The Chaska Historical Society has curated a new exhibit called “Chaska’s First Downtown: Second Street Over Time,” featuring tales and artifacts from the city’s old main road, Second Street.
History lovers and curious folks alike will find information on early railroads and steamboats; fires, floods and tornadoes that swept through town; the most popular stores and citizens of the day; and even a history of the Chaska Herald.
“It started with the steamboat. The steamboats were coming here in the 1850s and so that’s why downtown’s close to the river,” said Julie Wiese, a volunteer and vice president of the Chaska Historical Society. “Parts of it got flooded out, so it moved up a couple blocks, but steamboats brought people in and all the goods that people needed to survive.”
The old street has endured horrific fires and floods.
“Especially the western side of Second Street, all the businesses were flooded,” Wiese said. “There were fires all the time and a lot of the brick buildings have been on fire. Fire was just a common thing back then.”
The buildings that still stand tall today are those mainly made of Chaska brick, an industry that prospered from 1857 to 1950, according to Wiese.
“The entire clay brick industry truly made Chaska, so that’s why we always have our exhibit up about the bricks,” said Sarah Carlson, a volunteer and member of the society board of directors.
“We’d be a Carver County ghost town, probably, without the brick industry,” Wiese said.
While gathering such an abundance of stories about Second Street, Wiese and Carlson utilized a variety of resources. Their research ranged from old newspapers to relying heavily on “Chaska: A Minnesota River City, Prehistory to 1950” by LaVonne E. Barac.
“Sometimes you have to get on the phone and call people … sometimes we had to use online tools like ancestry.com, and I also call on the village elders,” Wiese said.
One of the stories was a recollection of Gehl’s Market, located in what is now Sugar Creek Chiropractic, where butchering was “done right there on Second Street.” One of the long-time residents recalled “seeing all the blood running down the streets” while walking to school in the morning.
“Turkeys were their specialty,” Carlson said. “They were located on Second Street, with a wooden structure that burned in late 1899, early 1900. In early 1900 they built this new brick building. The family themselves lived on the second floor and they operated the meat market on the second floor.”
“That was pretty common back then. You had a business, you lived upstairs,” Wiese added. Gehl’s Market ultimately closed in 1963 because they couldn’t find a butcher to take over full-time.
‘MOVER AND SHAKER’
Wiese’s favorite story featured in the exhibit is that of shop owner Nellie Baxter.
“She ran her own business, which was unusual,” Wiese said. “She was one of the starters of the League of Women Voters; she started the Red Cross; she actually ran for mayor, but being a woman she lost. She was a mover and a shaker in town and she did a lot of nice things for the kids. She never married and worked that store for 40 years, I bet.”
She and her mother, Elizabeth, took over her grandfather’s grocery business when he died in 1900. Baxter owned the business until her death in 1947. Today that location, 107 W. Second St., is now Thread-tastic! Embroidery Shoppe LLC.
“They had ice cream and they set up two easy chairs. They invited people to come in and sit down and read the funnies in the newspaper. The kids loved to come in and sit in her easy chairs. They didn’t even have to buy anything, they could just sit there. She was just known as the ‘candy lady’ in town because she had a lot of candy, she was really good with the kids.”
For Carlson, her favorite part of putting together the exhibit with Wiese and their high school intern, was admiring what is left of Second Street today.
“I had the opportunity to go and photograph these buildings in their current state,” Carlson said. “In doing so, I had the opportunity to look close up at the structure, what they look like today, what draws people to them today … I think it’s kind of cool that people will say rather than, ‘Let’s meet at Dunn Brothers,’ they’ll say, ‘Meet at Butch’s.’ It’s the same building all those years, but now it’s the coffee shop.”
As Wiese, Carlson and their intern were putting together the exhibit, they “tried to pick buildings that had stories.”
“These old buildings have had a dozen different owners, maybe more,” Carlson said. “Some of the buildings we didn’t do because we didn’t know much about them, we couldn’t find anything. Although, I’m sure it’s there.”
“Right down here, this was another world. The people are all gone, but the buildings that they walked through are still there,” Wiese said.