Mountain Lake – its first years

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Where is the mountain?; What about the lake?

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:


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A GROUP OF male Mountain Lake residents- from young-to-old – await the arrival of the next train at the Mountain Lake Railroad Depot. The first Mountain Lake “station” – built of logs – was located three miles east of the city, but this depot was built along the tracks within the platted village limits in 1900 was used daily until 1972. It is now a welcoming sight at Heritage Village.


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A COUNTY SCHOOL held a picnic at the original Mountain Lake that was located southeast of the city.


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THESES THREE ENJOYED a successful day fishing at the original Mountain Lake, as evidenced by their line strung full with fish. Bullheads and pickerel comprised the majority of fish caught out of the shallow, mud-bottomed body of water.


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ANOTHER PHOTO OF a successful fishing trip to the original Mountain Lake. No need for “fish tales” here.


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THE FIRST PUBLIC school in Mountain Lake was built in 1880 – a one-story building for 16 pupils. In 1890, a second floor was added. It was located where the current Parkwood Estates is located. The second school, built in 1903, is pictured above. The school – at 12th Street and 4th Avenue – was constructed at a cost of $32,000. Building began in 1903 and dedicated in January 1904. The first full year, with grade 12 added, was in 1904-1905, with the first high school graduating class in spring 1905.


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A MAY DAY (May 1) 1914 celebration on the grounds of the public school.


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A VIEW OF the exterior of the Mountain Lake Cannery – a canning factory begun in Mountain Lake in 1908. It was located one or two blocks west of the train depot (which was located along the tracks at 10th Street). It was a vegetable processing plant. The plant closed after a few seasons of operation.


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AN INTERIOR VIEW of the canning portion of the canning factory. The vegetables processed were grown in the drained lake bottom of the original Mountain Lake (drained in 1905-1906).


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A MOMENT IN time caught forever for posterity – green bean stringers at work at the canning factory – stringers of both sexes and all ages.


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MOUNTAIN LAKE ALSO once had a flour mill. David Ewert started the flour mill in 1870 south of the railroad track right-of-way on the east side of 10th Street and the depot. The mill was a three-story frame structure that produced two grades of flour, with a capacity of 60 barrels. To be profitable, it had to sell at least one train carload of flour per week to other outlets. The two types of flour marketed were “White Rose” – the top grade – and “Snowflake” – the second grade. They also produced rye and buckwheat flour. In addition to flour milling and feed grinding operations at the mill, an electric generator was added to the steam plant. This was used to run the mill – and to supply Mountain Lake with its first electricity. This was later taken over by the Interstate Power Company. Hiebert operated the mill for about 12 years. from 1884 to 1913, it changed hands a number of times.s In 1913, a group of Mountain Lake businessmen purchased the operation, after which it became known as Mountain Lake Milling Company.


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MOUNTAIN LAKE’S FIRST hospital. Legend has it that Mrs. Isaac Krahn was the first person admitted to the hospital, and that she was admitted by Sister Margaret Friesen, who was in charge of the hospital. It was in 1904 that J. D. Hiebert and his brother, D. D. Hiebert, bought the first public school building on 3rd Avenue between 8th Street and 9th Street with the intention of using it as a hospital. The 12-bed hospital opened in 1905. The first baby was born in the facility in 1910. In 1911 or 1912, the Mountain Lake Hospital became affiliated with the Bethel Deaconess Hospital in Newton, Kansas – the name changing to Bethel Deaconess Hospital. A new two-story 21-bed hospital was built to the west of this building and in 1927, a two-story brick home was built to its north for the sisters and hospital staff. The affiliation with the Kansas Hospital Association ended in 1930, with a local board taking control, and was called Bethel Hospital. The “first hospital” was used as a home for the aged until 1960, when it was torn down and a 26-bed hospital was built. The 1921 hospital was torn down in 1970 and a medial clinic and solarium built in its place. In 1972, the name was changed to Mountain Lake Community Hospital, and was owned and operated by the city. Today that building is the home of Parkwood Estates, as well as Sanford Clinic-Mountain Lake.


commercial hotel in mt lake
MOUNTAIN LAKE’S FIRST hotel, the Commercial Hotel, was built in 1900, and stood on the corner of 3rd Avenue. Mrs. J. J. Balzer had a tailor shop in a left-side room, specializing in fixing men’s clothing. This building was remodeled several times during the ‘teens and ‘twenties and later became known as the Basinger Annex (to the Basinger Hotel on 10th Street). The hotel rooms were remodeled for apartments and various businesses – including the Land Company, the Ewert Repair Shop, Jungas Hardware Store and Jass Real Estate business. It even had a four-lane bowling alley in its basement. The building was razed in 1962.


