Legacy on Lake Five

For a century, the family that owns Lake Five Resort has grappled with what it means to live a good life on the lakeshore

By Clare Menzel
From left, Karen Rae, Ron Ridenour and Lindsey Bennett Simonson pose with Ron’s long-haired German Shepherds. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

Ron Ridenour steps out the back door of the Lake Five Resort office and looks upon the sandy strip of beachfront, where children splash in the sparkling waters. Beyond the lake, the Apgar Range dominates the view. He’s wearing Birkenstocks and striped socks, with a bandana holding back his curly, white, shoulder-length hair. He beams. “This is the magic place,” he says.

Ron, 68, runs the place alongside his niece, 38-year-old Lindsey Bennett Simonson, who represents the fourth generation of resort caretakers. For almost 100 years, their family has owned and operated this vacationland on the southern shores of Lake Five, less than a 10-minute drive from the western gates of Glacier National Park. The old-fashioned, low-key character of the 17.2-acre property, which comprises 11 cabins, more than 50 RV sites, and 1,400 feet of waterfront, makes it easy to imagine West Glacier in the ‘90s, the ‘50s, or even the ‘20s. Many of his guests do actually remember what it was like back then, or they’ve heard stories. Families from near and far come back summer after summer, generation after generation.

While the atmosphere at Lake Five has mostly stayed the same over the years, the landscape of the hospitality industry in West Glacier is rapidly changing. Annual park visitation over the past three years has averaged 3 million, compared to an average of 2.3 million visitors annually over the last decade, 2.1 million since 2000, and 1.8 million over the last 50 years. The crush of tourists is largely absorbed not by family businesses, but by a corporate entity. In the heart of summer 2014, Glacier Park Inc., later rebranded as Glacier Park Collection by Pursuit, bought a critical mass of West Glacier businesses from the Lundgren family. Since 1946, the Lundgrens had acted as stewards of the community’s downtown district. When the sale was announced, locals expressed concern about how the “soul of the town” would fare under corporate control, despite promises from GPI officials that they intended to preserve West Glacier’s rustic, quaint character.

Ron doesn’t necessarily harbor nostalgia for the quieter days of his childhood. Actually, his true vision for Lake Five is yet unrealized. For years, he has nurtured a dream of developing his family’s property into an eco-friendly retreat dedicated to the cultivation of peace, hope, and spiritual awareness. But he’s just one member of the five-person family limited partnership that owns the resort, and in May 2016, the family listed Lake Five Resort for sale. The price tag: $14,141,414.14. (It’s five 14s, a play on the amount of waterfront.) As the business embarks on its second century of operations, its future is unclear.

If a buyer bites, Ron hopes the future owner would “be a little creative, with a heart, rather than a moneyed-up guy,” but he recognizes that it’s just as likely, or more so, that the prospective buyer will simply “build his palatial mansion on the lake.” Lindsey says she doesn’t feel there is an urgent pressure to sell the family business, and so for her, the challenge has become: “How do we keep it going with the right energy?”

Sisters Jules and Verona Simonson spin on a merry-go-round at the playground at Lake Five Resort. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

This family history the Ridenours tell about Lake Five begins in April 1915, with Indiana-born James H. Ridenour and Oni Maude. After a war veteran who had filed a 160-acre homestead by the lake failed to prove up the land, Jim and Maudie took over the claim and cleared five acres of trees to build a house and garden. Belton Stage Road, then the main throughway in the area, ran right past Lake Five toward the new Glacier National Park, established May of 1910.

Some tourists would stop by the Ridenour homestead to purchase produce grown in the massive garden. The property enchanted many visitors, some of whom expressed interest in the possibility of guest accommodations by the lake. In 1922, the Ridenours opened Retiro Cabins, named in the spirit of being “a retro place to retire from bustling city life,” according to Lindsey. Word quickly spread, so Jim built more cabins and, later, a campsite.

