From the early days of the resort town, to the bustling days of the railroad, to the annexation of the township, Forest Lake has always been a dynamic city. It’s the location of the oldest Minnesota Native American burial grounds. The city was the resort destination of presidents and mobsters. It has had one of the largest 4th of July parades in Minnesota. It has a fascinating history that captivates all audiences.
The earliest humans to inhabit Minnesota were Paleo Indians. They were nomadic hunters-gatherers that traveled in tribes of between 20 and 50 people. They carried their belongings on their back, sought shelter in caves, and occasionally built crude shelters from brush and animal skin. They hunted big game such as mastodons, caribou, bison, and mammoths. In addition to the animals they trapped or killed, the Paleo Indians also ate roots, fruits, seeds, and possibly even insects. They used animal skin and plants for clothing.
The oldest known Native American burial mounds in Minnesota are found just west of Forest Lake in the Lamprey Pass Wildlife Management Area. The mounds, built in the shape of animals, were created by Native Americans from the Hopewell Tradition. The Hopewell tradition isn't one tribe, but rather groups of Native Americans who shared similar characteristics and thrived in this area. 
Wisconsin and Minnesota have two main tribes. The Ojibwe (Chippewa) live in large swaths of land surrounding the Great Lakes. The Dakota (Sioux) lived in Minnesota and the Dakotas. The Chippewa were pushed further west by newly arrived Europeans and other tribes. This drove them into conflict with the Dakota tribe. With the help of guns acquired in the fur trade, they pushed the Dakota south and west. Bitter battles ensued and the land around Forest Lake and White Bear Lake became hotly disputed.
The Sioux and Chippewa disputed the land between Forest Lake and White Bear Lake. A treaty with the United States was signed in 1825 that treaty stated:
"The United States of America have seen with much regret, that wars have for many years been carried on between the Sioux and the Chippewas, ... and after full deliberation, the said tribes, and portions of tribes, have agreed with the United States, and with one another, ... that there shall be a firm and perpetual peace between the Sioux and Chippewas."
The treaty established boundaries between the Sioux and Chippewa. "passing between two lakes called by the Chippewas “Green Lakes,” and by the Sioux “the lakes they bury the Eagles in,”" The boundary line ran from the creek outlet at Forest Lake, pass around the north shore, and then ran north into Wyoming. According to an Indian boundary marker "neither tribe paid much attention to the line."
The Ojibwe and Dakota signed separate treaties that ceded the land east of the Mississippi river. These treaties marked the moment Forest Lake came under control of the United States instead of the Native Americans. The Dakota received an initial payment of $16,000 in cash and goods, and up to $40,000 per year for years to come. The Ojibwe received $24,000 in cash, goods and services, retaining rights to use the land for hunting, and fishing and other purposes.
Immigrants began moving west in to land held by the Native Americans. They were eager to use the land for farming and industry. Influential men, including Alexander Ramsey and Henry Sibley, convinced the United States to negotiate the purchase of land from the Native Americans. Ramsey and Sibley also hoped that an agreement could be used to recoup debts that Native Americans owed to fur traders.
By 1850, the land was not abundant enough to support the Dakota's way of life. Some thought selling their land was a way to survive. A treaty, with payments from the United States, could help them get through difficult times and rebuild their communities. The Dakota's bargaining position was further weakened because they believed that if they did not sell their land, it would be simply taken from them. Negotiations took several days, and despite initial resistance the Dakota agreed.
The treaty ceded much of the southern and western portion of Minnesota to the U.S. for about $0.07 per acre. The United States charged settlers $1.25 an acre for the same land. With the signing of this treaty most of Minnesota became under control of the United States.
The number of settlers and Native Americans living with the settlers in Minnesota was likely not more than 700. That included the garrison at Fort Snelling, the missionaries, and the people at the trading stations. The Native American population was likely much larger.
After the land cession treaties of 1837, surveys of the land were commissioned by the United States. The survey was conducted in preparation of subdividing the land and selling it to settlers moving in to the area. Surveying the land made it easier to locate and legally describe the parcels being purchased.
