A John Deere Publication
A hilltop lodge with many windows

The Coteau des Prairie lodge basks in the glow of an early morning sunrise. The lodge sits on top of a hill in a pasture of virgin prairie. It all started decades ago with Clarence Breker's pony rides to the hilltop.

Agriculture, Specialty/Niche   April 01, 2024


Hilltop Heaven

This lodge provides a glimpse of North Dakota prairie paradise.

by Gil Gullickson

Joe Breker eyes the sun as it sets in the smoky western sky on this balmy August evening.

"This is how it all started," says the Havana, North Dakota, farmer, gesturing behind him. "My father [Clarence] used to ride his pony up on top of this hill."

Then, he'd breathe in the seemingly endless southeastern North Dakota prairie as he viewed the golden native grasses and blooming flowers simultaneously waving in silent concert.

"He just loved this spot," says Joe's daughter, Olivia Stenvold. "He said that if this place ever came up for sale, he'd buy it, which he did."

This area of southeastern North Dakota has been, is, and will be farming country. But the area surrounding the lodge is akin to the original 142 million acre North American prairie. Just as in Clarence's day, this breathtaking view of North Dakota heaven still exists. This time, though, visitors can view it through the Coteau des Prairie lodge that sits at the top of the hill.

The Breker family is rooted in farming, not innkeeping. But they were always hosts.

"My grandfather loved hospitality," says Olivia. "He had a butcher shop in his basement, and people would always stop by or he would go out making beef deliveries. Since we were right in the heart of the Central Flyway, he started a goose pit [for hunting] business. He had several groups every year that would return, and he would feed and house them."

For the Brekers, though, farming came first. Joe attended North Dakota State University (NDSU) after high school graduation, although he always knew he would return to the farm before graduation. His mother, Adeline, contracted multiple sclerosis, and Clarence started transitioning the farm to Joe in order to care for her.

At NDSU, Joe forged a friendship with John Hanson, who later returned home to the Logging Camp Ranch near Bowman in western North Dakota. The duo even swapped places for a time, with John coming to the Breker farm and Joe spending time at Hanson's ranch.

Hanson was the first to take the hospitality route with his family's ranch. "He told my dad he had the second most beautiful place. He said he had the first!" jests Olivia.

Above. Olivia Stenvold strolls with her parents, Patty and Joe Breker, across the prairie at the foot of the Coteau des Prairie Lodge. A smokey sunset courtesy of Canadian wildfires occurs on the virgin prairie surrounding the Coteau des Prairie Lodge. Ponderosa pine gleaned from the Logging Camp Ranch in western North Dakota forms the lodge's lumber for Olivia Stenvold and her parents Joe and Patty Breker.


Hilltop lodge. Fast forward several decades. After working as a Cargill chemical assurance chemist in Nebraska, Olivia moved back in 2009 and married her now husband, Austin. She farmed with Joe for a couple years as they plotted their future.

"We wanted a new stream of income that wasn't dependent on farming," she says.

They thought the hilltop would be perfect for a guest lodge.

"You just couldn't beat this view," says Olivia, who is now the lodge manager. "We did a lot of market research as to what the area needed and formed a business plan."

They initially envisioned just a five-bedroom lodge. However, even a lodge of this size required major infrastructure costs for such services as water, electrical power, sewer, and an entry road. These costs spurred them to think bigger and expand to a 13-room lodge that accommodates business meetings, family reunions, weddings, and retreats. Midweek visitors often include visitors trekking across the United States.

The Brekers secured Ponderosa pine lumber from John Hanson's Logging Camp Ranch.

"I can understand why people don't build with logs," Olivia says. Shrinking and swelling is a challenge. Still, the logs that show the natural knotty wood create the lodge's rustic look.

The lodge's interior also features a panoramic window on the lodge's north side. It wasn't easy. The glass had to be flexible yet strong enough to withstand the gale force winds that sometimes whip across the hill.

"At times, you can see the window bow," Olivia says. Still, the contractor successfully made the glass fit.

The Brekers tapped the talents of family members to build the lodge. Joe's wife, Patty, who has an eye for interior design, developed room paint color and décor. Olivia's aunts, Cher Spieker and Janny Kiefer, decorated the theme rooms revolving around deer, honeybees, prairie flowers, and famed South Dakota artist Terry Redlin with homemade quilts. Olivia's uncle, Doug Spieker, welded chandeliers and balcony railings from old dump rakes. Olivia's brother, Philip Breker, developed the lodge's website and filled it with content he filmed and photographed.

The lodge opened in October 2012. Most customers come from a four-hour radius, Olivia says. Special events included the 2018 draft party for Patty's nephew, Dallas Goedert, a Philadelphia Eagles tight end. They also hosted a cooking and foraging retreat by Sean Sherman, who started a firm called The Sioux Chef that creates indigenous foods.

It all started with Clarence Breker's pony ride up the hill and his knack for hospitality.

"All of this was instilled by him, always having people around and being interested in them," Olivia says. "It is a passion." ‡

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