Bringing Lake History to Life

The Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society turns 45.
Volunteers help preserve and pass on lake area history.

Even in the depths of winter, the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society is busy cataloguing the area’s past. Deep in the basement of the old Excelsior School House, the curators open the archives on Wednesdays and the second Saturday of the month to history buffs. This is a labor of love that is now in its 45th year and counts on volunteers and donations to never forget the fascinating history of the lake.

The museum is unheated and uncooled, according to museum facilitator Lisa Stevens, so the hours are only Tuesdays and Saturdays from May through September. The Excelsior streetcar runs alongside the museum and draws dozens of visitors who assume that the historical society runs the trolley. “Nope, we have no relation to them or the eight other historical societies around the lake,” Stevens says. “It’s kind of amazing that a lake this size would have so many historical societies.” The historical societies around the lake meet quarterly to collaborate and exchange ideas about how best to preserve and encourage interest in the area’s history.

The history at the ELMHS comes alive as the archivists at the historical society page through yellowed newspaper clippings, old letters, and scan through microfilm. “Lake Minnetonka was a big community,” Stevens says. Historian Scott McGinnis comments how the ease of transportation by car, on the heels of the trolleys and trains, made the communities more distinct and they began to divide up into Greenwood, Shorewood, and other municipalities.

To bring the community back together, the ELMHS began in the 1970s. “Around the nation’s bicentennial, there was a movement to start historical societies across the country,” says Stevens. They were lucky that many of the founding members of the historical society passed down their priceless oral histories of growing up around the lake before they passed on.

The museum’s collection began in earnest when the society got the Onawa, the revolutionary two-sailed sloop that ditched ballast for balance and allowed the sailboat to slip over the water rather than plow through it. Another recentmaritime donation is half of the prop from the May Queen steamboat that blew up in 1879, a demise that was unfortunately rather common at the time.

“One person’s junk is another person’s treasure,” Stevens says. “We get stuff left on our doorstep," she says, adding that photos and old diaries or letters are the best. “We can just scan the photos and return the originals too.” A newer prize was the original letters between Charles Gibson, who founded the St. Louis Hotel, and Robert McGrath, about the building of Northome. “We just got more than 400 publicity photos of the Excelsior Amusement Park from the 1930s and ’40s that no one had ever seen before,” Stevens says. The ELMHS is in the process of scanning them to upload on the website by summer. The idea is to provide access to the archives from home computers.

This web outreach has paid off with a resurgence in the interest in history and younger visitors. Still, they always need more volunteers. An unlikely success to draw new interest in ELMHS is a collaboration with the Excelsior Brewing Co. on the second Monday of each month. "Tapping History" features presentations on aspects of the lake’s past, all over freshly brewed beer. “We’ve had more than 200 people with standing-room only,” Stevens says.

The ELMHS also collaborates with the Museum of Lake Minnetonka during the summer months for tours on the classic streetcar boat Minnehaha to visit historic sites from the water. The curators leave the dusty archives to set sail on these sold-out voyages.  

Eric Dregni is the author of By the Waters of Minnetonka (University of Minnesota Press) and other books about Minnesotan and Upper Midwestern history and culture.