The surveyor's notes stated the following: "General Description: This township has but little variety of surface or soil but is one continued marsh and lakes of various sizes. The lakes have clear water and ground and sand banks and better some portions of this township are one extensive marsh and swamp singularly intermixed. Particularly the southeast part. Many of these marshes and swamps are laying side by side the swamps being covered with tamarack timber and the marshes with great and small brush."
Early roads were simple trails meandering across the countryside. The United States Congress appropriated money for a military road between Hastings to Superior Wisconsin. Leaders in St. Paul and Minneapolis (originally called St. Anthony) considered this road a threat to businesses. So the Minnesota Territorial Legislature authorized the construction of a road from St. Paul and Minneapolis to Taylors Falls. The road followed Lake Drive through Columbus to Kettle River Boulevard to Forest Lake and headed north.
The stagecoach was an early form of public transportation. A stagecoach line was established from St. Paul to Columbus to Wyoming and up to Duluth. The road quality was poor. It twisted and turned, avoiding large trees and swampy areas. Narrow bridges were built over streams. In the summer, the roads were dusty and bumpy. The fare was between 3 to 15 cents per mile and the coaches traveled between 4 to 12 miles per hour. A hotel was built in Columbus near the intersection of Lake Drive and Kettle River Boulevard. There was a large sawmill, school, church, post office, and store. Columbus fought to be the Anoka County seat but it lost by three votes. Source: Reflections of Forest Lake
The first person to purchase land in Forest Lake was James Stinson. But according to Minnesota census records he may not have lived in the area until around 1895. Louis Schiel and his family were the first to settle in Forest Lake. His father was a piano maker in Heilbrun, Germany. In 1844 troubles began in Germany. Louis identified himself as a revolutionist and as a result he was forced to leave his country.
Mary Poston was the area’s first school teacher. She instructed children in a log cabin just northeast of Forest Lake. The land for the school was purchased from Isaac Banta for 50 cents. The school served 28 students. Source: Forest Lake Area Schools History.
Dred Scott, a slave, temporarily called Minnesota home before the Civil War. Minnesota was a free state. This was an important detail in the landmark Supreme Court decision which further drove the United States to war.
The first train traveled on the newly laid railroad tracks from St. Paul to Wyoming. It was a wood-burning locomotive with a high funnel-style smokestack trimmed in shiny brass. The railroad officials decided to put a train stop and plat the village of Forest Lake. It was a natural decision because of the area’s beautiful setting of lakes and dense forests. The village was named Forest Lake because of the heavy timber skirting the shores of the lake. The streets were designed to run north and south. Avenues were laid out from east and west. Blocks and lots were all platted from First Ave North to Eleventh Avenue South.
Michael Marsh built a resort hotel, post office, mercantile store, and boat landing on the northwest shore of Forest Lake. This area became a famous resort entertaining guests from all around the world. Among its visitors were presidents McKinley and Cleveland. By the 1880s the hotel had 75 rooms. Boats could be rented for $1.50 per day. Excursions could be taken on the steamboat Germania. Dining was served on china that had a pale green border with gold trim. It was a fabulous hotel built by a progressive gentleman. Sadly, Michael Marsh died in 1891 and the three main buildings of the resort burned down two years later.
Forest Lake organized school district number 56 and built a one-room school built near the intersection of Highway 61 and Broadway Avenue. A large wood burning stove surrounded by a heat shield kept the classroom warm. The student’s lunch boxes where placed around the stove to keep their food warm. School was from October 1st to April 1st. The teacher’s wage was $300 for seven months.
Ole and August Alm opened the first general store and sold it three years later to John Koller. The Marsh Hotel bought large quantities of supplies. One pound of coffee was sold for 25 cents. Fifteen pounds of nails sold for 60 cents. A half-pound of tea was sold for 30 cents. The inventory was eventually sold to J.L. Simmons which was the beginning of the Simmons Store. This store became a downtown landmark. The Chippewa Native Americans brought their handmade pottery, bead-trimmed moccasins, and other garments to trade. These items were often sold to summer visitors.
