Gateway History by Barbara Nehring
It was the late 1930's. The United States and the rest of the world were in the midst of the Great Depression, and ominous winds of war were sweeping through Europe. In the Wisconsin Northwoods, years of logging had left the country cut over and economically depressed.
But an energetic radio and theater magnate from Detroit, Michigan, was about to change everything-- not only the history of Land O' Lakes, the old mill town that stood as the entrance to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but the history of the entire area as well.
John King, whose original name was John Kunsky, had fallen in love with the land and people of the Northwoods. His determination to build a first class hotel in the area was matched only by his admiration of the people he wanted to help in the process. The King's Gateway Hotel complex was born. Originally King had wanted to build his dream in Watersmeet, but local politics forced him to locate in Land O' Lakes.
Noted Milwaukee architect, Henry Messmer, and local building contractors, Carper and Turnquist, were hired and King set out to create the finest hotel-resort complex in the Midwest.
Completed first was the Gateway Inn, on the northwest corner of Hwys 45 and B, now the site for Stateline Family Restaurant, Stateline Catering, and the Gateway Mobile Station. Construction on this building began in 1937, and, according to Nig DeMers, local historian, the front windows of that building were actually salvaged from a previous building located there, the Black Bear, a soda fountain, store and gas station built by Gus Conradson, and owned and operated by Mr. and Mrs. Irv Moenning. The bear cage, retained by the Gateway, always housed at least one black bear for tourists to feed, and was located just to the north of the building. It remained there through the early days of the Inn's operation.
Gambling in Wisconsin was legal then, and slot machines were a prime attraction at the Inn. The Inn also featured twelve bowling alleys, billiard tables, a cozy, small, handcrafted bar-restaurant area, and a gas station at the front of the building on Hwy 45. A much larger bar, known as the Red Deer Lounge, was the focal point of the Inn, with its huge window facing north and a view of a spectacular rock garden with waterfalls and a replica of an entire village. In the summer, the major restaurant area, located where Stateline Family Restaurant is now, hosted entertainment. After WWII, the entertainment was provided by a lively crew of young college-age waiters and waitresses, and the two dinner shows nightly were packed. Dresses for women and sportcoat and tie for men were required. Much of the original building was demolished as part of a 1990 renovation.
Even before the Inn was completed, the magnificent King's Gateway Hotel was under construction. This grand, lodge-style log-sided building was located and remains just across from the Inn . It was to become the jewel in King's Crown!
Originally, the hotel was one story, with fifty-four rooms, divided by a gracious, half-log lobby and anchored by an enormous hand-crafted dining room and a richly furnished lounge featuring giant hand-cut wrought iron chandeliers. Visitors to all the Gateway buildings, especially the Hotel, were struck by the huge hand-crafted beams, the hand-scored wood trim, and the hand-pegged Douglas Fir floor in the dining room. Expert Finnish carpenters had to invent the tools necessary to scrape the deep furrows in the beams and wood trim, according to LaVern Turnquist, widow of one of builders.
With construction on the Hotel well underway, King began building his airport, just to the south of the Hotel.(note: As early as 1927, planes were using the grassy strip set aside by Land O' Lakes developers as a potential airport . This foresight, as well as other Land O' Lakes development was spearheaded by local entrepreneur, Joe Handlos,BN) By 1941 local daredevils were taking to the skies. Nig DeMers remembers that he and John Garber Sr., took flight instructions from Will Dotter, of Tomahawk, WI. Neither terminal nor hangar had been build then, and Dotter kept his plane in a tin shack at the edge of the runway. While Nig flew for fun, John eventually became an expert pilot, and flew as part of a flight command overseas during World War II.
Even as the airport was being completed, King's energetic mind was planning still further ahead. Henry Mitchell remembers that, as he and Gene Nikkari were working at the airport, King's distinctive long black cadillac, with red wheels, pulled up. Mr. King rolled down the window and said ,"Pick up your shovels boys and follow me--we're going to build a golf course!" Eventually, the building first erected as the Land O' Lakes airport terminal, was moved to the North side of Hwy B, where it became the core building of the King's Gateway Golf Course.
As construction of the complex was nearing completion, major midwest newspapers were heralding the King's Gateway as the new playground of the North. "In all of the midwest, there is no more elaborate or attractive sportsman's headquarters," said The Milwaukee Sentinel. "No expense has been spared to make King's Gateway Hotel an outstandingly attractive and beautiful place," In 1941 a single room with "hot and cold running water and lavatory" could be had for $2 per night. A double went for $5.
In addition to the Hotel, the Gateway Ski Chalet (Now the Land O' Lakes NorthernWaters Museum), the King's Gateway Airport (now the Land O' Lakes Airport), the King's Gateway Golf Course (Now the Gateway Golf Club), the Crystal Lake and later Beaver Lake beaches, and the Gateway Stables, originally located on the East side of Hwy 45, 1/4 mile down Crystal Lake Road, provided guests and local residents with the finest in all around summer and winter recreational activities.
