Lake, community inextricable through history

Forest Lake Times file photos
Forest Lake Times file photos

Waters of Forest Lake constantly valued as community evolved


OurLakesforWebClint Riese
News Editor

The waters of Forest Lake have always been tied to its surrounding populace, from overlapping tribes of Native Americans to white settlers forming a township, a village and eventually a city.

The chain making up Forest Lake – known locally as First, Second and Third lakes, from west to east – today is a highly used regional hub of recreation. Its shores are split into 950 lots. About 1,100 residences have direct access to the 2,271-acre lake.

But this mass of adjacent residents accounts for less than half of Forest Lake’s traffic, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Clearly the lake is the top draw of its namesake city of 18,000. However, the case can be made that for most of known history, Forest Lake has meant even more to the people drawn to its shores. In the community’s relative infancy, nearly all aspects of life revolved around the body of water. Even in more modern times, the city drew national attention for events on the lake.


At the time white settlers first came to the area, the lake known today as Forest Lake was home to two Native American tribes and coveted by both. The area was rich in wild rice, fish and game, including deer. Southwest of the lake chain were tamarack swamps full of muskrat, beaver, mink and waterfowl.

An 1825 treaty signed in Prairie du Chien, Wis., was to establish a boundary that crossed just north of the westernmost lake in the chain and follow the outlet creek northwest. The Chippewa (Ojibwe) were to stay north of the line and the Sioux (Dakota) to the south. The Sioux called the prized body of water “The Lake They Bury the Eagles In.”

The treaty’s terms were not always followed in this area, as evidenced by a Chippewa fort built along the creek about a half-mile west of the lake. It was constructed in 1856, when the first settlers had established farms in the area.

The Banta family settled along the creek and boundary line in 1857.

“Why do you think the Indians settled here? Why do you think my great-great-grandfather settled here?” said Keith Banta, who lives on the same property. “Why didn’t he stop in Taylors Falls? I mean, he went through Taylors Falls, he crossed the river there. Why did they end up right here, on the river? Because it was heaven. He saw it.”

Settlement in this area likely occurred later than in neighboring ones because it was farther from the St. Croix River. German refugee Louis Shiel was the first to arrive, in 1855, after joining a prospecting party from St. Paul through White Bear Lake. His family soon joined him on a 160-acre claim south of the lake. More families followed that year.

The earliest white settlers went about starting a new life in this area while maintaining uneasy relations with the Native Americans.

A 1946 meeting of the Washington County Historical Society featured a presentation from Florence Poston Hansen, whose ancestors were among the first settlers. She told of how her grandmother kept a bell near at hand to “ring lustily” for her husband when Native Americans unexpectedly appeared.

Poston Hansen described the settlers as: “These early folk, these seven earliest families, who for some unknown reason chose this thickly wooded, sandy, Indian-infested corner of the globe as home; these hardy, tough, often rough warriors of life who chose to live in log cabins in the woods infested with quarrelsome Sioux and Chippewas – who raised families before and during the Civil War far away from the protection of the law and government – who dared to live in Forest Lake Township along with those neighbors the Sioux and Chippewas, who were their sworn enemies …”

The lake provided a focal point even in those early days. The Poston log cabin on the north shore doubled as the first schoolhouse, established around 1861, and the cabin in 1865 hosted the first wedding, which took place in front of a window overlooking the lake. The first church held summer services on the shore in front of a house belonging to one of the first settlers.


Likely unbeknownst to the settlers, big changes were on the way.

The 1855 development of a stage coach route between St. Paul and Duluth, along the old St. Paul-Kettle River road, helped build Columbus, Wyoming and Stacy. But interest in stage coach travel soon waned with the advent of railroads.

One man particularly interested in the new mode of transportation was Captain Michael Marsh, a native of Germany who in 1867 established a grocery and provision trade on Clear Lake, just southwest of what the local settlers called Forest Lake. That business burned the next June, but Marsh was already busy with plans for a resort hotel on the northwest shore of Forest Lake.

The game-changer Marsh anticipated was the construction of a railroad line from St. Paul to Duluth, which promised the development of communities at each stopping point as settlers poured in to establish farms. He had gone so far as to receive assurances that the line would stop directly in front of his hotel.

The Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad Company sent a train to Wyoming in a ceremonial opening in late 1868, then opened the line for good the next spring. Though the route did not veer as far east as Marsh’s hotel, as promised, it nevertheless came within 650 feet of Forest Lake’s shore.

The Forest Lake train depot is shown in 1974 as it awaits demolition. Its arrival in 1868 spurred the community's growth.
The Forest Lake train depot is shown in 1974 as it awaits demolition. Its arrival in 1868 spurred the community’s growth.

