Lake-area History is Filled with Fascinating Stories About Schools and Education

Excelsior Elementary School, circa 1890. Sadly, the school burned down in 1898.

Early European settlers had big dreams for Lake Minnetonka. William F. Russell, a Civil War sharpshooter, proposed making the territorial capital of Minnesota in a community called Tazaska, on the northwest shores of Crystal Bay, where the Lafayette Club now sits. According to Once Upon a Lake by Thelma Jones, Russell wrote to his friend Colonel Stevens in 1857 asking for help: “I want your help in the matter of locating the Capital by a vote of the people on the Big Peninsula in Lake Minnetonka. The scheme is pretty well under way. I can get over four thousand acres of land from the settlers on the lake in the way of donations to aid in the project.”

When that plan failed, he went to a meeting of the regents of the University of Minnesota and, “with his usual clear-eyed view of reality … profoundly disturbed the peace of a regents’ meeting with the suggestion that the university be moved” to the south shore of Lake Minnetonka, “where all the departments could be together in the midst of a forest, by the side of a lake, with a stream to supply water power,” according to The University of Minnesota by James Gray. The approximate location of that campus would have been in Excelsior.

The Rev. Charles Galpin, one of Excelsior’s earliest white settlers, also tried desperately in the 1870s to convince another college to move to the area. Galpin had already adopted “the old English custom of setting aside a piece of land to be reserved for public use,” according to Ellen Wilson Meyer’s Tales from Tonka. “Then one day word came that the new college was to be built in Northfield on the banks o’ the Cannon River, ‘stead of Excelsior on the shores of Minnetonka,” according to Blanche Wilson’s Minnetonka Story. “Yes sir! Excelsior’d lost out on gettin’ Carleton College.”

Perhaps these prestigious institutions took a look at early schools around the lake and opted to go elsewhere. “The cracks between the logs were imperfectly closed with mud, and the cold blasts of winter used to whistle in and make it somewhat uncomfortable,” remembered George Day, speaking of one of the earliest schools in the area, which sat two miles west of Excelsior in the 1850s. A more respectable two-story schoolhouse was built in Excelsior in 1857, with a stockade added during the Dakota War of 1862.

In nearby Wayzata, the atmosphere was much wilder, according to Charlie Gibbs in Once Upon a Lake. Classes were in a “big shaky wooden building. [We] kids used to make it shake on purpose. It was a wild place. Teachers were hired to beat education into us.”

Mound’s first school was a log schoolhouse set up in March 1860 and requested by Frank Halstead, the hermit of the lake. “The first teacher in the new school … received $8 a month for the three months of school, with $4 more per month allowed if he paid for his own food,” according to Tales from Tonka.

Deephaven youngsters used a yellow frame building that doubled as the post office and butcher shop until the one-room schoolhouse went up in 1892. Classes were held in two large tents while the new school was being built. The only playground equipment for the active rascals were the turning poles used to tie up horses.

If students didn’t walk to Deephaven school, until 1930 they were driven by neighbor Bert Knight who “simply laid a board across the jump seats of his big old Cadillac limousine and packed them in with his own youngsters,” according to Ellen Wilson Meyer’s Happenings Around Deephaven. Nearby Groveland School had a much fancier operation and boasted that students hitched a ride in a modified Ford truck. Sounds more fun than a yellow bus, doesn’t it?