The Ridenours’ worldviews didn’t always jive with the fledgling Belton-area community. Lindsey says that Jim, and Maudie especially, were prohibitionists who opposed the Korean War, promoted “peace and nuclear disarmament, and believed communism to be a peaceful movement.” As Ron remembers it, tourist camps during this era were looked down on as vagabond hangouts. Once, Jim and Maudie nearly sold the resort, but — as family legend goes — they ripped up the check when they got wind of the prospective buyer’s plan to build a “liquor barge” on the lake.

In the ‘50s, the Ridenours handed the reins over to their son, Tom, and his wife, Dodie. The pair met as kids in Coram, and had four children themselves, including Ron. Tom, a dedicated employee of the Great Northern Railway, “was a hard worker and a deep thinker,” Lindsey says. “He could fix anything.” He upgraded the infrastructure, installing a septic system and modernizing cabins with indoor plumbing, electric heat, running water, flushing toilets, and showers. In the ‘60s, the resort began charging a quarter admission to the public for lake access. (It now costs $7.50.) The Ridenour kids spent long summer days water-skiing, befriending school-age guests, working the swimsuit rental counter, and playing on a makeshift floating dock fashioned from what Ron thinks was the side of a decommissioned ice house.

Campers enjoy the beach at Lake Five Resort. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

When Tom passed away, Dodie continued to oversee the resort for two summers. She would sit at the front desk with a pencil and fastidiously write down every reservation in a little book. In 1992, Ron insisted that the family transition to digital booking. Dodie acquiesced, on the condition that Ron would implement the computer system and then take over operations. That summer, Ron and his sister, Karen, assumed a leadership role in the business. (About a decade ago, Karen re-directed her efforts into running a B&B called Whitefish TLC. She says hospitality became “second nature” during her childhood here.)

Ron had worked on the railroad, like his father, for about a decade, but Lake Five is his life’s work. He frequently talks about how he would never, ever trade his life here, while most others in the family have moved on to other places and vocations. Almost every morning, he still swims to the middle of the lake, and rides his mountain bike to exercise his two longhaired German shepherds.

“He is a super mellow, really kind, compassionate person,” says Missoula filmmaker Eric Ristau, who has featured Ron in two documentary movies about people who ride motorcycles with co-pilot sidecar dogs. Ristau learned about Ron from a Kansas-based Lake Five guest. “He tends to be the favorite [among viewers]. He has a red Harley, with two German shepherds. In the film, he’s wearing buckskin and a white [fur] cape. It’s quite a scene. He’s an instant character.”

At the helm of the resort, Ron undergrounded electricity and began welcoming RVs. With hookups at the campsites, they could charge $50 a night instead of $15, a huge revenue boost. As he labored to improve the existing infrastructure, he developed much bigger plans for the property.

Campers enjoy the beach at Lake Five Resort. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

Ron wanted to turn Lake Five into a “dedicated place” where conscientious people could come together, build community, and discuss idealistic visions for humanity. In the early ‘90s, he poured this vision into the establishment of a nonprofit called Terran Alliance. It’s no longer incorporated as such, but the Lake Five homepage still directly links to the Terran Alliance website. There, Ron describes his intention to “seek solutions to our problems… [and] seek the best and most ideal aspects of the people and governments of the world.”

In 1995, he began corresponding and collaborating with Massachusetts architect Malcolm Wells, who died in 2009. In Wells’s obituary, the New York Times regarded him as an iconoclast who tirelessly advocated for environmentally responsible design — specifically, underground buildings that were “gentle,” which Wells defined as “leav[ing] the land no worse than you found it.” Ron envisioned Terran Alliance coming to life in an efficient “land-restoring” underground structure overlooking Lake Five, which would cost, by Wells’ estimate at the time, a million dollars.

Ron didn’t have the money, so he went about building Terran Alliance in small ways. He became obsessed with picking up litter. On the front desk, there is a sign that reads, “If you are at Lake Five, you can’t litter and you have to be nice.” Though Ron believed that donations and investments would appear as people realized the potential of the Terran Alliance, he also turned to illegal means: selling marijuana.

