Only a few of the homes that line Lake Minnetonka have stood the test of time. Many are properties that came to be by tearing down a bit of our olden days to make way for something new. Here, we uncover the history behind four of these storied structures. Pull up a chair, dear reader, and enjoy these tales of the past.
The Brooks House: An English Cottage
The “most beautiful road” of Wayzata extends on a little spit of land into Lake Minnetonka and originally had a railroad bridge connecting the peninsula to the other side, making Gray’s Bay more of a lake than a little cove of Wayzata Bay. Bushaway Road is the most historic area of Wayzata and even houses a trapper’s cabin that supposedly dates from before 1750 (which is unlikely because that would make it pre-Revolutionary War and nearly 100 years earlier than the oldest house in Minnesota).
More fascinating is the Brooks House, a Tudor Revival style home that seems like a transplanted English cottage in the middle of the north woods. Though she didn’t live here, you can easily imagine Beatrix Potter concocting tales of Peter Rabbit in the gardens of this house with rough timbering and wrap-around roof that looks like a Shakespearean-era classic. A huge stone chimney evokes evenings sitting by the fire drinking chamomile tea as the rain and fog set in for the evening. Vines wiggle up the stucco by the multi-pane leaded windows, and turn bright red and yellow in the fall.
After summering many years in a cottage on Big Island, Dwight Brooks, a Minneapolis banker, and his family built the house in 1919 in the Locust Hills neighborhood. Closer to the road, carriage and caretaker’s houses were erected in the same quaint style and entice drivers along the road to take a peek into what sort of timepiece is the main house that is a bit hidden behind the trees.
Because Bushaway Road doubles as Highway 101, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has attempted to expand the road that weaves through this neighborhood. So far, the local homeowners have succeeded in keeping back the ever-expanding asphalt from knocking down the historic Brooks carriage house along the road and have preserved the classic feel of this enclave on the lake.
From Screws to Swiss Chalets: The Fruen Cabin
William Fruen came to Minneapolis to make screws. Having learned the screw business in Boston, he set up a machine shop off Glenwood Avenue just east of Theodore Wirth Park in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis. He soon converted his screw machinery to make water wheel governors to protect Minneapolis mills from another explosion, such as the Washburn Mill that famously blew up downtown.
Fruen’s factory happened to have the best spring water in the city and in 1884 he patented a “liquid drawing device” that would dispense a perfect cup of water for a penny. Jugs of artesian well water were lugged around town to offices and homes, and the company soon took up the now famous name of Glenwood Inglewood.
Fruen’s son Arthur took over the Fruen Cereal Factory at this location in 1909 and used some of the profits to buy up a choice piece of land on the southeastern point of Big Island to get away from the hustle of the city. He built arguably the most charming cabin on Lake Minnetonka high atop a hill covered with oak trees. While many millionaires built manor houses to inflate their importance, the Fruen cabin had no running water or electricity, and Arthur had to hop in a boat to get across the lake in his daily commute to Minneapolis.
Built in 1927, the Fruen House boasts a cozy sleeping loft upstairs and rustic wood built-ins. The stone steps and walls along the shore took four years of work and many trips over the frozen ice with loads of field stone. Apart from the large screened-in porches and the tree-covered deck overlooking the lake, the most prominent feature, from the lake anyway, is the Swiss-style chalet and boathouse on the shore. While construction along the water is now prohibited, these green and red structures offer a glimpse of historic Minnetonka when simple cottages lined the lake.
Craftsman “Cottage”: The Cargill House
When Craftsman Magazine published its widely-popular plans for Arts and Crafts houses around the turn of the last century, the introduction usually included a socialist screed hailing the virtues of simple living and a return to quality, hand-built houses. According to architecture critic Eileen Boris, many of the arts and crafts artists “envisioned the ‘cooperative commonwealth,’ and promoters who popularized the ideas…turned these ideas into objects of consumption.”
