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Reuniting in the Upper Midwest

by Jeffrey P. Wallman
Imagine how I felt. I was on assignment for Reunions magazine, attending the Wolf family reunion. Nothing unusual about that. A reunion like any other except for one small thing; the wolves were real. I wasn't prepared for this. Needless to say, when I attended the Bear family reunion the next day, I was even more surprised when thirty black bear arrived! This was all part of my assignment to evaluate reunion sites in the Upper Midwest.

For two years we've visited a number of vacation areas to develop a feature about reunion locations. We will introduce five great locations; Lake Geneva and Door County in Wisconsin, Ely and Brainerd Lakes in Minnesota, and Galena in Northern Illinois. Each area features extensive lodging facilities, from campgrounds to resorts and a variety of family activities.

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Just an hour from Chicago's O'Hare airport, Lake Geneva is a tiny town that turns into a tourist mecca every weekend during summer. Long the summer home for many of Chicago's wealthiest families, it's full of cute shops and restaurants.

While a reunion at high season can be expensive, with planning you can save thousands during midweek or in the off season. A number of area properties do a great job for families.

The Grand Geneva
Most of their business is corporate. That's no surprise considering its extensive meeting facilities and two championship golf courses. However, the property is loaded with amenities that appeal to families: a full spa, lap pool, snowboarding hill, petting farm, hiking trails, and more. In addition, with three restaurants the Grand Geneva can please nearly every palette.

If you wish to dine in Lake Geneva, there are a number of options. For casual family and small group dining, the Lake Aire Restaurant provides good basic fare. Nick's Restaurant on the outskirts of town serves a great steak and Greek salad and can comfortably accommodate larger parties.

Door County, Wisconsin
Located four hours north of Chicago, the Door County peninsula is one of the most interesting reunion sites you can find. Driving along the peninsula is a pleasant adventure, evoking memories of New England lighthouses, sand beaches, limestone bluffs, and farms. However, this is not New England, as any Door County resident will tell you. Door County has more miles of shoreline than any county in the United States. The most state parks, too. And lighthouses? The most.

Summer is high season. It starts late and ends early. Weekends can be crowded. However, from October to May there are fewer people and prices are lower. A number of resorts in the area cater to larger groups; The Landmark, Bailey's Harbor Yacht Club, and The Alpine are examples.

The Landmark Resort offers a number of amenities. It's a complete resort with swimming, hiking and golf. It's a very comfortable resort with a tasteful, contemporary decor. One, two and three bedroom units are available; each unit contains a living room, dining room, and kitchen.

The White Gull Inn in Fish Creek has just five rooms, each sleeping two adults. Each room is different and prices vary from around $100 - $150 per night. All five rooms can be rented for about $724 per night. The price is the same year round. But with a two-night stay in the off-season the room includes two breakfasts and one dinner in their famous restaurant.

Ely, Minnesota
Every family should visit Ely, Minnesota at least once. Located four hours from Minneapolis, Ely features a number of beautiful lakes. It's a little wild. Ely is home to the International Wolf Foundation, the geographical center for the largest wolf population in the United States. Nature, not man, holds claim to this land. Overall, Ely is one of the most peaceful places on earth, except perhaps in the middle of the night, when you are likely to hear wolves howling in the distance - evidence of nature's claim.

However, in the town of Ely there are many signs of civilization, such as Pizza Hut and Subway. There are about a dozen outfitters who will arrange the details for your wilderness journey. There is a lot of lodging available, particularly during the off-peak fishing season. Most of the lodges are small, family places.

The Timber Trail Lodge is located just outside Ely, on Farm Lake. The Lodge features a variety of modest cabins. The mostly family staff is very friendly. They have expertise in setting up fishing and canoeing expeditions into the Boundary Waters area. Canoeing and fishing are fantastic.

Timber Trail features large cabins appropriate for groups. One cabin sleeps eleven for $1,055 per week. Another sleeps fifteen comfortably for $1,380 per week. These prices are restricted to certain times, so call for details.

