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Brief History of Minnetonka

1015 Burwell House with side buildings a

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.


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.


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