Joseph W. Houle and Pris Peloquin sold groceries at their store. They could deliver grocery orders to your home by horse-drawn carts. At the store, clerks would fill orders by pulling items from wooden shelves in the back. They would then bring them to the front counter and package them. The bill was added by hand and rung up on a big cash register.
South of Forest Lake at the intersection of Highway 61 and 190th Street is what once was the downtown of community call Garen. As part of a settlement for accidentally burning part of the local peat bog, the railroad agreed to add a train station. Although Garen was not a scheduled stop, the train could be flagged down and passengers could purchase a ticket to Forest Lake for 15 cents. Garen had a convenience store, taverns, the “Half Way Inn” and its own school district. Garen School District 72 was started in 1893. The school district was closed in 1934. Today there are no visible signs of the community of Garen but it hasn’t been forgotten by the residents who once lived there.
Many early residents desired to incorporate into a village. The incorporation papers stated, “The quantity of lands embraced in said proposed village as 1,221.75 acres. The name they desired for the proposed village was Forest Lake. The number of persons actually residing in said territory was One Hundred Seventy Five (175), ascertained by a census taken on May 10, 1893. A petition for incorporation was signed by 38 gentlemen.” An election would be held on July 10, 1893 at J.L. Simmons store. Without modern forms of advertisement to spread the word of the election, three copies of the petition were posted in the five most public places in town. On election day, the polls opened at 9 AM and closed at 5 PM. There were 36 ballots cast. They were all in favor of the incorporation.
Picking up the mail at the post office was a daily ritual for the people of Forest Lake. The post office was a busy place early in the morning as business people picked up the mail before opening their stores. Rural mail delivery service started in 1896. For the first time, farmers could get their daily mail delivered to them.
For centuries, the marsh plant called wire grass had no practical use. It has no practical use today. But for about 40 years it was used to create colorful rugs that were very popular. The grass was sharp enough to cut a finger and it grew in abundance west of Forest Lake. The Crex Carpet Company built 3 camps. Camp 1 was west of Wyoming. Camp 2 was south of that and camp 3 was west of Forest Lake. Camp 3 Road, which starts at the intersection of Kettle River Boulevard and Lake Drive, is the road that lead to the 3rd camp. Hundreds of men worked in the bogs harvesting the grass for 10-12 hours a day. They earned $35 a month and received room and board. The men delivered the grass to the local Crex Office just north of the train station in Forest Lake. Demand for the rugs declined and Crex sold the camps in 1934 to the state. The area is now the Carlos Avery State Wildlife Management Area.
The first telephones arrived in Forest Lake with a new long-distance line installed by Charles Avery and Fred Murray. These telephones were first located in public places like hotels. The telephone took a big step forward in 1904 when a one-position magneto switchboard was installed in the rear of the J.L. Simmons Dry Goods Store. Operators assisted customers in the store until a loud bell rang which indicated that someone wanted to make a call. Then they would manually connect the caller to the home they wanted to call using wires on the switch board. This was the day of part lines. Each house had a different ring. All the houses on the party line would hear the ring. One long ring and two short rings may indicate that the caller wanted to call the Smith’s house. This system allowed neighbors to easily eavesdrop on each other’s calls.
Prior to the invention of the air conditioner and freezer, ice was used to keep things cold. An ice house was built on the shore of Forest Lake at the present site of the downtown boat launching area. When the water in the lake froze to a depth of 22 inches, the ice was cut into 20-by-36-inch slabs. It was floated down a channel and hoisted into the ice house. In 1953, 8,500 slabs were harvested. The ice was insulated with 12 inches of saw dust and delivered to people’s homes the following summer. A home ice box would be kept filled for $3/month. With new inventions the need for ice declined and the ice house was closed in the 1940s.
Early police would walk the city streets. At night they would light the kerosene street lamps and make certain the shop doors were locked. Marshal Nels Kloster recalls that many nights he discovered a business who left their doors unlocked. In 1915, the salary for a marshal was $60/month. One marshal in the 1910s encountered bank robbers. The robbers tied the marshal up, put an apple in his mouth, and locked him in a boxcar. They proceeded to rob a Forest Lake bank. The following morning the marshal was found. Forest Lake had a jail which was a small brick building. The jail had a lock on the outside and one cell on the inside. This was usually used for someone to “sleep it off” or heal up after a good fight. This former jail was located two blocks north of the Broadway Ave and Highway 61 intersection.
