A Woods and Water Retreat on Idyllic Island Lake
by Jackie Jenson
What is your dream home away from home?
For North Dakota native Ron McMartin, Jr., it is a peaceful retreat of lake and woods, something dissimilar to his prairie abode and ag-business base in Grand Forks.
“I really wanted to find a lake getaway that was different from home which is wide open and where all the roads are squared up. Here they [the roads] are winding and tree-filled,” says McMartin. “But isn’t that what you want from your vacation home; something completely different?” he asks.
Once situated on Lake Melissa in Becker County, McMartin, who hails from the small farming community of St. Thomas, North Dakota, decided a few years back that he wanted to be more off the grid with regards to his life on the lake. With a killer view, a couple of cabins, and 50+ acres of woods and water, his current lake residence fulfills that desire perfectly.
McMartin first heard about Island Lake one night over a casual conversation with friends. During the course of the discussion, he simply posed the question, “Which is considered the best lake in Becker County?”
The reply, to his surprise, was quick.
“My friend said, ‘Hands down, Island Lake’.”
Spring fed with a couple of outlets and not having much of a year round population, it was an idyllic lake in Ron’s eyes. Next, on the agenda then was to find the perfect property. After discovering a 53-acre parcel along the southwest shores of Island Lake, his lake retreat ideas now had their starting point.
Previously owned by Joyce Warner of Detroit Lakes and later maintained by a trust upon her passing, the property consisted of 38-acres lakeside and a 15-acre back lot. Filled with woods, wetlands, ponds, and gentle hills, it also came complete with two small cabins.
“I bought this property from a trust in 2007,” notes McMartin. “I really enjoy the quietness of it.”
A true work in process, McMartin has been slowly carving out various trails and building sites for the better part of a decade. Technology has aided in that endeavor, allowing McMartin to divide his time between his home in Grand Forks and his ever expanding property on Island Lake which now includes a shop, garage, the two freshly remodeled cabins, a tavern and numerous paved paths through the woods.
According to McMartin, it was a team effort with regards to his many building projects.
“I have had great help along the way,” remarks McMartin. “Pete Theilen of Foltz buildings introduced me to carpenter Steve Swanson and several of the other contractors that worked on the shop and eventually were used in other parts of the property.
Drawing on a plethora of local talent such as Stenerson Lumber, Malstrom Electric, Winter Masonry, and Stan Seaberg Heating-Plumbing, Land Elements of Fargo who designed much of the landscaping / patio projects that Lakes Area Landscaping implemented, and interior finishes from Skye Fingalson of I’ll Tile and Stone, McMartin’s dream lake escape has uniquely taken shape over the course of nine years, and he couldn’t be happier.
Build Two: The Cabins
After the shop build, McMartin went on to tackle the property’s two existing cabins in 2010. Situated on the shores of Island Lake, one was built circa 1904 and the other in 1972. Nestled along 1500-feet of picturesque shoreline, one of his main concerns with the cabin renovations was to keep each structure’s distinctive character.
“The one cabin [the 1904 cottage] was a total tear down. It had a sturdy fireplace but the foundation was literally falling away from it and sinking into the ground,” notes McMartin.
Due to setbacks and various waterfront building restrictions, McMartin had to follow footprint of the old 1904 cabin which was 25-foot by 25-foot. To optimize the constrained space, he added a decked-out galley kitchen; unique, vertical-stacking fireplace; and a hydraulic-powered staircase that can be quickly lifted to afford more entertaining space.
Ron’s favorite detail though – after the amazing galley kitchen which he notes provides more space than kitchens twice its size and an extremely convenient, 5-foot crawlspace – is a door-less, walk-in in shower with rustic river rock tile floor.
“I’ll never go back to a door on a shower again. It is just perfect,” says McMartin.
The 1972 “cozy cabin” as McMartin refers to it, is located just a few yards from the 1904 cabin. It is a vintage gem with low-hanging, tiled-ceiling; classic stone fireplace; smaller windows and knotty pine walls. Combined, the various nostalgic elements exude a true north woods look and feel, allowing Ron’s guests to step comfortably back in time.
Says McMartin, “My daughters love this cabin because it is easy to close the curtains and get a great sleep any time of the day. It is very peaceful.”
Build Three: Gator Garage
Continuing to transform his lake refuge, McMartin next added a garage and a fleet of John Deere Gator, side by side, all-terrain vehicles which he uses to get around his heavily-wooded property. Utilizing a variety of well-constructed, concrete trails that crisscross his Island Lake retreat, the Gators provide easy transport to and from the lake and the property’s many on-site structures.