The Burntside Lodge is a little more expensive, but features more amenities. Some people rough it elsewhere for a few days first, then check in at the Burntside for a little vacation within a vacation.

There are a number of interesting things for groups to do. The International Wolf Foundation in Ely is fascinating. A small number of wolves actually live on the foundation grounds or take a short drive to Vince Shute Wildlife Refuge and see dozens of bears in their own environment.

A variety of dining options are available in Ely including a few national chains. Among local restaurants The Chocolate Moose accommodates small groups.

Galena, Illinois
This tiny mining town is a charming reminder of days gone by. President Grant lived there. Lincoln visited. In fact, he stayed at the DeSoto House Hotel, which has been renovated to its original splendor. If you don't stay at the DeSoto House drop by anyway, if for no other reason than to get a sense of what Galena looked like in its early days.

The town is filled with numerous examples of classical 19th century architecture. Its hilly streets provide a walking history lesson for young and old. Unsurprisingly, Galena is loaded with beautiful bed and breakfast hotels, which are perfect for small groups.

For large groups, however, other properties are available. Eagle Ridge Resort, for example, is one of the premier resort locations in the upper midwest. Located in the beautiful Mississippi River valley, the resort features spectacular views, great hiking, lots of wildlife and, of course, world class golf. It's also a great place for in-line skating. However, be forewarned. Only an experienced skater with good brakes can negotiate the severe slopes of Eagle Ridge.

On our first trip to the resort, we had a deer feeding station directly outside our room. We saw over forty deer. Since then the herd has been thinned somewhat. However there are still plenty to see. On our next trip we saw a flock of wild turkeys, right on the golf course. These majestic birds are far more beautiful and intelligent than their domesticated cousins. No wonder Ben Franklin suggested the wild turkey as our national bird.

Eagle Ridge has a variety of accommodations, ranging from single rooms in the main lodge to condominiums for large groups. The rooms are tastefully decorated and very comfortable. The food at Eagle Ridge is also very good. The main restaurant features a broad menu with something for everyone. Finally, the resort has a number of special events each year, particularly during the off-season, so check the event calendar when planning your stay.

Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota
I first visited Brainerd after seeing 6Fargo, a murder movie in which actors spoke with thick Minnesota accents. The film is set in Brainerd, just west of Minneapolis. We kept expecting to hear an accented voice saying, "Sooo, all for a little money, huh?"

Just two hours west of Minneapolis, this vacation area has a lot to offer. With numerous lakes, the Pillsbury State Forest and the Paul Bunyon Trail, the Brainerd Lakes area has many reminders of the timber days of American folklore. Where else could you have an amusement park called Lumbertown?

However, the area has changed. Timber is no longer king. Lumbertown is closed.
What remains is a wonderful family area, loaded with resorts. Among the most well-known is Madden's. Located on Gull Lake, Madden's has a full range of resort amenities such as swimming and boating, and some things you wouldn't expect, like a brand new award winning golf course.

Madden's has extensive holdings in the vicinity of Gull Lake. Each building is well designed and the decor is tasteful. They have a number of family packages. In addition, two large homes are available for family reunions, Lake House and Strawberry Ridge. When pricing, be aware that Madden's has a seasonal price list that varies weekly. In addition, an American Plan, Modified American Plan, and European Plan are available, so pay attention to the details when getting estimates.

Brainerd Lakes is very affordable overall. But remember to stock up on a few necessities before you arrive because you'll pay the resort keeper a premium for everything he sells. I expect this, and frankly, am happy to pay for the convenience a resort offers. But many people may not be prepared. In fact, on getaway day, my family and I overheard a woman complaining to a store clerk about the price of cigarettes. "Why so high?" she asked. "Well," the sheepish clerk answered, "'s for the money." "Soooo," the woman shot back in a heavy Minnesota accent, "All for a little money, huh?" At that point, we knew our trip was complete.

Branson, a Veteran's Homecoming
by Lynn Ryan
Branson rolls out the red carpet for veterans in November for the annual Veterans' Homecoming, the largest Veterans' Day event in the nation sponsored by Branson, Missouri's Veterans Task Force. My husband, Mike, and I attended this impressive event last year.

