Remembering Fine Dining at Rockwood Lodge

rockwood dining room in the 1970s

Rockwood Lodge is a historic resort on Poplar Lake because it is almost 100 years old. Its original log lodge is still in use for the enjoyment of our guests, and what a history it has.

Fine Dining

After a day of fishing, a steaming plate of spaghetti or a heaping serving of mac and cheese certainly hit the spot, but the Austins had fine dining in mind.

Rick Austin

The lodge and cabins were constructed almost 100 years ago. Paul and Jennie Stolz, along with Wally and Helen Anderson, built them entirely by hand. The pine logs were harvested and hewn on the Gunflint Trail and moved to the site of the lodge by actual horse power. 

Back then, fishing resorts like Rockwood rented cabins on the American Plan, providing everything from boats, bait, and bedding to sit-down meals served in the lodge. 

Eight groups or families have owned Rockwood over the last 100 years. Today, we look at the 20-year tenure of the Austin family, who operated a truly fine-dining restaurant in the lodge.

Dana and Tim Austin purchased Rockwood in 1979 from Don Lobdell and Rick Whitney. After taking the reins, Dana and Tim brought their son, Rick Austin, into the ownership ranks.

The Austin family lived in the greater Omaha, NE area while Rick was growing up. They enjoyed the outdoors, camping, and visiting the Gunflint Trail.

“We had no resort or restaurant experience, though,” Rick said. “We’d never even been overnight guests in a resort.”

The late 70s and early 80s were a time of turmoil on the Gunflint Trail. Federal action to convert the Boundary Waters into a protected national wilderness led to much anger from residents and resort operators and deep confusion from visitors to the Gunflint. 

Many regular visitors, not enamored with the new regulations restricting power boats and access, simply stopped coming here.

The Austins were undaunted and saw opportunities in Rockwood.

As they took over, the soon-to-depart cook at the lodge told Dana to keep the kitchen stocked up with Creamettes. The fast-cooking pasta made in Minneapolis was a favorite meal for Gunflint Trail adventurers, or so she was told.

After a day of fishing, a steaming plate of spaghetti or a heaping serving of mac and cheese certainly hit the spot, but the Austins had fine dining in mind.

The open front porch of the lodge was closed in and operated as a bar to be enjoyed by dining room guests waiting for a table or a local or two just stopping for a decent cocktail or cold beer.

The dining room in the lodge included the stone fireplace you see there today, along with antique and handmade furniture. 

The Austins built a thriving restaurant around that foundation. 

Fine dining at Rockwood in the mid 1970s
Fine dining in the mid 1970s

“Good food, plenty of it, and treating people well was the secret of our success,” Rick said. 

In the 20 years the Austins operated the restaurant, dinner guests came from near and far for fine dining. The excellent service and better food attracted them. 

Rick would make at least three trips to Omaha each season with a pickup truck full of empty coolers. A shop renowned for providing quality steaks to the White House in Washington, DC, would fill those coolers with fine steaks for the Rockwood Restaurant. The good food Rick talks about.

“We played big band stuff for background dinner music,” Rick said. Big band tunes set the mood and appealed to the tastes of his target customers.

Although Rockwood had no dress code, most customers showed up in dinner wear. “It was kind of weird to see people I knew from Grand Marais show up in a coat and tie,” Rick said. “Many I had never seen dressed that way.”

Rick also said it wasn’t unusual to see people just out of the BWCA dressed in weathered, comfortable clothes sitting next to people dressed to the nines.

The restaurant attracted customers from as far away as Thunder Bay, ON, and the west end of Cook County. The fine dining at Rockwood Restaurant was indeed an attraction.

Early in the 1980s, Rick recalls they were serving an elderly couple who honeymooned at Rockwood in 1928. And they remembered the dining room from back then.