When I ask Gordy Olson how long Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse has been open, Gordy tells me about an old encased penny and a letter he received from a rare coin dealer named Sam Shafer last year.
According to Shafer’s letter, encased pennies were used as business cards and promotional items around the turn of the 20th century. This coin’s encasement has KENDALL SMOKE HOUSE [sic] across the top on one side. On the other side is an instruction: GO WAY BACK AND SIT DOWN.
The penny was minted in 1908.
Gordy’s wife, Kristi, is Russ Kendall’s daughter. Gordy and Kristi co-own the business today. And while 1908 happens to be the same year Kendall’s moved into its current location, Gordy says it goes back even farther than that. While he is unsure of the exact timeline prior to 1908, he says the business predates Russ Kendall himself. It began with Russ’ father, William.
Gordy says William worked as a lead mechanic on the railroads around the turn of the 20th century. The rail industry had begun its decline, he says, and William could see the writing on the wall. He ventured into tourism, and began smoking fish using methods taught to him by the Anishinaabe.
Over the years, Kendall’s grew into more than just a smokehouse. You’ll probably see the words ROYAL BOHEMIAN BEER on the sign hanging above the front door. Kendall’s used to include a bar, and you can still order a beer in the dining room (no Royal Bohemian, sadly). It also used to include a dance hall, and at one time a casino.
“Anything that was to make a living is what [William] did,” Gordy says.
It was William, and then Russ, who spread word about the smokehouse over the years. They cultivated lasting relationships with fisherman and traveled to the Twin Cities to sell goods. Gordy helped Russ with this during his early years at the smokehouse, packaging fish for him to sell on the road.
Gordy began working here in the mid-70s, when he a teenager. He learned how to work with fish – and, perhaps equally as important, how to work with the fishermen.
“Those guys were intimidating, to say the least,” says Gordy. “They expected and demanded that you’d show up on time and do your job to the best of your ability. I was scared to death of them. But after a while, they warmed up.”
When I ask Gordy about his day-to-day now as co-owner, he cracks a joke about scrubbing toilets and emptying trash bins. He still works with fish in the smokehouse, too, he says, and that’s where he’s most comfortable. Kristi runs the market, where souvenirs, cheeses, maple syrup, and sodas are sold along with the fish.
“If you’re in charge of something, you have to be able to jump from spot to spot to spot,” he says. “A thing that’s really difficult that causes a lot of good people to go under is book work. That’s not one of my specialties. My brother is a webmaster, but that DNA didn’t drop on me.”
“It’s okay,” I tell him. “It didn’t drop on me, either.”
My wife is sitting next to me, and her head is nodding with the force of a sledgehammer swing.
You won’t see Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse if you take the Highway 61 expressway from Duluth to Two Harbors. You need to take the scenic route. It will take longer, but Her Majesty Lake Superior will show you a very nice time as you make your way north. Whether you repeatedly look out at her and reflect on your smallness, or point lustfully at the mansions you see overlooking her, your eyes will be drawn to something. If you’re driving, though, just remember: you’re driving.
You won’t miss Kendall’s. It’s got some real estate to itself at the intersection of Scenic 61 and Kendall Rd. in Knife River.
Almost everyone who has ever craved a good bite of fish up this way has a Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse story. I remember my first time there: the white wrapping paper, a half-pound of salmon, a white plastic fork, and a bottle of beer by myself in the dining room one brisk afternoon in December 2016.
I was the only one in the room. It was like my life had been paused, but I could move around and manipulate it like Hiro Nakamura used to on Heroes. I window-shopped the song catalog of an old Wurlitzer jukebox, and I think most of the song slips were hand-written. A game show played quietly on a TV behind the old wooden bar counter, but I ignored that. I could hear the cash register out in the market, busting its gears for a line that never quite ended. I was a world away, with my salmon and a bottle of beer.
Olson says the fish at Russ Kendall’s are brined for one day, smoked using maple wood for another day, and chilled for one more day after that.
“There’s nothing new about what we do here,” he says. “This has been done for thousands of years and hundreds of generations.”
During my most recent visit, I purchased a Russ Kendall’s T-shirt with a mermaid on the front; two containers of cheese spread, one with jalapeños mixed in and the other made with port wine; two cans of Lift Bridge Mini-Donut Cream Soda; and a little mountain of brown sugar-smoked trout. This was roughly a month ago.
The sugar-smoked trout requires nothing except a utensil (and even that, you could get by without). I opened up the white wrapping paper in my kitchen and forked it apart right at my counter. I couldn’t even be bothered to sit, or to acknowledge my dog’s cutesy-faced begging routine a few feet from me. I was a world away, holding a metal fork and wearing polar bear-patterned fleece pants.
Within minutes, nothing remained but a couple of bones and a small sheet of fish skin.
I meet up with Gordy on a Saturday afternoon in late October. It’s that 35-degree Saturday, the messenger, that one day we have every autumn that warns us of just how close winter is. Outside, the world around Her Majesty Lake Superior seems to have taken on blue tints and it looks as cold as it is. Her waves are small and serrated. Tree branches are almost entirely bare. But inside, the dining room of Russ Kendall’s has barely changed since the last time I’d been there.
Three generations of his family are at the smokehouse that day. Two of their children are working (one of their daughters, Casey, connects me with Gordy after I just walk up and ask on a whim if there’s someone I could speak to). And as we chat in the smokehouse dining room, a birthday party for one of Gordy and Kristi’s grandchildren has just gotten underway.
Ownership of the business officially changed to Gordy and Kristi when Russ Kendall passed away in 2007. By then, the smokehouse had become destination eating. The aforementioned collection of stories includes a few from one Andrew Zimmern, who even being named Kendall’s number one on a “food destinations worth a detour” list he compiled.
When a fire inflicted massive damage on the smokehouse four years ago, Zimmern wrote a post on his website urging readers to pitch in with donations. He brings up the whitefish at Russ Kendall’s, some of the best he’s ever had, and writes, “Whenever I visit the North Shore, I stop at Kendall’s on the way.”
A story in the Lake County News Chronicle states that many of the mementos kept by the Kendalls over the years were lost in the fire. The story was written in 2017, after Gordy and Kristi received an encased coin in the mail.
The collection will, no doubt, regenerate quickly. Stories will be passed onto the next generations and the smoking instructions won’t change. New adventurers – or maybe just people traveling for good food – will head north on the Highway 61 scenic route. They’ll behold the glory of Her Majesty Lake Superior, find their way to Russ Kendall’s, go way back, and sit down.
It was initially stated that we bought summer sausages at the smokehouse. My wife informed me we didn’t. Our summer sausages were purchased someplace else.
You can find the first three installments of my Scenic Routes series below:
A guide to coffee shops on St. Croix Trail between Stillwater and Little Sweden
An interview with Jeff Petcoff about the passion that drives Corktown Deli and Brews
A tribute to Highway 23 and the good food you can find at the small-town bars