Family traditions are a large part of what makes a home a home, and this idea holds true for one particular family living in the small community of Knife River, just 20 minutes up the North Shore from Duluth. Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse has been carrying on the family’s business for over 115 years, continuing to produce the original smoked fish recipe that has been an icon of the area since the beginning.
The founding patriarch of the fish business, William Kendall, was a lead mechanic with the railroad in the early 1900s; a time when the logging industry was a vibrant fixture throughout the North Shore. However, William could foresee the eventual end of logging as it was already slowly beginning to dry up. So, he decided to branch out to other opportunities the area had at its natural disposal. He would gather fish from local fisherman and sell them wholesale up and down the shore.
According to Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse co-owner Gordy Olson and his wife and business partner Christy Kendall, the granddaughter of William, having a permanent building as a retail shop began by accident. William was on his way to Duluth with a load of fresh fish to sell at market when his Wheel Speed Wagon, the vehicle of the era, broke down and he was stranded. He set up shop along the road and that was the beginning of Kendall’s Fish Stand. The current Smokehouse is still located near the original site on old scenic drive, welcoming visitors to Knife River as they head north.
William’s son, Russ, eventually took over operations, keeping his father’s philosophy intact—“always remember your basics.” He built the business and grew a strong customer base by peddling his goods throughout the state and remained an active contributor to the business right up until he passed in 2007. Now, along with Olson and Christy, their son Cody has joined the team, becoming the fourth generation at the Smokehouse.
Although the family has expanded their retail to offering locally produced cheeses, sausage, syrup and wild rice, the focus remains on making the best smoked fish they can. Olson explains the process has not changed over the years, something he feels creates a high-quality product that “new cutting-edge technology just can’t do.” The smoking process stays true to its roots, using natural wood that lends to the taste, texture and color that is tough to duplicate with a machine. All the fish are purchased locally from licensed commercial fisherman and the inventory varies from season to season, as well as availability. Some of the standards are lake trout, sugar-cured salmon and whitefish; ask any of the staff or customers which kind is the “best one” and the answer will vary, as everyone has their favorite. The production facility is located on site with a modest retail shop in the front of the building. A framed photo of Russ Kendall hangs proudly behind the counter.
The Smokehouse is not only a tradition for the Kendall family, but also for customers. It has become a destination for those who have passed the tradition of stopping at the Smokehouse down generation to generation. For fans of the one-of-a-kind smoked fish unable to make the trip, shipping to other states is available from November through March.
Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse is open all year from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed on Wednesdays). The Smokehouse does have a Facebook page, but managing social media takes time away from production, so Olson recommends calling with any questions: 218-834-5995.