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80 years at Upper Cullen

Willard Lehman stands on a dock in Upper Lake Friday, Aug. 31, at Upper Cullen Resort near Nisswa. This year marks 80 years Lehman has vacationed at the resort with his family. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch.1 / 3
Willard Lehman looks out onto Upper Cullen Lake Friday, Aug. 31, at Upper Cullen Resort near Nisswa, where the 85-year-old has vacationed for the last 80 years. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 3
Willard Lehman looks out onto Upper Cullen Lake Friday, Aug. 31, at Upper Cullen Resort near Nisswa, where the 85-year-old has vacationed for the last 80 years. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch3 / 3

NISSWA—"Eighty years is a long time."

For 85-year-old Willard Lehman, it's basically a lifetime. And it's the number or years he has been a guest at Upper Cullen Resort near Nisswa.

"There wasn't much here then," Lehman said of the resort in 1938, when he began vacationing there as a 5-year-old with his parents and three siblings.

The Slater, Iowa, family originally visited Clear Lake in northern Iowa for their getaways, but the fishing, Lehman said, wasn't great.

"We had some neighbors that had come up here several years before we did, and they told us about it," he said Friday, Aug. 31, during his annual summer visit to Upper Cullen Resort.

Fast forward 80 years, and the resort has seen five generations of the family—down to Lehman's 16-month-old great-granddaughter—and served as the honeymoon destination for Lehman and his wife, Rogene, in 1955.

"It's like a home away from home," Shari Lehman—Willard Lehman's daughter—said. "We like the quiet, peaceful calmness of the smaller lake."

Shari can't remember a time when she and her sister didn't vacation at Upper Cullen with their parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. And now they're joined by the younger generation, too.

"Dad is from Iowa, and Mom was from Illinois. So other than Iowa and visiting relatives in Illinois, it's probably the other place we've spent the most amount of time as a family," she said.

That family time consists of boating, fishing, swimming, hayrides and visiting Nisswa to get ice cream at The Chocolate Ox and buy moccasins.

"As the girls grew up, they always liked to get moccasins at Zaiser's. They are very accommodating people," Willard said of the downtown Nisswa shop. "I think Shari once had some problem with some moccasins, and they took care of it in the mail. So it's good to know that people care."

Even after 80 years, Willard still finds new experiences at Upper Cullen, like in April of this year, when he visited family members who have a lake house near the resort and saw the lake covered in ice for the first time.

"That was an experience for Dad," Shari said, "to see the lake in its winter form."

"You see the whole resort from a different view," Willard said. "You see homes that you don't see in the summertime because of the leafed out trees. That was an experience to behold."

Willard experienced another first this year when a fish hook to the hand landed him in Urgent Care.

"When my sister and I were kids, almost every year there would be a trip to the doctor because we would get ear infections," Shari said. "And my mom was injured two times when she was up here and needed a doctor. Dad never had any injury or needed any doctoring until (this year). ... That was the first time in 80 years that he ever had to doctor while on vacation."

But because the incident didn't cause any serious harm, Shari and Willard found humor in the situation, not unlike an accident Shari said her mom incurred many years ago when a gas buildup in the stove caused a minor explosion.

"Her hands got burned really badly," Shari said of her mother.

"But the fishing was really good that year," Willard recalled fondly.

Even with one hand bandaged up, Shari said her mom out-fished everyone that year.

"It's those bad memories that turn into fun memories," she said.

A lot of the Lehmans' other fun memories at Upper Cullen Resort include fishing, too.

"This is really the only place Dad ever fishes, or has ever fished," Shari said. "Loves to fish, but he just does it here."

Fishing back home on the Des Moines River just doesn't quite cut it, Willard said.

"Another thing we enjoy so much is the cry of the loon," he added. "There's usually at least one pair of loons here."

"Typically we go trolling around the lake in the morning time," Shari said. "And it's nice to see the wildlife and the beauty."

Those picturesque views of wildlife, matched with the calm lake waters and colorful sunsets are a few of the simple pleasures keeping the Lehmans coming back year after year.

"I feel really calm when I'm here," Willard said. "You can be as much to yourself as you want."

And spending time with family is obviously another perk.

"For Dad's entire family, our family, everybody, it's just all about family memories—more than anything—that you talk about over the years, relive over the years," Shari said. "We're not all up here as a family at the same time anymore, but it's a spot that has a special place in the greater family heart. We just all love it up here."

Lehman relatives come from all across the country, including Texas, Oregon and Ohio, to continue the tradition of vacationing at Upper Cullen Resort. And thanks to the accommodating resort staff, Willard doesn't plan on abandoning that practice any time soon.

"When the owners take such good care of you, you just can't help but want to come back," he said. "They make you feel like you should be here."