draw people to the resort.
“One of the things I enjoy about Breezy Point is it’s got a very rich history,” Chris Olson said. “It’s exciting how it started.”
Those familiar with the resort may know Olson as the singer behind the weekly Elvis tribute show on the patio at Dockside. It’s a job he’s had for 27 years.
“Now it’s a tradition,” Olson said during an interview Aug. 4, while sitting outside at Dockside, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and the famed Elvis hair. He even let out a “thank you very much” after receiving a compliment on his shirt.
“People come up that are married that were little kids when they first saw the show,” he added. “So you’re kind of involved in everyone’s family up here at Breezy.”
And family is exactly what many of the Breezy Point workers will say the resort feels like.
“Not only do I love what I do, but I love working here,” said Mary Austin, who manages the resort’s coffee shop. “... You feel appreciated on a daily basis, seriously.”
And much of that feeling of appreciation, she noted, can be traced back to Bob Spizzo.
Bob the Builder
The resort has changed hands quite a few times in the last century, but no one — not even Fawcett himself — can claim ownership longer than Spizzo. It has been in his hands since 1981, and after 40 years Spizzo still strives to make the resort better every day.
“We’re always upgrading, constantly. Every time you walk around, you see something’s under construction,” Spizzo said. “In fact, they’re calling me ‘Bob the Builder.’”
That’s because he’s always looking for ways to improve the resort and the experience of his guests — whether it’s more wedding venues and meeting rooms, additional activities to keep families busy or housing options for those looking to move.
“We either have to get bigger, or we fall behind,” Spizzo said of standing out in a region ripe with resorts.
General Manager Dave Gravdahl, who has worked off and on in various capacities at the resort since the 1950s, recalls a time when smaller resorts were more prevalent in the state and customer needs were much simpler.
“What you did was you had a cabin and rented it for a week or more, and you got a rowboat with it. That was basically it, which was great,” Gravdahl said. “But things just changed. People demanded more.”
And Spizzo is working to meet those demands.
One of his current projects is the Whitebirch Village, consisting of 52 new townhomes for what Spizzo likes to call “active adults.” Forty of the houses are built and occupied, with a dozen more planned to be done by next spring.
Situated on Whitebirch Golf Course near Antler’s Restaurant, the community is perfect for those looking to downsize and perhaps trade in their lakefront property for one-floor living and a property where chores like lawn mowing and snow shoveling are taken care of.
Spizzo has plans for another ice rink, as the popularity of hockey has helped winter business skyrocket at the resort.
“In the winter, we’re filled up every weekend because of a combination of weddings and the hockey,” Spizzo said. “So that’s the nice thing about the hockey arena, it fills up rooms, and it’s primarily people coming in from the (Twin) Cities up here, spending money.”
Those visitors spend money at local gas stations, stores and restaurants, bolstering not only the resort but the overall economy of the area, too.
“Many stores in Pequot, for example, and Crosslake used to shut down in the wintertime, but now they stay open,” Spizzo said, adding that his plans for a second ice arena will impact that economy even more and likely necessitate the building of more rooms at the resort.
Lodging accommodations range from two-bedroom cabins to the grandiose 11-bedroom, nine-bathroom Fawcett House and everything in between.
The 750-site campground offers a place to stay for those wanting a more rustic, outdoorsy vacation, while timesharing brings in a whole new crowd altogether.
“That was a new concept. We were the first timeshare developers in Minnesota,” Spizzo said. “So that started a new concept where we brought people back here where they owned a week. So they would come back every year for their week, and then they were used to our restaurants and our bar, and it started growing from there.”
The timeshare move is what originally brought Mary Ann Olson to Breezy Point Resort back in 1981, but it was so much more than that that’s kept her coming back for years.
Her husband Chris’ Elvis shows are one key factor, but the resort itself and the atmosphere plays a role, too.
“I think it’s just meeting people from all different places and origins,” she said. “There’s lakes down in the Cities; there’s boats down in the Cities; there’s golf down in the Cities, but everybody comes up here for a vacay and you’re in a whole different mood. You’re in a vacation mood, and that’s the time to be hanging around people, when they’re in a vacation party mood.”
And there’s no shortage of activities at Breezy Point Resort, no matter what kind of a mood guests are in. Those looking for an adventure can take a ride on a Jet Ski, a cruise on the paddle-wheel boat Breezy Belle or a spin around the ice arena. Others wanting a more lowkey stay can relax in the spa, take in some music by the lake or play a round of golf. And if the taste buds are tingling, guests can grab a cup of coffee, stop for a quick scoop of ice cream or stay for a nice dinner at one of the various restaurants.
And that’s just the beginning. Weddings, conferences, meetings, family reunions and events of all sorts and sizes take place year-round at Breezy Point.
“We sell fun and enjoyment,” Spizzo said, adding there’s something for all ages and every variety of guest.
