Minnetonka History and the Burwell House
When the colonists on the Atlantic coast declared their independence from Great Britain, Minnetonka was still a part of the Spanish territory that in 1803 was included in the Louisiana Purchase.
Dakota and Ojibway Indians first settled in the area. They believed the land around Lake Minnetonka (“minne”—water, “tonka”—big) was the legendary home of an extinct race. The first recorded exploration of the area by European settlers was in 1822, when a group from newly constructed Fort Snelling made its way up Minnehaha Creek (then known as Brown’s Creek or Falls Creek) to the lake.
In 1852 a claim was staked on Minnehaha Creek near McGinty Road, resulting in several firsts. The sawmill that was constructed in the thick woods of maple, oak, elm, red cedar and basswood was the first privately-operated mill in Minnesota west of the Mississippi River. The settlement of Minnetonka Mills that grew up around the mill, later to include a furniture factory and varnish/paint shop, was the first permanent European-American settlement west of Minneapolis in Hennepin County. Oak timbers from this mill were used to build the first suspension bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Anthony/Minneapolis in 1853. A few houses still stand in the Minnetonka Mills area that were built with lumber from this mill.
In 1860 the sawmill closed. In 1869 a flour and grist mill was constructed which operated until the late 1880’s. Charles H. Burwell came to manage the Minnetonka Mill Company in 1874. Mr. Burwell built for his family the Victorian home on the north bank of Minnehaha Creek (Minnetonka Boulevard at McGinty Road East). The Burwell house is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is owned by the city. Find more information about tour dates and times.
There were two other mills in Minnetonka. St. Alban’s, less than a mile downstream from Minnetonka Mills on Minnehaha Creek, operated as a flour mill from 1874 to 1881. A grist mill built on Purgatory Creek was washed out in a flood shortly after construction.
Settlement in the Minnetonka area was encouraged by local, eastern and even foreign newspapers. Most of the earliest settlers were from New England and other eastern and central states. Later, the Irish settled in northern Minnetonka. In the 1860’s Scandinavians came where the climate and terrain reminded them of their native land. Immigrants from Czechoslovakia settled in the southern part of Minnetonka from 1854 to 1871. They contributed greatly to the professional, business and agricultural segments of the population. The raspberries they grew in Minnetonka for sale in Hopkins prompted Hopkins to call itself “The Raspberry Capital of the World.“
Minnetonka Mills with its post office and important port for Lake Minnetonka was the principal business and trading center for a large area until the 1870’s.
Other settlements grew up within Minnetonka Township. Glen Lake Station on the streetcar line from Minneapolis to Excelsior (which line was discontinued in 1932) was the nucleus of a trading center for farmers and commuters. Establishment of the County Tuberculosis Sanatorium in 1916 and the County Home for Boys led to further growth.
Between 1883 and 1956 the area within the original 36 square mile township grew smaller as Wayzata, Hopkins, Deephaven, Woodland and St. Louis Park incorporated or annexed portions of Minnetonka. In 1956 the remaining 28 square miles were incorporated as Minnetonka Village. In 1969, Minnetonka became a city by charter.
Since the mid-1800’s Minnetonka has evolved from heavily wooded wilderness through extensive farming and thriving industrialization to its present primarily residential suburban character.
Milling played a major role in the development of Minnetonka. Minnehaha Creek provided power to operate first a sawmill, and then a flour mill. In 1876, Charles H. Burwell came to Minnetonka to manage the newly formed Minnetonka Mill Company. He and his second wife, Mary, built a home on the creek in 1883, where they raised their family. The home remained in the Burwell family until 1958. It was purchased by the City of Minnetonka in 1970 to serve as an historic house museum. The Minnetonka Historical Society undertook the early restoration efforts from 1970 to 1990. The city then took over the restoration project, restoring the site to its 1894 appearance.
The Burwell House is a Victorian home, in the Italianate style. The furnishings in the home include many original Burwell pieces. The furnishings, many of which are of the Eastlake style, are owned by the Minnetonka Historical Society, and are on loan to the site. The site includes a millworker’s cottage that Mr. Burwell moved to the site for his mother in 1894. It also includes Mr. Burwell’s Mill Office, that was moved to the site in 1894 and which now serves as a museum for the Minnetonka Historical Society. Other buildings on the site include a woodshed and an ice house. A five acre site, including the buildings, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the site is also a designated Minnetonka Landmark.