Minnetonka History
A Brief History of Minnetonka

The word MINNETONKA has had different meanings to different people. Minne-tonka meant water-big to the Dakotah. To the pioneer it meant a township. Since World War I it has increasingly meant a suburb to families whose work require daily travel.

The warring Dakotah and the Chippewa traveled through Minnetonka often . It seems that their destinations were often Shakopee and Lake Mille Lacs. Without the obstacles of marsh or bluffs, the present area of Minnetonka Mills provided a convenient crossing of Minnehaha Creek. Wayzata, which was a part of Minnetonka Township until 1883, was an occasional campsite for the Dakotah until the Sioux Uprising in 1862.

The Dakotah sold the area including Minnetonka to the United States at Traverse des Sioux in 1851. There after the stream of land speculators and pioneers increased steadily. The first census, the Territorial Census of 1857, lists 41 households. Twenty-nine of the heads of households are listed as farmers. The occupations of the remaining twelve are associated with the operations of Minnetonka Mill and a nearby hotel. Fifteen heads of households were born in Europe, five in Canada, and twenty-one in Ohio and Eastern states. Many of them were relatives or acquaintances.

 In 1852, Simon Stevens, Calvin Tuttle and several other St. Anthony businessmen traveled up Minnehaha Creek. Impressed by the rapids in what is now Minnetonka Mills area, they decided to build a saw mill. A dam was completed in early 185 3 in the vicinity of the McGinty Road bridge, and a sawmill constructed on the present Burwell School property. The square oak timbers used in construction of the first suspension bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Anthony were sawed at this Minnetonka Sawmill. The sawed lumber was sold in St. Anthony and St. Paul markets until a fire destroyed the mill in 1854.

 In 1855 a two-story sawmill was constructed with a furniture factory on the second floor. A building for varnishing furniture was built on the south side of the creek, at the present Bridge Street. Production consisted mainly of chairs and bedsteads. The Minnetonka Republican at St. Anthony published a short article describing the area. The February 12, 1857 issue said:

Minnetonka City - We have already called attention to the thrift and activity of that little town. Large investments are made there. On January 1, 40 hands were being employed turning out weekly 500 chairs and 200 bedsteads. By April it will be 2000 weekly. One million feet of lumber is in the pond, half of it nicely seasoned. Machinery is on the way for a flour mill. J. P. Miller is erecting a new hotel. But competition from the mills at St. Anthony, the drowning of the mill's manager in 1857 and a fire in 1860 dashed the lofty hopes. From 1860 to 1869 the mill area had no active mill.

 Thomas Perkins, in 1869, constructed a 3-1/2 story f lour mill and an ad joining cooper shop. At the peak of its production, around 1880, the mill ground 400 barrels of flour daily and employed 18 men. One of its brands, "Snow Ball," was priced at $3.00 per hundred pound, and local farmers were paid $1.00 per bushel of wheat. From 1874 to the mid-80 ' s, Charles Burwell managed the Minnetonka Mill Company's operations. After the mill's closing Burwell continued to live across the road from the mill and was one of the leading citizens of the community until his death in 1917 .

 The ownership of the mill changed hands and hopes were raised that the closed mill might resume operation. That was not to be the case. It never reopened. In the back of his diary George Baker wrote, "April 25, 1895 They are taking down the old mill at Minnetonka. It was there before I was born," and the Minneapolis Journal, on December 29, 1902, reported on a disastrous fire at the mill at Minnetonka on Christmas Day. The defunct mill was no more.

 Despite the prominence of the milling industry in Minnetonka, it was farming that provided the backbone of the township' s economy. Pioneer farmers began claiming acreage in the early 1850 ' s, paying $1. 25 per acre . The Chowen, Shaver, Gray and Ogin families from near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania settled the Groveland area before 1860. The Chastek, Smetana, Empanger and Dominick families came from Bohemia in the 1850's and settled near Hopkins. The McGinty and McGann families came from Ireland during the same period and settled between the Mills and Wayzata. Their Wayzata neighbors, in the 1850' s, were the Keeslings and Harringtons, from Indiana and Canada. By 1860 Minnetonka's population had reached 293.

 In the decades after 1860 additional immigrants arrived from Bohemia, the German states, and the Scandinavian countries. From the South came two former slave families, the Carpenters and the Aylors. They farmed near Williston Road and Minnetonka Boulevard. For thirty years Mrs. Carpenter was the community's midwife until the family moved at the turn of the century. By 1900 the children of the pioneers were supplying Minneapolis and Lake Minnetonka residents with fresh produce from their commercial farming operations.

 But excellent transportation facilities to Hopkins and Minneapolis began to transform Minnetonka township's economy. Train service to Minneapolis had been available since the 1880's and in 1905 streetcar service began. The attraction to become a city wage earner was great and rapid transit made it possible.

 Simultaneously, city dwellers were attracted to Minnetonka and rail service helped to fulfill their hopes as well. By 1913 farmers and land developers had joined their interests and platted more than one dozen residential subdivisions. The two largest subdivisions were along Minnetonka Boulevard, one immediately south of the mills, the other west of Tonkawood Road. Our city streets today still conform to the plans drawn by those developers.