To the Land O' Lakes community, The King's Gateway was a source of employment, pride, and entertainment. While planes, trains, and automobiles carried the rich and famous here to party, John King made sure that local children were invited to ski at the Chalet, skate at the Gateway rink, and warm themselves by the enormous Gateway fireplace. On June 24, 1947, King, a widower, married a sprightly young Watersmeet woman, Sarah (Sug) DeMers.
(Note: the romance of John King and Sug DeMers is the stuff of fairy tales. Sug came from a large, very poor family in Watersmeet, and King fell completely in love with her. The story of their romance is easily one of Land O' Lakes most interesting tales. It supposedly began when King, on his way to visit his property at Snapjack--now part of the Sylvania Tract--stopped at a hamburger stand where Sug was working. Sug supposedly lived in a shack with dirt floors and was bemoaning the fact that she didn't have a dress to go to a dance that was coming up. King supposedly saw to it that she got that new dress! John Garber, the well known early Gateway manager, married Oni, Sug's sister, thereby becoming King's brother-in-law. John Garber's full name is said to be John Garbarek. BN)
Among the many recreational activities offered in the early days of the Gateway were golfing, horseback riding, tennis, downhill and cross-country skiing, ski-joring, snow shoeing, trapshooting and, ski jumping. All were offered with first-class equipment and promotion. One of the first trap shoots held at the Gateway had a " guaranteed purse of $5,000," a princely sum at that time.
A towering ski jump, at least 93 feet high, according to Nig DeMers, was built just to the south of the hotel, and skiers came from miles around to compete in national and international competitions. Various area ski clubs held demonstrations and competitive jumping, including dramatic nighttime jumps through flaming hoops. Ski jumping was a very popular sport in the late thirties and early forties. Nig DeMers remembers that a ski-jumping club from Conover once sent 50 skiers to a meet in Three Lakes.
The ski jump was not dismantled until the late 1950's, and many stories are told of local skiers, including the DeMers and Dussault families, among others, who climbed to the top of that jump and flew into the air. Nig tells of taking apart the ski jump, which had fallen into disrepair, along with Henry Green and "Swede" Hedberg, of Conover. As they worked, Eddie Neman Senior arrived with his movie camera and shot pictures of the process. (Note: I have contacted Helen Neman who will, with her son, Tom, search family archives for this film, and possibly others.The Nemans operated Neman's Grocery Store, where the Bucksnort Coffee Shop and Northwoods Living are now, for many years BN)
The first manager of the Hotel was an internationally famous trap shooter by the name of Walter Warren. Soon Warren was joined by Watersmeet native, John Garber, who was King' s brother-in-law, as general manager and Joe Maurin as sports director. Garber was, perhaps, the Hotel's most storied early manager. He was one of the most renowned hosts in the area, and it was said he never forgot a name. To this day, the flagstone house located just to the West of the Dari-Maid is known to oldtimers as the John Garber house. There, the charismatic Garber lived with his wife, Oni, and two children, John Jr., and Gail. Always dressed " to the nines", almost every evening, Garber and his family would drive in style from his house to the Gateway, where he would personally see to the well-being of guests and visitors. Colorful stories about this well known host abound in the memories of Land O' Lakes oldtimers.
As part of it's complete service package, the Gateway picked up guests at the Land O' Lakes depot by car in summer and, in the winter, by horse and cutter.( At one time the Gateway kept six cutters to carry Winter guests to and from the various winter sports locations.) The Chicago-Northwestern depot was located just to the north of the present day Land O' Lakes Library. At that time, the Land O' Lakes business district, which included several buildings moved from the original mill town of Donaldson, was oriented along the north-south railroad track line. At one time, two trains daily pulled into the Land O' Lakes station, serving Gateway guests and other families who, introduced to the area by the Gateway, were beginning to buy cottages and lake property. The overnight train left the North Western station in Chicago at 6 p.m., and arrived at Land O' Lakes at 7:15 a.m. The return train left Land O'Lakes at 7:15 p.m. and arrived at Chicago at 7:15 a.m. The round trip cost $12.
In the late thirties and early forties, skiing was a growing family sport and the Gateway offered downhill and cross-country skiing at the Gateway Ski Hill, located just South of Land O' Lakes on the east side of Hwy 45. The first warming house was a white frame building, soon supplanted by the beautiful log-sided building which came to be known as "the Chalet", set at the foot of what had been known locally as "Mosquito Hill", reportedly part of an original logging camp. The early white frame building was then moved to the hilltop as the rope tow station. The hill offered several runs for downhill as well as cross-country skiing. Members of the Sitzmarkden Ski Club from Rhinelander, of which present-day Land O' Lakes resident, E.T. "Tug" Juday, was a member, would trek to the Gateway Hill each time there was a snowstorm to "hand pack" the hill by meticulously side-stepping skis up and down the hill. Guests could enjoy snow shoeing at the Gateway Hill, as well as take skiing lessons. A giant toboggan run was also constructed, complete with a tow.
