The first white settler to the Mountain Lake area, William Mason, arrived in the area in 1865, staking his claim on land in the midst of a shallow 900-acre lake with three islands, located two miles southeast of the city. The two smaller islands just broke the water’s surface. The third much larger, higher island looked to Mason like a mountain rising from the lake. He named the lake, Mountain Lake and the largest island, Mountain Island (he called the smaller islands Big Bug and Little Bug).
The lake was home to much wildlife, including many bullheads and pickerel in the waters, plus deer, elk, fox, mink, otter and wolves. Many native shrubs added to the mountain beauty. Wild grapes, chokecherries, gooseberries and currants grew in abundance.
Mason, a hunter and trapper, built a log cabin on the island, and brought his wife to the new home. The couple lived in the island cabin for about three years, during which time their daughter was born.
Other early homesteaders included Joseph Bean and George B. Walker and the Peter Hunstads, as well as Alfred A. Soule, a Frenchman from Kentucky, who purchased land on the north side of the lake from Mason in 1869.
When the Sioux City and St. Paul Railroad (today, Union Pacific) came in 1871 Mason insisted that the train stop-turned-village being platted be named Mountain Lake. The railroad had selected Midway as the name of the village since it was the midway points on its tracks between St. Paul, Minnesota and Sioux City, Iowa.
Mason eventually won.
In the 1890s, there was an attempt to turn the mountain into a lakeshore resort. The demand for more tillable land and construction advances led to the draining and demise of the lake in 1905-1906. After the lake was drained, the land was farmed – first as the spot to grow vegetables for the city’s canning factory and later as the location for growing sunflowers, whose seeds were locally roasted and salted and turned into sunflower seeds (or “knack seeds”).
Even before Mason – in perhaps 100 B. C. – the Fox Lake Indians also had a home – a winter home – on that same island of land. That dwelling was 20 feet in diameter. It was in 1976 that Joe P. Hudak and a number of student archeologists from the the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul came to the mountain and peeled back 15 inches of topsoil near the south end of the island to make the find. Near the center of the dwelling, near the pole, were concentrations of pieces of a pottery vessel. Around the area where the cooking fie was believed to have been, a substantial quantity of stone chips were recovered. This indicates that someone worked there fashioning projectile points and stone knives. The Fox Lake Indians used the large projectile points as thrusting sticks and spears. Additionally found was a fire hearth, ceramic vessels, an ex, rock sofa – and a refuse pit of bison and fish bones.
That is the “mountain” in the city’s name.
And what about the lake?
After the original lake was drained, there was no lake in Mountain Lake for nearly three decades. The current Mountain Lake was built by the Work Progress Administration during the New Deal days. In 1937, a nine-foot earthen dam and outlet was constructed to create a man-made Mountain Lake – made complete, too, with an island.
Following the completion of the railroad, the area settled rapidly, with the arrival of nearly 1,800 Russian Mennonite immigrants between 1873-1880. That emigration was followed a few years later with the addition of Russian Lutheran immigrants. The town was not officially incorporated until 1886, however.
The Mountain Lake of today enjoys a strong sense of its past while looking to its future. The historical Heritage Village, on the city’s southeastern edge, remembers the challenges German and Russian immigrants faced as they built new lives in a new land.
The city and area’s earliest history is encapsulated at Heritage Village, located at the southeast corner of the city. And each year, on the second Saturday in September – this year, Saturday, September 13 – the Village and the history captured within it – comes alive during the annual Utschtallung. This year will be the 40th such celebration – the first Heritage Fair held in 1972.
The descendants of those 19th century immigrants now enjoy a culturally diverse community with the recent addition of Mountain Lake’s newest immigrants – the Laotian, Hispanic and Hmong.
The community continues to reflect the agricultural base on which it was founded, but is also well served with a growing industrial base.
To honor and preserve those first years, following are photos of Mountain Lake from that era: