LAKE SHORE -- You've heard, "The family that prays together stays together." How's this for a new twist to that old maxim: "The family that plays together stays together."
For evidence, consider the Schmitz family of St. Paul, who for the past 30 years has played together for a week each summer at Agate Lake Resort. In an age when many families cannot assemble for two straight years on major holidays like Christmas and Easter the fact that the Schmitz's have chosen to vacation together for 30 straight summers is remarkable.
Add the fact that the vacation has usually included friends and neighbors and withstood the many internal changes any family undergoes over time and its longevity is amazing.
But continuity is not unfamiliar to Ervin and Lorraine Schmitz. They moved into their house on Macalester Street in St. Paul 41 years ago and still live there today. "When we settle somewhere we stay put," Lorraine said. Their children include sons Steve, Mike, Joe, Greg and Jim and daughter Sheila.
When the Schmitz family arrives for their annual vacation they rent all but two cabins at Agate Lake Resort. The group goes through a lot of ice and additional deliveries must be made.
Agate Lake Resort was chosen as a vacation destination by Steve, the oldest son who today is 43 and the father of two. In 1971 neighborhood friends of the Schmitz' moved to Brainerd and invited the family to come up for a visit. Steve, who was 13 at the time, wrote to the Brainerd Chamber of Commerce and requested a list of resorts. From that list he chose Agate Lake Resort and the family vacationed there for the first time that summer.
"I looked at a half dozen brochures and it just looked like a nice place to go," Steve said when asked why he picked the resort.
That first summer the Schmitz' vacationed by themselves. The next year they brought a neighbor couple and their three sons. The year after that two other friends and their three sons joined the fun. This trend continued and through the years many friends and neighbors have enjoyed the Schmitz' hospitality and a week at Agate Lake. When the children married and started families of their own the family vacation became a family reunion of sorts. This year's entourage was the biggest ever: 39 people, including eight grandchildren. The crew may eventually get even bigger as Jim is engaged to be married on Oct. 28.
Lorraine has two photo albums filled with snapshots from the many vacations. One photo, taken the first summer, has 7-year-old Joe standing next to a spruce tree as tall as he was. Today the tree is 50 feet tall. Joe quit growing at 6-foot-2 -inches, however.
Memories have been made and practical jokes played through the years. There's the volleyball games and horseshoe matches, the year the kids set up a trampoline and the year they learned to water ski, the fish fries, air mattress flotillas, the times when one family member or another was tossed into the lake, nights when light bulbs were taken from somebody's cabin and days when the water heater was shut off and somebody got a cold blast from the shower.
One time the kids rowed across the lake and left the boat on the shore while they went to climb the Ski Gull tower. While they were away Ervin and a friend took the boat back to the resort. The kids returned to find the boat gone and had to walk around the entire lake to get back to the resort. "They thought the boat had drifted off and they were going to be in big trouble when they got home," Lorraine laughed.
Once when the men were away playing golf every can of beer in camp was stacked on a table and taped together in the shape of a pyramid. Happy hour was a little slow to start that day.
"You gotta have a little fun, and you gotta be on your toes around here," Ervin said.
The pranks show no signs of stopping. This summer Ervin returned to his cabin to find an eviction notice posted on the door. Playing along, Ervin told everyone he couldn't pay his bill and had to take up a collection. He asked each of the kids to pitch in. Nobody gave him a dime.
A tractor ride and fishing contest are annual traditions. The tractor ride commences each night at 7 p.m. and includes the children and occasionally an adult or two. They pile onto a 10-foot trailer and go for a ride along the lakeshore, through the woods and into a field where they pick wildflowers. The fishing contest begins the first day of vacation and runs all week. Whoever catches the biggest fish of any species wins a cash prize. This year it amounted to $130 and was taken by Steve with a 5 pound northern. There's also the presentation of the dubious "skirt award," which goes to the person who naps the most. This year the award went to Steve Dittle, a friend of Greg's.
Each family member pays for its own cabin. Everyone is on their own for breakfast and lunch. Dinner is assigned to two parties, who prepare one meal for the entire clan and then are done for the week. The family gathers at six picnic tables under a canopy for the evening meal.
Could the Schmitz family eventually outgrow Agate Lake Resort? They already take up all but two cabins. For now, at least, thoughts of going somewhere else are not in the plan. Each year when the vacation ends the Schmitz' immediately reserve the resort for the same week next year.
"Once you find a spot like this where it's so peaceful, well, it's hard to think of going anywhere else" said Ervin as he looked out over the lake. "And clean," Lorraine chimed in. "The cabins are always so clean. My sister-in-law said yesterday that she'd never seen cabins as clean as these. She said they usually have to take down cobwebs."
To mark the occasion of the family's 30th consecutive vacation, Bill and Theresa Garry, owners of Agate Lake Resort, put a cake in each cabin and flowers and a bottle of wine in Erv and Lorraine's cabin.
"We enjoy the time they're here," Theresa Garry said. "They all take care of each other and their friends get along well too."
"That's what it's all about," Erv said, "that and having fun. The kids really look forward to this week and we enjoy it so much. It's a good tradition to keep going."
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