City of Birchwood Village

Exceptional Place, Exceptional People

Birchwood's History

A Look at Birchwood History -
A Continuing Series

By Scott Freeberg

In each quarterly newsletter, starting with Spring 2002, an article will be included highlighting some of Birchwood's history.  After these articles appear in the newsletter, they will also be placed on this site.

If you have any old photos, documents, artifacts, or other Birchwood history that you would like to share, loan for scanning, or donate, please contact Scott Freeberg, Village Historian, at 651-653-2054.

Birchwood Memory #1

Birchwood Memory #1, "One of the Most Beautiful Spots on Earth".

The community we know as Birchwood Village began quietly in the last quarter of the 19th century as a sprinkling of summer cottages on the south shore of White Bear Lake. Prior to the settlement of the area, it was the home and hunting ground of Indians, and as recently as the early 1970’s an arrowhead found in newly turned ground attested to their earlier presence here. This part of Washington County was offered for sale by the United States Government in 1854 and changed hands many times in the next 50 years.

The growth of Birchwood was due to some extent to the building of Wildwood Amusement Park, to the east of the present city limits on the south shore of White Bear Lake. The Twin City Rapid Transit Company built the park in 1899 and it offered such pleasures as a roller coaster, ferris wheel, merry-go-round, bowling alley, a fun house, pavilion, dance hall and restaurant. These drew eager crowds, as did the picnic grounds and swimming beach with long slides into the water. The electric streetcar line was extended from the park through Birchwood into White Bear Lake in 1904 and this brought dependable transportation to residents. Two lake steamers, christened the Wildwood and the St. Paul, traversed White Bear Lake, and would stop at Birchwood to take on or discharge passengers when needed.

When Allen S. Libbey, later to be the Village Treasurer, came to Birchwood in 1903 he noted that only two other families were living here through the winter. At that time the area was a tangle of woods and swamps with a bicycle path along the lake as the only way through.

Edited using excerpts from "Birchwood, A Bicentennial Memory". Do you have Birchwood history that you can share with the village? If you have any old photo’s, documents, artifacts, or other Birchwood history that you would like to share, loan for scanning, or donate, please contact Scott Freeberg, Village Historian, at 651-653-2054.

Birchwood Memory #2

Birchwood Memory #2, "Summer Haven Way Out In The Country"

Birchwood had its origin as a summer haven for St. Paul people. The earliest homes were built about 1876. At the turn of the century six or seven houses nestled among the lovely white birches which lined the lake shore. These homes, between Wildwood Avenue and the lake shore, and extending east about 500 feet from East County Line, were the nucleus of Birchwood.

The only road was East County Line, a narrow sand road leading to North St. Paul. Wildwood Amusement Park, on the east shore, could be reached by bicycle path along the beach ,or by gasoline launch. White Bear could be reached by taking one of the two big side-wheel excursion boats which plied daily between Wildwood and White Bear. These would dock midway at Birchwood when necessary to pick up or discharge passengers.

In the early 1900’s the streetcar line which had been serving Wildwood Amusement Park since 1899, was extended along the south side of the lake, and Birchwood became a car stop. Another stop, then called "Glenview", is now Birch Street. With the coming of the streetcar, the summer colony grew rapidly, and the few year-round residents sent their youngsters to school in Mahtomedi on the street car.

In 1906 a W.T. McMurran platted the land he owned here along the lake as the Lakewood Park First and Second Divisions, and at that time maps showed the name Birchwood applied only to the homes then built near the lake along Birchwood Lane and Wildwood Avenue. Some of these homes have survived, remodeled into comfortable year round homes. McMurran lived at what is now 339 Wildwood Avenue. Prices for lots ranged from $600 to $750 for those on the lake and $300 to $450 for those in the area away from the lake.

Edited using excerpts from "This is Birchwood", a 1955 "manual" of village government prepared by the League of Women Voters of Birchwood and "Birchwood, A Bicentennial Memory" undated but assumed 1976. In the future I plan to talk more about the village, the trolley, its people, parks, and the lake. If you have any suggestions for subjects, please call or email me. Do you have Birchwood history that you can share with the village? If you have any old photo’s, documents, artifacts, or other Birchwood history that you would like to share, loan for scanning, or donate, please contact Scott Freeberg 653-2054 Village Historian,

Birchwood Memory #3

Birchwood Memory #3. "She Opened the Water Faucet and A Piece of Squirrel Fur Spurted Out..."

