From Cabins to Homes

Baker Park Reserve 
Minneapolis Tribune, January 5, 1956 p.10
from article about Baker donation
Credit: Undated postcard from the Maple Plain Museum

            In the early 1950’s, the Citizens League and other civic leaders had the foresight to start planning a regional park system. Looking at the growth forecast for the metropolitan area, it was obvious that sizeable tracts of desirable land should be purchased before expanding suburban development eliminated the future possibilities for large parks with forests, wildlife sanctuaries and public access to lakes and rivers. It was essential that land be acquired soon, while prices were still reasonable, before future development drove up land prices.

            In 1957, the Hennepin County Park Reserve District was formed and the first County Park Board was appointed. Their objective was to acquire 12,000 acres of land over the next 25 years. The Minnesota legislature authorized long-term bonds to finance the acquisitions. The focus would be on rapid acquisition now; establishing the parks and building infrastructure could wait.

            In 1956 Maple Hill Farm was owned by the Baker family, property developers of a number of large buildings in downtown Minneapolis. Morris Baker, the president of Baker Properties, donated the 210 acre property to the Baker Foundation to be used for a park. The Foundation then turned the parkland over to the Minneapolis Park Board to act as custodian until the Hennepin County Park Board was established. In 1958, Baker Park was transferred to the newly-formed Hennepin County Park Reserve District. The park was officially re-named Morris T. Baker Park in 1959.

            Baker Park was the first regional Park in Hennepin County, and the Park quickly became a popular destination for campers, swimmers and picnickers. The first year, the Park had 16,000 visitors. The following year, 1957, the number of visitors had grown to 50,000. There were 113,000 in 1958 and 133,000 in 1959. By that time, the Park had reached the saturation point in both attendance and usage, creating concern about the wear and tear on the Park facilities and property. The Hennepin County Park Board became concerned that the Park could be damaged by overuse. There was increasing urgency to acquire land to expand Baker as well as establish other parks. (Baker remained the only regional park in Hennepin County until Hyland Lake Park opened in 1964.)

            Clifton French, Hennepin County Parks Superintendent, made acquiring land for the Park his personal mission. But many of the local farmers were reluctant to sell their family farms. Landowners objected to the tactics used to acquire land. Local lore says residents quickly learned that when Cliff French came to their door, they better get out their shotgun. One woman actually greeted him with shotgun in hand, but eventually she agreed to sell her property. 

            The Park Board had been aggressively using eminent domain to acquire land for several new regional parks. They wanted to use that method to acquire more Medina properties to add to Baker. But there was strong opposition. Residents didn’t like the Board’s heavy-handed tactics. There were also concerns about taking so much land off the Village tax rolls, leaving only a portion of the Village to support roads and schools.

            In the late 50's, most of the Independence Beach properties were weekend cabins or casually-built small homes, property values were low, and residents were concerned about ongoing rumors that the Park Board was going to buy all or part of the neighborhood. The Park Board tried to have the entire neighborhood condemned as a “blighted area” so they could justify the use of eminent domain. 

            In September, 1964, after a Village Council meeting attended by an angry group of citizens, the Board gave the Park System permission to negotiate with Medina landowners but denied permission for condemnation and the use of eminent domain to force sales. The Park later went to the state legislature with a bill to bypass the requirement for local consent to allow eminent domain but Independence Beach resident and council member Bob Franklin (2892 Lakeshore) helped organize a busload of local residents to attend the hearing in St. Paul, where they presented an affidavit from landowners stating that the Park had never even approached them about selling. The Park Board’s efforts to use eminent domain in Medina were blocked. But farm owners in the surrounding area (on County Roads 19 and 24, and on Hamel Road) were repeatedly contacted by Park Board representatives pressuring them to accept buy-out offers and most did, eventually.

            Several times the Park Board has published long-term concept plan maps showing Independence Beach as part of the Park, but by the 1970’s property values had increased and it would have been very expensive to buy. But even today, these maps continue to pop up. On the Park trail, across from Maple Park, there is a kiosk with a map showing a fictitious "Lake Ardmore Park", encompassing all the privately-owned shoreland on the south half of the lake.

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