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THE TITLE ON this post card photo states “A comfortable home – Mountain Lake, Minn.” This comfortable home was known as either the “Ewert” or “Basinger” mansion. In 1905. David Ewert built this $8,000 house east of 12th Street on 3rd Avenue (where the present Laker Apartments are located). It was a Victorian-style home with large towers and turrets rising three stories along the front corners. It also had many dormers with little towers on the side of the high pitched roof, and a gazebo on one side of the roof (in the photo it is at the upper left and was rescued from the home’s demolition and is located 0n the Laker Apartment grounds).  The interior featured large rooms and high ceilings. There were two fireplaces inside built of well-polished stone. It had an open stairway built of heavy oak, with a unique railing making a turn near the top. The large windows, tripped in oak, resembled church windows. The downstairs had a large dining room, living room, study, kitchen and front entry. It had a full basement with many rooms – including a wine cellar. The bedrooms were upstairs. The home was built on a lot the size of two-thirds of a city block and had a large orchard with many fruit trees, such as apple, plum, cherry and pear – and had a large vineyard. There was an iron fence around the front of the property along the sidewalk, with a fancy gate. The sidewalk leading to the house was built of special rocks. The front of the home and part of the side was an open porch surrounded with large pillars and a fancy railing. Dr. and Mrs. Harvey Basinger took cahrge of the estate in the early 1930s and remodeled it. It was town down in 1975.


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MAIN STREET IN Mountain Lake in about 1882, with horse-drawn buggies and wagons pulled up at its businesses – the riders inside purchasing goods.


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LOOKING EAST ON today’s 3rd Avenue. Note the dirt road, water tower in the distance and, at the front left – a watering trough located on 10th Street near the southeast corner of Mountain Lake City Park, available for farmers traveling into town to water their horses. One of the duties of the Village Marshal, John Lewis, was to keep it clean. Lewis would also ride around the business section on a bicycle to light the gas lamps. The era is 1910-1915.


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A LATER ERA view looking north on 10th Street from 2nd Avenue – the automobile has arrived.


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10TH STREET AGAIN, this time looking north from 3rd Avenue – Mountain Lake City Park at the left.


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AN EARLY SPRING scene of 3rd Avenue looking east during 1962.


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CHRISTMAS STREET DECORATIONS cross 3rd Avenue (then Minnesota State Highway #60) from 10th Street to 12th Street. At right, where Sweet Fields is now located, was the Post Office, as noted by the American flag.


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FOLKS ENJOYING THE day outside the “original” convenience store – the Parr Brothers Gas Station and Small Store, located at this time in 1941 at the northwest corner of Cottonwood County Road #1 and 3rd Avenue. It was earlier located north of Mountain Lake. The station was closed in 1972. During the time it was open, the price of gas rose from 25.9 cents per gallon to 39.9 cents.


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THIS IS A 1962 photo of A. A. Penner, said to be the first white child born in Mountain Lake, at the front door of his birthplace – at the time, the town’s oldest remaining building. This building was located to the south – across 2nd Avenue – of the Laker Bar & Grill, now a lot used by Lohrenz Construction Inc.


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1962 COVER PHOTO of 93-year-old Maria Fast, the widow of a Mountain Lake pastor, from the March 25, 1962 Sunday Pictorial Magazine of the “St. Paul Pioneer Press.” An article with photos was the feature story in the magazine, written by the newspaper’s “Oliver Towne” or Gareth Hiebert, whose roots go back to Mountain Lake. Hiebert began his article using his Grandmother Ewert’s description of Mountain Lake as first she saw it in 1871, as a girl of 12 – not long from Russia: “I got off the train and parted a field of sunflowers and there it was.” It was at the time a tiny settlement of huts built by Mennonite who had roamed Europe for over a hundred years – from their native Holland to German to Russia – and, at last – the southwest Minnesota prairie, yellowed with sunflowers.
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