For the last 90 years, the last week in June has marked a special occasion for the Roslien, Ostby and Bartleson families. This is the week when the descendants of three sisters, more than 100 people, gather at Kilworry Resort east of Pine River.
It all started with a fishing trip in 1929, when three brothers from Forest City, Iowa, heard the fish were biting on the Whitefish Chain. For a week they found a break at what then was called Kill-Worry Camp, owned by Charles Webber, who had built the four cabins there from the logs he cleared off the land in 1917.
The brothers, forebears to the Bartleson family, continued to visit the camp each year after that, even when the camp sold to someone the “Logsleds to Snowmobiles” book named Mr. Naelup in 1932. The tradition continued after the resort sold to Mr. and Mrs. George Coughlin Sr. in 1943, who changed the name to Kilworry Resort. Today, Norma Coughlin and her five children own the resort.
The tradition was mostly among the three brothers at the time, and sometimes a few family members. It became what it is today thanks to Eva (Erickson) Bartleson. She decided to turn it from a fishing trip into a large family gathering along with her sisters, Esther Roslien and Naomi Ostby.
“This is the 90th reunion that started with the Bartleson family in 1929,” said Craig Roslien, who attended the most recent gathering at the end of June. “It's evolved to a large group. Every year we have over 100 people attending from all over the country.”
This year's group numbered 131 with ages ranging from 1 to 82.
The place grew from four cabins to 12, with all of the original cabins replaced and improved. At one time there was no running water in the cabins. Staying at Kilworry meant pumping and hauling water, warming the cabin with wood heat, eating regular fish dinners, keeping food cold with ice blocks delivered by Bud Coughlin and using outdoor toilets.
Roslien remembers those outhouses well because he once lost his brand new moccasin in one of them. Norma Coughlin, now 92, remembers a young Roslien literally fishing the moccasin out with a pole before rinsing it off in the bay.
Since that time, the cousins have made a lot of memories. Kilworry Resort was the first place Sharon Roslien ever ate pizza thanks to Norma, who used to serve pizza every Wednesday. It was also a place where the young cousins could buy penny candy at the “Ol Lodge.” The only thing that went further than a nickel was the memories themselves.
“I came up here when I was 2 or 4,” said Sharon Roslien. “My parents told me the first fish I caught was a perch they put on my hook and line. They had it in the boat and put it on my line and gave me the rod so I thought I had caught a fish. I wasn't very old.”
“My dad came over with the military,” said Eric Bartleson. “I was born when he was gone and I didn't see him until I was almost a year old. When he came back, that was my first trip with he and my mother. My mother said I was restless and pulling in about four miles up sitting in my seat saying, 'Feep now, feep now' (sleep now, sleep now).’ Then I fell asleep. I was awake all the way and went to sleep when I got here. That was in 1946.”
There's always fishing, golfing, berry picking, dancing, water skiing and card playing. New memories are still being made. This year, for example, was a special year because it was the perfect opportunity for all three branches of the family to celebrate one of life's big events - in this case, a baptism at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Pine River.
“Because Kilworry is when all of our family is all present,” said John Ostby. “I believe it's the only baptism that will have taken place amongst our three branches in all the past 90 years.”
Today the Kilworry cabins have electricity and plumbing, and one has air conditioning. Gone is the penny candy. Some things, however, never change.
The reunion always includes one large smorgasbord potluck that starts with a traditional Scandinavian prayer, introduction of the newest family members and a countdown. Dinner always features favorite dishes like pasta salads and “the stuff,” a hotdish that defies naming, but that everyone loves.
“Kilworry is not just a place, but rather a state of mind,” Jim Ostby wrote ahead of this year's event. “It is welcoming, restful, fun and all want to be part of it. When arriving via County Road 1 from Pine River and seeing the familiar resort sign amidst the pines, you know you are at your northwoods home again if only for a few, short precious summer days.”
Ten years from now, so long as Kilworry Resort is still in business, the Bartlesons, Ostbys and Rosliens will still likely be meeting there, celebrating a full centennial. They take that seriously.
“Kilworry week on the calendar is a special time not to be missed or scheduled out,” Jim Ostby wrote. “It is that week in late June when nearly all our immediate and extended relatives assemble at a lakeside retreat in northern Minnesota to celebrate being part of one large family reunion. Often it is the only time during the year with the opportunity to reconnect with distant cousins and meet new arrivals.”