As a maneuver to prevent neighboring villages from continuing to annex portions of Minnetonka township, residents in 1956 voted to establish a village out of the remaining twenty-eight square miles. Opponents, believing that the area was too large, proposed the Village of Burwell north of Minnetonka Boulevard and McGinty Road but they did not prevail.

Minnetonka Village lasted only thirteen years. The complexities and the heavy demands of administering a rapidly developing community required professional management and larger representation. In 1969 a city charter was approved to serve 35,000 residents.

Interspersed among the symbols of our modern age; freeways, shopping centers, and manicured lawns are monuments to our past. The City of Minnetonka still has more than seventy-five barns standing, visible track beds from a long-gone streetcar era, active cattle farms, and several Indian mounds. They are reminders of what we once were and a base for what we are today.

Did You Know?  Minnetonka Area Historical Trivia

A Snapshot of Minnetonka Township in 1954
By Betty  Johnson 

     Maps are windows into the past.  A 1954 U.S. Geological Survey map (Hopkins MN quadrangle) gives us a picture of what Minnetonka was like two years before its government changed from a township to a village. That map shows lots of white spaces where small and large farms and five-acre (or bigger) residential lots were then.  Over the next 50 years, most of those areas filled with roads, housing developments, industrial parks, and shopping centers.  The larger open spaces on today’s map are the city’s parks.
     Today’s second-ring suburban community looks much different than in 1954.  Some of the major additions and changes in Minnetonka since then include:
-- Country Village Shopping Center.  That land was part of a Holasek farm.  Two Holasek homes are still there on Minnetonka Mills Road: the red farm house and the white brick house.
-- 7-Hi Shopping Center.   In 1954, a drive-in theater was on the southeast corner where K-Mart is today, and Snuffy’s Drive-in was on the northwest corner.
-- Opus development between Shady Oak Road and Highway 169, north of the Crosstown was still farm fields with a turkey farm (on the southeastern corner).  Today it’s all apartments, restaurants, high rise condos, offices, wholesalers-, a hotel, and extensive walks.
-- Minnetonka City Center, north of Minnetonka Blvd. at Williston Road, was a gravel pit and two wooded knolls surrounded by swamp.
-- Williston Industrial Park, south of Minnetonka Blvd. has been built since then.
-- Ridgedale Shopping Center, and the retail areas, hotel, condos and apartments around it, was also truck farming properties.
-- Hopkins School District’s ‘campus’ (high school, North Junior High, Tanglen Elementary) was still Louis Larson’s farm.
-- Carlson Center, north of Wayzata Blvd.
-- Glen Lake golf course along the Crosstown replaced the Oak Terrace sanatorium and nursing home.
     Some of the large residential housing developments that have been built since 1954 are:
-- Most of Robinwood, west of County Road 73 south of Minnetonka Blvd.
-- Forest Hills, south of Highway 7, west of 494
-- Woodland Hills, south of Highway 7, west of Woodland Road
-- Huntingdon Drive area, west of Shady Oak Road
-- Steiner-Koppelman developments west of Tonkawood Rd. between Highway 7 and Lake St. Extension
-- Large areas on both sides of Plymouth Road north of today’s Santa Fe Burlington Northern railroad
-- ‘Little Switzerland’, south of Shady Oak Lake to Bryant Lake in Eden Prairie
     Most of the major four (or six) lane limited access highways hadn’t been built in 1954.
-- Interstate 494 wasn’t there at all.
-- In 1954, the road along the boundary of Minnetonka and Eden Prairie was called Townline Road.  Today, it’s the 62nd Street Crosstown Highway.
-- Two lane County Road 18 or Jordan Ave. or Washington Ave. S., depending on the community it went through, became Highway 169.
-- Present Interstate 394 was Wayzata Blvd., two lanes, divided, each way plus a service road on the north side from County Road 18 to Wayzata.
-- Highway 7, built in the late 1930s with four lanes, was the newest highway on the 1954 map.
Gravel pits were all over Minnetonka.  Some of those shown on the map: 
-- Future Cedar Pass development and Greenbrier apartments and condos on three corners of County Road 73 and Cedar Lake Road - the high hill on the northeast corner was mined a few years later; southwest corner of Wayzata Blvd. and Co. Rd. 18; future City Hall site; future City Maintenance area on Minnetonka Blvd. west of Co. Rd. 73; Babe Ruth field on south side of Minnetonka Blvd. west of Co. Rd. 73; on Woodland Road south of Highway 7.
   The Shady Oak School one-room brick school on the northeast corner of Shady Oak Road and Townline Road in 1954.  Desks were still visible through the windows, but its location on the map was marked as ‘abandoned.’ 
     The 1954 map also shows the the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad which ran from Hopkins through Minnetonka Mills and on west.  Today’s, one of the city’s most popular walking/biking trail is located on that former track.

