(EDITOR’S NOTE: Dates and photos for this story were provided by local historians Brian Tolzmann and Justin Brink, the late Elsie Vogel’s Forest Lake 1993 Centennial book, “Reflections of Forest Lake,” and Vogel’s daughter, Mary Vogel McGraw.)
As a kid growing up on a family farm 4 miles west of Forest Lake, Florence Daninger fondly remembers the frequent trips to town. She would hop in the family’s Model A Ford with her parents, Laura and Leonard Cushing, for a day of shopping or Sunday Mass.
This was the late 1930s and early 1940s when Forest Lake was a bustling resort community. The downtown business district was equally vibrant with barbers and butchers and bakers and bankers.
One of the usual stops for the Cushings was the J.L. Simmons Dry Goods Store. Florence, born in August 1931, was always fascinated by the large supplies of dishes, glassware, clothes and bolts of fabric that were in demand for making clothes at home.
“It was a huge store,” she recalled. “The floor creaked back then as it still does today.”
Today, the J.L. Simmons building is home for Rolseth Drug, 107 N. Lake St. It is one of nine buildings on the east side of Lake Street in the city’s downtown that are well over 100 years old. Some span three centuries.
Walk in the drug store today and the merchandise is different from the early days, but in a way, similar. As a dry goods store, the Simmons operation filled many needs of the time. Today, the store still carries fabric supplies but its inventory includes hundreds of products. Typical drug store items such as health and beauty aids are augmented by toys, games, candy, greeting cards, gifts, magazines and stationery.
“There is a little something for everyone,” said lead pharmacist and store manager Tom Haas, a fixture at Rolseth Drug for nearly 50 years. “We serve a variety of needs.”
It’s been 130 years since customers first marched through the Simmons’ doors. Joseph Lincoln Simmons, a son of George Simmons, one of the first settlers of Forest Lake in the mid-1850s, started the store in 1891. It was not the first dry goods store.
In 1874, Ole and August Alm opened Forest Lake’s first general store on the west side of N. Lake Street. The Alms sold the business to John Koller in 1877 who took on partner W. H. Sandborn. The Koller Store remained in business until the early 1890s when its inventory was sold to Simmons.
Two of Simmons’ sons, George and Lawrence, joined their father and expanded the operation by bringing in a cousin, Tom Simmons, in 1929. The cousin converted the north half of the building to serve as a grocery store while George and Lawrence ran the dry goods business. The Simmons operation lasted 64 years in all, ending in 1954 when the business was bought by Red and White, a chain of small independent grocery stores. The Red and White name continued until 1959 when the Bassett brothers purchased the business and renamed it the Lucky Dollar.
The Lucky Dollar operation closed in 1961 and a year later its future as a drug store was cemented when Mike Hart bought the building and opened Hart Rexall Drug. Hart stayed in the downtown store until 1986 when The Lake Shoppes opened and Hart relocated. But the building did not remain vacant for long as it soon became the home for Rolseth Drug.
Jim Garrison, a native of Edina, arrived in Forest Lake in 1973 when he was hired by Tom Rolseth. Garrison, a graduate of the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy, purchased the business from Rolseth in 1980.
It was 1961 when Rolseth bought Petersen Drug, 91 N. Lake St. The store operated as Petersen Drug until 1968 when the Rolseth Drug name was made formal. Richard Petersen and a partner at the time, Hugh Smith, purchased what had been Diekman Pharmacy in 1935. The building, which remains under Garrison’s ownership, is a rental property and now home to Sienna Cole Bridal.
When Mike Hart made plans to leave the downtown for a new retail spot in The Lake Shoppes, Garrison purchased the Simmons building and relocated Rolseth Drug in 1986.
More changes were soon to come in the downtown for several buildings that date to 1892.
When Houle Grocery, 95 N. Lake St., closed in 1987, and Ersfeld Meats, 99 N. Lake St., went out of business in 2006, Garrison and Haas partnered to buy both buildings as investment real estate rental properties. The former grocery store is today the home of Renaissance Fitness. Remodeled Relics is renting the former meat market building.
Houle Grocery was started in 1892 by Joseph W. Houle and Pris Peloquin. In 1896, Houle’s brother-in-law, Tony Moosebrugger, acquired Peloquin’s share of the business. Joseph’s son, Ray Houle, worked in the business as a youth and assumed ownership in 1925. Four of Ray Houle’s children grew up working in the business with son Joe eventually joining his father as a partner. The store closed two years after Ray Houle’s 1985 death, ending 95 years of business on the main drag.
Ersfeld Meats was another three-generation family-run business, one door north of Houle’s. The meat market dates to 1904 but the building was the first location for Forest Lake State Bank in 1903. Building use prior to 1903 has not been documented. Henry Ersfeld moved from Belle Plaine to Forest Lake in 1915 to buy the market. Following World War II, Ersfeld’s son, Tom, became owner. Tom’s son, Joe, succeeded his father and was at the helm until its closing in 2006 after 102 years, 91 years by Ersfelds.
The bank, launched in 1903 by O.E. Struble and Wayne Struble, moved to 79 N. Lake St. in 1904, a building constructed in 1903. The building, once home for the medical office of Dr. George Ruggles, is today the headquarters for Sherco Construction, Inc. In 1931 after a merger with Forest Lake National Bank, a second downtown bank, the combined operation moved to the National Bank headquarters in the Van Wirt Building. The Van Wirt Building had been constructed by the National Bank founders that started the bank in 1913 as Peoples State Bank. The Van Wirt Building and buildings to the south were demolished in 2003 when the Park Place retail-condo project was built.
