In a matter of a few months back in 1949, Helen Kohl went from walking the runway as a fashion model in Chicago to running a resort in northern Minnesota where there was no indoor plumbing.
But Helen made the most of that transition, creating a popular resort destination with her husband, Bob, on Big Turtle Lake north of Bemidji. Helen is celebrating her 100th birthday on Saturday, Aug. 6, with memories of a happy life filled with family and friends. Helen will greet guests at her assisted living home in Ramsey, Minn., along with her three children, Rex, Kurt and Kristin.
“I am elated with all the things I’ve lived through and the wonderful family I have,” Helen said this week as preparations were being made for the big day.
“We are just so totally blessed to have her,” said Helen’s daughter, Kristin Fluegel. “She’s a woman of strength and character and honesty. She’s done many things and has never been afraid of taking on a new challenge. I say she’s our pioneer woman.”
That pioneer woman’s first career was modeling with the Patricia Stevens Agency in Chicago. Helen’s family moved to the Windy City from her birthplace in Fairmont, Minn., when she was 4.
At age 16, after competing in the Miss Portage Park pageant, she started doing modeling and photo shoots. Eventually, she signed a contract with Better Homes and Gardens magazine.
“She did a lot of hand modeling for their magazines,” Kristin said. She also taught runway modeling classes for another agency.
“So she went from a runway model to a resort owner with an outhouse,” Kristin laughed.
When Bob and Helen Kohl left Chicago to purchase their resort, their son Rex was only 6 months old. They were planning to live in one of the four cabins on the property, the only one that was winterized and had indoor plumbing.
But that cabin burned to the ground just as they arrived, so they spent that first year in an uninsulated cabin with only cold running water and an outhouse next door.
“Mom tacked quilts on the walls so the wind wouldn’t blow through,” Kristin said. She had to boil water to wash clothes and dishes.
That inauspicious start did not deter the Kohls. They created a resort that was so popular that the same families kept coming back year after year, partly for the beauty of the lake, partly for the hospitality, and partly for the wonderful meals that came out of Helen Kohl’s kitchen.
“When guests came up to the resort they would put a deposit down and then that deposit would stay there for the next 20 years,” Kristin said. “They came year after year in that same cabin. When we were growing up they became like extended family because we became such close friends.”
In addition to feeding their guests, the Kohls hosted community dinners for major holidays, serving up nearly 250 meals in four seatings.
“Mom was a fantastic cook,” Kristin said. “She made the best lemon meringue pie and huge popovers. The community dinners were always booked full. For each one of those events, Mom made over 240 popovers.”
Bob and Helen retired from the resort business in the mid-1980s and moved to Utah, building a home there. Bob died in 1998 and Helen returned to Bemidji the next year. She and Chet Swedmark exchanged commitment vows in 2003. Chet died in 2011, and Helen stayed in Bemidji until moving to the Twin Cities in recent years.
Kurt Kohl said his mother has been pointing to her 100th birthday for several years. He joked that her memory is better than his.
“Where do I begin?” Kurt said. “She’s just been such an inspiration to all of us. Throughout her entire life, she has been everybody’s best friend. For kids who came up to the resort, she was the second grandmother to every one of them.”