Hitting the links
As the resort has expanded over the years from a seasonal summer getaway to a year-round vacation destination, one activity drawing more and more visitors is golf. Three 18-hole courses reside on the property, each with their own charms.
It wasn’t long after Captain Billy opened up shop that he developed a golf course. In 1923, he and wife Claire took golf lessons in Pinehurst, North Carolina, which planted the first seeds into his mind.
The nine-hole, par 36 course, known then as Chippewa Links, opened in 1924. The following year, Hall of Fame golfer Walter Hagen came for an exhibition match on the new course.
“He would come up and just play, and then people from the Brainerd lakes area would pay — I think it was $1 — to come and walk around and watch,” said Rich Aulie, who works at the resort’s Deacon’s Lodge golf course. “He came back again in 1939 and did another exhibition. And that was an interesting one because Hagen used his golf clubs and the other guy used a baseball bat, a rake and a shovel and played golf. … He was what we call a trickshot golf artist, so it was mostly to entertain people.”
Aulie, who coaches golf in the Crosby-Ironton School District, is working on a book about the resort’s golfing history and has amassed plenty of knowledge on the subject through his research.
Hagen, he found, wasn’t the only big name in the early 20th century to play the holes of Chippewa Links. Minneapolis native Patty Berg, a founding member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, won three tournaments in Breezy Point from 1933-35, the first when she was just 15 years old.
Six of the original nine holes from Chippewa Links are now part of the Traditional Golf Course, which was expanded to an 18-hole course in the 1960s.
“The Traditional course is very old school,” Aulie said. “It’s shorter, but you also have the chance to have your shoes on the same steps that perhaps Walter Hagen or Patty Berg were walking.”
Including Hagen and Berg, three of the 13 original members of the World Golf Hall of Fame played their sport in Breezy Point. The third, and perhaps most recognizable name, is Arnold Palmer. But he didn’t just play at the resort. He designed Deacon’s Lodge, an 18-hole course opened in 1999 and purchased by Breezy Point Resort in 2012. Palmer named the course after his father Deacon, who served as head golf professional and superintendent at the Latrobe Country Club in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
“For us to use Arnold Palmer’s father’s name as part of our title is incredible,” said Mark Neva, head PGA golf professional at Deacon’s Lodge.
It was the 499-acre property, Neva added, that caught Palmer’s attention. An average golf course today is about 150-200 acres.
“There’s three separate wilderness lakes, and there’s so many little wetland pockets throughout the property,” Neva said. “Just the terrain, the topography of the property had a lot of interesting character and roll to it.”
Both Aulie and Neva have worked at Deacon’s Lodge since it was opened and originally managed by Grand View Lodge in Nisswa. Palmer himself visited the site three times — once to announce the project, once during construction and lastly for the grand opening. Both his historic presence and his father’s name are enough to draw golfers from all over.
“His name transcends all generations and is recognized by all generations,” Neva said. “So it is definitely a feather in our cap. I mean, not only did we get the work of Arnold Palmer, but his name will always be attached to it.”
Aulie joked that resort guests can go from listening to the King’s music at Dockside, courtesy of Chris Olson, to playing on a course designed by the King, as Palmer was known in the golf world.
The last of the resort’s three golf courses is Whitebirch, which opened with nine holes in 1982 and gained another nine in 1989. The course was part of a larger development project, which included Whitebirch RV and Camping Resort.
“The Whitebirch course was the first championship golf course in the Brainerd area. It’s a little more wide open and a little more challenging,” Aulie said.
With a large clubhouse and Antler’s Restaurant close by, Whitebirch gives golfers more of an “upscale” golf experience, Aulie said.
All in all, Breezy Point Resort has a golfing option for every caliber of player.
“You could go out with your wife and your kids of any age and play the Traditional course and have a great time,” Aulie said. “You can come up with your buddies and play for fun at Whitebirch, or you can go over to Deacon’s Lodge and feel like you’re playing on the PGA Tour.”
Memories of the past
Captain Billy Fawcett died in Hollywood in 1940 at the age of just 54. He left what was then known as Breezy Point Lodge to his sons. Over the next 81 years, it would change hands, change names and drastically change appearances.
But some reminders of Captain Billy’s days still stand, like his private home — the Fawcett House — where his friends would stay when visiting instead of in resort lodgings. The white pine logs came by railroad from northern Minnesota to Pequot Lakes and then by horse-drawn carriage to the resort. Without chain saws or other modern day machinery, the house was built by hand, the wood fitted together like Lincoln Logs.
Guests can still stay in the Fawcett House today, though the piano that used to reside in the house now sits in the Registration and Convention Center, having gone through too much wear and tear in its former home. Gene Autry played the piano while visiting the resort, as did Former President Harry Truman during his National Guard days.
