Thursday, March 7, 2013

On the Screen - Grandpa Otto's Lake Phalen

Char's grandfather, Charles August Otto, built a house
across from Lake Phalen on the east shore where Char
lived in her early childhood.
by Sage Passi

“When I was growing up I always referred to Lake Phalen as my lake,” comments Char Wasiluk, longtime resident near Lake Phalen, at a talk she recently gave for the Maplewood Area Historical Society. “Maybe some of you think of it as your lake,” she said, with a wry smile. “But tonight’s presentation will give you a little picture of what life was like during Grandpa Otto’s time.”

Char Wasiluk, a historian for Maplewood Historical Society
recounts her own stories about growing up near Lake Phalen.

Documented in 2012, Char’s talk, filmed by video producer Chuck Turning from Government Television Network (GTN),
titled Grandpa Otto's Lake Phalen takes the viewer on a journey around the lake though the passage of time. Wasiluk, a history buff who has spent a lot of time gathering stories, photos and memorabilia, highlights the waves of changes that Lake Phalen has ridden through her life and a few eras before. It’s a personal story about life around the lake, but it’s also a tale with a lot of resonance for anyone who is curious about the transformations that have given the lake a rich history.

Grandpa Otto with a snow goose he shot.

Char’s Grandpa Otto was born in the Black Forest in Germany in 1855. He came to the United States in 1873 when he was 18. By 1885 he owned a hardware store at the corner of Arcade and East 7th Street. Grandpa Otto eventually built a house on the east shore of Lake Phalen. This is the house where Char was born and this is when her memories come to life as she begins her story about growing up in the neighborhood around the lake. She describes where her parents lived for several summers when she was quite young.

The canvas tent that Char's family rented during the summers of the early 1920s by Lake Phalen. 
Courtesy of Maplewood Historical Society.

These canvas tents were rented by residents at Lake Phalen during the summer from about 1918 to the mid to late 1920s.
They had wooden floors,a wooden side at the back, and screens. The tents were located near Larpenteur Avenue East
and Phalen Boulevard (now known as East Shore Drive).  Courtesy of Maplewood Historical Society

Char's mother in a woolen bathing suit, showing off the "fashionable swimwear" typical of the era in the early 1920s.  Courtesy of the Maplewood Historical Society.

Char shows a token holder used for the streetcar that
ran near Lake Phalen.
In 1924, when Char was three, her mother died and she went to live with her grandparents at their house in New Canada located near Linke’s Landing, at the corner of Larpenteur Avenue and a street now known as East Shore Drive. The landing was built by Carl Linke, a farmer who rented canoes and boats to people who lived in the area or others who came from a further distance to enjoy the lake’s many amenities. 

“Residents rowed across the lake from the landing to get to the streetcar on the west side of the lake. Or they walked across the ice in the winter or walked around the north end of the lake to get to the streetcar station in the park,” recalls Char. She held up a token holder prompting memories for those who used to ride the streetcars around town.

Char describes a large staircase built by the PWA (Public Works Administration) near Linke’s Landing on the east shore that provided a way for folks to get down the hill to the lake. She reminisces about her childhood memories of swimming at Linke’s Landing, the visit to Phalen Beach in the 1930’s by Johnny Weissmuller, Olympics swimming champion and star in Tarzan movies, the various beach and bath houses and pavilions built around the lake and cites many stories about the people she knew who lived in the area who also shared connections to the lake. (Images below)

A staircase built by the Public Works Administration (PWA) near Linke's Landing on the east side of Phalen Lake. 
Photo provided by the City of St. Paul.

Johnny Weissmuller, Olympics swimming champion and star in Tartan movies visited Lake Phalen beach in 1931.
Photo courtesy of the City of St. Paul.

Grandpa Otto’s Lake Phalen, with its diverse accounts from summer life at the lake to lore about John Dillinger’s escape from the law at nearby Keller Golf Course is a delightful testimony about life around Lake Phalen through the eras. Many thanks to historians Char Wasiluk and Bob Jensen, President of the Maplewood Historical Society who helped her put the talk together, and documentary videographer Chuck Turning for giving us such a rich portal into the lake’s past.

This video can be viewed at or on Watershed Weekly which plays Thursdays in March at 5 pm and Fridays at 4 AM on SCC Channel 15 for residents in Maplewood, North St. Paul, Oakdale, Vadnais Heights, White Bear Lake, Lake Elmo and Mahtomedi.

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