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Red Willow resort gets ready for 100-year party

RED WILLOW LAKE, N.D.—From tales of catching fireflies to finding first love on the dance floor. Lazy summer days and the sweet taste of a strawberry-rhubarb sundae. Winning cracks at bat and the rolling crush of crack-the-whip. Live music played by big-band orchestras and rock 'n' roll legends.

The middle and end may change, but for the thousands who share the memories, the stories always begin the same: "Down at Red Willow ... ."

For at least a century, friends and family from 100 miles around have gathered at this small lakeside resort a bit off the beaten path and hidden beneath a canopy of towering oak trees.

This Saturday, the crowds will return to the site about 90 miles west and south of Grand Forks to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Red Willow Lake Resort and Pavilion.

"For years, Red Willow was the center of the teenage social universe," said Penny Haines, who owns the resort with siblings William III, Bob and Jack Haines. "It wasn't unusual to have 700 to 900 teenagers at the dances every Friday night."

And during the day, hundreds more cheered on their baseball and softball teams at Heifer Stadium.

Michael Lund, who grew up in rural Tolna, N.D., was one of them. Today, he manages the resort's camping, restaurant/bar and pavilion.

"We were there every Friday night for dances and every Sunday night for roller skating. And for countless family reunions and picnics in between," he said. "I had a great time down there, and I wouldn't miss it. There had to be something pretty serious going on before I'd skip Red Willow."

Taking you back

For old-time's sake, the lake association booked Robby Vee, son of 1960s teen idol Bobby Vee, to play the pavilion this Saturday night. The elder musician played it several times through the years.

In its heyday, the 60-by-100-foot wooden pavilion with its open rafters and oak floor was known to pack as many as 1,400 dancers a night.

Haines and Lund couldn't say how many they expected this weekend, but they were prepared nonetheless. Lund had more than 82 gallons of ice cream at the ready, and as Haines finished up some last-minute painting Wednesday, she said she wasn't worried yet.

She's had a little practice through the years. Her parents, the late Bill and Vernis Haines, first bought the resort back in 1946.

At 9 or 10, she started helping out by cleaning the toilets. She graduated to the showers a few years later and as a teenager, she worked more than a few double shifts in the kitchen or handing out skates at the roller rink counter.

Decades later, a large white sign still hangs outside the pavilion's double red doors. Painted by Vernis herself, it reads: "Through these doors pass the greatest teenagers in the world."

"Mom and Dad were all about the teenagers. They loved the teenagers," Haines said. "Mom always said 'The adults can come but only if they behave themselves.' "

The original open-air pavilion first went up in 1917, Haines said, and work continued the next several years with weekly dance cards helping to boot the $5,000 bill just 10 cents at a time.

Eventually, the roof went on and the walls went up and the wooden floor was replaced by oak planks. Front to back, the walls are lined with wooden benches—the left for the boys, the right for the girls—and a large stage stands up front.

It's there where countless famous acts stopped to play on their way to bigger venues out west and north to the Calgary Stampede.

"They'd stop, fill their tanks up with gas, play to make a little money and go," Lund said.

The first big act was in 1948 with Freddy Martin and Merv Griffin. Other bigs ones followed: Harry James, Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. Then, The Ventures, The Kingsmen, Richie Valens and The Grass Roots. In one night alone, there was Chubby Checker, Dick and Dee Dee, Paul and Paula and Leslie Gore.

Too many to name, they came every week, and the kids did, too.

"The bands traveled in groups back then. They were up-and-comers in the early '60s," Haines said. "They might have had one big hit, but there was no internet then, so they had to get in front of people to be heard and become known."

Haines recalled one unforgettable night at the ticket counter. Tommy James & The Shondells were in the house, and the crowd began to shout: "Tommy! Tommy! Tommy!"

When Vernis approached the band to ask where Tommy was, she was told he had been drinking and she should check the bus.

He may have been singing his signature song, "I Think We're Alone Now," but it wasn't alone for long.

Vernis marched right out to the bus to get him and soon was dragging him up the steps and through the pavilion to the stage.

Haines said she heard her mother say, "You owe me a gig, and you're going to play it!"

The well-loved and feisty Vernis was known to never forget a name, and you can bet she never forgot that one.