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Minnesota family buys Wisconsin cabin on a whim. Here's what happened

"Underneath all the ugly was a really cute cabin in an idyllic setting," said Diana Cole, of Forest Lake.

four people sit outside a wood A-frame cabin
Jack Nixon, from left, Rachel Hartshorn, Diana Cole and Rob Hartshorn sit Oct. 10 outside the A-frame cabin they fixed up in Herbster.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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HERBSTER, Wis. — Diana Cole didn’t need to see this cabin up close to buy it.

The Forest Lake, Minnesota, woman was scanning Instagram when she came across a two-bedroom, one-bathroom A-frame for sale somewhere in Wisconsin.

“I had no idea where Herbster was, but I was curious about the property. When I saw how close it is to Lake Superior, I got really excited,” she recalled.

A pair of beds fit in the upstairs bedroom of the A-Frame cabin in Herbster
A pair of beds fit in the upstairs bedroom of the A-frame cabin in Herbster on Oct. 10.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Cole and her partner, Rob Hartshorn, were snowbirding in Florida when she spotted the cabin, which fit what the family had been seeking in a lakeside getaway. After a “half-joking” text to her daughter-in-law and an inquisitive call to the Realtor, Cole put in an offer.

Rachel Hartshorn was familiar with the area, and was optimistic when Cole texted about the property. As for her father: “Rob thought I was crazy,” Cole recalled, “but it just felt like it was meant to be.”

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Amanda Paull bought a 20-foot 1979 Coachmen Cadet for $800. She knew it’d take some work, but not this much.

The kitchen in the Herbster A-frame has been redone and updated
The kitchen in the Herbster A-frame has been updated.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

A week later, Hartshorn and her partner, Jack Nixon, visited the cabin and confirmed for Cole that she made the right choice. “It was small, but it had good potential,” Hartshorn had reported.

The family spent summer 2021 remodeling the very 1970s cabin. It now serves as the their go-to retreat. They try to visit once a month, and when they’re not there, they rent it out for $199 a night through Airbnb . (The hot-ticket spot is already full up for November.)

The cabin hadn’t been touched since the ’70s, and it showed. Shag carpeting covered the bedroom floors. The walls were blanketed in cornucopia-covered paper and dark-wood paneling. A giant wood stove had swallowed the living room. For appliances, the cabin included an avocado-green fridge and a miniature washer and dryer.

Stairs lead up to the second floor bedroom in the Herbster A-frame
Stairs lead up to the second-floor bedroom in the Herbster A-frame.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“Underneath all the ugly was a really cute cabin in an idyllic setting,” said Cole.

They painted the kitchen cabinets and the walls; added flooring; cleared away many, many trees; and called in a landscaper. They opted for an light and airy decor to open the space up with touches of earthy and neutral colors.

An old telephone box is mounted to a tree near the A-frame cabin in Herbster
An old telephone box is mounted to a tree near the A-frame cabin in Herbster.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Rachel Hartshorn was in charge of the stark designs on the bathroom floor. It involved lots of primer and stenciling layers with oil-based paint, which presented its own headache because she had to use gasoline or paint thinner to clean a stencil for reuse.

“She’d come out and have more paint on here than’d be on the floor,” joked her father.

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“I don’t know if we’d want to do it again,” said Cuyuna Cove co-founder Kelsey Braun. "It tested us.”

“It was a tricky space to maneuver,” she said.

The family said liberating the stove and filling its void in the living room ranked high on their list of conquered obstacles. Oh, and removing the wallpaper. “It went from their job to my job,” Rob Hartshorn said.

The fixed up A-frame sits in the woods near Herbster
The fixed-up A-frame sits in the woods near Herbster.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Working on a tight budget, the family furnished the cabin from area garage sales, antique stores and giveaways from friends. Many items just needed upcycling, such as the secondhand store couch, which fit perfectly in the living room after Cole removed its floor-brushing fringe.

There are pops of character throughout in the cabin’s original screen door, which is now the bathroom door. And, their thrifty solution to low and too-spaced-out stair railings was to repurpose bed frame dividers. “They’re the right length. They turned out cute and they were free,” said Cole.

Rachel Hartshorn, left, and Diana Cole talk about all the fixes they made in the A-frame they bought in Herbster
Rachel Hartshorn, left, and Diana Cole talk Oct. 10 about all the fixes they made in the A-frame they bought in Herbster.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Travels out west drew Rachel Hartshorn to A-frames, a love she shared with Cole. Before the family bought their cabin, Cole hadn’t been in one since the 70s, she said.

The bedroom on the first floor of the A-frame in Herbster
The bedroom on the first floor of the A-frame in Herbster.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

She and Rob Hartshorn have flipped small houses in the Twin Cities for about 10 years, but this is their first cabin. They’re following up with a second A-frame flip in Danbury, Wisconsin. It’s the antidote to retirement boredom, Hartshorn said.

Hartshorn’s experience with renovations has come in handy for his daughter and her partner. Rachel Hartshorn and Nixon purchased their first home in Forest Lake, about five minutes away from her father. With their help, Hartshorn and Nixon have been able to update and open up their starter home.

“We’ve learned so much from them. We follow their lead,” she said.

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A fire pit for guests is built into the landscaping behind the A-frame cabin
A fire pit for guests is built into the landscaping behind the A-frame cabin in Herbster.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

For the young couple, the Herbster cabin is a retreat from work and “too many hours a day” looking at screens. It allows them to dive into hiking, kayaking and other outdoor hobbies, she said.

The couple recently got engaged on the North Shore, which Hartshorn expected to happen at the family cabin. “We’re cheating on the South Shore,” she said.

“I got to keep you on your toes,” Nixon added.

MORE BY MELINDA LAVINE
“Watch out for your fingers,” said Dan Krisak, part-timer at Litchke Farms. “We haven’t lost any yet, but every one of us gets a Band-Aid and keeps going.”

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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