It may be hard to imagine today’s bustling Eden Prairie as a quiet little hamlet of just a couple thousand residents, but for longtime residents like Barb Eigen, Bill Holte, Roger Dressen and Jack Kortz, it was once just that.
“Saw it go from a quiet little idyllic place to the Eden Prairie that is now,” said Kortz. “I remember Eden Prairie being … it was an Eden to live there; it was just so beautiful.”
Kortz is the latest interview to be posted as part of an oral history project that aims to gather and share stories about the city’s transformation from a rural town to a suburban community. The project, entitled “Eden Prairie Has Tales to Tell,” is a joint volunteer effort between the Eden Prairie Historical Society and the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission.
‘Sweet and soulful recollections’
Betsy Adams is past president of the Eden Prairie Historical Society and co-chair of the oral history project. She said the project’s idea came from the historical society’s 2012 annual meeting, where “sweet and soulful recollections of life in Eden Prairie were being shared.”
“It was obvious to all who attended that we’d better get these stories written down,” said Adams.
A committee was formed soon after, and they began looking for people who had lived in Eden Prairie between 1941 (following the U.S. declaration of war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor) and the acceptance of the Eden Prairie Master Plan in 1963. “We wanted to capture their first-hand recollections, opinions and feelings about everything from commerce, transportation, economic development, churches, schools and education, community groups and leisure, governance and home/farm life,” stated Adams.
“Those identified would be our narrators – lovely, generous folks willing to share for the record their unique opinions and observations,” she added.
And share they have – from memories of going to school and attending church to shopping and working on the farm. There are tales of blizzards, swimming holes, football games and gravel roads. To date, 20 interviews have been conducted. The first four have been edited and are available on the website Eden Prairie Has Tales to Tell.
“We’ll continue to add interviews as we have them ready,” said Beth Novak-Krebs, senior planner for the City of Eden Prairie and the staff liaison to the Heritage Preservation Commission.
A different time
Kortz was born in 1946 and grew up on a farm near what is now Flying Cloud Drive and County Road 1.
“We had a barn,” he recalled in his interview. “We raised chickens, steers. Our farm ran from County Road 1 back towards Staring Lake. Purgatory Creek ran through our farm and the steers were just free to go back there and graze. My grandfather planted about 80 apple trees back between our place and Pappy’s. And when those things bloomed, it was probably one of the most beautiful things that you ever saw.”
“The actual family house had no plumbing in it,” he continued. “The only place there was any heat in the house was in the downstairs. The bedrooms upstairs were not heated so it did get a little cool in the winter. We had the windmill out between the house and the barn, and that pumped the water. We had like 120-foot down to the water line there, so it was a rather deep run.”
Kortz isn’t the only one to paint a rustic picture of Eden Prairie. Several of the interviewees candidly recall when they got indoor plumbing and had telephone lines installed.
“It was around 1950 when we put in the water and the indoor bathroom,” recalled Roger Dressen, who grew up on a farm on Pioneer Trail a few blocks west of Eden Prairie Road.
“I was about seven, so about 1947,” said Barbara Eigen, remembering when they traded their chemical toilet for indoor plumbing. “I’m trying to think when we got a telephone because that was really exciting. And, of course, we had a party line, so people would listen in. They called it rubber ear-ing or rubber-necking.
Eigen had 26 kids in her graduating class in 1958. Dressen graduated with just eight other students in 1950.
Dressen came to school an hour late each day for two years as he drove Chester Good’s little pickup truck around to the local farmers to pick up milk. “We’d load the cans into his truck and then he’d haul them into Minneapolis.” Dressen recalled that after school, they’d go hunting for pheasant or ducks where Bearpath Golf Course is now.
“There was really nothing in Eden Prairie when I grew up,” said Kortz. “We went to Hopkins to buy groceries. The mail was delivered from Hopkins by a rural route driver. I watched the roads being redone out there. Really, the first little business that came was the Lil’ Red store that was at that time located up near the school off Highway 5.”
“Well, it happened so gradually,” recalled longtime basketball coach Bill Holte, of Eden Prairie’s evolution. “I guess I was happy because we got some stores I can go to now. I don’t want to go to Hopkins anymore for everything. And then the family was brought up, and they got to use all these open fields, and then they were gone. They didn’t like it when they saw bulldozers come over by Mitchell Lake. But then it was past their time. They were grown up by that time. I just remember now the bulldozers going over into Mitchell. But that’s progress, and I didn’t think badly of it. It’s not going to stay the same forever. And that wasn’t good either, but we had a lot of positive things. It’s just like anything — there’s good and bad about it.”
Learning and connecting
From memories of the Lil’ Red store to the Flying Cloud Drive-In Theater to the first Schooner Days, slowly but surely, an all-encompassing picture of Eden Prairie is emerging through the interviews.
“We knew from the outset that this would be a multi-year, multi-faceted project,” said Adams. “The goals for the first phase were to have a successful template of the process in place and to complete 6-9 interviews. We’ve exceeded our goals.”
The city has been helping to transcribe and edit the interviews to make them more readable, said Novak-Krebs. “The goal … is to allow them to be enjoyed by the public and to ensure the historical information is not lost,” she said. “The city hopes that learning about the past can help people feel more connected to the present.”
Each section includes the audio of the interview as well as photos, newspaper clippings and maps to illustrate the story. “Historic photos are really helpful,” said Novak-Krebs. Members of the public with photos they are willing to share are encouraged to contact the Eden Prairie Historical Society.
Novak-Krebs said that so far, they have received positive feedback from the public on the project.
“All the stories are interesting and learning little-known facts about Eden Prairie has been fascinating,” said Novak-Krebs. “For example, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey lived in Eden Prairie for a while and (Frank Griswold) the man who invented railroad crossing signals also lived in Eden Prairie.”
It’s just the tip of the iceberg for the project. “The Historical Society Board of Directors has been gratified that so many wanted to participate in Phase 1 and that the community has embraced our efforts going forward,” said Adams.
“I thought it was really a nice place to grow up,” said Dressen at the conclusion of his interview. “I remember a few years back my wife and I went to the all-school reunion, and she said — how lucky you are that you knew all the people in your class and you’re all so familiar with everybody. And I said — yeah, we knew all the people in our classes and we knew all the sisters and brothers, and we even knew their dog’s name. It was a nice community to grow up in, and it was a good healthy place to be.”