Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Eric Dregni hated Lake Minnetonka when he was a teenager. “That’s what you think of the place you’re from when you’re a teenager, right?” he says.
“When I was a kid, I loved it. We lived by one of the tributaries of Purgatory Creek, sort of a beautiful swamp—a wetland. The kids had the run of the whole area; we’d be out in the woods finding salamanders, frogs, and turtles. We had chickens,” Dregni goes on. “Everybody today has urban chickens, but when we had chickens everyone thought we were freaks. I remember one got out and ended up in the dog pound. Must be those crazy Dregnis . . . ”
And while salamanders were heaven for a little boy, Dregni’s attentions eventually turned to other murky pleasures: “The day I discovered a bus that went to First Avenue and the 7th St. Entry, I was gone. That’s a teenager for you: The place you’re from, it’s terrible; it’s the worst; you have to get out of there.”
Dregni got pretty far. He spent his senior year of high school in Italy; he eventually spent five years there. Today, Dregni lives in Minneapolis, teaches English and journalism at Concordia University in St. Paul, and is a prolific author, with 16 books to his credit. His latest, By the Waters of Minnetonka, took him back to his roots.
It was life in Italy that inspired him to reconsider his hometown. “In Italy, you see how much things never change: You go to a town, and then you go back 20 years later and nothing has changed. No buildings have changed, nothing,” he says. “In Minnesota, one year to the next things change so dramatically—it can really be wild. Streets become unrecognizable so quickly. Just big radical changes obliterating whatever was there.” It got Dregni wondering: What had Lake Minnetonka been like before he was a bored teenager—before the yachts, the party boats, the mansions, and Lord Fletcher’s?
He put on his researcher hat. He found . . . a scandal. Or rather, lots of scandals. By the Waters of Minnetonka is as juicy as a walleye sandwich made with Orono summer tomatoes. How juicy? This juicy:
When Lake Minnetonka was “discovered” by Europeans in the late 1800s, it was ringed by enormous burial mounds that were sacred to the native people who had called the area home for some 12,000 years. But the white settlers claimed it as their own with full government support.
Desecration was swift. Many settlers built “claim shacks” (as their quickly contructed little houses were called) atop the mounds because they had nice views. Some enterprising landowners even turned burial sites into pop-up tourist traps, selling tickets and handing out shovels to crowds of people willing to pay for the the chance to go on a festive real-life treasure hunt. Grave robbery? What grave robbery?
Also in the 1800s, a ginseng shortage in China led to a ginseng rush in Minnesota. The Chinese had dug up all their wild ginseng, which they valued as a traditional medicine and aphrodisiac, but there was plenty in these parts. Foragers in Minnesota and Wisconsin found they could earn $5 a day, a pretty price at the time.
Drying and shipping the ginseng in bulk was even more profitable, but it was labor-intensive. Edward and Joseph Chilton brought a collection of slaves from Virginia to work in a ginseng drying house in Wayzata. Minnesota wasn’t a slave state, but the good people of pre-Civil War Wayzata looked the other way.
More is known about Dred Scott, another slave brought in and out of Minnesota, a fact he used as a basis to sue for his freedom. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1857, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, that African Americans, free or slave, could never be United States citizens, the decision helped spark the Civil War.
Did Minnesotans ignoring slaves in their midst help start the Civil War? Decide for yourself.
You remember the Lizzie Borden story: Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks . . . that one. Well, do you remember that she was acquitted? The Big Island in Lake Minnetonka was once called Morse Island, for the Morse brothers, William Bradford Morse and John V. Morse, who owned it. They were Lizzie Borden’s uncles, and John just happened to be visiting the Bordens the night of the murder. Some speculate that his training as a butcher, his superior strength, and the business he came so far to conduct in person, point to him as the real ax murderer. If so, he got away with it.
Frank Lloyd Wright was probably the greatest American architect of the 20th century, but if he could speak from beyond the grave he probably would not have great things to say about Lake Minnetonka.
First, when he was trying to have a nice summer shacking up in a cottage with the woman who would become his third wife, the Hennepin County sheriff came and arrested him under the “White-Slave Traffic Act” for transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purpose.
To add insult to that embarrassing injury, one of Wright’s most fully realized masterpieces, his Francis Little house in Deephaven, was sold and chopped into bits. It is now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where they appreciate it more than the folks of Lake Minnetonka did. Poor Frank.
And Much, Much More
That’s not all! There are dozens more scandals in Dregni’s book, some big, some small. There’s a good story about James J. Hill parking boxcars full of garbage in downtown Wayzata in the summertime as a way of bullying the city council; there are stories of ice yachts travelling 110 miles an hour from Excelsior; there are some intriguing tales of muskrat stew and dried beaver tail on the menus of the big hotels. But most of all there’s a whole new way of appreciating Lake Minnetonka as a rich, storied, all-too-human place.
“What do you think of when you think of Lake Minnetonka?” asks Dregni, rhetorically. “All those people on boats, the drinking, the craziness. It’s fun, but after a while—jeez.
“Working on this book gave me a new appreciation of it all. I once heard someone say: America is the only country in which ‘That’s history’ means something is irrelevant. In Italy, in order to understand the present you have to know the past. I’d argue that’s true for Lake Minnetonka. And it is cool history, and disturbing. There’s a lot more to Lake Minnetonka than cool mansions and people out on their boats.”
And at last someone wrote it down.