One of the other few vestiges of Captain Billy’s time that remains today is the entrance gate, built in the 1920s by stonemason Charlie Skog.
The way Rasmussen heard the story, Captain Billy commissioned Skog to build the stone gate, but Fawcett’s wife Claire wasn’t keen on the idea.
“(Skog) was working on the right side as you come down, and Billy’s wife came through and asked what he was doing, and he told her that Billy had wanted these gates built, and she said, ‘Oh, no, Billy’s going to come through here in his car and probably hit them,’” Rasmussen said. “So she said, ‘Get rid of them.’”
So Skog bought some dynamite from Thurlow Hardware in Pequot Lakes and came back and blew up the right side of the gate he had been working on. Captain Billy heard the explosion from the lodge and came out to ask Skog what the noise was.
“He said, ‘Well, your wife said get rid of them.’ And Billy said, ‘Well, she’s wrong. Rebuild it,’” Rasmussen said.
So the original gates still stand, and the one on the right side has been built twice.
The rest of the resort, as it stands today, has been steadily built up over the past 100 years, but much like the once bumpy road leading from Pequot to Breezy, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
Captain Billy’s sons were forced to close Breezy Point Lodge from 1942-45, as gas rationing during World War II all but killed the tourism trade.
Theron “Tiny” Holmes took over in 1946 but then sold the resort a year later to Jack Salinger and Brownie Cote.
A fire broke out in the main lodge in 1959, beginning the resort on a downward spiral that would tarnish its reputation for years.
Big band singer Ginny Simms and her husband Don Eastvold took over ownership in 1962, renaming the resort Breezy Point Estates. Their ambition saw the opening of the Marina Bar & Restaurant, nine new holes added to the golf course and the construction of the 100-unit Golfview Terrace condominium building, complete with an outdoor swimming pool, among other development endeavors.
But the year 1965 brought the expansion to a screeching halt when the owners realized they had spent much more money than they were bringing in. The resort shut down, but some of the independent businesses remained open for any customers coming through.
Twin Cities businessman Lloyd Brandvold won two one-year leases for the resort in 1966 and 1967, opening it up once again for the summer season between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Nine owners of the Hopkins House restaurant in the Twin Cities banded together to reopen the resort in 1968 under the new name Hopkins House Breezy Point. But the next two summers were dismal at best, as potential visitors did not want anything to do with a once-bankrupt resort.
The 1970s Governor’s Fishing Opener with Gov. Harold LeVander, however, proved to be a turning point, with a successful event showing the public Breezy Point was ready for customers and open for business.
Since Spizzo and parent company Whitebirch Inc. took over in 1981, the resort has hosted three other governors for the annual fishing opener — Rudy Perpich in 1989, Jesse Ventura in 2001 and Tim Pawlenty in 2008.
Spizzo distinctly remembers each event.
Perpich drove up in his own Chevrolet without the waiting crowd realizing he had arrived. Ventura, on the other hand, came in with a plethora of personal bodyguards and flanked by police officers from Brainerd, Pequot Lakes and Crosslake. Reporters flew in from as far as Japan and Germany. Pawlenty, Spizzo recalls, was perhaps the most hospitable of the three.
‘It’s Breezy Point’
Today, Breezy Point Resort boasts four restaurants, indoor and outdoor entertainment nearly every night in the warm months, tennis courts and a recreation center among its amenities. The winter attracts snowmobilers and keeps resort employees busy with hockey tournaments, a Polar Plunge and the annual Breezy Point Ice Fest.
If anyone asks, Spizzo will say his secret to success doesn’t just come from the constant upgrades and additions. It’s the staff.
“We have the best team you could ever imagine,” he said.
The average tenure of his managerial staff is over 20 years. Gravdahl has been manager for the last 40, not to mention the years he spent as a golf caddy in his youth, then a dishwasher, then a bartender, then in a sales position.
“Like myself, they must enjoy what it’s all about,” Gravdahl said of the rest of the staff. “Otherwise they wouldn’t be here because there’s plenty of other resorts in the area and other things to do.”
Whitebirch Inc. President Joyce Bzoskie has been at the resort for nearly 34 years and credits her long career there to the fact that her job is never boring and always has her doing something new and interesting every day.
“It’s always a great day at Breezy Point,” she said.
But in a region filled with lakes, resorts and no shortage of year-round entertainment, what is it about the lodge on Pelican Lake that has kept visitors coming for 100 years?
Chris Olson summed it up in three words.
“It’s Breezy Point.”
Breezy Point Resort
City: Breezy Point.
Number of employees: More than 500 in the summer.
Interesting fact: Resort founder Captain Billy Fawcett’s joke magazine, “The Whiz Bang,” is mentioned in the song “Ya Got Trouble” in Meredith Wilson’s famous musical, “The Music Man.”