While we surely enjoy thinking about the ‘good ole days’, there were aspects of the early 1900’s in Birchwood that simply weren’t that good, including the village water system. George Roberts, who lived at 160 Birchwood Avenue, was the owner and operator of the Birchwood water system in the Early 1900’s. The completed tower worked on a gravity flow system with pipes running downhill. Consequently, the residents nearest the tower ran out of water first, and running out was a frequent experience. The pipes were never more then six inches under the ground with much of the pipe line above the ground. The water system naturally had to shut down each winter. There was a pumping station where Ash Easement is now. It was powered by a one cylinder gasoline engine which frequently quit running, leaving the residents high and dry. The water intake pipe extended 75 feet out into the lake and was screened with a box of 1/2 inch mesh hardware cloth. This filtered out the ‘larger fish’. Hester Prins remembers the day when she turned on the faucet and a piece of squirrel fur spurted out. Evidently the squirrel has somehow entered the tower or the pipes.... There was no chlorination and ‘most’ people did not use the water for drinking. By the 1960’s most people had wells drilled on their property which yielded good safe water, initially. My house at 327 Wildwood Avenue had a well drilled at one time. This well, like most others in the village, have been filled in with cement to prevent unused wells from contaminating the water table. I believe all houses sold in the past 20 years were required to fill in the well with cement and cap it off. Water problems continued up to the 1960’s. In March 1960 a survey reported that 40% of the village wells were contaminated and suddenly it became imperative for the village to act. The cost of constructing a municipal water system in Birchwood was estimated at $120,000. Public hearings were held, rates from various communities discussed, and finally in December 1961 there was approval of a water contract with White Bear Lake. Following the resolution of the drinking water problem, the village was required to tackle a new sanitary sewer system.

On the lighter side of the early 1900’s water situation, in the summer the water tower would sometimes overfill and the water would overflow the top and fall to the ground like a waterfall. It was said to be a pretty sight. The Birchwood water tower still stands at 133 Birchwood Ave, just west of the Village Hall, so take a drive by and see some Birchwood history.

For one of the wintertime articles I’d like to talk about iceboating and its history in Birchwood. Oliver Washburn, I’ll be calling you about this article.

Do you have Birchwood history that you can share with the village? If you have any old photo’s, documents, artifacts, ideas, or other Birchwood history that you would like to share, loan for scanning, or donate, please contact Scott Freeberg 653-2054 Village Historian.

Birchwood Memory #4

Birchwood Memory #4. "The Wonderful and Gentle Memories of Eleanore Peterson"

By Scott Freeberg

For this installment I want to share a wonderful letter written by longtime Birchwood resident Eleanore Peterson. She wrote this letter to the past village historian and friend Beverly Bosse and friend Hester Prins in November or December 1975. Using her information, Ms Peterson came to Birchwood in 1913. I will share excerpts of this letter which describes a gentle time in Birchwood History.

"Birchwood was just a streetcar stop 62 years [now 87 years ago] when as a child of 4 I visited with my grandparents Anna and Wm Connadi [or Conradi]. They lived on the lake at Glenview, the [streetcar] stop before Birchwood. Most of the homes were summer cottages which were closed in winter. Some of the homes were all year homes and Grandpa’s neighbors the Dornfelds,Klastermans, and Halls lived there summer and winter. Directly cross the dirt road was a rental. The Dixons rented it several years. Down the road also were the Gilson rentals. Grandpa’s daughter Margaret Nauman, my aunt, built a cottage on Grandpa’s property. It later burned to the ground. They purchased the home cross the road and made it a year round and lived there many years.... Adolph and Margaret Nauman moved to his mother’s Birchwood property and built a home where they lived the last years. I believe my cousin, their daughter Betty now owns it. Her name is Mrs. Eugene A Kogl.

I spent part of every summer with my grandparents until graduating from high school. I swam many times a day in clean, beautiful White Bear Lake. I learned to swim at age 4 with water wings. To the left of the property was the Water Pump Station. There was a right of way path to the lake from the road. Grandpa and I went fishing in a row boat about every day. There was no limit on fish and we caught burlap sacks of sunfish. Grandpa cleaned them and wrapped a dozen or more to a package and I delivered them to the neighbors. I am quite sure some of them thought "not again". Grandma and I visited the Prins & Stevenson families who lived up the hill by Glenview station. We also walked the winding path up the hill to ride the streetcar to Wildwood Park and visit friends in Mahtomedi. At age 16, 17, 18 I went with friends on a Sunday afternoon to dance in the lovely Wildwood Pavilion. I enjoyed the ride on the streetcar from St. Paul. It really rolled. We would wait at the switchoff for the streetcar from the other direction as it was mostly one track all the way. The streetcar had hourly service.

I recall how still and dark it was as I was bedded down on the porch. I also remember the beautiful stars I watched when I was supposed to be sleeping. There were so many more than today. Is pollution hiding them? I know the wildflowers are gone from the hill as houses cover them and the path to the streetcars is no more. The hill was covered with ferns too. What happened to the Good Old Days?" Written by Eleanore Connadi Peterson in 1976

At first I was going to edit this letter for brevity but as started typing I found the letter to be compelling and loving as it reached back 87 years into the past. I couldn’t remove a single word, so it is presented in its entirety. I want to thank Beverly Bosse, our past village historian, for this letter. She included it in her village history folder that she maintained for some 25 years before passing it on to me. Thanks to her, Hester Prins, and Eleanore Peterson we get to go back in time and feel what it was like 87 years ago in our little bit of paradise.

I purchased a May 1941 White Bear Lake Phone book and I thought it would be nice to share some of the Birchwood names in each issue. The book does not include addresses though. Starting at the top Robert S Ahrens, RW Allard, Wm E Andrews, Dr. W L Beebe, Gerald S Bond, J H Booth, Marie M Booth, I M Bucholtz, Robt R Byrnes. They also shopped at White Bear Lumber & Coal Co. at 418 Banning Avenue in White Bear Lake, Model Launderers and Dry Cleaners at 310 Washington Avenue inWBL, Parenteau’s Food Market at 601 4th Street in WBL, and the Capitol Laundry at 312 Banning Ave in WBL.

Do you have Birchwood history that you can share with the village? If you have any old photo’s, documents, artifacts, ideas, or other Birchwood history that you would like to share, loan for scanning, or donate, please contact Scott Freeberg 653-2054 Village Historian. A couple of people called with information this summer and unfortunately I misplaced their phone numbers during home remodeling. Please call again.

Birchwood Memory #5

BIRCHWOOD MEMORIES by Scott Freeberg, Village Historian May 21, 2003

Here are some excerpts from the famous "Birchwood, A Bicentennial Memory".

"The streetcar line was a vital means of transportation. The fare was 15 cents from St. Paul to Birchwood and 5 cents more to on to White Bear Lake. Stops in Birchwood were called Jay Street, Lakewood, Glenview, and Birchwood (at East County Line Road). A popular conductor known by all regular riders was "Mac" McWilliams. Cars ran hourly and it is said that the whistle "blew like the devil". Passing from Birchwood to White Bear the tracks were set on a trestle over what is not the property at 2101 East County Line Road. Legal notices were posted at the streetcar stops, as today they are posted at the Village Hall.

During the summer a man with a horse-drawn wagon delivered fresh vegetables, the side of the wagon rolled up to display his produce. Mr. Cherrier of White Bear Ice Company delivered ice with Ike, his helper, who rode on the truck. Henry Bruening, whose farm is not part of the 916 Vo Tech property, delivered milk, hauled garbage, cleaned cesspools, and did grading, and in the summer spread calcium chloride on the streets to settle the dust. He served the village until 1948.

John Prins, a summer resident here since 1917 at 157 Birchwood Avenue tells of hunting ducks where home now stand on Riviera Drive in White Bear Lake. When an earlier wooden water tank was taken down in 1920, John and Herman Brown built the cement tank that supplied water to residents in the summer for many years. The structure stands empty at 133 Birchwood Avenue, but has a unique place in Birchwood history. The concrete was hand-mixed in a box and the forms were set up as the pouring progressed. The sturdy walls were reinforced with steel rods stuck vertically in the wet cement. All the concrete was poured by the pailful and hoisted up the steep walls by pulley and rope. Brown would sit atop the rising walls and recite "And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, mid pails of the liquid rock and reinforcement rods". "

I have often quoted from "Birchwood, A Bicentennial Memory". On the inside cover of the booklet is a statement by The Birchwood Bicentennial Committee and it reads "To all who have shared in making Birchwood the pleasant and peaceful community we enjoy today, this book is dedicated." That was written 27 years ago. Twenty seven years later Birchwood is still the pleasant and peaceful community that was celebrated in the Bicentennial. Its wonderful that some things don’t change….