Miners' Bay Lodge sells to new owners
By Chad Ingram
Published July 12, 2018
After three generations of being operated by the Wunker family, Miners’ Bay Lodge has a new owner.
Or, more, appropriately, owners.
A collective of long-time guests have purchased the resort from Russ and Dottie Wunker, and will continue to operate it in the tradition that has become so important to them.
Miners’ Bay is a place steeped in tradition and history, the Wunkers’ history with the property going back more than a century.
Russ’s maternal grandfather first rented a farmhouse there, which is still part of the resort today, in 1913.
“That means we’ve been here well over a hundred years,” Russ says, seated in his office at the lodge. How his paternal grandparents came to purchase the property in the 1930s is a bit of a fish tale.
“That fish there is why we’re all here,” Russ says, motioning to a gargantuan silver creature mounted on the wall. “That’s a 23-pound lake trout.”
Beside the fish is a picture of the man who caught it in 1927, Rev. J. Enos Windsor. Windsor, who’d been employed by the Shantyman’s Christian Association, had reopened the stone church at Miner’s Bay for seasonal services. The church, built by settlers in 1906, has been under the custodianship of the Wunker family since the 1950s, and is still used to host Sunday services during the summer months.
In the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Wunkers, who had moved to Texas from Cincinnati to grow citrus, had moved back to Ohio.
“Their timing was very poor,” Russ says. “They lost everything in the depression. They had to walk away from it because they couldn’t make the payments. They came back to Ohio, starting doing what they had to do to make a living in Ohio, and lo and behold, the new minister who is in the Methodist church in Ohio, when they come back from Texas, is Rev. Windsor.”
Windsor, who continued to spend summers on Gull Lake for many years, had been tapped by the cottage association to find someone to purchase what had been operating as the Bay View Hotel, with the first half of what is now the main lodge building along Highway 35 built in 1916.
In 1938, the Wunkers moved to Haliburton County, taking over the hotel and a handful of cabins, renaming it Miners’ Bay Lodge. It was operated by Russ’s grandparents, then his parents, and, since 1988, Russ and Dottie.
Russ, who grew up in the county and graduated from Haliburton Highlands Secondary School in the mid 1960s, moved back from a career in federal politics in Ottawa to take over the lodge.
Today, the resort includes 38 buildings and 85 trailer sites, spread over 40 acres at the foot of Gull Lake.
Many of its guests have storied histories of their own with the property, some families coming for generations. Russ keeps meticulous guest logs – he has every registration card dating back to 1938 – and plaques adorning the walls of the office pay homage to members of the 50 Year Club; guests who’ve been coming to the lodge for half a century or more.
“The guests have been very loyal,” Russ says. His and Dottie’s own story is tied to the lodge, members of Dottie’s extended family beginning trips to Miners’ Bay from the U.S. in the 1940s.
Russ estimates that about 25 per cent of the resort’s clientele are American, “and that would probably be because so many people who were distant relatives starting coming,” he says. About 80 per cent of the clientele are repeat customers – whether that is five years repeating or 50 – and the lodge is always welcoming new guests as well.
“I don’t want the impression that we are full, and there’s not room for new people,” Russ says. “There are always new people coming.”
While Haliburton County was once dotted with dozens of lakeside lodges and resorts, there are few traditional ones still in operation today.
Russ recalls that when he was in high school, “there were probably 20 other families, that I went to school with their kids, that had resorts like this. I’m not saying we’re the last one, but we’re darn near the last one.”
What does Russ believe to be the reason for the lodge’s longevity?
“We try to build a reputation,” he says. “We do not have a liquor licence, nor has there ever been in the past an attempt to have one. I don’t think there’s any intent to change that.”
When it comes to consumption of beverages, there are firm rules.
“The rules that we have had here is that you don’t make a fool of yourself, you don’t carry it around in public places, you consume it on your own site, you don’t carry it to the beach and you certainly don’t interfere with your neighbours at night,” Russ says.
He adds it’s an understood part of Miners’ Bay culture that making too much noise after 11 p.m. can result in a visit from Russ himself.
“I think that why we have been successful is that we have set standards and we have been consistent,” he says. On a pamphlet are words that were used by Russ’s father in his marketing of the lodge. They read: “At Miner’s Bay Lodge you will find an informal and relaxing atmosphere. Excessive drinking and rowdyism are not tolerated. Plan your vacation with us and see why most guests are repeat customers, many for several generations.”
It’s those repeat customers who have been the resort’s greatest advertisers, and it’s a group of those repeat customers who will now be the owners of Miners’ Bay Lodge.
“We’re getting old and tired,” Russ, 71, says of the decision to sell. While he’s had some offers for the property, those offers came with the knowledge that the resort as it has existed would exist no longer.
“You will get life-changing money, but you will not recognize it,” Russ paraphrases what one potential buyer told him.
“I did not think that was good for the community, good for the lake, good for me living right next door,” he says. The Wunkers live on a property abutting the resort, where three years ago they added to their summer cottage to create a year-round home.
“I expect to be there until Kirsten Monk carries me out,” Russ says. “I didn’t want to see this place go to pieces, and I am sitting next door.”
According to a press release from the new owners’ group, it was longtime guests Eric Harnish, David Campbell, and Malcolm Seath who initiated the drive to form a group of guest investors.
“No one wanted to see the Miners’ Bay we know and love vanish,” Lesley Jones, a long-time guest and a member of a newly created board of directors, says in the release. “It was astonishing and very encouraging to see people rally round so quickly and enthusiastically.”
Carol Converse has been coming to Miners’ Bay for more than 70 summers, and is connected to the Wunker family.
“My maternal grandmother was a Wunker,” Converse says in the release. “She and her husband helped finance the purchase of the lodge by buying the Wunker home in Cincinnati, Ohio. We are a six-generation family who have enjoyed a yearly vacation at MBL – this is my 73rd consecutive summer. The essence of MBL is family and caring friends.”
The Wunkers themselves have agreed to stay on and help with the resort for the 2018 season, providing consistency in a place that is built on it.
“What people tell me, they say this is the one thing in our changing world that doesn’t change,” Russ says. “They look forward to it as the one thing that is going to be the same.”