The King's Gateway Ski Hill was the state of Wisconsin's first private ski hill, and the first ski instructor was Norwegian, Olaf Thornvald, generally regarded as the top ski instructor in the Midwest followed by Floyd Yaeger, a native of Austria. Milton Lockry, and Joe Maurin were also skiing names associated with the hill. As the resort complex moved into the middle of the twentieth century, local ski instructors were Louis (Nig) DeMers, Dick Lapp, and George Cass, among others. The ski hill ceased operations in the mid 1970's and was eventually sold to Richter Ready Mix and Construction in 1980.
Figure skating was also a part of the early Gateway ambience. In the beginning, the entire circle in front of the Hotel was flooded each winter. Local resident, Lou DeMers, who recently passed away, and her sister, Margie Wykowski, who still lives in Three Lakes, WI., were excellent figure skaters and used to perform routinely for hundreds of spectators. Each day, the horse and cutter from the King's Gateway would greet guests arriving at the Land O' Lakes train station and deliver them to the Hotel--just in time to watch the skaters begin their show. (The Land O' Lakes Historical Society has videos and photos of throngs of people watching the skaters perform BN.)
The Gateway was the center for other fun winter events as well, including hilarious snowshoe baseball games, as well as husband and wife snowshoe races. "Dude" Dodge, the originator of Tia Juana Supper Club, and his sled dogs, headquartered at the Gateway, encouraging the development of sled dog racing and recreational riding.
The Chicago and North Western Railway began including Land O' Lakes on its winter weekend all inclusive tours, and the Gateway was billed as a "new Winter Sports playground". Skiing, skating, tobogganing, sleigh riding and sledding were touted as the best. In comparison to other ski hills located to the North in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and to the much later modern snow meccas in the Western Rockies, the Gateway Ski hill was small. However, for its day, it was a gem, renowned for catering to beginning skiers and to those seriously practicing for national and international competitions.Skiers of national renown regularly traveled to The Chalet to hone their skills.
(Note: it might be interesting to research the time it might have taken to drive from Chicago. Marie Gerold, a wonderfully wise elderly woman who was one of my first friends when we moved here in 1964, remembered that her family would start out at daybreak from the Chicago area, finally land at Stevens Point for an overnight, then continue on to Land O' Lakes (including at least two changes of tires), arriving exhausted but exhilarated, knowing they were finally in their beloved northwoods. Another interesting item to research might be what type of road Hwy 45 was then. It may have been dirt or gravel for quite a distance as it came north (thus the blown tires). I know there was a Highway 45 Club dedicated to improving the highway in existence in the early l940's. I have a picture of the club in front of the Gateway Hotel, and I know it included Dude Dodge who was here at the time the Gateway opened. He is another subject to be investigated, as he was known for his sled dogs, and for building the Tia Juana Supper Club.BN)
In the early 1950's John King died in Encino, Calif., at the age of 77. The family continued to run the operation, and in 1954, the King's Gateway Airport became King's Land O' Lakes Municipal Airport, when Sug King, King's widow, donated the airport to the town.
The entire King's Gateway Complex was sold in the late 1950's to Walter Williamson, of Rockford, Ill., then the owner and developer of the famous Wagon Wheel Resort, in Rockton, Ill.
(Note: Williamson was also involved with the Mobil Oil Co.--Henry Mitchell told me that he would actually bring oil up here for the Gateway Inn and Gateway Hotel. Two railroad cars at approximately 9000 gallons each stood behind the Gateway and the Gateway Inn. Williamson supervised property used by the Rockford Boy Scout troops on the Cisco Chain and eventually built a storage building there out of ore dock lumber salvaged from the Ashland ore docks, along the shores of Lake Superior, which were being dismantled. It was said in Land O' Lakes that the second story of the Gateway Hotel was built with that same lumber. I have not been able to verify this, however BN.)
Williamson added a second story to the wings of the Hotel in 1961, increasing the capacity by 56 rooms. He also brought Chuck McCormick to Land O' Lakes as manager of the entire complex.
McCormick, who also served for many years as a Land O' Lakes deputy sheriff for the Vilas County Sheriff's office, brought scores of conventions to the Hotel, continuing and enhancing nationwide trapshoots, and began the Hotel's venture into the burgeoning world of snowmobiling by sponsoring important snowmobile functions. It was also during McCormick's tenure that the Hotel's large swimming pool became home to the Gateway Swim Club. Out of this group of competitive youngsters emerged Wendy Lansbach (now Boglioli), who, in 1976 competed in the Montreal olympics, bringing home both a gold and a bronze medal. A plaque in the memorial garden across from the Library commemorates this fact.
