Resort and Marina

The grass is mowed and ready for campers, the cabins are cleaned and ready for guests, the café is open and serving homemade meals seven days a week — and the water is up. Life is back at the Tobacco Gardens Resort Marina. Tobacco Gardens Resort Marina reopened this summer after six years of standing empty. Peggy Hellandsaas, along with her daughter, Kari Jo, and Kari’s fiancé, Rex Korslien, bought the resort in February and opened for business in May. That short sentence belies the thought, research, leap of faith, and tons of hard work that went into that process. “My family had talked about buying the resort about five years ago, soon after it had closed. But it stopped with talking and we were busy with other parts of our life. And then last summer, we began to discuss it again. This time, Kari and Rex were engaged and eager to be part of this venture,” Peggy says. “We did a lot of research and planning and approached the county commission with a bid to buy the resort and plan for operating it last September. We got word in February that our bid was accepted and we were in business. That was our ‘Oh, my gosh, what did we just do’ moment. Since then, we’ve been too busy to worry about what is going to happen.” What happened was that the entire small community of Tobacco Gardens closed ranks to help Peggy, Kari and Rex get the resort marina up and running. Peggy turned to Don Mrachek for advice and help and even talked him into being her carpenter. Don and his wife, Donna, live at Tobacco Gardens yearround since he retired from the newspaper business in 2007. They had operated the marina during the summers from 1983 to 1986. Peggy and Don laughingly refer to each other as “boss.” It’s clear to see that the respect is mutual. Peggy has come to depend on Don as a sounding board, helper and even occasional volunteer dishwasher. Don admires Peggy’s unflagging enthusiasm and stamina when it comes to running the business. And Don knows what it takes to run this business. “We ran the marina so that our boys would have summer jobs and after they were gone, we sold it to Kenny Miller. We put up a little building to serve as a concession area and sold bait, pop and Deli Express sandwiches,” Don remembers. Back then, there were just 20 electrical hookups in the camping area and they were only 20-amp circuits. But by 1983, there were 73 campers in the campground. The history of the Tobacco Gardens Resort Marina goes back even farther. When Lake Sakakawea was forming, the Corps of Engineers built a little brick building that contained a women’s and a men’s bathroom and a small area for concessions on the site of the presentday café. They also built one on the other side of Tobacco Gardens with a plan that there would be development on that side of the lake as well. Later, that building was removed. For a few years, Ras Rolfson ran a little store out of his cabin at Tobacco Garden and then the Mracheks took their turn running the concession for the marina. They built a small building near the bathrooms for that purpose. After Kenny and then Madeline Miller ran the marina, Bruce Erickson bought the property. Bruce expanded the services, building the two cabins and expanding the concession area into a full-service café. During the time, the county built the Lewis and Clark Building, which is a 30- by 50- foot building which can be rented for any type of gathering. It has been used for family and class reunions, church services, birthday, anniversary and wedding parties and also for business retreats. When the water left in 2004, Bruce decided to sell the business. There were no takers so the McKenzie County Commission decided to buy it. The commissioners felt it was too valuable to the area to abandon. “Once the commission had reviewed our business plan, they were very helpful in getting us started in our business,” Peggy says. “We were committed to bringing Tobacco Gardens Resort Marina back to life. It must be a sign that the water started coming up when we began working on the place.” They got started with two months of heavy remodeling. They gutted the kitchen and added an outside large freezer unit and a walk-in cooler inside the café. They painted and laid new linoleum on the floor. “Without our family working on this with us and their emotional support and the support of the whole Tobacco Gardens community, we wouldn’t have gotten it done,” Peggy stresses. By May, they were open for business and that business was busy from the beginning. On Mother’s Day, they served more than 225 people. Word of the great meals at reasonable prices spread quickly. “We’ve had people boat over from the other side of the lake for supper,” Peggy says. Don adds that he was recently back in Williston when one of his friends told him that the prime rib he had eaten at Tobacco Gardens was the best he had ever had. “From the beginning, I knew that we were going to serve homemade meals,” Peggy says. “That’s what I served for my family and that’s what we serve here.” And those meals include breakfast, lunch and supper. Wine and beer are a new option that can be served with your meal. The café is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Peggy is on duty as cook most of the time. Kari works full time at the FSA office in Watford City and Rex works for Petro-Hunt. They help out when they can. Peggy’s husband, Scott, runs the family farm and ranch just five miles down the road. “Scott doesn’t have the time to help out here much, but he’s been my rock during this whole time,” Peggy says. “He does miss getting meals at home. If he’s hungry, he has to come up here.” Peggy also relies on her daughter, Nicole Johnsrud, and eight part-time workers to keep the marina running. Peggy is used to hard work. She worked for 21 years as an LPN in the McKenzie County Healthcare System. She was the manager of the clinic for many years and most recently worked in the human resources department for the combined McKenzie County Healthcare System. “I loved my work as a nurse and I still enjoyed working in healthcare, but I was ready for a change. I love the challenge of putting Tobacco Garden Resort Marina back on the map and I love all the people in the area who have been so supportive.” Tobacco Gardens has everything to make it a destination on Lake Sakakawea. The water is the main attraction and it has made a dramatic comeback this year. The main two boat ramps are in use and the fishing is great. There are more than 70 electrical hookups in the large campgrounds — it takes 21 hours just to do the main mowing of the area. McKenzie Electric was brought in to upgrade the transformers to ensure there is plenty of power for all the large campers. Campers can rent their space by the day, week, month or on a seasonal basis that runs from May 1 through Oct. 31. There are two cabins which sleep four people each. These cabins are an easy walk away from the modern bathrooms, complete with showers. They have electric heat and lights and each cabin has an outdoor grill and a fire pit. There’s a new fish cleaning station complete with electricity and water near the café as well. In the convenience store connected to the café, you can buy some basic groceries and snacks. There’s a bait shop and off-sale beer as well. There’s the Lewis and Clark Building, which is being renovated to accommodate groups year-round. This September, the building will be used for Kari and Rex’s wedding and reception. All these are important, but it is the café with its homestyle cooking that puts the place over the top. “People come in and tell us how glad they are to have us open for all three meals. We have been busy every day since we opened,” Peggy says. “And we have plans to stay open all yearround. We already have had hunters calling in about fall camping and we have several people who are really into bird watching stay with us. This winter, we’ll cater to the ice fishers; but the hours for the café will shorten once we hit the cold weather.” Peggy, Kari and Rex have lots of plans for the future of Tobacco Gardens Resort Marina. But right now, they are concentrating on building its reputation for friendly service, outstanding food and one of the best spots on the lake. And that plan is working. One early morning found two regulars finishing up breakfast and coffee. Jim Drader is a camper from the Towner area who is working on oil rigs in the area. “I set up my camper the middle of April. I don’t have to stay at the rig and I’ve got my boat and camper right here. My family comes out to join me on the weekends so we have lots of vacations together. Peggy has been so sweet. When I come off the rig and stop by for breakfast it feels like home.” John Hickel lives at Tobacco Garden. “I eat here fairly regularly. The food is great and you don’t have to drive all the way to Watford City. I’m saving money just on the gas.” If you are thinking about stopping by for supper or want to reserve a cabin, camping spot, or the Lewis and Clark Building, give them a call at (701) 842- 4199. They also have a Web site at

Written By: Myra Anderson