This promotional photo of Frances Woods and Billy Bray is from sometime in the 1940s, courtesy of the Eagle River Historical Society.
This promotional photo of Frances Woods and Billy Bray is from sometime in the 1940s, courtesy of the Eagle River Historical Society.

The historic Braywood Resort and Motel — a longtime staple in the North Woods — was nearly lost last spring when the idea was floated to tear down the popular restaurant on Catfish Lake and build a series of condominiums on the property.

Thanks to a group of residents who purchased the building last May, that did not come to fruition and the piece of Eagle River history remains in tact.

Built on the Eagle River Chain of Lakes in 1949 by professional dancers Billy Bray and Frances Woods, the Braywood carries a unique and interesting story.

The Braywood got its name from the combination of the two owners, Billy Bray and Frances Woods. The duo had performed all across the United States with big names such as Lawrence Welk, Cab Calloway, Guy Lombardo and Bob Crosby.

According to the Eagle River Historical Society (ERHS), what made the pair even more impressive was the fact that Woods was deaf. Born without eardrums, she was able to keep rhythm by feeling the vibrations on the floor through her feet. The dancing duo kept Woods’ deafness a secret during their early years of performing.

Bray and Woods visited the area in the summer of 1932 to work at the Jack-O-Lantern Lodge in Eagle River. ERHS records show that they were so enchanted by the North Woods that although their contract was only for two weeks, they continued to perform there for 18 summers until it closed in 1950.

Noticing that none of the sleeping rooms at the lodge had private baths, Bray realized the need for more modern accommodations, and the Braywood Resort and Motel was built.

The new resort featured 16 rooms, and was the first motel built in northern Wisconsin where each room had its own private bath. It was also the only one located directly on the lake.

“Since its creation in 1949, the Braywood has been a well-known North Woods resort with an interesting story,” said Karen Sailer, executive director of ERHS. “The historical society is very happy that it continues to be part of our heritage.

“Billy Bray and Frances Woods added a touch of glamor to the area with their professional dance background. The Braywood is a showcase for their story.”

Though the entertainers were billed as Woods and Bray, the names were reversed when it came to naming the motel. Jack-O-Lantern’s Evelyn Taylor is credited for naming the business Braywood.

Bray was born Anthony Caliguire in Connellsville, Penn. on July 29, 1904. Francis Woods, who came from English and Welsh parents, also had an alias — born Esther Rechina Thomas on March 21, 1907, in Girard, Ohio.

Bray and Woods operated the resort and motel until 1970 when they were forced to sell the resort due to health reasons, but the operation has continued on to this day kept up by a series of owners.

“It is wonderful that the Braywood lives on, with its great background story of Billy Bray and Frances Woods, who were dubbed the Wonder Dancers,” Sailer added. “Keeping our historic resorts alive and part of North Woods heritage is a real tribute to our past. Our museum visitors love that we can send them to places that are living history.”

New owners

Taking over in May 2022, Molly and Woody Ahlborn of Eagle River; and summer residents Matt and Laurie Coleman and Diane and Patrick O’Malley, banded together after seeing the proposed condo plan. The previous owner had been entertaining offers on the business and had some investors interested in purchasing the property.

Co-owner and longtime resident of the area, Molly Ahlborn, explained that signs were up promoting the coming condos, and that was when the families stepped up and made plans to purchase because, in their minds, the only way to keep it going was to purchase it.

“The reality of knowing that this (Braywood) was going to be gone — everyone had strong feelings about keeping kids on the beach here, keeping families coming to visit,” Ahlborn said. “It was a pretty spontaneous, last-minute decision to purchase it to save it.”

The new owners closed on the property May 15 and then opened two weeks later.

With the purchase coming so soon before the start of a busy summer season, there was a whirlwind of work to make some minor upgrades ahead of Memorial Day weekend.

The biggest change was repainting the restaurant back to its original red color, which Ahlborn said has been very popular with returning guests. Other upgrades included repainting the interior ceilings of the restaurant to lighten things up, painting all the inside chairs to match in color and give a more cohesive look, and replacing the outdoor furniture.

“We updated the bathrooms, we got all new TVs to make it a little bit more sporty, and got all new menus,” Ahlborn said. “We also brought back some of the old favorites on the menu like pizza fries and honey buns.”

Some of the old favorite cocktails featured at the restaurant’s full bar also made a return, such as the Drowning Pirate cocktail.

Darby Coleman, manager of the restaurant and daughter of owners Matt and Laurie Coleman, had worked for previous owners Diane and Brad Swartz and was able to bring back some of the tried and true menu items she remembered.

“I actually worked here when I was younger, so I knew how to do everything,” Coleman said. “We reached out (to Diane and Brad) and they were very kind and gave us their blessing.”

In addition to the restaurant upgrades, Ahlborn said they also updated and refurnished three of the cabins in the back that will be rented out next summer.

They also are in the process of a big remodel right now that started with expanding the dining area and will move on to doubling the kitchen size. They also will add air conditioning.

“It was a big priority to open things up,” Coleman said. “People think of this as a summer destination and our goal is to make it more of a year-round,” Coleman said. They also plan to make it more of a dinner place as well, which a larger kitchen will make more feasible.

An expanded dining room is under construction now with plans to have that open before the winter season. The kitchen remodel is slated to begin early next year.

“We want to keep the kind of ‘feel of Braywood’ but also make it a more updated, more welcoming,” Ahlborn said.

After a hectic start, Ahlborn and Coleman said they expect things will only get better going forward.

“We’ve learned a lot, especially after we jumped into it so fast in the early season,” Coleman said. “The summer was busy and hectic, but it was great. We did lots of learning on the fly.”

Ahlborn voiced appreciation to the staff who got them through the summer.

“We had such awesome workers, so loyal and dependable. And it was a great atmosphere because they were all friends. They’d hang out after work together and it was just a really great experience,” she said.