The name Wayzata came from the Sioux word meaning either The Northern God or the Northern Shore. The Mdewakanton Dakotah, a major division of the Sioux nation, treasured the “Big Water” (Lake Minnetonka today) as an endowed hunting and fishing ground and protected this spiritual land from the rival Chippewa tribe, who were known as Ojibiway. While these natives were living off the land, the land was claimed in 1803 by France, who sold it to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The nearest Euro-American settlement then was Fort Snelling, and it wasn’t until the Traverse Des Sioux Treaty was signed in 1851 that the lands west of the Mississippi were opened for land claims to be filed. Oscar E. Garrison, who knew where the most desirable land was, built a cabin in 1852 at what is now Lake Street and Broadway Avenue. In 1854 he drew a survey of the area and filed his claim for most of what is now Wayzata proper.
In 1855, Wayzata had an influx of settlers who built a sawmill, a hotel and a blacksmith shop. Most early settlers made their living off the land, first by clear cutting the trees to grow corn and wheat. In 1857, this flourishing economy was nearly terminated by a grasshopper plague. But then ginseng was discovered in the remaining hard wood forest which had been left standing, these trees being too great a distance from the lake to float down stream to the sawmill. Ginseng’s root was in great demand as a aphrodisiac in the Orient, and after the eastern forests had been depleted, Wayzata became a collection center for the roots discovered around the lake. Ginseng saved the town.
With commercial traffic by steamboats becoming common on Lake Minnetonka, Wayzata’s position as closest to St. Paul assured growth for our town. After the Civil War, vacationers from the steamy south began enjoying cool breezy summers at the lake and the era of the resort arrived. In 1867 the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (today’s Burlington Northern-Sante Fe) extended its tracks to Wayzata, making Wayzata the transportation hub of the area. James J. Hill, who would later have a major role in Wayzata’s history, was at the time a St. Paul freight agent for the railroad. With numerous trains scheduled for activities in the area, hotels quickly popped up around the lake, one being built where Garrison’s cabin had been, called the Maurer House-West Hotel. Boating, fishing, and picnicking would bring twenty thousand vacationers west, who would stay at seventeen hotels that were scattered around the 99 miles of the lakeshore then. Transporting the vacationers from the railroad landing in Wayzata to the hotels were large paddlewheel boats, some able to accommodate as many as 3,300 passengers! This era, the beginning of “The Gilded Age” reached its peak in 1882 when Hill, now owning the railroad he had renamed The Great Northern, built the 800 room Lafayette Hotel in Minnetonka Beach, a few miles further down the tracks. As the fad ended other places became fashionable. Vacationers soon were traveling to the newly opened Yellowstone Park. And then in 1893 the financial depression hit America.
A new era began when the tourists moved on: summer cottages began appearing along the shores, even on the grounds of the grand hotels, and in Wayzata, up the hill behind Lake Street. Many of those hotels (including the Arlington in Wayzata) were closed, and then burned down. The cottage builders needed building materials, and then provisions when they moved in. Wayzata broke away from Minnetonka Township and became a separate governmental unit in 1881, mainly as a reaction to the roaring tourist-resorter lifestyle. Feeling their new power, the first act of the village council was to ban the saloons, and the second would have a more profound impact: they started a fight with James J. Hill to get the railroad tracks moved from downtown. An 1883 town law required the tracks be relocated 300 feet from the shoreline. Hill ignored the law, then in 1889 the council filed a lawsuit to force Hill to comply. Hill responded that he had state law on his side, and if they continued with their suit not only would he win, but he would make the town walk a mile for twenty years to catch a train.
In 1891 the Minnesota Supreme Court denied the legality of the law, and Hill, as promised, moved the station to flat land beneath today’s Bushaway Road railroad bridge. Wayzata was literally taken off the map, and for the next fifteen years the town barely grew. In 1905 a wiser Village Council voted a Reconciliation Ordinance, and Hill responded that he would have the finest railroad station on his entire line built in Wayzata. He attended the opening of the beautiful station, (a must see for all visitors to Wayzata) passed out miniature hats of the one he wore, and even gave his own desk for the Wayzata Station master to use.
