In my first years living in the cities, I used to get lost all the time, because – as a driver born and raised in the suburbs – I’d insist on taking the freeways everywhere. Freeways were built to be the fastest way to get anywhere, I reasoned; otherwise, why would they have built them? But freeway driving is the surest way to obliterate any sense of scale, distance or orientation, and so when someone would give me directions to somewhere in, say, St. Louis Park, I’d show up 20 minutes late, utterly bewildered after pulling on and off and around the cloverleaves on 394 and Highway 100 and Highway 169. “Sorry,” I’d explain, “I forgot whether it was north or south, and all the exits look the same out here.” Out here! As if I was miles and miles outside the city. It only seems that way when you take 394.
Which is why it won’t be a surprise to anyone who grew up here that getting to St. Louis Park and points west is stupidly easy, if you remove the freeways from the equation. Do this, and the metropolitan area doesn’t feel so rigidly divided into “city” and “suburb.” Start on Lake Street and drive west, and the layout of the west metro makes perfect sense.
You’re more or less following the old streetcar line: You pass through the bustle of Uptown and wind between Calhoun and Lake of the Isles, then in short order through older villages like St. Louis Park and Hopkins, founded in the 1850s and eventually absorbed into the metropolitan area, but still retaining vestiges of their small-town histories. Past those, you hit bucolic patches of red, yellow and orange autumn foliage, only interrupted occasionally by ugly new big-box developments.
Past that, there’s an agreeable smattering of ’60s-era strip malls and neon signage and small independent businesses like salons and liquor stores that have held on for 30 years. Merge onto Highway 7, and before you know it, you’re on the south shores of Lake Minnetonka, in Excelsior. It’s the crown jewel of Minnesota’s Little Vacationland. I’d define this Little Vacationland – in all fairness, a term I just made up – as the string of historic resorts, ferry lines, former Victorian hotels, and recreational facilities that stretch between the Chain of Lakes and Lake Minnetonka, from Uptown to Minnetrista, and provided most of the water-related amusements for most of the Cities’ history. It’s now mostly absorbed into the suburbs, but it remains older and quite distinct from the untrammeled Greater Vacationland of the north.
Excelsior is a fascinating town that, more than most other parts of the greater metro, feels like a few different types of places at once. At various times, it has been a sleepy lakefront village, a suburb, a historic settlement, a resort town, a tourist attraction, a bedroom community, and a transit hub. It retains characteristics of all of these, despite some of them being, for now, more a part of the past than present. For years, it was a premier resort town of the Twin Cities, the end of the line for both the streetcar line and for the surprisingly complex system of publicly owned and operated steamboat ferries that traversed Lake Minnetonka in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Those arriving in downtown Excelsior at that time, stepping off the streetcar at the small depot that now houses a history museum at Third and Water, must have appreciated the same feeling I did, stepping out of my car in the same spot – the feeling that you should be a lot farther out from the core cities than you are. (In fact, if you really want to complete the fantasy of stepping off a streetcar, there’s a restored yellow Twin Cities Rapid Transit trolley that still runs a short length of track nearby.)
Water Street takes you right up through a commercial corridor right up, as it promises, to the water. Resort towns, whether on oceans, seas or lakes, all share some hard-to-define characteristic — something in the lapping of the water, the way the air feels blowing in, and the vague sense of lazy, nascent excitement that people seem to carry with them as they walk by. Whatever it is, Excelsior has it.
Water Street is the sort of classic strip every town should have. It’s old and pretty and functional, with a mix of high- and medium-end businesses, both new and historic, catering to visitors and locals alike. Unlike many small town and suburban Main Streets, it is neither a broken-toothed smile of vacancies and boarded-up windows, nor is it a Stillwater-like cluster of precious and overpriced boutiques. It finds an agreeable middle way.
Perhaps my favorite site on the street is the Excelsior Masonic Lodge No. 113 at 249 Water, dating from the early part of the century. Unlike many fraternal organization buildings one encounters, this one is still actively used for meetings. It’s a stately brick structure decorated with Masonic ornamentation and a nice stained-glass lamp overhanging the entrance. The best feature is to the left of the building, however: a gap between it and the barber shop next door, marked by metal latticework over the entrance and street sign reading “Masonic Lane.” Step in, and you’re in an alley, with brick pavers and decorated with Christmas lights hanging on both walls. If the alley is used for any particular purpose, it’s not immediately clear. But it’s a great alley.