The establishment of a depot at Forest Lake was no coincidence. The abundance of timber in the area made it a natural refueling point for the wood-burning locomotives. Farmers clearing their land sold logs to the railroad, while railway planners were quick to send out surveyors to plat a community centered around the station.

A story told by Poston Hansen in her speech to the historical society describes the rugged natural state of the lake in that time. Arriving with her family via covered wagon in 1876, Emma King White wrote about her first impressions of her new home.

“Brush covered everything under the tall trees so dense even the sunshine was shut out,” she wrote. “The trees grew so close together that from the station one could not see the lake. The only view of the lake was where a winter road was cut thru the trees to the lake.”

The Kings were so bothered by mosquitoes that after a sleepless first night, the children wanted to return to Kansas.

Mosquitoes were no match for the railroad-fueled growth, though. The railway reached Duluth in 1870. Originally, a northbound train passed through Forest Lake one day and returned the next. Service increased to two trains per day in 1874.

That year, area residents petitioned the Washington County Board of Commissioners to be set off from Marine township into their own. They wished to call the proposed township of 233 residents “Forest Lake, from the lake within its limits.” Given that a village was already platted, that summer tourism had already taken hold, and the distance from Marine, the petition was granted.

Citizens held an organizational meeting at the depot that April. Taxes were levied and offices filled.

Marsh had opened his North Shore House resort in 1868 and expanded it the next year. Subsequent additions enlarged the hotel to a 75-room establishment. It also hosted the community’s first post office, a mercantile store and boat landing.

Capt. Michael Marsh and guests at his famous hotel break from a game of croquet.
Capt. Michael Marsh and guests at his famous hotel break from a game of croquet.

Later named the Marsh Hotel, it was elaborate. Marsh’s visitors were met at the depot by carriages and squired to his grand resort. A separate dining room included a courtyard with a horseshoe-shaped goldfish pond. Guests played croquet on picnic grounds and enjoyed wild game dinners and pike from the lake. Servants could be hired for $5 a week, or a man to row a boat for $1.50 a day. Marsh even provided a large steamboat, the Germania, for guests. However, it proved too large to navigate the channel between First and Second lakes, and was eventually abandoned on the shore.

Guests came from all over the country and as far as Singapore, India, China and France. President Grover Cleveland and his wife visited in 1888, and other guests included President William McKinley and Supreme Court Justice Pierce Butler.

Ice cut from the lake and used for year-round refrigeration added to the sophisticated amenities of fancy hotels like Marsh’s.

“They called Forest Lake a big swamp, a big mosquito factory,” Banta said. “But man, those rich people, those presidents came out here, and what did they want? They wanted a cold drink with ice in it.”

Marsh died at age 63 in 1891, and the hotel’s three main buildings burned about two years later.

Another lakeside hotel popped up in 1876, on Forest Lake’s southwest shore. It included four rental cottages, 10 rowboats and two sailboats.

The area remained a wildlife hot spot in the late 19th century. A hunting party shot 49 deer around Forest Lake in 1879. The Marsh Hotel guest register shows that in April 1891, two men from St. Paul caught 597 black bass in just two hours.

Local men earned cash by “market” hunting and fishing. Mallards earning a nickel a pound were shipped by the hundreds to markets in the Twin Cities. Despite buying from these fishermen and hunters to supply the table at his 26-room mansion on Forest Lake’s north shore, Gov. William R. Merriam in 1891 appointed a commission of fisheries to cope with the growing problem of market fishing.

In 1880, 47 families lived in the township, with 39 of them on farms. These farmers cultivated 511 acres, primarily producing wheat, potatoes and corn.

The lake continued to be the main path of transportation around the lake, as roads were mainly limited to Native American trails. When a minister came from Marine in 1887 to baptize 19 children, he was rowed across from Third Lake.

Township residents in 1896 voted 109-1 to organize as a governmental unit and separate the growing platted area as a village.

By the next year, four round-trip trains each day came through Forest Lake. John Boehm purchased a boat landing in 1901 and became the village’s lake expert, as the business stayed in his family until 1950. In the early days, the landing swelled as the trains unloaded and customers rented one of the 80 boats on four launches. Rental fees were 25 cents an hour or $1.50 for the day. Rides could be arranged to lake residences for 50 cents on First Lake, $1 on Second Lake or $1.50 on Third Lake.

A sketch from a 1901 plat shows less than 35 residences in the main village area. It included an open-air pavilion for dancing and picnicking at the foot of Broadway Avenue.

The year 1903 brought the establishment of the Mary Davis Sunshine Lodge. Named for the Minneapolis woman who paid for it and run by the Minneapolis branch of the International Sunshine Society, the lodge provided free outings for children in need and their mothers. A crowd of up to 200 would arrive by train every Monday in the summer and frequent the lake during weeklong stays.

