Sally welcomes me into the Montebello home. Choco, her daughter’s dog, greets me with happy tail wags as if we’re old friends. Bob is sitting in the living room after a busy several hours at St. Bartholomew’s where he and Sally served at a funeral earlier that day. They’ve made time to meet with me to talk about a tradition they started more than 30 years ago.

Since moving to Bemidji as a young couple in 1958, the Montebellos have been involved in the community in a variety of ways – Bob, through Bemidji State, physical education, baseball and other sports, cross country skiing, trail development and grooming, the Finlandia, the Bemidji Lions (59 years and counting) and more. Sally has served on the Community Education Advisory Council, the Bemidji Symphony Board, the AAUW and PEO. She maintains a large vegetable and flower garden in the summer and turns blossoms into beautiful pressed and dried flower creations.

Together they have raised three children and now have eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Together they volunteer at St. Bart’s. Together, every May, for the past 30 years, Bob and Sally have gone lake trout fishing with their son Tony, a tradition they’re already talking about for 2020. Together in the winter, they cross-country ski, and they’ve established a winter tradition that has continued for over three decades.

Earlier this month, after President’s Day, Bob and Sally and a few other hearty cross-country skiers made their annual pilgrimage to Maplelag Ski Resort, about 20 miles northeast of Detroit Lakes. Several years ago, Bob had met Jim and Mary Richards, the resort’s owners, at a winter sports show at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Bob was staffing a Finlandia booth; Jim and Mary had a Maplelag booth right next door.

After Bob retired from BSU and his weekdays opened up, he decided to reserve a few nights at Maplelag for Sally’s birthday in February 1988. They went with another couple, Bob and Marideane Wolf, and enjoyed the lodge, the food, and the beautiful ski trails at this off-the-beaten path winter resort on Little Sugarbush Lake.

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Jim Richards, an avid collector, had salvaged a sign from Bemidji’s old Markham Hotel which became the name of the cabin where the Montebellos stayed. Bob and Sally enjoyed their stay at Maplelag so much that they decided to make a tradition of it, which they have done for more than 30 years. Bob thought it would be a nice winter break for Bemidji’s ski trail groomers, so he invited them to join him and Sally at the resort.

In December 1999, the lodge and the “Markham” cabin were lost in a fire, so in 2000, Bob and Sally and their fellow skiers went to the North Shore instead; but as the Maplelag lodge was being rebuilt in 2001, the crew returned. That year, they enjoyed breakfast and lunch in the lodge but drove to the Black Bear or the Ice Cracking Bar and Grill for dinner.

Long-time attendees of the annual Maplelag getaway and a couple of “Bob’s Groomers” include John Bastien and Jim Johnston, front left and right, who join Sally and Bob Montebello in their cabin. Submitted photo.
Long-time attendees of the annual Maplelag getaway and a couple of “Bob’s Groomers” include John Bastien and Jim Johnston, front left and right, who join Sally and Bob Montebello in their cabin. Submitted photo.

In the years since the first Maplelag visit, the annual event has expanded to include a variety of groomers: Lloyd Johnson, John Bastien, Dick Day, Jay Johnson, Leon Nelson, Jim Johnston, and more groomers and skiers. When my husband Gary started grooming, we were included in the group and accepted the invitation to Maplelag. The group shares home-style meals in the lodge and sub-groups pursue their favorite trails to ski between meals. In the evening they socialize and enjoy a relaxing soak in a swimming-pool-sized hot tub. By the end of the two and a half days, everyone knows one another.

Various Bemidji skiers and friends of the Montebellos have attended over the years, but Richards continues to book the reservation under “Bob’s Groomers” in the Maplelag ledger. With the exception of one year, canceled because of extreme cold, Bob and Sally’s party has returned every season. One year Bob’s Groomers numbered as many as 19. Each year the composition of the group is a little different, but Bob and Sally have been the constant: extending the invitation, meeting for the Swedish luncheon before leaving Bemidji, leading the convoy to Maplelag, enjoying Chef Debbie’s home-cooked meals and a variety of freshly baked cookies from the bottomless cookie jar, skiing Maplelag’s perfectly groomed trails, and soaking in Minnesota’s largest hot tub.

The skiing and the ambiance suit the group well, but the Montebellos’ congeniality – Bob and Sally’s ability to bring a group together and make them feel like family – has kept the tradition going.