Ron Ridenour at Lake Five Resort. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

In 2003, a domestic dispute call led to a search of Ron’s Whitefish home, and to his arrest — Whitefish police found more than a pound of marijuana in his garage. In March 2004, in U.S. District Court in Missoula, he admitted to conspiring to sell approximately 20 pounds of marijuana per month since 1999. The judge handed him a prison term of nearly two years, and the Whitefish police seized approximately half a million dollars’ worth of property, including his home and a number of vehicles. Ron calls this the “most critical reckoning day … in my lifetime,” as he writes in the sole entry on the Terran Alliance’s blog, a post titled, “A Critical Look at the American War on Drugs.” His argument for legalizing marijuana exceeds 3,000 words. (In 1994, he made an unsuccessful bid for the Montana state legislature, with a platform correlating prison overcrowding with the criminalization of marijuana.) These days, he says, the dream is on the backburner, awaiting, perhaps, a benefactor. After all, he argues, the world needs solutions for peace now more than ever.

When Ron went to prison, Lindsey, Karen’s daughter, who is a singer-songwriter, dropped out of a recording project to come home and help during the busy summer season. She describes herself as “the bleeding heart, hopeless romantic of the family.” After earning an art degree from the University of Montana, she had traveled across the world, living in South America and Seattle. After Ron’s homecoming, Lindsey continued working alongside her mother and uncle. Utopia or not, they all hoped that Lake Five would “lead people into treating the land and each other with more respect,” as Lindsey says.

For the Ridenours, the pace of summer has become exhausting. Ron says he feels like the rock star who suddenly gets too famous and finds himself overwhelmed by mobs of fans. When visitors leave critical comments on TripAdvisor, Ron responds, indignantly and often combatively.

“Keeping it going the way that it is … [is an] almost-impossibility,” he explains. “I’m running out of energy. We’re dealing with a demand that is overwhelming us … When you offer a magic place, you expect the customers to realize that it is magic. When they don’t, when they’re just demanding, when they expect every little need of theirs to be met, when they don’t realize they have to pitch in a little to keep it magic, I can’t supply them that energy.”

A branded teddy bear sits on the counter near the entrance. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

Barb Riley, the property’s listing agent, says there have been several serious inquiries, including one this past summer. Over the past three years, she has fielded interest from people with plans to purchase the property and develop a larger resort, or build an environmental lodge, or convert it into private estate. The property taxes likely wouldn’t be affordable for the Ridenours if they were to simply shutter the business, according to Lindsey.

“I hope that whoever the successful buyer is would respect and value the quiet ambiance that the secluded lake offers,” says Riley, who grew up in Eureka and has fond memories of visiting Lake Five as a child. “You don’t see these family locations that aren’t hyped like Disney. They give you the wildlife, nature, mountains, and the lake — things that are not so commercialized.”

People who visit the resort tell Lindsey that the resort reminds them of some beloved place that no longer exists, a bittersweet sentiment, but one that drives her to keep Lake Five operational. There are certainly other challenges, like maintaining a 100-year-old property. Many of the RVs these days are too big to fit in the sites. Lindsey’s three daughters sell ice cream and scoop candy, but they’re still too young to really help. As she sees it, becoming “less busy, more sustainable” is the path forward.

“Ron’s utopian views rubbed off on me for sure,” Lindsey says. “How can we [Lake Five Resort] become a model for … living more symbiotically on this earth?” One idea, she suggests, wryly, is building a huge greenhouse in the boat trailer parking lot.

She feels a deep connection to her homesteading great-grandparents, Oni Maude and James. Often, wistfully, she mentions a deep desire to tend a garden that could sustain the family. Looking both to the past and the future, she wants to tap into the lifestyle of her forbearers and create a “motherland, a space of love,” for the benefit of her children and grandchildren and everyone who comes after.

“[There are] generations of history [at Lake Five],” Lindsey says. “I am here adding to the story. I say I mind my own business, don’t bring anybody down, find my faith in the world around me, leave every place a little better than I found it, plant a garden of Eden all around, love myself, and my little family.”

Read more of our best long-form journalism in Flathead Living. Pick up the fall edition for free on newsstands across the valley, or check it out online at flatheadliving.com.

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