As the cottage era continued, downtown Wayzata became mostly residential, with small commercial centers at each end of Lake Street. The following era was again recreational, based on motorboats. By the 1920, motorboating was the rage, and once again Wayzata was at the center, with two nationally famous boat makers building speedboats on our shoreline. Weekends brought thousands of spectators to the lake to watch the boats race, and many of the visitors realized they could be happy living in Wayzata.
Today’s US Highway 12 had just reached Wayzata as a hard surfaced road, and realtor Sam Batson was praising the benefits of buying a summer cottage and modifying it for year-around living. The population nearly doubled in that decade, and Wayzatans were fortunate when one of their own, Rufus Rand, stepped forward to lead the town as it met the challenges of modernizing the infrastructure of a summer village. Under Mayor Rand, water and sewer service was provided to every building (lifting quite a burden off the lake), street lights were installed to light the newly hard-surfaced town roads, and the city public beach and park was opened. Rand donated much of the beach land, and paid for half of the beach-house! He did all this while running one of the largest businesses in Minneapolis, and serving as a Regent at the University of Minnesota. Rand, Hill, and Garrison are the giants of Wayzata history.
As World War Two approached Wayzata became a city with locally provided jobs and retailers that provided all of a family’s needs. The boat building era was ending and home-building was starting to grow. During the war, wooden 8-man boats built in Wayzata were used by American soldiers to cross Europe’s many rivers, and dairy farming became a large local activity. At wars end these farms became many single family housing sites and two car garages, which soon became the standard, made their appearance. More gasoline stations opened; Wayzata had 10 to serve all these cars, and Downtown parking was in short supply. Highway 12 was widened to four lanes, and the population swelled with commuters who worked in Minneapolis. More gasoline stations opened; Wayzata had 10 to serve all these cars, and the downtown parking was in short supply. Downtown residences were replaced by more stores serving not only Wayzata but the new families moving onto the former farmlands outside of Wayzata. Longtime locals were still the only candidates for public offices and the need for more schools was what concerned most. In summers the lake continued to draw people for boating and fishing activities; fishing boats were rented and bait was sold in downtown. Wayzatans changed their attitude toward liquor; we built our first fire station, using monies obtained from a newly opened municipal bar and liquor store. Wayzata became a charter city at the same time people began considering it as part of the Minneapolis metropolitan area.
In the 1950’s Wayzata annexed enough land from Minnetonka, Plymouth and Orono to double in size, but this also meant that the ‘commuters’ living in those areas, as well as those in Wayzata, would be a majority of the population. Newer residents became active citizens, held City Council seats, and decisions would be made that changed the course of Wayzata history. Shopping centers were built to hold more stores which met the residents daily needs, while the downtown shops focused on fashion and service businesses. The small town near a major city worked well until the 1970’s when newly widened Highway 12 freeway brought Minneapolis stores much closer, and a major shopping center opened five miles away. Wayzata’s downtown shops were replaced by condominiums, then office buildings followed with franchise fast food shops dominating one part of town. Then our movie theater closed. Soon much of the public beach was converted to an asphalt parking lot to accommodate a business that had recycled a boat-builders shop into a large office block. Wayzata was no longer the central place in the lives of area youth and the lake itself took on a role of being more scenery than function.
As downtown Wayzata became a highly desirable ‘executive office’ center because of the lake view, some well regarded shops with unique merchandise and upscale restaurants began appearing. Residences also began returning to downtown as several exclusive condominium and townhouse developments appeared on the City Council agenda. In a small manner Wayzata was returning to its history as downtown residential use with leisure time enjoyments. Many of the older homes in Wayzata were replaced with much larger homes as “mansionization” spread from the lakeshore estates to the blocks going up the hill from downtown. Longtime Wayzatans called for, and won, a referendum to have the City buy the last remaining piece of the Big Woods, which had provided the early settlers with lumber and ginseng, and to preserve this forest as a city treasure. A movement then began to save some of the historic cottage era homes still left in town. Newer Wayzatan’s had their impact as well; an opulent City hall and Library was built; perhaps reflecting the high regard which they believed should be accorded Wayzata
Although Wayzata now has a much different ambiance from its recreational based history, it still has the most picturesque and alluring setting of any town in Minnesota. With one look it is easy to understand why so many want to work and live here.