Build Four: The Tavern
One of McMartin’s favorite buildings, affectionately known as the Sugar Hill Tavern, wrapped construction in the fall of 2014. According to McMartin, it is the best place to watch Bison football games. With its 20-foot vaulted knotty pine ceiling, 10-foot side walls, commercial-grade kitchen for party prep and a set of his and her bathrooms, it is also a retreat within a retreat.
With its belted ceiling fans, hand-selected antiques, large bar and set of specially made Napa Valley wine barrel bar tables on wheels that can reconfigured to keep things as social as possible, the tavern is a place where everyone feels relaxed and at home.
Even the tavern’s bathrooms lend a feeling of nostalgia to the newly constructed watering hole. Complete with a set of copper sinks; black river bottom granite countertops; and high tank toilets; the vintage looking restrooms give the tavern a truly ‘aged beyond its years’ look.
Then there is the giant stuffed bison watching over tavern patrons.
A graduate of North Dakota State University, it is fitting that the NDSU mascot would find its way into McMartin’s tavern. Affixed just above a set of impressive double doors near the back of the woodsy drinking establishment, the bison shoulder mount transforms the tavern from posh drinking space to cozy dive bar in the wink of an ever watchful eye.
“It took a long time to get [the bison mount], but it was worth it,” adds McMartin.
As a bonus, the many different woods used to create the tavern’s warm interior – a cherry bar top, pine flooring, as well as chocolate-stained white oak wainscoting – come directly from McMartin’s own backyard. Carefully plucked out of his woods to do the least amount of damage, the local wood was also milled just down the road in Ponsford, Minn.
“With all that wood, we really have to watch the humidity, keeping it at about 35-percent year round so nothing buckles. That means adding moisture in the winter and sucking it out in the summer,” notes McMartin.
A true lover of wood, McMartin added he can’t wait until his cedar shakes get an aged, grey patina look because although the tavern is buried in the leaf-filled summer woods, it is visible from the road in the winter.
“I want it to look likes it been here a while. Soon it will all just blend in.”
The woods which McMartin hopes his tavern will blend into, are a mixture of pine, basswood, birch, oak and a whole lot of maple, about 80-percent, which helped coax Ron into a new hobby: making maple syrup.
“Dan and Fran Fry introduced me to it. They are an amazing couple across the lake. They use to watch over the property for Joyce and then her trust,” says McMartin. “They are local and help me keep on top of things still. They also take pride in making sure the area is kept up.”
To celebrate the opening of his tavern, Ron’s daughters had a special Sugar Hill Tavern Hamm’s Beer sign made for their dad. Displayed above the double doors on the bars exterior, it lights up at night and shows the way to the tavern from the bonfire pit.
McMartin notes, “I love neon signs, and bar signs in general. I love the Hamm’s beer signs the best. It seems like every great dive bar has one hanging in it. They just had such great advertising campaigns through the years, so there is lots of great stuff out there.”
In addition to indoor spaces, McMartin has couple of bonfire pit getaways for guests to enjoy the outdoors as well. One is stationed lakeside between his two, newly remodeled cabins and the other is located behind the tavern. The latter sits between two still ponds, one of which has a light up fountain that illuminates the woods at night.
“It’s quiet and still out there but no mosquitoes thanks to the Mosquito Squad,” says McMartin, who speaks highly of the local mosquito busting business.
Thanks to “the squad” Ron notes his last big gathering went off without a hitch; no mosquitoes in site.
Sometime in the future, McMartin is plans to build a lake home for his Island Lake hideaway. The prairie-native turned lake-enthusiast notes when he eventually does build his lake home; it will be tucked into his beloved woods.
Skye Fingalson, who has been working with McMartin on his various builds for more than six years, helping him with interior finish and décor choices, notes she is looking forward to seeing what McMartin has imagined for his eventual lake home.
“We started working with Ron in 2010 when he was redoing the 1904 cabin and just kept on working on additional projects just as he has,” explains Fingalson. “I can’t wait to work with him on the house.”
At this point, though, the home build is a future endeavor. Currently McMartin’s is focused on enjoying the summer sunsets over the water, watching Bison football games in his tavern and tapping his maple trees in the spring. In short, it is time to take advantage of the simple pleasures the woods and water have to offer.
“It’s time to take a little break from construction,” concludes McMartin. “It’s time to enjoy some of this.”