When Hollywood collided with the Apple River

Greg Marsten | Staff writer
The dam site became a regional entertainment mecca. - Photo provided
There is nothing remaining of the many activities, structures or the three dams over history that used to exist on what is now called the Woodley property, a block of county-owned parcels currently preparing to be sold in an online auction, or not, but that’s a different story, noted elsewhere.
The Woodley property has fallen under many names over the last century, most notably of late as the old Country Dam, which locals still recall as a multibar, restaurant and nightclub with a wild and occasionally famous resume – even including a taste of Hollywood which will be clarified later – since James Woodley first opened on New Years’ Eve in 1961. There is more on that side of the history in a moment. The real story started with the Apple River.
The dam proper
The actual dam was among the last “grandfathered” configurations of its type in the region, a rare, privately owned hydroelectric dam. Until its removal and creek restoration in 2009, the Woodley Dam was among a handful of dams that predated some of the most basic regulations, including escaping the purview of the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, which arguably was a thorn in the side of the state for many years.
While the records are sketchy beyond ownership, it was thought that dam removed a decade ago was the third such earthen dam at or near the site since 1934, when a local man named Fred Riddler started the business as Riddlers’ Mill. The entrepreneurial Riddler created a hydroelectric facility a short time later and also built a so-called cabana building near the dam for use as a wood sawmill, grain exchange and mill, and later as a general store of sorts.
According to a variety of historical sources and past interviews, Riddler took advantage of poor local roadways and relied on farmers who weren't up for long trips to the Twin Cities or places to sell their commodities. He also didn't mind working on weekends. With that move, Riddler was the only option for Saturday grain sales, and he reportedly influenced the Chicago Board of Trade and Minneapolis Grain Exchange prices for the opening bell on Mondays for several years. So that little stretch of the Apple River was an important cog in world commodity prices for a brief blip in time.
But it wasn't just commodities that were addressed over the 80 years the dam(s) supplied power for what later became a large and diverse operation, with plenty of juice to spare for neighbors.
The Woodley era
James Woodley had bought the property from Riddler in 1960 and opened it in grandiose fashion a short time later. Under Woodley, the old Country Dam became a mecca of entertainment and options, located on the busy corner of CTH H and Hwy. 8 between Balsam Lake and Amery. The property was a haven for travelers and locals alike as car camping and road touring grew in popularity. He offered everything from camping to a neighboring motel, with meals for couples, dates, receptions or families, and recreational options that included tubing down the dam, swimming, live music, an outdoor amphitheater across the river, as well as a first for the area in a petting zoo and numerous winter activities, including snowmobiles.
Polk County took possession of the entire property in 2002 in a settlement over Woodley’s back taxes after years of lawsuits, appeals and controversy. They razed the remaining, blighted and delinquent portions of the original buildings, with the only remaining evidence of the history being the dam proper, which was removed in 2009 after years of delay due to legal issues and challenges. The riverway was restored to its current state, which looks nothing like it appeared when Riddler, and later Woodley, would turn the impounded water into a lake with two private picnic islands, named after Woodley’s young daughters.
But in its heyday, the last hydro dam was a multifunction earthen structure, a sort of Swiss Army knife of water impoundment. The dam was not only used to impound a several-acre pond at the head, but it also provided a picturesque waterwheel using the Apple River as a powerhead. The snowmobile trailhead across the dam top literally opened the door to the machines in the area and was part of the history that led to construction of the current bridge to replace the razed dam and river crossing.
A unique site
The snowmobile trail and river crossing, on top of the growing popularity of the dam site as a sort of snowmobile crossroads and for trails and entertainment, led to a little-known asterisk in history for the Woodley site.
That dedicated Apple River snowmobile trail crossing was still unique 50 years ago, especially one with the supporting venue of the old Country Dam, where riders had options for food, drink, gas, lodging, music and more. Public snowmobile trails were still new to the world, and the growing popularity of the sport collided on the front door of the old Country Dam, which became known as one of the biggest music venues between Milwaukee and Minneapolis. It featured big name stars from rock ‘n’ roll, country and many other types of music, from Dolly Parton to the Trashmen, Bobby Vee and countless other local, regional and national acts.
The dam site became synonymous with entertainment, good and bad, and also became noteworthy for snowmobilers and tourists, sporting several musical stages, different food options from pizza to casual dining and notoriously rowdy drinking parties that led to all sorts of stories over the years.
The Hollywood twist
The prominent trail location and success of the bar and nightclub led to the site becoming the backdrop for a little-known Hollywood film, “It Ain't Easy,” which was part of several weeks of primarily second-unit production in 1971. The movie was released in 1972 to little or no success except among people who loved vintage snowmobiles and the cross-country treks that are featured.
The movie had a secondary title in foreign releases as “The Winnipeg Run,” which is shown in the promotional photos form subsequent marketing efforts. The film focused on a 500-mile snowmobile race between St. Paul and Winnipeg, while also featuring a variety of snowmobile trick riding on machines that today seem more like yard art or museum pieces.
However dated it might seem, the film accidentally seemed to be among the first Hollywood efforts to highlight and address the very real issue of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, far ahead of its time, but sadly in a barely mediocre at best film.
In a nutshell, the film features “Randy” as a retired Army veteran “… released early from treatment for his PTSD,” back when PTSD was rarely mentioned and was a controversial diagnosis, at best, and hardly accepted by the military. The plot summary confirms that Randy “… is set loose into the world to make it on his own.”
So, of course, he enters an extreme cross-country 500-mile snowmobile race, from Manitoba to St. Paul - via Wisconsin, somehow - which is the connection to the old Country Dam, which was a literal snowmobile mecca before there were any real public snowmobile trail efforts in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The bar, nightclub and the trail across the dam were all featured prominently in the film, a copy of which is all but impossible to find today.
Reportedly, portions of the Thief River Falls, Minnesota, area were meant to look like Canada and northern Minnesota, as were a few areas around Amery and Balsam Lake, but the film notes are few beyond credits.
The film’s working title when filming locally was “Into the Storm,” and while the film became little more than a brief credit for some people, it did lead to or was a step along the way for several Hollywood types. It was the first credited film for the late Maurice Hurley as director, who later went on to direct many big TV productions including “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “The Equalizer” and “Baywatch Nights.”
“It Ain’t Easy” was basically described by critics as a tragic love story, with a tragic ending, but that doesn’t always sell well. The marketing gurus had another way of putting it: “He came home to Minnesota looking to find peace … and found something else.” As cheesy as it sounded, it turned out worse.
A star emerged
However bad the movie and script were, the B-minus-grade movie did lead to one true Hollywood success story for the lead actor who played Randy the veteran.
Lance Henriksen is the star featured in the movie poster, bowing his head in a sad profile which gave little hint that the chisel-featured, gravelly-voiced actor would later become a versatile standard bearer and would use his “snowmobile Randy” role as a kickoff for a lengthy Hollywood career.
Henriksen would later appear as a lead or prominent character in dozens of award-winning, even Oscar-nominated and winning, films including “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network” and ”Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” He may be most easily remembered for playing astronaut Wally Schirra in “The Right Stuff,” on top of countless TV and film roles. He played Abraham Lincoln in “The Day Lincoln Was Shot,” and even the first “Terminator” movie featured the now-recognizable actor, whose first leading movie role was filmed in a little-known and mediocre, at best, film that featured Polk County and at the Country Dam.

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