The lodge moved from downtown to the south shore of the lake in 1926. By 1949 it had hosted more than 40,000 guests. Today, a fleeting reminder of the significant operation remains in the name of a street at the lodge’s second location, Sunshine Court.


The bathing beach at the center of town was the place to be for young residents from Forest Lake and beyond around the turn of the century and for decades thereafter. A long lawn at the north end of the business district offered picnic tables, a bathhouse and a sandy beach. Also extending over the lake were a dance pavilion and a high, wooden toboggan slide.

Across Lake Street from the beach, City Park offered even more amenities downtown, such as a bandstand, tennis courts and tall trees. Businesses slowly advanced on the space in the 1940s. (The bandstand survived and was moved into Lakeside Park.)

Excursion trains ran daily in the early 20th century, and owners of Twin Cities breweries and factories would host events on the lake as annual outings for their employees. Such events, and the behavior at two large dance pavilions, did not always go over well with the entire population.

In the winter, ice skaters would shovel and sweep off a makeshift rink once the lake froze, though the surface became bumpier with each snowfall. Youth here in the late 1930s and early 1940s emulated Roy and Eddie Shipstad, summer residents of Forest Lake who, along with Oscar Johnson, earned national fame for their Ice Follies, the world’s first traveling ice skating show. The Ice Follies wowed crowds at top venues with elaborate costumes, elegant acrobatics, comedy and stunts.

Forest Lake’s connections to the show run deep. Eddie Shipstad married a local girl, Lu Heim, and they lived on Lake Street for about 10 years. The Shipstads helped to bring professional ice skating shows to Forest Lake, and a number of local residents earned spots in the Ice Follies.

Growth came to the community through the addition of paved village roads in 1926 and the three-lane “cutoff” linking Forest Lake to Minneapolis in 1928. That decade also launched the era of cottage resorts, which lasted until owners began converting buildings to year-round homes around 1950.

Anglers from Willow Point Resort.
Anglers from Willow Point Resort.

During the cottage era, seasonal units were rented out all around the lake during the summers at businesses such as Shady Lawn, Shady Oaks, Lakeside Cabins, Fisherman’s Home and Ran’s Cabins.

“All these people that came from the outside, they all counted on the insiders to get them the right bait and tell them the stories,” Banta said. “Where’s the hot fishing spot? Can you watch my house so no one breaks into it?”

Some cottages were replaced by apartments, townhouse and condominiums as lake lots became more and more populated.

Of course, many resorts and recreational businesses continued in subsequent decades and some to this day. The marina founded by the Howard Timm family continues to operate on the south shore of Third Lake.

On the channel between Second and Third lakes, Willow Point Resort found a niche when older resorts died out. In the summer, its large dock was a popular tie-up spot for boats. While in Minnesota for the 1965 governor’s conference, four children of U.S. governors enjoyed Willow Point. In the 1960s it became a headquarters for snowmobilers.

The new winter sport caught on in a major way in Forest Lake.

The Forest Lake Ski Club performs a stunt during a show on Forest Lake in 1963.
The Forest Lake Ski Club performs a stunt during a show on Forest Lake in 1963.

The U.S. International Snowmobile Championship Races began on the frozen surface of Forest Lake in 1968. It quickly became one of the sport’s top events nationally, with more than 15,000 in attendance some years. Starting in 1970, the event included a torchlight parade of sleds around the entirety of the lake. The parade topped 2,000 participants some years.

By 1969, 500 snowmobiles were registered in the village and the Forest Lake Snowmobile Club boasted more than 100 family memberships. Fourteen snowmobiler dealers, two distributors and one manufacturer called Forest Lake home.

“Back in those days, everybody had at least one; a lot of people had two or three,” said Brian Tolzmann, who grew up on the north shore in the 1960s and 1970s and still lives there. “A kid didn’t care if they had a driver’s license, because they could take the snowmobile out.”

Members of a snowmobile expedition to Moscow leave Forest Lake in 1972.
Members of a snowmobile expedition to Moscow leave Forest Lake in 1972.

Snowmobile distributor Jeans Inc. was the starting point for a snowmobile excursion that made world news in 1972. Arranged for a feature film, the trip’s destination was Moscow by way of Winnepeg, the Hudson Bay, Greenland and Scandinavia. That winter also saw the first sled dog races on Forest Lake.

The Minnesota Governor’s Cup Snowmobile Race took place on Forest Lake in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Entrants in the professional race covered 150 miles in 13 loops around the chain of lakes.

Not to be outdone, Forest Lake residents midcentury made names for themselves in the summer as part of the Forest Lake Ski Club, which traveled throughout the Midwest and competed on Lake Superior and the Mississippi River. Team members could be seen practicing on a ski jump near the beach, and they put on a popular show every year.