Lakeshore News: article by William Jepson

The Discovery of Lake Minnetonka 

This fall my wife and I took our three sons on an autumn canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. One day's paddle east of Sawbill Lake I said to my boys; ‘Imagine that you are two seventeen year old boys paddling across Lake Minnetonka in 1822 when it was a wilderness on the Northwest frontier of the United States. There is a true story about how they became the first European Americans to witness the beauty of that enormous lake.  Surrounding the sparkling waters they found a tall virgin forest of Oak, Elm, and Maple. They said the trees were growing so close one could barely pass through them, much like the forested islands that my sons could see surrounding us in Superior National Forest.’

Their names were Joseph Renshaw Brown, the Fort Snelling bugle boy, and William Josiah Snelling , son of the future Commander and namesake of the Fort.  Joe was looking for adventure in May of 1822, and he and his friend Will had heard rumors from some Indian friends that there was a large lake about a days journey into the ‘Big Woods’ towards the setting sun. So he convinced Will and two unnamed soldiers to venture up the creek by canoe without permission into Dakotah Indian Territory. At the time traveling more than nine miles west of the Military Reservation at Fort Snelling meant entering lands never before seen by white men. In 1805 Lt Zebulon Pike acting for the US Government had acquired most of present day Minneapolis in a contract with the Dakotahs for 2000 dollars. That included the eastern end of Little Falls Creek, (present day Minnehaha Creek), from where it flows into the Mississippi, but not the western end where it flows out of Lake Minnetonka.

When they set out that morning they first would have portaged around Minnehaha Falls, which was known then as Little Falls. They also had to go around a cascade that was located at Penn Avenue South today and found a place to camp for the night. The next day, further upstream they encountered another cascade that decades later would provide the waterpower for the lumber and flour mills of Minnetonka Mills.  The four young men continued paddling upstream until they reached the source of Little Falls Creek; the vast lake that is now called Lake Minnetonka. They entered the lake at what was later called Outlet Bay and now is called Grays Bay. As they paddled through the wild rice and water lilies they must have been amazed when they went around the bend and laid their eyes on Wayzata Bay. That evening they journeyed into the Lower Lake past Spirit Island, which was a sacred place to the Dakotah. The teepees of the tribe headed by Chief Shakopee were nearby on the north end of Wayzata Bay. The next bay to the west is now called Browns Bay, after Joseph Brown, who with his friends set up camp that night on Big Island in the middle of the lake. Joseph was a smart and good-natured young man but lacking in any formal education. His mother died young and he ran away from his strict minister father in Maryland.  He joined the army under Colonel Leavenworth who was assigned to establish the fort at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers for President James Monroe. William Snelling had a quite different upbringing.  After spending two years as an undisciplined cadet at West Point he traveled to Fort St. Anthony to live with his doting father and step mother. He was allowed to spend time living with his Dakotah friends in their teepees, enough to learn their language and become a translator.

In 1822 Fort St. Anthony (two years later to be named Fort Snelling ) was under construction and only occupied by a few troops including Colonel Josiah Snelling who was concerned that the boys had not shown up as expected that evening.  In those days there was the real danger of encountering bears, wolves, and unfriendly Native Americans who didn’t appreciate trespassers.  So the Colonel sent out a search party, some of who followed the stream all the way into the lake. There they found Joe and Will, sitting on the shore eating fish and wild strawberries. They brought them back downstream to the fort in one day, half of the time that it had taken the boys to paddle the twenty-two miles upstream. The Colonel was not happy about their escapade, but there apparently is no record of any punishment that was given to the boys, and the affair was kept quiet.

The Native Americans hoped to keep their sacred lake a secret from the encroaching European Americans. They had many burial mounds near the lake which they did not want disturbed and they treasured its’ bountiful hunting and fishing grounds.  The discovery of the lake seems to have been lost for three decades because it did not appear on three different maps of the time by Long in 1823, Nicollet in 1836, and Pope in 1849.  The US government didn’t allow settlement in the area until 1851 with the signing of the Treaty of Traverse de Sioux  which allowed settlement west of the Mississippi.

So in 1852 Simon Stevens, Calvin Tuttle and several other St. Anthony businessmen, including Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey, traveled up Minnehaha Creek to rediscover the lake. They decided to name it Lake Minnetonka after the Dakotah words for ‘big water’, and to build a dam and saw mill at the rapids of Minnetonka Mills. In the spring of 1852 their friend James Shaver staked out the first claim on Lake Minnetonka at Grays Bay where he built a log cabin and later started his family.

As I told my sons; it’s good to reflect on the contrast between the primeval wilderness and what we have almost 200 years later. There was a time when there were no mansions with docks every 100 feet, no noisy motorboats and jet skis zooming by at 40 mph., no pollution and milfoil, just a pristine and peaceful lake.

By William Jepson

Minnetonka Historical Society

Walking Tour of Minnetonka Mills
The Society plans on offering walking tours that allow patrons a walk down memory lane. The Minnetonka Mills walking tour is available now, with other neighborhoods coming soon. 
Click here to go to the Minnetonka Mills Walking tour.

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