Forest Lake State Bank remained in the Van Wirt Building until 1962 when it acquired land two blocks south of Broadway on Lake St. and built a new facility, today Wells Fargo Bank, 208 S. Lake St.
Another downtown building constructed around 1900 currently is home to LaBelle Real Estate Group, 85 N. Lake St. From 1967 until 2017, Carter’s Jewelry and Gifts operated there under the ownership of Bob and Mary Carter. The Carter family business goes back to 1954 when Bob’s parents, Edson and Mary, came to Forest Lake and purchased a watch repair business. It operated in a number of downtown spots before settling at 85 N. Lake St. The building earlier was home to F.C. Bergh Drug Store in 1904.
In 1964, Edson Carter purchased a gift shop located in the Herzberg/Bergstrom Building. The multi-story brick building was initially called Woodman Hall. Businesses were located in the ground floor while the upper story was a meeting hall. In 1904 the hall hosted the first mass by St. Peter’s Catholic Church, which used the hall until its first church was built. The building was demolished in 1968. The Franklin Building, 69 N. Lake St., is located there today.
Rural mail service came to Forest Lake in 1896 and the first post office was in the Marsh Hotel in the 600 block of North Shore Drive. The hotel was built in 1868 and destroyed by fire in 1893. Where the post office relocated has not been documented. Photo records do show the post office in a building on the east side of Lake Street, several doors south of Broadway Avenue, in 1909. By 1913 the office had moved to a 115 N. Lake St. It’s not certain when the building between Rolseth Drug and the theatre was constructed but it was expanded and redesigned in 1915.
The post office remained in that facility until around 1921 when it moved to 85 N. Lake St. It remained there until 1966 when it relocated to an office two blocks north on the west side of US-61 where the Lighthouse Landing apartment and retail complex stands. In 1992 the post office moved to its facility at 78 SW 6th Ave.
Three long-standing buildings north of Rolseth Drug also played a vital role in the downtown for many decades. The Fireside Getaway and Glazing Memories building, 131 N. Lake St., the vacant Forest Theatre Building, 119 N. Lake St., and one-time post office site at 115 N. Lake St. date back more than a century, but verified construction dates for the buildings have not been pinpointed.
Local historian Brian Tolzmann said the first newspaper documentation from the theater was in 1916. The theater had opened prior to 1916 as the Home Theatre and Opera House. Both buildings are now owned by the partnership of Bob Anderson, Matthew Anderson and Natalie Harrer, who operate Fireside Getaway and Glazing Memories.
The lack of historical documentation of buildings in the downtown is frustrating to Tolzmann, a co-founder of the Forest Lake Historical Society (forestlakehistory.org).
“Forest Lake has little preserved history in any form, and its businesses are no different,” Tolzmann said. “Trying to piece together any sort of timeline is not easy.”
The Fireside Getaway building has served a myriad of businesses since its construction around 1912 as the Hotel Vexio (Vaxjo). The second floor hotel shuttered in the 1960s and the building was widely used as a bar and restaurant with a wide range of names including the Forest Laker and Rose’s on Main. For many earlier years, the building operated as the Commercial Hotel and Bar. A bowling alley in the basement provided recreational opportunities for many years. The Andersons reopened the restaurant last year after a major interior remodeling.
The Forest Theatre Building is headed for demolition, although when that happens has not been announced. It has been used for numerous functions in addition to movies. At one time, the building housed two screens. The Drummond/Fladland families operated the theater for 71 years before the business closed on May 29, 1990. Jackie Drummond Fladland sold the building to the Anderson group in 2019.
It is thought the theater building was constructed in 1914, two years after the hotel. Its early functions included serving as a community meeting venue and an auditorium for dances and basketball games. The building served as home for barbers, dentists, lawyers and clothing retailers. Edson Carter rented space for his watch repair business. Food establishments were numerous. Over time they included the Bickel Café, the Forest Inn Café and the Red Top Café. Prior to being named Home Theatre, the building served as an opera house.
By 1921 an ice cream and candy confectionery was open in the former post office, 115 N. Lake St. By 1931, Joe and Aggie Patrin opened the Rex Café there, and in 1952 an Asian café operated by Nam Chin, probably Forest Lake’s first Asian business owner, opened. By the late 1950s building use would transition to a law office and dental clinic. It stands vacant today.
Ties to her past
As she approaches her 90th birthday, Florence Daninger says she is grateful to have lived her entire life in Forest Lake and carry the memories of downtown Forest Lake from the late 1930s.
She fondly remembers going into the Simmons store with her mother who used precious family money to buy a top for her daughter.
“I didn’t have money of my own at that time until I started working as a waitress at Wagner’s Hamburger Shop,” she said. Those were the days, she said, when Tom Ersfeld would carry a pail with freshly ground beef from the meat market to Wagner’s.
As a kid, she recalls being part of the throng of children packing the Forest Theatre Building at Christmas for a bag of treats and a visit with Santa Claus. Christmas movies were a bonus. In her teen years, she and friends would use their noon hour at Forest Lake High School to trek the seven blocks or so to Houle Grocery where she would spend a dime for a Mounds candy bar, a treat she still favors.
“I’m so lucky to have grown up in Forest Lake and have these memories from another time to share today.”