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Feature Mon Jul 20 2009

With Sisters' Creativity, A Cabin Logs On

Sisters everywhere steal from each other's closets, and when Brenda and Billy were growing up as part of a big family outside of Rockford, Illinois, they were no exception. "When we were kids I'd 'borrow' a hairbrush or a favorite shirt," younger sister Brenda says. "Billy would get so mad."

Klaman clan
Growing up a year and a half apart in the Klaman family: Billy (bottom left) and Brenda (bottom right) with siblings (left to right) Teresa, Syd and Bryan Klaman.

Now both in their late 40s, Brenda Rowe lives in Los Angeles and Billy Goeke lives in Davis, Illinois. But these days, they work together more than ever. When Billy and her husband Dale needed renters for their two wilderness cabins, Brenda proposed a very wired solution: a web site specifically designed to entice Google, and a Threadless-style contest, where entrants could write a short essay, collect votes from their peers and win a weekend in the cabin. 

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The Goeke's primary rental cabin.

The Goeke cabins' site, Wisconsin-Getaway-Cabins.com, promotes the Goekes' two privately owned log cabin-style homes in the town of Hazelhurst, Wisconsin an area of deep woods and interconnected lakes. In a nutshell, as Brenda jokes on the web site: "Billy is my sister and she has gorgeous Northwoods cabins built by her rascally husband, Dale Goeke." The site features reams of content aimed at attracting people from Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison, and even hosts listings for other area rental cabins.

Brenda says that at first, Billy was skeptical that a web site could work.

"I'd be like 'Billy, if you would just promote it, people in the city would love to have a place like that to go.' But my sister was like, 'Oh no, they would never come here,' blah blah... One day I thought: I'm gonna help my sister; show her she's wrong. We can get people in her cabins."

Brenda credits SiteSell.com, which charges $299 per year for a subscription to its "Site Built It!" program, with showing her the basics of building up web traffic. Her first web site was GhostsAndStories.com, which collects ghost-themed tales and videos from readers. She says she chose that site because she's always loved writing: "When I was a kid I used to write all the time, I would sit out on the front porch when I was 14 or 15 years old and write little songs and stories. But you grow up, you gotta live life, gotta do a job."

Today the site runs without much work from Brenda and brings in a decent side income. With that modest success underway, Brenda turned her attention to her sister's cabins.

The first incarnation of the site went up in 2007, and after a few links on Craigslist. Billy says that requests poured in. Some turned into renters, some didn't, but traffic was good - and the site now gets about 500 visitors a day.

With excitement in her voice, Brenda says she's working on making it the number-one vacation site for all of Wisconsin: " I know -- sounds ambitious. You know how you have big dreams?"

But this year was tougher than past years for rentals, which both Brenda and Billy think it's due to the economy.

Brenda says, "It's very obvious that people are out of work, they don't have the funds to go on vacation, or they're skittish; they don't want to take vacation because they worry that if they do they'll get laid off. "

Billy agrees: "It's not just our cabins, everybody's having trouble."

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Deer love Wisconsin.

The contest was designed to drum up web traffic and offered a cabin stay to the writer of an essay about a Wisconsin experience. The essay that received the most votes (from independent IP addresses, no stuffing the ballot box) was the winner. Essays came in from as far away as California, Florida and Mississippi, titled things like: "A Couple of Mistakes on the Lake" and "Chased By Ducks." The winner, chosen over July 4th weekend, was Stephanie Witkiewicz of Lake Villa, Illinois, who wrote about how her boyfriend suddenly proposed marriage during an ill-fated attempt to haul their ATVs up I-94.

"I'm so excited for [the winner] to go up there and experience the cabin," Brenda says. "It's just such a neat place."

"We just love it up here," Billy says, while hiking a trail near the cabin. "You know, we're just not water people; we picked this because of the pine trees, all this wildlife. You just don't see these kinds of trees anywhere else around here. And once, I'm telling you, I saw a black bear, just about 40 feet away; I went and got my camera."

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A view of the cabin from the sleeping loft.

Billy and Dale chose to build their first cabin because it's where they fell in love with snowmobiling (and each other) in the late 70s. As they roast hotdogs over the campfire behind their first cabin, Dale explains that every inch of the place was built by himself and friends who specialized in wiring or plumbing. "And we loved it so much we built a second one," Billy says.

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Billy and Dale Goeke relax on a summer evening in Minocqua.

The family convenes there as often as possible, and it's an escape from everyday life, where Billy works in the insurance industry and Dale is a contractor. Their love of spending time together, and sharing a good laugh, shines through in an old entry from the cabin's handwritten guestbook, where Billy, Dale and their two sons wrote the best things about 2001 (earning a degree, finding a girlfriend, etc.) Dale's was: "Still married after all these years." The worst thing about 2001? September 11, September 11, September 11 and from Dale: "Still married after all these years."

