“I believe we need to understand the history of our home to give us perspective.” – Eric Dregni
Around the offices of Lake Minnetonka Magazine, Eric Dregni, a freelance writer whose name you may have seen grace this column before, is our resident historian. He’s in the know about the history of our beloved lake—and he knows the good and bad. In his new book, By the Waters of Lake Minnetonka (University of Minnesota Press), Dregni, who grew up in Minnetonka and is currently an associate professor of English and journalism at Concordia University in St. Paul and the dean of the Italian Concordia Language Village, Lago del Bosco, sheds light on intriguing aspects of the lake’s history, challenging myths and revisiting elements of the past that have been forgotten or glossed over. He also relates—and sometimes pokes fun at—the opulent, glamorous and sometimes raucous moments that have made Lake Minnetonka an icon of splendid resort living in Minnesota.
We chatted with Dregni about the book, which is released this month at local bookstores like Excelsior Bay Books and The Bookcase of Wayzata and asked him to share a favorite snippet of it, exclusively for LKM readers.
Lake Minnetonka Magazine: How did you become interested in the history of the lake area?
Growing up in Minnetonka, I had always heard snippets about the history—the Cottagewood Store, the amusement park, Big Island, the trolleys. When I was about 12, I bought a copy of Minnetonka Story in Wayzata (I think from Ross & Haines bookstore?). When the [former] editor of Lake Minnetonka Magazine approached me to write an occasional column, I started uncovering bits and pieces over the years.
Give us a description of the book and what you were striving for as you wrote it.
By the Waters of Minnetonka uncovers hidden facts about the lake and those who have lived on its shores, from the region’s original Dakota inhabitants to the present. I wasn’t trying to compile a complete history of Lake Minnetonka, but instead these are the historical anecdotes that I wished I knew growing up at Groveland Elementary. I hope that this spurs some interest in others to uncover fascinating tidbits about the past.
What's your favorite short story about the lake area?
I love that the Minneapolis newspapers were hoaxed about a preacher shooting a barkeep in a duel. The story seemed almost believable, but ultimately tried to show how intolerant the “drys” were against the “wets” [during the Prohibition era] and to build sympathy for the saloons.
An excerpt from By the Waters of Lake Minnetonka:
“Mosquitoes with Trunks Like Elephants”
Wolves, Bedbugs and Insect Plagues
In June 1852, [Hezekiah] Brake wrote in his journal, “Night overtook us, our boat leaked, and, despite our efforts at bailing out the water, we felt it about our knees, while the howling of wolves on the shores added to our terror and fear of landing. Our jolly boatman tried to cheer our fainting spirits by telling us there were no bears in the woods, and that the sounds we heard were made by bullfrogs.”
Wolves roamed the [Excelsior] area into the twentieth century. The Hennepin County Review reported in 1908 that “Casper Geisen of Minnetonka Township recently shot a wolf on his neighbor’s farm... It was probably the last wolf bounty paid in the Minnetonka area,” according to Tales from Tonka.
Not only would wolves mean a quick death, but a thousand cuts, or punctures in the case of insects, may make the settlers want a quicker death. The English mother of pioneer Brake wrote to her son who was going to Minnesota “where nothing but trappers and Indians live” that “it will cost you your savings, and then [you will] be murdered in the wilds of Minnesota, or drowned on Lake Minnetonka, or have your precious blood sucked out of you by mosquitoes, for a woman told me they have trunks like elephants.”
Brake ignored his mother, but later wrote that she was right about the mosquitoes. One night, he wrote that he “climbed a tree and hid in the branches, but my companion could not climb, and his moans and cries would have made a passerby believe he was being murdered.” Once they had a place to stay inside, settlers often made a smudge, or smoky fire, to get rid of the bugs. What was worse, inhaling thick smoke all night or bug bites?
If you go:
By the Waters of Lake Minnetonka Launch Event:
Tuesday, October 21, 7 p.m.
Jake O'Connor's Public House
200 Water Street, Excelsior, 952.908.9650