After owner retires, Red Willow Resort members recall years of love and hospitality
BINFORD, N.D. -- For as long as they could remember, countless cabin owners at Red Willow Lake could count on bumping into Vernis Haines during the summer.
Haines had been owner of the the Red Willow Resort in Binford since 1946. People who came for lake activities, such as fishing, water skiing, and boating, had other options for fun activities, thanks to her.
For example, there was rollerblading. She and her husband, Bill, held baseball and softball tournaments for years, in honor of his baseball prowess -- he was inducted to the North Dakota Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988.
Bill Haines died in 1997, and in October, after 69 years as the resort’s owner, Vernis Haines retired at age 92.
For the first time in almost seven decades, the resort has greeted visitors without Haines consistently walking through the lake grounds like she did all those years.
Mark Olson, a member of the cabin association that oversees the stewardship of the lake, said her absence is strange.
“She was the ‘landlord’ around this place,” he said. “Everyone knew Vernis -- everyone loved her.”
But in the months since her departure, Vernis’ resort hasn’t changed its tune.
When Haines left for retirement, a big question was who could help keep the restaurant, Red Willow Cafe, going. Michael Lund and Esther Donohue stepped up to the plate as the new managers in May 2015.
Lund grew up coming out to the lake. Haines was pleased when the restaurant, formerly known as The Gathering Place in earlier years, were left in the hands of someone she knew, he said.
Members of the seven year-round homes on the other side of the lake, such as Olson, still come to the cafe when their summer companions show up. The families that own the 92 summer homes, located on the other side of the lake, bring community, warmth and business.
Red Willow Ministries, the bible camp next door, is also still going strong. The scenic retreat facility is open year-round, and has been used in the winter to do mush sledding tutorials by a woman from Petersburg, N.D.
In the summer months, the camp has been booked since early May, program director Jeremy Maahs said.
For the residents that share the lake property with the camp -- which covers 500 acres-- their recreation center is open to those who want to play pickleball, such as the Olsons.
“We really enjoy working out in there,” Olson said with a chuckle.
Olson and his wife, Sue, once owned a cabin on Haines’ land. They’ve moved to the other side of the lake in 2000. They have a property that Sue Olson jokingly said resembled the “garden of Eden,” with flowers, a streambed and even home-grown grape plants.
“We have more people around here than on the farm,” she said of the Olsons’ previous permanent residence, which was a farm close to McVille, N.D.
“Neither of us liked a city, but we like having a few people around,” Mark Olson said. “This was the perfect size for us. You can’t hear any (city noises). That’s how we like it.”Vernis
Haines lives in assisted living in McVille. She’s nostalgic for the lake, and states that she will never sell it.
“But the biggest change is we’re running out of children to keep it going,” she said.
She’s mother to five children, but over the years, she hired many teenagers to work at the restaurant. She said they were always her favorite age group.
Now teenagers occasionally visit Haines in her new home. She always invites them to sign her guestbook.
A wooden cross on a hill at Red Willow Lake replaces Haines’ presence.
The heavy fixture was erected in her honor -- it was all put together in two days in 2013 by the Haines children and longtime family friend Eric Nesheim. It is a truly “old rugged cross” -- the title of the hymn Haines likes so much.
The cross is quite far from the rest of the resort. But Haines managed to make it up to see the cross in person before she retired to McVille.
The other signifier of her presence and tireless contributions to the resort is the parking spot by the cafe. It still says “Reserved for Vernis.” After almost 70 years of providing love and hospitality for the residents, she’ll remain a part of the lake community that misses her, Mark Olson said.
“Vernis was everybody’s mother,” he said.