Overlooking the lake in the 1960s, the United States Twirling Association held its national baton twirling championships.

Forest Lake also has a history of power boat racing. The Forest Lake Regatta started in 1964 with a drag boat championship off Lakeside Park. Outboard racing was popular on the lake from 1964-1981 and returned in 2011.

Also, Forest Lake remained a popular fishing destination. After World War II but before Interstate 35 allowed quicker access further north, anglers would line Highway 61 overnight for the annual fishing opener. Forest Lake businesses, like the 24-hour Wagner’s Hamburger Shop and Bob Johnson’s Sporting Goods, would be overrun with out-of-towners heading north. In the 1960s and 1970s, it developed a reputation as one of the top lakes in the country for bass and even hosted several of the state’s official bass openers.

Sporting goods store owner Bob Johnson shows off a catch during a state bass opener on Forest Lake.
Sporting goods store owner Bob Johnson shows off a catch during a state bass opener on Forest Lake.

The community earned particular attention for ice fishing contests. VFW Post 4210 started a contest in 1949 and drew 1,429 participants the first year. The highlight of that event was the intricate designs the masses of anglers formed on the ice, clear only from above. Aerial shots were printed throughout the country showing designs such as the Maltese Cross, an iron lung and a sombrero. When the VFW stopped holding the contest in the 1950s, the Jaycees picked up sponsorship duties for about 15 years. One year, top prize was a live, 1,000 pound steer.

The Golden Rainbow Ice Fishing Contest again brought anglers by the thousands to Forest Lake starting in 1987. At its height, the contest was reported to be the largest in the country, with as many as 7,000 contestants. Event host, the Hopkins Jaycees, pulled the event in the late 2000s.

Today the lake offers above-average populations of several species, including walleye and northern pike. A mainstay in the fishing supply business is Mike’s Bait on 8, opened by Michael Waltz in 1983.


The lake has not been immune to tragedy over the years. Records show dozens of drownings. The vast majority of victims have been men.

Six St. Paul residents, including three children, drowned when their rowboat capsized in 1927. One woman and her son were rescued. The party had rented the boat and were fishing about 1,000 feet from shore on Third Lake. The boat capsized when two members of the party tried to pull in the anchor.

Two airplanes have crashed into the lake. U.S. Air Force Reserve Maj. Louis M. Walton perished June 27, 1954, when his P-51 Mustang hit Third Lake while he was on a training flight. The 31-year-old from St. Anthony Park was a World War II veteran. The plane hit water 20 feet deep and left a crater 20 feet deep.

Jim Nelson, head of the local Chamber of Commerce, died in 1966 when the airplane he was flying crashed on the iced-over lake. Nelson was participating in a promotion for the chamber that involved dropping numbered balls from the plane that were to be redeemed for prizes by local merchants. More than 200 spectators witnessed the crash, which Nelson’s only passenger survived.


The community of today is vastly different from the laid-back lake town it was for most of its history.

“I know there were people on our side of the lake who would put docks in down by the lake,” Tolzmann said. “They didn’t own any property there, but they’d put their docks in. Basically, whoever owned a dock, if they wanted to put it in, they’d put it in.”

Indeed, life in general was more relaxed before the influx of traffic, Banta agreed. Growing up as a farm kid in the same era as Tolzmann, Banta said most of the year-round residents lived simple lives because there was little money to go around, and even television and radio were slow to catch on.

“It was the perfect place to grow up in because you didn’t know nothing about anything,” he said. “A lot of the farms were self-sufficient. The farm produced enough to feed and clothe the entire family, and what was left over, they sold it to make money for other things. But most of these families, what they tried to do was have enough to keep everybody eating and bare necessities.”

The construction of Interstate 35 in 1969 forever changed the feel of the community, Banta and Tolzmann said. It eventually drew business down the Broadway corridor, taking large commercial and social influence away from the lake for the first time. Before the interstate, Broadway was such a small road that the school marching band would practice on it uninterrupted, Tolzmann said.

“Trying to get out on the street in those days, it was almost impossible on weekends,” he said of the downtown district, noting that an average of 9,100 vehicles came through per day in 1964. “Everybody had to go through Forest Lake.”

The interstate made the community even more accessible to outsiders, and population grew in both the village and township.

“Everything has gotten so much bigger and it’s gone in exponential phases,” Banta said.

Through decades of change, the community’s constant, unifying treasure has been the lake.

“Forest Lake has always been the focal point of the town,” Banta said.

Tolzmann agreed.

“Waterskiing, boating, fishing: Whatever you could do on the lake, people were always doing it,” he said.