Regardless of the success of the Goeke's web site, the cabins aren't yet wired for Internet. In the way that siblings sometimes define their roles in opposition to each other, Billy says: "My sister knows all that stuff, she always has all the ideas." Brenda, for her part, says that the cabins are "so 'Billy.' She always thinks through all the details, everything is decorated so beautiful, everything has its place."

One cabin is currently for sale. Billy and Dale agree that they would rather not try to keep them both in this economy, so they're attempting to sell the newer of the two cabins. With enough luck, someday they won't need to worry about finding renters at all.

"We want to come and live up here when we retire," Billy says. "That's the dream."

On the home page of the web site she built for her sister's cabins, Brenda wrote:

"I am dedicating this work to my family but especially to my sis. I hope this begins to pay back some of those favors I owe and to rectify those childhood differences ... by the way, did I ever give you that shirt back?"

Brenda says: "When Billy read that on the homepage she started crying. You know, all that other stuff doesn't matter anymore. There comes a time when you band together ... The whole thing has really brought us a lot closer ... But she has to get some broadband out there -- she says 'come visit me,' but I'm like, I can't work!"

Book a Stay:

The Goeke Cabins rent for $150 per night (rates subject to change) and sleep about eight people. Visit Wisconsin-Getaway-Cabins.com for more information on booking a weekend in the woods.

-----

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Billy, Dale and guests zone out in front of the campfire.

John Dillinger and his gangster pals chose the North Woods as a getaway from Chicago's swampy summers, and it's still a prime way to ditch the city. After a little more than five hours on the road, this reporter and intrepid travel posse (photographer Robin Carlson along with Shiow-Jiau Yung and Kevin McClintock) landed in the middle of the woods with nothing to do but roast s'more after s'more, pry the last Busch Light from Dale Goeke's hands, and watch Bambi's brethren frolic in the trees.

If You Go:

Hike a trail, roast hotdogs and marshmallows, shop the main drag in Minocqua or curl up in the cabin with a good book. Boating, water-skiing and fishing are also available on many of the small lakes in town, and small lakeside park areas are abundant for chilling out, maxing and relaxing all cool.

The locals also recommend:

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Min-Aqua Bats: Minocqua's renowned amateur water-ski team presents free shows Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

Otto's Beer & Brat Garden: Relax in a lovely beer garden with a varied selection of local brews. 509 Oneida St; Minocqua, WI 54548; (715) 356-6134‎

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Beer: The universal crowd-pleasing beverage of the North Woods.

The Roadhouse : At 11 am, this charming dive's patrons included families and bikers. Thumbs-up! 6617 Us Highway 51; Hazelhurst, WI 54531; (715) 356-9400

LifeSpring: A gourmet, organic coffee shop that offers wireless.

Little Bohemia Lodge: Eat at the site of the Dillinger gang's shootout with the FBI, where a portion of Public Enemies was filmed. Tasty!

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Break out of your city bubble and head for the trees.

About the Author

Lindsay Muscato is a Gapers Block staffer who escaped from a toaster fire in Buffalo, NY at the age of four. She now lives in a slanty shanty in Andersonville, has written and performed with Around the Coyote and 2nd Story, and she's the managing director of The Neo-Futurists. Read her scribblings at lindsayliveshere.org.

About the Photographer

Robin J. Carlson graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2003. She is a staff photographer at the Chicago Botanic Garden and co-owner of AJRJPhotography.com, where she and her business partner are happy to tackle any photographic challenge.

 
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Aunt Kathie Klaman / July 23, 2009 9:46 PM

Hey, Brenda and Billy - Great job! So funny!
I really enjoyed reading through this and the pictures as well.
Someday, Uncle Ron & I WILL make it up there! (Where in the heck didja say Hazelhurst was again?) : )
Are you going to post a picture of the 2nd cabin too?
Love yaz! (And stay outta my closets!) : )

Daniel F Cullen / August 9, 2009 4:33 PM

What a great area. Does the Cafe in Lake Tomahawk still serve Perch and Eggs? What's the name of the restaurant in Hazelhurst that serves the wonderful Filet with Garlic Sauce? And that little butcher shop in Lake Tomahawk with the 'melt in your mouth' smoked pork chops..still there?

Mary / March 9, 2010 7:40 AM

Nice. That cabin is beautiful and the rate is a steal. How's the fishing up that way? My husband loves to fish and I could see planning a getaway with him up that way.

ninamicu / April 8, 2011 4:17 AM

It is wonderful, all the cabin, the forest, the water, the forest. What is missing, I guess, is some layers of flowers around the cabin. They manage to do a good work, I am glad for those girls. Maybe when I will have the opportunity, I will make a trip up there. Three days of peace will be a spoil for me.

Evelyn Germaine / March 29, 2012 5:31 PM

Oh, what a dream. I'd love to check out cabins in hocking hills ohio. I've always loved it there. Little Bohemia lodge! YUM!

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By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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