White Bear Lake was once home to American Indians, housed a summer camp for Jewish women and served as an idyllic resort vacation for those hard-working city slickers of 19th century to Prohibition-era St. Paul. Although it’s natural to settle into our modern-day lives and enjoy everything the region has to offer, many local residents have learned you don’t have to look too far to take a step back in time. In fact, the next historical artifact might be just down the street.
When Sara Hanson, executive director of the historical society, decided to bring the Historic House Tour back to life after a couple decades of inactivity, her hope was to rekindle a love and sense of place in the community. “We’re trying to get people to understand that we’re not just a suburb of St. Paul,” she says. “We were here almost as early as St. Paul was, as a community and a city in our own right, working to make a community.” So every fall since 2007, the historical society with the help of 150 volunteers opens the doors of 10 homes that have a special story to tell about the history of the lake.
Although one of the main pulls to the event is the history, many visitors are also curious to see the inside of these oft-refurbished houses, gather tips on different decorating styles and learn how homeowners have made their visions come to fruition.
“Part of the excitement for us is we really reach a different audience than your typical history event,” Hanson says. Whatever the reason people are flocking to the house tour, they’re coming in herds, averaging between 400 and 700 visitors a year. And they’re not just local folks; visitors come from as far as Owatonna and Eau Claire, Brainerd and Faribault. “People make a day-trip out of it—it’s a family outing,” says Hanson.
Many of the homes on the tour date back to the early 1900s, when people were excited to be riding the train for the first time from Minneapolis and St. Paul out to the lakeside resort destination of White Bear Lake. What used to take three hours to travel by horse and wagon now only took 20 minutes, so the resorts on the lake quickly boomed. By 1910, when the automobile was starting to take hold as a viable means of transportation, “things started to shift and people headed north or wherever they wanted,” Hanson says. They were no longer bound to railroad destinations. Even though many families said goodbye to White Bear Lake as a vacation destination, many others decided to commute into the cities and call White Bear Lake home, converting some of the old resort-era cottages into year-round family homes.
The Historical Society of White Bear Lake is continually looking for ways to bring the history of the area to life, because as Hanson says, “we have so much to understand about how we got to where we are,” but it isn’t just about the past; it’s about planning ahead and “preserving today’s history for the future as well.”
This year the event will be held noon to 6 p.m. September 30. Visitors can register online for $25 or pay $30 on-site, then enjoy an afternoon perusing the houses at their own pace. Since it’s a self-guided tour with an information booklet and map, visitors can pick and choose which homes to visit and can pause for an afternoon treat at a local venue if they so please. Houses are selected in each of the five communities surrounding the lake, so visitors can walk between homes clustered together, but will likely need a vehicle to complete the full circuit.
To register for the event or to nominate a home for the 2013 tour, visit whitebearhistory.org.
Peek into the Past
Here’s our sneak peek at one of this year’s most stunning additions to what promises to be another history-packed tour.
4585 Lake Ave., White Bear Lake
The homes on the tour always come in a variety of architectural styles with vastly different stories waiting to be told. Kate and Rob Huebsch own what’s known as an envelope house—a house within a house heated by the sun. “Given the proximity to the lake,” Kate Huebsch says, “I think the cold air coming from that compromised the envelope design’s ability to keep things warm in the winter. But the envelope is the reason for the great first- and second-level porches that I love so much.”
The whimsical 1980s house was built literally around another (dating from at least the early 1900s), so there are areas of the home in which you can see parts of the old cottage. For example, the builder chose to keep the old kitchen cabinets in place. The house makes for a grand tour complete with murals of Dr. Seuss, Max from Where the Wild Things Are and other fun decorating choices. Still the real secret lies in the history of the land: It was very near an Indian burial mound along the lake, which unfortunately was excavated in the 1880s.
Previous additions to the Historic Homes Tour include houses built on the site of Wildwood Amusement Park, which was built in the early 1900s by a streetcar company to give Twin Cities residents a reason to ride to the end of the line in Mahtomedi. Today the homeowners have embraced their home’s history and have photos of the amusement park throughout the house.