A walkabout history of Lake Street

Before there were cars and stoplights or rumbling buses, Emil Schatzlein opened a saddle shop on an unpaved street in Minneapolis. The land to the south was mostly farmland. All around the new shop, numerous horse stables promised brisk business, giving the German immigrant hope that he might become a success in his adopted town.

Walking into Schatzlein Saddle at 413 W. Lake St. today to pick out a pair of boots for a riding class or a fancy shirt for a special event, you might not know how the business (still family-owned) got its start at the original location of 609 W. Lake in 1907. 

But now, thanks to The Museum in the Streets Lake Street, a project of the Lake Street Council, learning about how generations of immigrants like Emil, businesses, charitable organizations and natural landmarks have shaped Lake Street’s history is as easy as walking down the street. No entry fees, no walls … what kind of museum is this? 

The Museum in the Streets panel outside Schatzlein Saddle is one of nearly 60 now posted along Lake Street, forming three heritage walking tours that follow the history of Lake Street through key buildings and landmarks. 

Joyce Wisdom, executive director of the Lake Street Council, first saw The Museum in the Streets installations on the East Coast and thought the project would be a powerful way to document and share Lake Street’s unique history. She’s proud of the stories that grace the panels, but also of the many connections created by the project as volunteers, businesses and supporters came together to capture vignettes of Lake Street’s past. “Lake Street has always been a big connector for everyone and this project really shows that,” she explained. 

The Museum in the Streets comprises three walks, from the east at 27th and Lake; to Midtown; to Uptown. Maps showing tour routes and panels are available at nearby participating businesses, but it’s just as easy to wander up to a single panel while waking down the street or waiting for a bus to learn about a slice of Lake Street’s past.

Through photographs and stories (in English and Spanish), the panels bring places from the past — and some that are still part of the city’s present — to life, such as Abdallah Candies at 2924 Hennepin Avenue, the Burma Shave building at 2019 E. Lake, and the Northwestern Hospital for Women and Children at 2627-47 Chicago Avenue, just to name a few. 

A community effort to collect community history 

To find and document stories for the panels, an enthusiastic group of volunteers conducted first-person oral and video history documentation; archival collection research with Hennepin History Museum, Hennepin County Library and the Minnesota Historical Society; and sought out photos and documents from Minneapolis families with connections to Lake Street stories. 

Bruce Silcox and his 11-year old daughter did research for the Burma Shave panel. They searched through documents and photos in the basement of the Hennepin History Museum to learn how the business got its start during the Depression, when men could no longer afford a barbershop shave and had to take matters — and Burma Shave shaving cream — into their own hands. 

“We were surprised to find that there’s more than meets the eye to this building that you’ve passed by 100 times,” Silcox explained, referring to the now nondescript white building that sits across from the Midtown YWCA. “It had this really interesting history behind it, from the products they made to the advertising signs they made here that were used all over the country.” 

Volunteers’ efforts captured several previously undiscovered Lake Street stories, yet there were also a few dead ends — such as the puzzling lack of photographs of the former Porky’s Drive-in on Lake Street, even though many of the St. Paul location exist. (Have a picture of the Minneapolis Porky’s? The Lake Street Council would love to hear from you.) 

Celebrating Lake Street’s past, present and future

Standing before a crowd of volunteers, supporters and community members at the Grand Unveiling Ceremony for The Museum of the streets in front of Midtown Global Market on Sept. 25, Mayor R.T. Rybak recalled living nearby as a kid and often coming to Lake Street, noting how it had changed dramatically even within his own lifetime. 

“Lake Street connects the river and the lakes; connects through the heart of South Minneapolis; connects scores of different communities, scores of different businesses,” he said at the event. “Lots of dreams have been made and broken on this street — yet rarely do think of it as we should, as connected. As we try to continue to imagine its future, united, we need to recognize its incredibly rich past.” 

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman agreed, saying, “This is more than a cool project. This is about acknowledging the history of those who came before us — and now it’s all about continuing to grow that community.”

Andrew Johnson, board chair of the Longfellow Community Council, a major community funder of the project, shared his hopes for Lake Street’s future. “One of the things we’re working on is revitalizing East Lake Street,” he said at the event. “The Museum in the Streets photos show us what East Lake used to looked like, with streetcars and businesses and the life and vitality they brought. We want to bring business and jobs back to that area. This project shows how we can draw inspiration from the past for the future.” 

With the panels already getting raves from those who’ve had a chance to visit them, all are invited to come to Lake Street and experience The Museum in the Streets. Now, wandering through Lake Street’s past is as simple as taking a walk down the street.