Down the street, at 205-207 Water, is the restaurant that once housed Bacon Drug, famous for its possible role in the creation of one of the great rock songs of the 20th century. Excelsior, for a town of its size, has an outsize share of local legends. The focus of many of these legends are centered around the former Excelsior Amusement Park, a Coney Island-like park that featured a rollercoaster, rides, and other shoreline amusements for fifty years. Nearby was Big Reggie’s Danceland Ballroom, the sort of classic dance and performance venue that hosted big bands, teen sock hops, and, later, rock shows.
Among these was a June 1964 performance by the Rolling Stones, probably notable for being what sounds like one of the worst in local history: about 200 people showed up in a 2,000-capacity ballroom to gawk at England’s Newest Hitmakers as they unenthusiastically ran through a tepid set of Chuck Berry covers. It was such a lackluster show that the Stones apparently decided not to bother to return to the state for at least another decade. (There’s a great write-up of the show here – in fact, you don’t have to look far on the Internet to see how well Excelsior has preserved its local lore.)
Enter here one James Hutmaker – “Mr. Jimmy” to all who met him. Mr. Jimmy, who died in 2007, was the sort of local eccentric who sometimes finds a central place in the life of a small town, and he clearly remains the heart and soul of Excelsior. Apparently, after the Danceland show in ’64, Jagger was down at the Bacon drugstore to get a prescription filled. He was standing in line with Mr. Jimmy, where he decided to have a soda, in his favorite flavor, cherry red. They were out of cherry, and Jimmy said to Jagger – come on, you all know how this goes – you can’t always get what you want. And so a legend is born. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” closes out “Let It Bleed,” the Rolling Stones’ final album of the 1960s, and one of their best.
Maybe that’s how it happened, maybe it isn’t, but Mr. Jimmy remained a fixture on Water Street in the decades following until his death, a dapper “roving ambassador” for the town who smoked cigars, handed out business cards, greeted visitors, visited with locals, and otherwise made the rounds up and down Excelsior’s main drag. He knew everyone, and never tired of telling the story of how he provided Mick Jagger with the raw material for one of his band’s best-known songs.
I like to think that there’s some innate aspect of Excelsior’s civic character – a generosity that comes from being a lakefront resort town defined by a constantly fluctuating inflow of vacationers, idlers, boaters, fishers, thrill-seeking teenagers looking for dances and rollercoasters, and the other sorts of people drawn to the water and recreation – that made a person like Mr. Jimmy so accepted as a crucial part of its civic experience. I wish I’d met him. He’s buried not far from Excelsior, at Resurrection Cemetery in neighboring Shorewood.
Past the waterfront and docked boats and piers and ghosts of the amusement park (virtually no physical remains are left, save a 1920s-era ticket booth), there’s still more to see. Walking through the residential pockets north of Third Street, full of sturdy 19th-century houses, leafy overhanging trees, and great, waspy street names like Courtland, George, and Bell, I was struck at how much it resembled a small New England town. In particular, the little Trinity Episcopalian Church chapel at Second and Center, constructed during the Civil War, gives it a very New Englander flavor. Undoubtedly this was the intent of the northeastern settlers who founded Excelsior in 1853. I actually wandered over to a parishioner, leaving the noon service, and asked in all sincerity, “Uh, pardon me, is there a, uh, town square here?” I really thought I might find one. He shook his head and smiled, somewhat confused at my question. “Well, no,” he said. “Maybe you’re thinking of the Public School?”
A few blocks away, the Public School, sitting across from the Congregational Church, does indeed have a sort of public square in its leafy front lawn. The building, a Colonial Revival completed in 1901, complete with a bell tower, is currently for sale. It sits expectantly. My hope is that someone in Excelsior finds a suitably eccentric use for it.
Thanks to reader Tom for the encouragement.
Every week, I take many more photos than I need for the column, so I’ve created a Tumblr blog called “Stroll On” to post the best photos not used. I’m not a particularly talented photographer, but my hope is you’ll enjoy the images that didn’t make the cut as a visual supplement to the column. You can see it here.