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5 things you might not know about Lake Minnetonka's past

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Eric Dregni
Author Eric Dregni on the Commons near downtown Excelsior, Minn. on Tuesday October 7, 2014
Tom Weber / MPR Photo

Lake Minnetonka is known as a playground for the well-to-do and a drive around the lake or a boat trip across it reveals the luxury homes that exemplify that image. But how did it get so?

Eric Dregni documents the lake's history in a new book called "By the Waters of Minnetonka." He joined The Daily Circuit to discuss his book.

5 facts about Lake Minnetonka's history

Excelsior Bay Hotel
Southern Fried Chicken at the Excelsior Bay Hotel.
Courtesy Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society

1. After the Civil War, some of the biggest hotels in the country, including Hotel Lafayette and Hotel St. Louis, were on Lake Minnetonka. Southerners came up to the lake for the summer to escape the heat. When the Hotel St. Louis opened in 1880, it boasted 200 rooms and could accommodate 400 guests at once. Double-decker trolleys traveled from Minneapolis to Excelsior from 1906 to 1907, bringing day-trippers from the city. Today, there are no hotels on the lake. 

2. Lake Minnetonka was the site of a ginseng boom in the 1850s and 60s, and southerners brought slaves to work the plants despite laws prohibiting it.

An excerpt from the book:

Before the Civil War, the Chilton brothers from Virginia brought slaves to Wayzata to work in the ginseng drying plants set up on the edge of town. Many disapproved, but few protested. Fort Snelling also employed slaves, since some of the officers would venture down to St. Louis to the slave markets. They were euphemistically called "servants" in Minnesota because of the distaste many had for the treatment of slaves in the South. Technically, slavery was outlawed in Minnesota Territory by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, but it was tolerated at the fort.

3. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was arrested for "white slavery." Wright built the Francis Little House in Deephaven and brought his lover and her two children to the lake. He was arrested in 1926 under the Mann Act, which "banned interstate transport of females for 'immoral purposes,'" he wrote. Wright's house is no longer on the lake, but parts of the home are on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the rest is at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

4. Delicacies for early settlers included dried beaver tail, woodchuck stew and baked raccoon.

5. European settlers turned native burial grounds into tourist treasure hunts. From Minneapolis-St. Paul magazine:

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 constructed 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?