Originally called “The Enterprise”, the Forest Lake Times was first published by Howard Folsom. Folsom published only seven issues before he sold it. The paper was sold several times and there was even a time where the paper ceased publication. The Forest Lake Times was officially named that in 1916.
The Forest Lake State bank was the first bank of Forest Lake. It was opened by O.E. Struble and Wayne Struble. The bank had its ups and downs. In around 1920, farmers income dropped and it was difficult for them to repay their loans. In 1929 the stock market crashed and the Great Depression followed. The bank made many loans on good faith to help tide people over. Many people lost their farms, homes, and businesses due to the poor economy.
The first car owned by someone in Forest Lake may have been Dr. J.A. Poirier’s 1908 two-cylinder Reo made by the R.E. Oldsmobile Company. It traveled 50 miles per hour. The deep ruts in the dirt roads prevented him from going that fast. The car had two forward speeds and one reverse speed.
In the early days, the theater would show silent black and white films every Wednesday and Sunday evening. A film might show a train speeding to the heroine who had be tied up by the villain. Could the hero save her in time? You would have to attend next week to find out. A piano player would play music to accompany a film. This was very important to make the film come alive because the film had no audio.
With electricity came a demand for new lights and appliances. At that time, a license was not required to wire a house. Rooms would be installed with one bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Washing machines, electric stoves, and new heating systems rapidly changed many homes.
On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. The local men, like Frank Anderson, enlisted in the military. Frank was a message carrier who crawled between trenches with memorized messages. Sometimes he carried written messages. If he was caught, his orders were to swallow the paper. The war ended on November 11, 1918. After the war, the American Legion was formed to promote patriotism. Forest Lake Post 255 was chartered in 1919. One of the most enduring contributions of Post 255 is the yearly Forest Lake 4th of July parade.
Forest Lake’s first water service started in 1919 and sewer service started in 1920. Bathrooms and kitchens with running water became popular. Gone were the days of bathing in a galvanized tub in the kitchen.
To fight fires, the residents used a water bucket brigade, a hand pumper, and a hose cart. But that wasn’t enough to adequately fight fires. On June 5, 1922 the mayor called the first Fire Department meeting to order and they appointed Tom Rolseth as fire chief. One year later, the hottest explosion and fire in the history of Forest Lake was set ablaze. Gasoline was being unloaded from a railroad car and some seeped out. When the motor was turned off, a spark ignited the gas. 5,300 gallons of gas, 1,500 gallons of kerosene, and 4,000 gallons of lubrication oil exploded that day.
The stock market crashed in 1929 and the United States had the largest economic downturn in history. GDP fell and unemployment rose. Many citizens felt the pains of the depression. They grew gardens in their backyard. Hunting and fishing became an important source of food. Businessmen extended credit to their customers as long as they could. A popular saying during this time was “make it do, pass it on, and wear it out.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the 32nd president in 1933 and rolled out programs to help move the country out of the depression. The programs built four large buildings in the Carlos Avery Game Farm and the football field at the school.
At about 6 PM, the unforgettable roar of a tornado was heard in Forest Lake. The powerful funnel touched down about one half mile northeast of the 35W & 35E junction. The tornado was powerful enough to destroy many buildings, toss fish out of water, pluck all the feathers from the chickens, and drive straw into telephone poles. Rev. N.L. Frank wrote, “Etched into my mind is the recollection of the floor of a house, superstructure all gone, floating on the lake. There in the middle of the floor sat a shiny piano, nothing else.” One man died, a bachelor who moved to the area just three days prior.
Forest Lake was a popular destination for national criminals. “Ma” Baker was the mother of several criminals who ran the Banker gang. Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover described her as “the most vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade.” She and her gang lived in a cabin behind Lake Street. “Baby Face” Nelson was a notorious bank robber who was responsible for killing more FBI agents in the line of duty than any other person. He owned a cabin in Forest Lake. Bugs Moran was a bootlegger that continued to pose a significant threat to Al Capone. Bugs Moran lived on North Shore Drive.
