Dennis Anderson
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Whatever transportation method Minnesota's 55,000 waterfowlers will employ Saturday to ramble afield when the state's regular duck season opens, none will travel by private rail car outfitted specifically for them and their retrieving dogs.

Yet a century and more ago, that's how members of the Railroad Hunting Club, and others, departed the Twin Cities to chase mallards, canvasbacks and other ducks.

Proof of these adventures is in the 756 pages — with a like number of photographs — of a recently published book entitled "Minnesota Duck Camps: 160 Years of History and Tradition," by Steve Knutson of Apple Valley.

A retired engineer and lifelong duck hunter who grew up in Otter Tail County, Knutson spent six years researching, writing and publishing the doorstop-size tome.

"The book came about by accident," Knutson said. "When I first started researching the history of duck camps in Minnesota, I hadn't intended to write a book."

Knutson's efforts shine a light on an autumnal rite of passage and vibrant Minnesota outdoor tradition that at one time permeated nearly all facets of the state's culture and socioeconomic strata.

From wildlife painting to decoy carving, boat making to the breeding and training of retrieving dogs, Minnesotans perhaps more than residents of any other state have long celebrated ducks and the many accoutrements that attend hunting them.

Among the latter are the shacks, sheds, hovels, cabins, huts, trailers and wickiups visited by waterfowlers each October and November, sometimes for weeks on end, a tradition that dates nearly to 1858, when the state joined the Union.

Enabling this provisioning, and sport, are the countless sloughs, marshes, fens and swamps deposited here by retreating glaciers. Each is, or has been, an incubator for spring and summer breeding fowl and a magnet for migrating ducks.

Duck hunters, with their camps, have been drawn to these same waters, whether Pelican Lake in the state's far northwest, Heron Lake in the southwest, Thief Lake in the northwest, the Mississippi River in the southeast — or the many lakes and rivers in between.

"While researching the book," Knutson said, "what I found interesting was how early these hunting camps were established in Minnesota. By 1861, for example, a camp in Centerville that was little more than a stop on the stagecoach line became headquarters of the St. Paul Sportsman's Club."

The most famous, and poshest, of early Twin Cities area duck hangouts was the Long Meadow Gun Club in the Minnesota River Valley, not far from where the Mall of America sits today.

Staffed with a caretaker, chef and other employees, Long Meadow was formed in 1883, when Bloomington had only about 800 residents. Most of the club's members were from Minneapolis and arrived by horse and carriage. Today, the property is part of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Three of Minnesota's most storied waterfowling hot spots are Swan Lake in southern Minnesota, not far from Mankato; Heron Lake; and Lake Christina, about halfway between Alexandria and Fergus Falls.

Early on, railroads connected each to the Twin Cities.

At Heron Lake, James Ford Bell, founder of General Mills, was among early camp owners. On Thursday or Friday evenings, Bell would catch a train in the Twin Cities for Heron Lake, where guides would meet him and others in his group and transport them to their duck camp for breakfast, and then to their hunting blinds.

Bell hunted at Heron from 1909 to 1919, before establishing another camp on Ten Mile Lake in Otter Tail County.

The longest running camp on Lake Christina, meanwhile, is Millionaire's Point, established in 1917, Knutson reports, and still going. Executives of the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) company in Minneapolis, including Shreve Archer, its chief executive, were founders.

According to an 1883 account in a local newspaper, the Ashby Avalanche, cited by Knutson, Christina had been discovered well before Archer's arrival.

"When the duck season begins Sept. 1," the newspaper reported, "the number [of hunters] will be greatly augmented by our friends from Minneapolis and St. Paul, who have already learned that Ashby is the place 'par excellence' from which to depart with a well-filled game bag and plethoric waist-coat.''

Few among the state's early waterfowlers traveled in more style than St. Paul's James J. Hill, the railroad magnate who at the time of his death in 1916 was a billionaire in today's dollars.

Hill had a personal rail car outfitted for his duck hunts.

"James J. Hill's son, Louis, was a big duck hunter, too, who also had a special railroad hunting car that included room for his automobile, a Packard," Knutson said. "He traveled to, among other places, the Detroit Lakes area, where he was a member of the Rice Lake Syndicate, which was one of the most reclusive, and exclusive, duck clubs in Minnesota. It originally owned land at Heron Lake, before moving to Rice Lake, where their camp is now part of Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge."

Today, Minnesota's duck camp tradition lives on.

In every corner of the state beginning Friday, and through November, at camps large and small, fancy and plain, waterfowlers will gather to renew friendships, share laughs, cook good food and perhaps, just perhaps, shoot a few ducks.

The latter aren't as abundant as they once were. But everything else about duck camps circa 2023 remains the same as their earlier versions.

Especially the joy on opening morning of watching the sun rise over a dank marsh.

Editor's note: Price of "Minnesota Duck Camps. 160 years of History and Tradition," is $85 plus $9 shipping. Email: