Minnetonka native writes book about namesake lake

Minnetonka native Eric Dregni is the author of “By the Waters of Lake Minnetonka,” released this month by University of Minnesota Press. Dregni will host a book launch event 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 21, at Jake O’Connor’s Public House, 200 Water St., Excelsior. (Submitted photo) Domer (Submitted photo by Tate Carlson/Tiger Oak Media)
Minnetonka native Eric Dregni is the author of “By the Waters of Lake Minnetonka,” released this month by University of Minnesota Press. Dregni will host a book launch event 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 21, at Jake O’Connor’s Public House, 200 Water St., Excelsior. (Submitted photo)
Domer (Submitted photo by Tate Carlson/Tiger Oak Media)

‘By the Waters of Lake Minnetonka’ explores history of the lake

by Matthew Hankey
Sun Sailor Newspapers

Author Eric Dregni is ready to celebrate his latest book “By the Waters of Minnetonka.”

Dregni, who grew up in Minnetonka, will host a book launch event 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 21, at Jake O’Connor’s Public House, 200 Water St., Excelsior.

“By the Waters of Minnetonka,” released in October 2014 by University of Minnesota Press, explores the history of the Lake Minnetonka region and the lake itself. It features photographs from the Minnesota Historical Society, the Hennepin County Library Collection and numerous other sources.

The book launch event will feature a book reading and slideshow of these photographs.

Dregni, associate professor of English and journalism at Concordia University at St. Paul, is the author of half a dozen books.

He said the genesis of his latest book “By the Waters” goes back to when he bought a book about the lake from The Bookcase in Wayzata.

Years later, he began writing a regular feature in the Lake Minnetonka Magazine about the lake. In his research, he learned about the breadth of history in the area.

“Having grown up there, you don’t see it that much,” he said of the lake. “It’s everywhere, but its not.”

With “By the Waters,” Dregni learned how significant the lake was a destination for Minneapolis and St. Paul residents, as well as for others.

“Growing up there, I didn’t realize it was such a vacation land,” said Dregni, a 1986 Minnetonka High School graduate. “My grandparents lived in Minneapolis and then would go out there to vacation. They would take the trolleys out there.”

In his book, Dregni writes about wealthy southerners who would travel to Lake Minnetonka for their vacations in the years following the Civil War.

In the late 1890s, grand hotels were built on the lake. These hotels would serve old-fashioned southern fried chicken and fresh fish dinners for its guests, many of them from the south. These guests would often bring their black servants on their trips, Dregni writes.

Dregni also explores the different eras of the lake. Large hotels used to dot the lake’s perimeter.

“Now, there are none of them. Why is that?” he asked.

Following the era of grand hotels, small cottages sprung up.

“Now, it’s a completely different place,” Dregni said, writing about the preponderance of “McMansions.”

“But, we see remnants of those things,” he added.

Big Island was once another popular lake destination. The centerpiece of the island, Dregni writes, was a 200-foot-tall water tower and lighthouse.

“People knew about that far and wide,” he said. “People would come from other states to go there. Now, it’s mostly just park land. Back when it was this big place, they had regular boat service there.”

Giant steamboats used to travel the lake, some that carried as many as 1,000 passengers, said Dregni.

Another nugget of history Dregni discusses is Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Francis Little House,” completed in 1915 in Deephaven.

The house was razed in the early ‘70s, and much of the house is on display at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Other remnants of the home can be seen at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Wright designed many famous homes on the lake, but few may know that he was arrested there for living with his mistress, writes Dregni. He was sent to Hennepin County jail for “white slavery.”

Dregni writes about other celebrity’s visits to the area, including the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Jesse James, W.E.B. DuBois and the Andrew Sisters.

Dregni explores the ginseng boom in the region, which brought slaves to Wayzata to harvest the plants’ roots, as well as other unsettling aspects of the region’s history.

Dregni hopes readers come to have a newfound appreciation for the story of the lake

“And to preserve what’s still there,” he said.

If You Go

  • What: “By the Waters of Lake Minnetonka” Book Launch
  • When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 21
  • Where: Jake O’Connor’s Public House, 200 Water St., Excelsior

For more information, visit upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/by-the-waters-of-minnetonka

Contact Matthew Hankey at [email protected]