Ironically, James Flett Cargill, whose brother founded what is now the largest privately held company in the world, took these architectural ideas to heart for a classic Craftsman house overlooking Carson’s Bay. Built in 1905, nearly 30 years before Governor Floyd B. Olson preached his vision of turning Minnesota into a cooperative commonwealth, the Cargill house embodies the Arts and Crafts aesthetic thanks to the Chicago-based, Prairie School architect Hugh Garden. Even if Frank Lloyd Wright was arrested while vacationing on Lake Minnetonka, his vision lives on here since Garden borrowed some of Wright’s Prairie School ideals of elegant wrap-around porches, stone foundation and an open veranda to take advantage of the striking surroundings.
Arts and Crafts idealist Gustav Stickley, who lived in nearby Wisconsin, wrote around the same time this cottage was built that a “house that is built of stone where stones are in the fields, of brick where brick can be had reasonably, or of wood if the house is in a mountainous wooded region, will form the beginning belong to the landscape. And the result is not only harmony but economy.” While some of the mansions on the lake seem distinctly out of place, the Cargill house fits into the landscape.
The one defining feature is the long straight roof line that echoes the horizon, and in this case, the lake. This feature, according to architecture critic Irving Pond, recalls “the spirit of the prairies of the great Middle West, which to them embodies the essence of democracy.” Thankfully, a landscape architect purchased the Cargill house in 1999 to carefully restore the home to its Arts and Crafts splendor after some remodeling stripped some of its character.
Mill City: Minnetonka?
Traveling towards Lake Minnetonka from Minneapolis along Minnetonka Boulevard brings visitors past the historic Burwell House built in 1883 by milling money earned from one of the earliest settlements of the area. The small but majestic Italianate house shows that the first permanent white settlers in the area had visions of turning the area into a European-style haven.
To most Minnesotans, Minnetonka may evoke leisurely cruises over the crystal waves, but in the 19th century, the name was synonymous with the finest flour in the Midwest. Initially, a saw mill took advantage of the gushing Minnehaha Creek at Minnetonka Mills. The millers from St. Anthony erected a small dam in 1853—where the McGinty bridge is today—for pressure to feed the mill a constant flow and to help float logs from the lake. The mill cut the giant old-growth timbers for the first bridge across the Mississippi connecting Minneapolis to St. Anthony and brought the two towns together as one.
The mill burned to the ground the next year, but a larger one took its place to make a reported 2000 chairs and beds a week, according to the Minnesota Republican in February 1857. This same year, the manager of the mill drowned in the lake and flames took down the mill once again shortly after.
No mills profited from the laughing waters of Minnehaha at “Minnetonka City” for nine years when Thomas Perkins built a large 3 ½ story flour mill to grind the bumper crops from nearby farms. Charles Burwell moved to Minnesota in 1874 as the new manager of the mill. With a blue blood family that traced its American roots back to the Revolutionary War, Burwell became Minnetonka’s prominent citizen and fleeced farmers by paying them a dollar for a bushel of wheat and selling the ground flour for three dollars per hundred pound.
Still, the local farmers were pleased to be able to have a prominent local mill that could grind their grain while they would camp out for two days in Minnetonka Mills. Thomas Perkins would generously let them set up tents on his property and make campfires for cookouts. Steamboats such as the Governor Ramsey even sailed across the lake to deliver wheat to the mill and ox carts creaked from 50 miles away to bring the harvest. According to Minnetonka Story:
“To visit the mill was enough to make a fellow’s heart beat double-quick…The smell of that newly crushed wheat was the evasive fragrance of mignonette heavy with dew. White powdery dust from the flour clung to walls and rafters and roof, turning cobwebs into fairy lace. The mill hands turned white from head to foot…”
With this newfound fortune in flour, Charles Burwell built a majestic Victorian/Italianate house near the mill that has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. With Minnetonka becoming more of a pleasure playground, lake dwellers complained that the water level was lowered because of the mill; residents proposed a dam at Gray’s Bay to maintain the level. With competition from the giant Pillsbury and other mills at St. Anthony/Minneapolis that took advantage of the power of the Mississippi, Minnetonka Mills couldn’t compete and was shut down by 1895. The Burwell House is open for tours from May to September, thanks to the Minnetonka Historical Society, and stands as a reminder of the milling past of Minnetonka. An annual ice cream social takes place annually on the grounds in late June.