A Ruttger Heritage

The Ruttger family has upheld an outstanding reputation for quality and service as leaders in the resort business since 1898. Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge was established over 100 years ago, and the Ruttger’s Sugar Lake Lodge property was the site for the Otis Lodge for over 70 years. Joe Ruttger and Art Otis were pioneers in the resort business and the first in Minnesota to offer the American plan resort concept offering lodging, meals, and golf packages. Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge celebrated its centennial in 1998 and Ruttger’s Sugar Lake Lodge celebrated its grand opening the summer of 1996.

Sugar Lake Lodge History

Joseph Ruttger came to America from the town of Neulieningen in Germany’s Rhine Valley in 1883. He traveled to New York and made his way to Minnesota in the spring of 1886. He joined a group of settlers who founded Rankin’s Colony on Bay Lake. The colonists transported a sawmill with them and used it to cut lumber and build their homes and other community buildings. Each colonist filed his own homestead claim; Joe Ruttger settled on an island just off the north shore of Bay Lake.

In 1890, Joe met and married Josephine Wasserzieher. Due to the difficulties of island life, they sold their property and relocated on the north shore of Bay Lake. Their discovery of this “summertime Shangri-La” resulted in the birth of the resort. As word spread of the great fishing on Bay Lake—and of a settler, Joe Ruttger, who had a boat for rent—more and more visitors arrived each year. In the early days, guests stayed in their own tents and some slept in the hayloft of the barn. Eventually, Joe built a special lodging facility and a one-week stay cost of $5.00 for a bed, board, and boat.

When Alex, Joe, and Jose’s first-born son returned from World War I and a brief stint in Montana, he decided to go into the resort business with the goal of building a first-class property. He borrowed $3,500 from an Aitkin banker to make improvements.

Sugar Lake MN History
sugar lake mn

Alex and his wife Myrle devoted their lives to building the resort, and the family tradition was carried on with their son Jack. During Jack’s tenure, the resort grew to its current size with two golf courses, condominiums, and a conference center that has become the mainstay of the business over the past decade. In 1992, Jack’s son, Chris, took over as the general manager of Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge. Chris is one of the first of the four generations to study hotel administration and has been busy making plans to take the business into its second century of operation. Chris graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York in 1984 with a degree in hotel management. He acquired experience from working at the Grand Hotel, Mackinaw Island, MI, and the Normandy Inn, Minneapolis, MN. He returned to Bay Lake in 1985.

Otis Lodge also began with enterprising settlers and pioneers in the resort business—Art and Eleanor Otis. Years ago, Sugar Lake was known by the Chippewa name, Sissebakwet. The Chippewa inhabited a small sugar camp at the north end of the lake dating back to 1867. Among the early settlers on the lake were the Otis’. Art Otis and his father used to camp out on the lake during the summers of 1902–10. Art built a house on the south side of Sugar Lake in 1914. In the winter of 1925, with hand-made skids and a team of horses, the house was moved across the lake to the north shore.

Eleanor Otis was born in Hibbing in 1902. She grew up in the area and attended the teacher training department in Central School in Grand Rapids, MN. After a summer session at the Bemidji Normal School majoring in rural education, Eleanor selected the Sugar Lake School for her first teaching assignment. Rural teachers often stayed with families, so she moved in with Art Otis and his mother in 1921. Art and Eleanor were married in 1923 and with the help of her teaching salary, they rented boats, one cottage, the log bunkhouse, and camping equipment. As people discovered the great fishing in Sugar Lake, their business grew, and they continued to build, ending up with 14 cottages offering the American plan. In 1930, they cut down some trees and established a golf course. By September 1940, they had added an airfield, and 47 planes flew in for an impromptu dedication. In 1944, the Saturday Evening Post cited Otis Lodge as the first resort with its own airport in the nation. Once a year, they had a fly-in breakfast, where their friends would fly in from all over the country. As a young woman, Eleanor lamented her limited cooking knowledge, but with steadfast determination, she learned and created meals that were “beyond criticism”. In 1964, the Otis’ retired and sold the resort.

sugar lake mn
sugar lake lodge mn

As pioneers in the resort business, the Ruttger’s and the Otis’ established a reputation for quality service and Northwoods hospitality. Fred and Gwynne Bobich will build on that reputation with their own business and hospitality. Fred grew up spending summers at Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge with his grandparents Alex and Myrle Ruttger. He started working there when he was 14 years old and continued until his graduation from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in business and hospitality management. In 1975, he married Gwynne Kangas, a fellow Ruttger employee.

Otis’s Restaurant opened June 1994 in the Main Lodge serving Italian and American cuisine, featuring some of Eleanor Otis’s famous recipes and wine from the Ruttger family winery in Neulieningen, Germany. The $2.4 million lodge houses a spacious lobby, Otis’s Restaurant, and a state-of-the-art conference center, which has most recently become the home to the Collaborative Leadership Center. In addition to the 18,000 square-foot lodge facility, six lakeside cottages and 42 three-bedroom golf course townhomes were completely remodeled. Four three-bedroom suites, attached to the lodge, were added in July 1996. An additional four suites, making 24 rooms total in the Main Lodge opened in June 2004. Current development plans include 32 additional rooms, indoor pool/spa facility, and additional meeting space.