The 4th of July of Parade is the largest, yearly, crowd-drawing event in Forest Lake. The parade started at 10:00 am and the first-place float would win $15. After the parade, people assembled at the beach to listen to a political speaker. At 1:00 PM the chairmen would start the races. There was the Fat Man’s Race for those heavier than 200 pounds. The winner would get a box of cigarettes and a can of pork and beans. There was a tug of war that drew a crowd of the area’s strongest men. A popularity contest was held to find out who was the most popular girl. The first-place girl won $50. The night wrapped up with a spectacular display of fireworks over the lake.
In 1932 there was a gas station that stood two blocks south of Broadway Avenue and Highway 61 intersection. Nels Berglin, the night marshal, stopped in at the station. A black 1929 Ford pulled up to the pumps for gas. There were three young adults in the car. They bought $1 of gas. The attendant took the money and walked into the station. Two of the men followed the attendant into the store with guns drawn. They shouted, “This is a stickup. Lay down on the floor. We mean business!” Nels Berglin felt it was his duty to stop the robbery even against all odds. He started removing his glove from his right hand so he could use his revolver. The robbers fired four shots at him. He fired two shots in return. The noise in the small room was deafening. After the shooting, one of the robbers said, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” They quickly drove off with nothing to show for it other than one dead policeman. The robbers were later captured in relation with other robberies.
This was an era of tearful goodbyes as Forest Lake men between the ages of 18 to 45 were drafted and sent overseas. Everyone had to do their part for the war effort. Ration books were needed to purchase sugar, coffee, meat, and butter. Posted speed limits of 35 miles per hour were common to prolong the life of tires. For the duration of the war no radios, refrigerators, washing machines, or cars were manufactured.
Forest Lake was considered to be vulnerable in case of a bombing attack because of the proximity to war plants. At 10 PM on a specific evening in 1942 the first practice blackout occurred. No light was visible in Forest Lake. Homeowners covered their windows with “blackout curtains.” Wardens patrolled the streets. Not a single light was visible.
Frank Wagner started an eight-lane bowling alley. Young men had jobs as pin setters and were paid two cents a line. Bowlers paid 30 cents a line. Bowling was very important during these years. Some bowlers traveled from as far away as Las Vegas to participate in tournaments.
The women of the American Legion Auxiliary Post 225 fought to overcome obstacles to provide a library for public use. These women persuaded the Forest Lake Village Council to use part of the south room of the village hall for a library. Fund raisers were used to raise money for the books. The Boy Scouts collected books the citizens wanted to donate to the library. After opening the room had bouquets of flowers and coffee was donated and served to the guests as they tasted homemade donuts donated by local women. In 1961, after 16 years as a volunteer, Wilma Engler became the first paid volunteer with a monthly salary of $75.
Cars used to drive bumper-to-bumper through Forest Lake, especially in the summer. To reduce the congestion, the highway department decided to widen the road. Homeowners wondered what would happen to their neighborhood. Houses were removed and the area looked like a disaster zone. There were basements with no tops and sidewalks leading to nowhere. The road was completed and on January 21, 1949, Dr. C.M Niles woke up to a loud crash. A large truck missed the turn on highway 61 and drove in to the doctor’s house. The doctor was thrown out of the house onto the snow. He suffered a broken hip and shock.
A new technology allowed people to directly call someone without needing to speak to an operator. At 10:07 pm, Mayor Hector Pepin dialed the first call.
Lee Sandager and Fran LaBelle started a small red and white striped drive-in restaurant. People were served hamburgers, fries, and malts and could eat them in their car. The servers were called “car hops” and dressed in red culottes and white blouses.
Bert and Elise Vogel opened a new year-around roller skating rink. The facility was a popular destination for teenagers. It also hosted many show skating acts like Magic Toy Shop, Friendly Freddie, Arabs and the Camel, Square Dancing on Skates, and Tom Sawyer Gang.
Mr. and Mrs. Bob Drummond and Everette Struble opened the Hub Drive-In Theater. It was a fun theater where families often came to watch a movie on the big screen from the comfort of their car. This was a new place to take a date. Wednesday nights were busy as teenagers were admitted for only $1.