An opening ceremony at the Talk of the Town Theater included speeches from military guests, introduction of Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients and a spectacular landing of sky divers in the parking lot. A short reception followed Branson entertainment.

We attended the Tony Orlando "Santa and Me" show that evening. During the show, Orlando welcomed veterans and thanked them for all they had done during the wars.

At the Welk Resort Center the next morning, we attended the Lennon Brothers Show of swing and Christmas Music. The three surviving flight crew members of the B-29 Enola Gay that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, were introduced and received a moving standing ovation.

After the show, at the opening ceremony at the miniature traveling version of The Vietnam War Memorial ("The Wall"), the Enola Gay crew, who seemed overwhelmed by the attention they received, placed wreaths to honor dead servicemen. (Photo: B-29 Enola Gay pilot, General Paul Tibbets is flanked by Bombadier Colonel Thomas Ferebee and Navigator Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk.)

We lunched with Debbie Britt, Group Sales Manager, at the Jim Stafford Theater which was all decked out for Christmas. Debbie happily told us about Branson, how the whole town welcomes veterans and how it is a great place to live or visit. Many entertainers such as Jim Stafford, Tony Orlando and the Lennon family live as well as perform in Branson.

Later that afternoon we attended a spectacular lazer light show at The Palace Theater. It was the Dino Christmas Show. Dino plays grand piano and his wife, Cheryl, is the featured singer in the show which also features dancers and ice skating. Again veterans were acknowledged during the show.

At a VIP reception that evening at Mesquite Charlies, decorated in red, white and blue, some of the veterans dressed in their uniforms. They were honored and Medal of Honor recipients were introduced. It was moving how veterans' wives admired their husbands with such pride.

On our last day, there was a Paralyzed Veterans of America Race in rainy and cold weather. Our next stop was the beautiful showboat Branson Belle. We had a great lunch and time to go on deck to enjoy the scenery. The gray overcast day didn't really effect the cruise; everyone enjoyed themselves.

Medal of Honor recipients were honored with medallions of the Showboat Branson Belle as a thank you from the Veterans Task Force. After the ceremony we were treated to more great acts.

We visited to Silver Dollar City and saw the lighting of the Christmas Tree, an annual event. Silver Dollar City is amazing; old fashioned shops, workers dressed in old-fashioned costumes, restaurants, music, and Christmas lights everywhere. The Medal of Honor recipients were again praised in a ceremony in which all veterans were welcomed and thanked for their service.

The last show we saw was the Radio City Rockettes Christmas Show at The Grand Palace. From the Dance of the Wooden Soldiers to dancing rag dolls, their precision is amazing. And the nativity program was very moving.

All the shows we saw were spectacular. Veterans Task Force, Debbie Ikerd, made sure we saw as much of Branson as we could in the short time we were there. There is much we would like to see that we didn't have time for this trip. We recommend Branson for anyone: groups or individuals looking for friendly people, beautiful scenery and great entertainment.

About the author
Lynn Ryan is a former sales person for Reunions magazine.

Emory Creek Bed and Breakfast
Beverly Gray and Sammy Pagan, innkeepers at Emory Creek Bed & Breakfast, Branson, Missouri, have hosted many reunions. One reunion in 1999 was of thirteen ladies who graduated together from Waukegan (IL) Township High School after being friends since elementary school. They celebrated their 60th birthdays together.

Beverly says, "I love doing reunions. By the time they leave we feel a part of their family." Some reunions take over the facility and are treated like they own the home with innkeepers in charge.

The JARV Family Reunion filled the house with music and used the Victorian parlor for a worship service led by member Pastor Rick Vogeley. The Royal Reunion was to celebrate the 80th birthday of Dr. Arnold Royal. The Reeves Family Reunion who included the luck of several lootery winners found Emory Creek a good choice to travel to from their homes in Louisiana and Mississippi. Contact 143 Arizona Dr, Branson MO 65616; 800-362-7404;;

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