(Note:it would be interesting to do a story on Wendy and the swim team someday. Her mom, Mary Ellen Lansbach, still lives in Land O' Lakes and trained the team, including her daughter. Her dad, Hi Lansbach, was the backbone of the maintenance crew at the Gateway and even rigged up a swimming harness for Wendy, suspended from the pool's ceiling to develop her endurance. I remember seeing her in the cold, cruel Land O' Lakes early summer mornings swimming endless lengths of Beaver Lake, the small Gateway-owned Lake behind the golf course. BN )
McCormick ably managed the hotel throughout Williamson's ownership--approximately until 1971, when it was purchased by Jeffrey DeGayner, of Michigan. (At that time McCormick left the hotel and took over Neman's Grocery Store in downtown Land O'Lakes--now the completely remodeled Northwoods Living retail store and the Bucksnort Coffee Shop BN). Economic conditions steadily worsened for the hotel, and, within the year, a major Sheriff's auction of hotel supplies, furniture, equipment and artifacts stripped the Gateway of much of its' internal character.
The Gateway was then taken over by a West Coast bank consortium, which ran it sporadically, including an extended period of leasing to a "flower child" style religious group, until, eventually the Mid-America Bank of Milwaukee, under Harold Samson, took over sole ownership in 1976. The Red Carpet Inns, of Milwaukee, under Samson's direction, then began to manage the hotel, and, to the delight of hotel customers, McCormick returned as manager.
Under McCormick's management, the Gateway bought out a country club in Milwaukee to refurbish the decimated kitchen equipment. Local craftsmen, Harry Hyer and Bob Ripp then consulted old photos and reconstructed The Gateway look" with all new lobby furniture. In addition, persons who had purchased Gateway artifacts at the auction began to return them to their accustomed place in the Hotel.
Gradually, the Gateway properties began to be separated. The Gateway Golf Course was leased by Bob Chase, who eventually bought it. The Ski Hill and the Chalet were purchased by Richter Ready Mix and Construction. That company then began excavating the rich lode of high grade gravel deposited by ancient glaciers, which had formed the underlayment for the ski hill. However, the Richters, in particular Ed Richter, realizing the uncommon beauty of the Chalet, kept the building soundly roofed and boarded up to ensure its safety from vandals. At the urging of Land O' Lakes Historical Society founders, Ann Bates, Cathy Nordine, and Barbara Nehring, the Richter company donated the building to the Land O' Lakes Historical Society to be moved into Land O' Lakes proper and used as a museum.
In the early 1980's, the Hotel was sold to a Las Vegas time share corporation, American Resorts International. During that time, LaFriske Contractors added ten feet to each of the Hotel's two wings, and extensively remodeled the interior, adding kitchenettes to many of the rooms. (NOTE: at some point during this time the hotel was leased to a religious, "guru" type organization--but I have not been able to firm up the date on this or get the exact name of the organization. I do remember that they were rather nice people who harkened back to the days of the "hippies", and promoted a back to nature lifestyle. BN) Approximately 6 years later, the Hotel reverted to ownership by a bank in Portland, Oregon, which, in 1989, sold it to a swaggering, Stetson-crowned Nebraska entrepreneur by the name of Robert Yarbrough. (NOTE: while the Portland bank owned the hotel, the glass-topped atrium enclosing the pool collapsed and was removed. BN)Yarbrough, who, with his wife, Diane, daughter Hunter, and stepson, Luke, enthusiastically promoted events and improvements at the Gateway, including the rebuilding of the pool, and became staunch supporters of Land O' Lakes activities. Eventually, in keeping with the times, the Yarbroughs liquidated much of the remaining hotel property and steadily turned the time-share hotel into condominium units, a move which probably saved the historic hotel from destruction..
Eventually, in 1993 the ownership of remaining properties and the hotel itself passed to the condominium owners, under the name of The Gateway Condominium Association. After a brief stint by manager, Marco Disano, the Condo association turned to a Chicago native to restore and renovate the historic lodge . Since August of 1993, Bob Klager has been at the helm of the historic inn, now known as the Gateway Lodge. Under sensitive and dedicated Condo Assoc. ownership and Klager's management, the Gateway is once again enjoying increased occupancy and continued steady renovation, allowing this grand historic building to take its place proudly in the twenty-first century.
Submitted and written By:
Land O' Lakes Historical Society
May 17, 2002
NOTE: This is a work in progress. Please feel free to send additions and/or corrections to Barb or to the Land O' Lakes Historical Society.