Curtis and Adair Erickson and the Northern Lights Cottage

Newlyweds Curtis and Adair Erickson moved to Grand Marais late in 1937 to begin their new life together. Curtis' job was placing, managing, and maintaining slot machines, known as "amusement machines", in any gas station, bar, restaurant, resort, and even car dealerships who were willing to share in gambling profits by having machines located within their establishments. The Ericksons set down roots in Grand Marais and built a cabin we now know as Northern Lights Cottage.

When the couple first moved to town they rented a small cabin located directly adjacent to the Fireweek Bike Co-Op where an open parking lot sits today. That cabin was later home to the original bike shop in Grand Marais (briefly) before the owners moved operations into the building next door. Curtis and Adair lived in that home for the first year in Grand Marais before buying property at the top of the hill on Highway 61, just inside the Grand Marais village limits for $300. Their first son, David, was born in 1938 while they were just starting construction on their cabin.  They worked on it over the summer of 1939, with Curtis personally doing most of the construction, and finally moved into their hand-built cabin in October of 1939.  In January of 1940, their daughter Dorothy was born.  In addition to managing the slot machines up and down Highway 61, Curtis supplemented his income by hauling pulpwood in the offseason.

Life was good for the Erickson family. Great paying job, great friends in town, hunting and fishing, and a healthy, growing family. Soon, however, the tides changed.

The war against gambling and slot machines was going on throughout the country. While the State of Minnesota didn't outlaw gambling outside of reservations until 1945, it seems Cook County's government pre-emptively took action sometime in the years 1940 or 1941.  One day, there was a knock on the door of the cabin and standing on the doorstep was Sheriff P.J. Bayle and County Attorney Edwin Chapman. Curtis was given just 48 hours to remove all 130 slots machines out of every establishment in Cook County. He hired a friend, Emerson Morris, who would later go on to be the Sheriff of Cook County, to help him scrambled around the county gathering the heavy, weighed down slot machines.

From the reports given by Curtis later in life, they were able to retrieve most of the slot machines.  Three, however, met the fate of some angry shop owners who were unhappy about the decision made by their government and the loss of the income generated by the slot machines. Curtis claims one shop owner took his two slot machines to the Poplar Grove Cemetery, less than half a mile from the Erickson cabin, and buried them beneath a grave that had been dug in preparation for a burial the next day. With no one knowing this had been done, the deceased was laid to rest atop two presumably full slot machines. A real "buried treasure" so to speak.  (We'd like to make it clear that it is absolutely illegal to desecrate a burial site in hopes of finding these slot machines. And the exact site was never disclosed. It may very well be local lore, so please don't go hunting for it!)  Another proprietor is reported to have thrown his slot machine off of Terrace Point just west of Grand Marais. Curtis took a canoe out and spotted the slot machine at the bottom of Lake Superior.  Knowing its weight and challenge to retrieve it, Curtis decided to leave it there.  Since the early 1940s, we imagine, there has been enough wave activity to destroy and bury whatever remains of that slot machine now.

Now unemployed, Curtis and Adair made the difficult decision to sell their beloved cabin and move back to Minneapolis. They bought a little house in Richfield and the couple would eventually go on to have six children. Curtis took a job at Honeywell where he helped to develop autopilot systems for planes used in Worl War II.  The children were raised with the stories and fond memories their parents had of Grand Marais and their first homes together.

After a triple bypass lead to Curtis' early retirement, the couple returned to Grand Marais.  They purchased a home on Devil Track Lake where they spent the next decade back in the community the loved so much. When age eventually caught up with them, their children encouraged them to return to the cities for the remainder of their retirement. Adair passed away in 2000 and Curtis in 2002. A commemorative plaque that reads "Honoring Curtis and Adair Erickson, 3 years in Twon and 120 on the Trail" sits on the memorial benches across the street from the Trading Post in downtown Grand Marais. If you sit on the bench and look between the buildings you will see the exact spot their first cabin once stood.

As for the cabin that Curtis built, it would eventually fall into disrepair and was abandoned- it was foreclosed upon in 2010. It was then that Dean Erickson, Curtis' youngest son, was able to go inside the cabin his father had built 70 years prior for the first time.  It had changed since it was first built- it now has running water and a full kitchen.  What was once a mudroom is now a bathroom- the front door moved to where the living room was. The home would eventually be purchased out of foreclosure by its new owner and beautifully renovated into the cabin that stands today. And in September of 2019, for the first time in nearly 80 years, an Erickson finally slept under its roof again.  After attempting to book the cabin for their annual trip to Grand Marais every fall, Dean, his wife Ann Marie, their daughter Katie, and her husband Tyler were finally able to find an open weekend to stay at Northern Lights Cottage.  

I sat down with the Ericksons during their stay to hear the story of the cabin. We sat at the dining room table and flipped through old photographs Dean's parents had taken during this time. The visit was fascinating and I left with a newfound appreciation to a cabin I had been in a handful of times before but had never really considered its history. While it may not have the well-known history of Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, this little cabin in Grand Marais has a rich history all its own! Grand Marais is a city with a lot of history and a lot of stories.  I now know that of the Erickson family and the origins of Northern Lights Cottage.

You, too, can lay your head where Curtis, Adair, David, and Dorothy once laid theirs. The cabin is available as a vacation rental through Cascade Vacation Rentals as Northern Lights Cottage

Listen to Jaye's interview with Dean, Ann Marie, and Katie Erickson on Exploring the North Shore Podcast:


Photos courtesy of Dean and Ann Marie Erickson.