EAST GULL LAKE — 1940 marked the second year of World War II, the debut of Disney classics “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia,” the birth of legendary martial artist and actor Chuck Norris, the death of “Great Gatsby” author F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the opening of the first McDonald’s restaurant.
The Brainerd lakes area was forever changed that year, too, with the founding of Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake. Merrill Cragun Jr., better known around town as “Dutch,” was 8 years old when his parents Merrill Sr. and Louise started their now famous lakes area resort. Now at 88, Dutch has gone from bait boy to resort owner alongside his wife Irma. He stood by as his parents turned tax-forfeited land into what is now a year-round vacation destination complete with over 200 lodging options, five different dining experiences, three golf courses, more than 400 employees and eight decades of rich history.
And Dutch has been around for all of it.
He recalls being in charge of minnows, worms and frogs in the bait shop at ages 9-10.
He remembers what used to be a short summer-only resort season of nine weeks from about mid-June to just before Labor Day. His home office is a testament to all the traveling the Craguns did in the winter months when there was no resort to run.
“Nothing happened on Memorial Day,” he said. “Some fishing, but no families. Absolutely too far from the Twin Cities.”
But there is one unusual Memorial Day weekend that still sticks out in his memory.
Dutch was college-aged and had been tasked with painting the floor in the main lodge in anticipation of guests in the coming weeks. But to his surprise a gentleman pulled up in a car and asked if they had a room available. A flustered Dutch eagerly said they did — though didn’t let slip the resort was completely vacant — and offered the man accommodations at $50 for the weekend. After having painted himself out the front door of the lodge, it soon dawned on young Dutch he would have to traipse back through his freshly painted floor, leaving sloppy footprints along the way, to get the guest’s key.
Then he had to do it again upon remembering the papers for the gentleman to sign.
Dutch remembers when the resort began making an appeal to snowmobilers and other winter visitors but didn’t have winterized cabins or a circulating pump to keep the water from freezing.
He recalls the first year of golf at the resort, when hot dogs and hamburgers were sold out of a tent before the clubhouse existed. And he’ll never forget his round of golf with former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. The 20-year-old newspaper article is framed in his home office.
He remembers when the resort began recruiting college students as summer employees, and later international students when summer internships became more prevalent, pushing many kids in another direction.
He can still picture the original outdoor pool and recalls an instance long ago when former Brainerd Mayor Ed Tom O’Brien hosted an auction at the pool to raise money to enclose the facility but was taken by surprise when a sudden storm surged through, bringing dark skies, pouring rain and a power outage.
“So here's Ed Tom, the mayor, conducting an auction in the dark. And he got it up to $5,000,” Dutch said.
21st century resort
Much has changed since those early days, as Cragun’s adapts to the world around it to stay on top of its game.
Today the resort is in the midst of a $20 million expansion and remodel project started back in 2015. Lobby areas, hotel rooms, cabins, golf courses and the marina have all seen upgraded facilities and amenities.
Visitors can now rent brand new pontoons, speedboats, Jet Skis, stand-up paddleboards, row boats, canoes and bicycles to enhance their outdoor experience. This new equipment appears to have come at just the right time, as Nancy Krasean, who works in marketing, said this year has been “insane” for rentals. Seeing two available pontoons at the dock on a warm sunny afternoon Thursday, July 23, was abnormal, she said. After the coronavirus lockdown earlier this spring, everyone seems to want to be outside on the lake.
Inside, the resort’s hotel-style rooms are undergoing renovations, with new electric fireplaces, carpeting, sliding glass doors and overall layouts. What hasn’t changed, though, is the lake view present from every room, except for those poolside.
“People will say, ‘Oh, the halls, you walk forever,’” Krasean said. “Well, it was built that way so every room has a view of the lake.”
And except for those on the golf courses, so do 90% of the cabins. There are 65 in total, and 21 with at least four bedrooms, conducive for large groups.
“Our cabins have been extremely popular,” General Manager Eric Peterson said. “And this year especially, with people wanting to be able to spend time together with their family and maybe just do more of the activities on their own away from the other guests.”
Peterson feels Cragun’s multitude of large cabins set the resort apart from others in the area, as do the 205 hotel-style rooms, which he said are especially conducive to corporate business clients who are in town for conferences.
“That’s a great differentiator for us,” he said, noting business conferences used to be the resort’s bread and butter.
From about the late 1990s up until roughly 2008, Peterson said a vast majority of Cragun’s business was hosting corporate conferences and events. But the resort’s clientele — just like most other areas of the business — has changed over time.
“We’ve evolved and been able to kind of change and grow the family and the social business, as well as our golf business,” he said.
Cragun’s is no longer quite as reliant on corporate customers as it used to be, which Peterson thanks his lucky stars for this year, as business conferences have essentially vanished during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s important to diversify and have a variety of guests,” he said. “But again, we’re still a lake-focused, family-oriented resort.”
And families wanting a weekend getaway have been plentiful. At the end of July, Krasean said the resort was running near 100% occupancy every weekend.
“As soon as the pools were opened, you couldn’t answer the phones fast enough,” she said.
Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order restricted non-essential travel and closed non-essential businesses March 27. Some businesses began opening back up May 18, but public pools could not open until June 10. That date marked a sharp upward tick in Cragun’s guests.
“As soon as they found out they could get out of town, they got out of town,” Krasean said.
Cabins were ready for visitors, including new builds like the Bayview Villas. Complete with seven bedrooms and six bathrooms, the cabins are especially popular with golf groups and large families, Krasean said. Three floors of living space provide separation for those who want privacy but also include a pool table and plenty of communal spaces to bring groups together. And of course there’s the clear view of Gull Lake, where the resort’s yacht, the North Star, can be seen cruising the lake with guests from May through October.
Golfing at Cragun’s
Golfing groups have other housing options closer to their destination as well.
Large 6-10 bedroom houses sleeping up to 24 people sit near the golf courses and feature game rooms, big screen TVs and firepits. Though guests may not be able to see Gull Lake from these lodgings, they can certainly look out onto another pride of resort’s — the golf courses.
Golfers have three courses to choose from at Cragun’s — Dutch’s Legacy, Bobby’s Legacy and Reversible 9.
Bobby’s Legacy carries the name of Robert Trent Jones Jr., the architect behind both Legacy courses. Jones’ father, Robert Trent Jones Sr., was a famous golf course architect who designed and redesigned more than 500 golf courses throughout the world.
Once Dutch — who took over as general manager in 1957 — and his crew landed on Jones Jr. as the designer in 1997, Chuck Klecatsky came on board as the head professional hired to introduce golf to the resort. He remains on staff today as the golf manager.
Klecatsky recalls the dawn of destination golf courses in the Brainerd lakes area. The Pines at Grand View Lodge was the first to open in 1990, followed by the Classic at Madden’s, Deacon’s Lodge at Breezy Point and finally the courses at Cragun’s.
With so many other golf courses in the area, Klecatsky said it’s Cragun’s two championship courses and one nine-hole par 3 course operating out of the same clubhouse that set the resort apart from competitors.
“It gives us a lot of flexibility to take care of a lot of different customers,” he said. “... We’ve got our resort guests that come up and stay with us playing with us. We’ve got local members, and we’ve also got the general public. So those are three different customer bases that we’re able to take care of. That’s kind of the unique part is a lot of the other resorts have multiple golf courses, but they’re not out of one clubhouse.”
The clubhouse turns into a community of sorts, Klecatsky said, with groups coming back year after year for the last two decades.
“And that’s all of Cragun’s,” he said. “Making friends with everyone year after year. So that’s really neat.”
New visitors were scheduled to hit the Cragun’s links this summer with the inaugural CRMC Tournament to be the first event of the Mackenzie Tour - PGA Canada Tour played outside of Canada. Dutch’s Legacy was primed to be the host. But the coronavirus pandemic, the event was put off until 2021. But either way, it’s an honor for the resort.
“It’s very exciting to be the first event south of the border,” Klecatsky said, adding he hopes the event will help spread the word of Brainerd as a tourist destination and help promote all sorts of recreational activities in the lakes area along with golf.
After all, the greens at Cragun’s aren’t just golf courses. They’re, well, legacies.
“Dutch and Irma named it the Legacy for a reason. They were so generous to protect that piece of land and turn it into golf courses instead of just making it into commercial real estate,” Klecatsky said, noting the property, with its recreational preservation, will live on as a legacy long after the founders are gone.
Secret to success
While Peterson credits the diversity of Cragun’s offerings as a large part of the resort’s popularity, Dutch will say the secret to his success is the woman who stood by his side throughout it all.
As a nurse from British Columbia, Canada, Irma’s adaptability and flexibility, Dutch said, proved crucial to the resort after the couple married in 1965. The restaurant, Irma’s Kitchen, is a testament to her long-standing contributions.
“Irma was a nurse, but she took over that kitchen and organized everything,” Dutch said. “And from the dining room, (she) took over everything. I mean, she was doing all the finances and stuff. And she was managing the resort.”
Now Irma’s Kitchen joins four other dining spots at the resort — Bear Trap Lounge, Lakeside Dining Room, Legacy Bar & Grille and Cabana Cafe — catering to a variety of palates, just like the resort itself.
Looking to the future
Cragun’s Resort has undoubtedly come a long way from the time when Merrill Sr.’s college buddy Jack Madden nudged him into the resort business, and when college-aged Dutch was focused on capers at the University of Minnesota with fraternity brother Jack Ruttger. The founders kept up good relationships with their fellow lakes area resort owners, but did their best to differentiate themselves.
And those efforts continue today, as the remodel project progresses and will only pave the way for more upgrades in the future to keep guests coming back.
“We have to keep going. That’s just the way the industry is,” Peterson said. “... I think the Brainerd lakes area is still an under-appreciated area as a rule for vacationing, but I think it just continues to evolve and change.”
Business: Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake.
City: East Gull Lake.
Number of employees: More than 400.
Interesting fact: Except for poolside hotel rooms and golf course cabins, all lodging accommodations have a view of Gull Lake.