Tomahawk Resort and the Herseth Family History
Thor Herseth, owner of Tomahawk Resort from 1949 to 1996, recounted his family history in September 2005
What is now Tomahawk Resort was, in 1908, the homestead of Herman Peterson. Thus, the bay is named Peterson Bay. The land was next owned by John Odella and his wife, who farmed the property. Mr. Odella drowned while setting a net for whitefish at Finn Island in 1922.
Max Herseth, Thor’s dad, was a swimming coach in Ely, Minnesota. In 1922 he came to Kabetogama looking for land on the lake where he could have a home and swim. He loved the Peterson Bay area with the big sandy beach. Max made an offer to buy the beautiful sandy beach property from Mrs. Odella, but her three children did not want to sell. Max left Mrs. Odella with an offer in the event that she mght change her mind. In 1928, a $500 lien placed against the Odella property and the family could not pay it. Max Herseth received the news that his offer was accepted. The land was purchased for $800.
Max had his automobile placed on a railroad car and transported to the town of Ray. Many people from Finland had settled around the railroad town of Ray and surrounding lake area because it reminded them of their homeland. It was a place where there was good hunting and trapping, as well as fishing.
A railroad logging camp was located at what is now Northern Lights Resort; and a rough, narrow, rutted logging road went from there to Peterson Bay.
All cabins overlooked the lakeMax and Maybelle Herseth resided at the lake in the summer months. During the fall and winter, they returned to Ely where Max worked as a school teacher. They started building cabins for people to come enjoy the fishing and swimming. The first 3-bedroom cabin was built in 1929 and is still on the property today. Twenty-six cabins were built from 1929 to 1941. In 1929 a one-bedroom cabin rented for $15 per week, and the 3-bedroom cabin rate was $40 per week. In all, 43 buildings were constructed, including an ice house, dock boys’ cabin and a seven-stall garage. Kabetogama's Vacation Camp, as they named it, was the first resort on Kabetogama located on private land. Max retired from teaching in 1939 and the family moved to the lake permanently.
As a young boy, Thor went to school at the Kabetogama Country School located across from the community building. All children up to 9th grade attended a one-room school. “In real cold weather, I biked to school early and started the wood stove to heat it up,” Thor explained.
He went on to describe life at the resort. “In the beginning, my mom washed all the laundry, including all the sheets by hand. She worked hard. We cut lots of wood for heating the cabins. We even cut the ice from the lake in the early winter. Ice had to be cut before it got too thick. We cut 18 to 22 inch blocks and stored them in boxes of sawdust. This would keep them frozen solid all year.”
“There was a time I remember, as a very young boy, a loud 'WOOMP!' woke us up in the middle of the night. Just as daylight broke, we went to investigate. Jarvinen’s Resort, just a short way away, had an explosion. There was money scattered all over the ground. They told us young children we could have all the coins but had to give them the paper money. Their moonshine stil had blown up. I suppose we picked up about five dollars in coins but there were hundreds in paper money,” Thor chuckled.
In 1944, when Thor was 17 years old, he enlisted in the Navy. Thor recalled, “When I was in service I saved all my money. Many of the guys gambled; I didn’t. I was getting paid $39 a month at the beginning and later I think I was getting $98 a month. I was a third class Gunner’s Mate. Well, anyway, I saved up and when I got my honorable discharge from service, I ordered myself a new 1946 Ford. The best money could buy. It cost $1,560, I well remember. Dad needed a car so I gave him the car and bought myself a motorcycle. That’s all we had when I married Helen.”
Thor and his sister Kathryn bought the property from their parents in 1949. Later the land was divided between them. Thor named his section Tomahawk Resort.
In 1949, Thor Herseth married Helen Lee from Spring Grove, MN. They had three children: two daughters, Penny, Peggy, and one son, Lee. To support his family in the winter months, Thor was an avid hunter and trapper. Helen recalls heating the water by throwing an electric ring into the ringer washer. “It took all day to wash the laundry,” she said.
Until 1956, Thor and Helen went to Minneapolis in the winter months to find jobs. Thor worked for P.K. Float Co. There he learned how to rebuild and attach floats on planes. He had received his pilot’s license through the GI Training Program after the war. After a few years, Thor bought his own plane and attached the floats himself.
Tomahawk Resort had the first State Registered Seaplane Base. There was an incident when Scott Air Force Base called late into the night requesting Thor’s services to help locate a signal. They thought that possibly a Russian satellite had come down in the area. Thor thought that, perhaps, another pilot in the area may have left his signaling device on so he checked and found this was not the case. The next day he was told that someone up on Rainy Lake had left their locating signal on.
Thor reminisced about a long time friend and neighbor, Mr. LeVerne Oveson who also flew a sea plane. One time Mr. Oveson was flying in during a snowstorm just a few feet above the ground. A party of people snowmobiling on Namakan Lake thought he had crashed because he was flying so low, but as Thor watched, he landed safely in Peterson Bay. “He was a good pilot,” Thor said.
On another occasion Thor was flying out from Johnson Lake during a snowstorm. “I realized I was having a mechanical problem. I flew as high as I could but I kept coming down. I landed safely but I had to tow my plane with a snowmobile. I did all my own engine repairs, ya know,” explained Thor.
Cover of Herseth's Vacation Camp brochure
Thor and Helen enjoyed the resort for 43 years. Although, it was a lot of hard work and long hours, the people made it special.
Lee, Thor and Helen’s son, took over the resort in 1992. He married Lori in 1993. Lee and Lori are the third generation to reside and operate Herseth’s Tomahawk Resort on that beautiful sandy beach.