Where the peaceful vibe’s been unchanged for decades
By Lisa Schuetz | Photo courtesy of Katie Godfrey
The first time I walked into the lake cottage we bought in 2014 just north of Three Lakes, it looked just as it must have in 1950. The former owner hadn’t been in it in years, and he’d left it a time capsule of mid-century clothing and furnishings. There were no televisions or videos. There were painted Adirondack chairs, Chinese checkers, a record player and a bin of records with old-timey music, a wringer washing machine, a clothes line, a badminton set and a croquet kit.
It was exactly what we wanted—a place to get away from our high-tech jobs so we could reconnect. And Three Lakes, about 200 miles north of the Madison area, helps maintain that peace. It’s a village that’s been taking its sweet time catching up.
There are actually 20 or so heavily wooded lakes—14 are on the Three Lakes side of the 28-lake Eagle River Chain that forms the world’s largest chain of inland lakes.
“I’ve been here for 35 years and the lakes haven’t changed a lot,” says Ed Jacobsen, head of the Three Lakes Waterfront Association, which watches over their health. “Everything is pretty much the way it has been for years.”
Visitors can take long paddles in canoe, rowboat or kayak, lazily motor on a pontoon boat or zip around with a skier or two on the back of a speed boat, all popular activities since the 1930s when the area began to draw tourists from Chicago and Milwaukee.
Even if you leave your cottage and head into town, you’ll still keep pace with the past. The main drag, called Superior Street, has no stop lights. The storefronts are filled and vibrant with a variety of small businesses that serve permanent residents and seasonal folks alike.
“Downtown Three Lakes is full of old-time charm, history and fun,” says Sarah Flashing, executive director of its chamber of commerce. “Many storefronts continue to reflect the vintage styles of the early 20th century.”
You can shop at the Three Lakes Mercantile & General Store for kitchen tools, toys, candles, clothes and moccasins. Baker’s Foods, a tidy and tiny grocery store, still accepts checks from shoppers. Shoppers can stroll between darling shops such as The Open Amoire, Diversions and The Cabin Shop.
And let’s not forget The Choo Choo Store, a throwback to a time when every self-respecting boy had a train set he could run like the engineer he aspired to become someday.
Perhaps the biggest draw downtown is Three Lakes Winery, a locally-owned business that makes its own wine using local cranberries, cherries and other fruit as well as grapes. It’s open every day of the week offering tastings, and winery tours are available between Memorial and Labor Day weekends.
If you’re looking for entertainment, Three Lakes supplies. Catch a movie, an art exhibit or a musical act at the vibrant Three Lakes Center for the Arts, one of six wartime Quonset hut theaters still in operation in the country.
Then there’s the nine-hole Big Stone Golf Course overlooking Big Stone Lake, owned by the waterfront association’s Jacobsen. Built during World War II, nothing much has changed except its environmentally-friendly maintenance. At $19 for nine holes, it’s a fairly inexpensive option compared to the higher prices elsewhere.
Jacobsen also owns the area’s popular oddity, the Northwoods Petroleum Museum, filled with classic pumps and signs from the early part of the 20th century.
Of course, no throwback summer trip is complete without a water ski show, put on at 5 p.m. every Wednesday and Saturday on Big Stone Lake by the Aqua Devils Water Ski Show Team, performing since 1958.
Another must for your Northwoods stay is a visit to a supper club. The Black Forest Pub & Grille is a hybrid with excellent German food added to the traditional steak and fish. For the most authentic supper club experience, head to the White Stag Inn in nearby Sugar Camp, where the charbroiled steaks, baked potatoes and lettuce wedges are served the same way they have been for three generations.
Yes, time has nearly stood still in much of Three Lakes, although progress is creeping in.
“We are fighting to get Internet up here,” says Jacobsen, “but in reality it’s nicer to sit in your cabin and watch what’s happening on the lakes. We still have loons, eagles and otters and all types of other wildlife. That hasn’t changed. I hope it never does.”
BYGONE LODGING IN THREE LAKES
Small family resorts once so popular between the 1950s and 1970s are slowly losing ground to larger rental properties, but a few remain. You can also check out Vacation Rental By Owner (vrbo.com) to find a great family destination in Three Lakes.
Stone Lake Resort
Cell: (715) 891-6160
Spirit Lake Cabins
(715) 490-3008 or (715) 490-0466