After running for 101 years, the Forest Lake train station closed. It was later torn down in 1971 and the train tracks were removed in 1991.
The interstate immediately brought great change to Forest Lake. What once was a familiar neighborhood area became new commercial businesses. Travel patterns changed which caused a loss of business to the businesses on Lake Street. The city’s growth was along the interstate. New businesses sprung up including an industrial park, apartment buildings, mall-type construction, and car dealers.
The Minnesota State Legislature changed villages to cities throughout the state including Forest Lake.
WLFX, the Forest Lake Area radio station, went live at noon with the message, “Good Afternoon. This is the first official broadcast of WLKX FM coming to you from Forest Lake, Minnesota.” The National Anthem followed. The programming included news, weather, a Pet Patrol segment, and religious programming on Sunday morning.
The joint powers of the City of Forest Lake, Forest Lake Township, Columbus Township, and Scandia founded the Lakes Area Community Television to encourage local area residents to produce local cable television for and about the community. It televises school board meetings, city council meetings, interviews with sports figures, music contests, variety shows, and more.
The Forest Lake Marching Band was invited to play in the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California. This televised event was very exciting to the students. To raise money for travel expenses, a “Pounds for Pasadena” fundraiser was held. Every pound that was weighed in would raise 2 cents. Crowds watched as the Forest Lake firefighters weighed in with their full gear. People held bowling balls and budging suitcases. One man held a canoe over his head. The crowd pleaser was when four large men stood together with added weight and weighed in at 2600 pounds. A total of $9,107 was raised for 455,000 pounds.
The City of Forest Lake came together to celebrate 100 years. The events included a historical museum, sports tournaments, art fair, fishing contest, water ski show, craft fair, and more.
1. Goodman, Robert, et al. A history of Washington County: Gateway to Minnesota History. Washington County Historical Society,
2008. p. 12.
2. Lamprey Pass Wildlife Management Area. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, www.wildlifeviewingareas.com/wv-app/ParkDetail.aspx?ParkID=566 .
3. Habitat Preservation Projects. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, www.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/nongame/land_preservation/projects.html .
4. Ojibwe Indians. Michigan State University, geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/ojibwe.html .
5. Treaty with the Sioux, etc. 1825.
6. 1837 Land Cession Treaties with the Ojibwe & Dakota. treatiesmatter.org/treaties/land/1837-ojibwe-dakota .
7. Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, 1851. www.mnopedia.org/event/treaty-traverse-des-sioux-1851 .
8. Folwell, William Watts. A history of Minnesota. 1922. p. 351.
9. Forest Lake Area Schools: Celebrating 100 Graduating Classes. 2011.
10. Warren Upham. Minnesota Geographic Names Their Origin and Historic Significance. Minnesota Historical Society Saint Paul, 1920 p. 569. 11. Goodman, Robert, et al. A history of Washington County: Gateway to Minnesota History. Washington County Historical Society, 2008. p. 236.
12. Neil, Edward. History of Washington County and the St. Croix Valley Including the Explorers and Pioneers of Minnesota. North Star Publishing Company, 1881. p. 467.
13. Crex Carpet Company. www.mnopedia.org/group/crex-carpet-company .
14. Peck, Lauren. Abducted in St. Paul! 21 June 2016, www.mngoodage.com/voices/mn-history/2016/06/abducted-in-st-paul/ .
15. Howard, Ryan. Does Forest Lake serve its residents well? 4 June 2015, www.hometownsource.com/forest_lake_times/news/local/does-forest-lake-serve-its-residents-well/article_599c1834-282e-5bf3-befe-f5303ba98245.html .
The pictures used above came from the following sources: Washington County Historical Society, Alamy stock photos, and the
Forest Lake Area Historical Society
A special thanks is given to the following source. It was used throughout this timeline. This book is a great source to learn more about the history of Forest Lake.
Vogel, Elsie. Reflections of Forest Lake. Forest Lake, MN, Forest Lake Centennial Association, Inc., 1993.
A second special thanks is given to the City of Forest Lake who provided further information about the history.