Information about the Park

Compilation of Sunfish Lake Park Background, by Rolf Larson

  • The Significance of a Natural Landscape

by Rolf Larson, edits by Ian Dorney 11/3/2017.

Sunfish Lake Park is the crown jewel of the Lake Elmo Park System. The park’s rolling glacial landscape appears very much the same as it did to the first European settlers: a pristine oak forest with gentle ridges separating ponds that showcase both landscape and a lush wildlife habitat.

The glacial history of the Sunfish Lake Park ended some 10,000 years ago when the Wisconsin Glacial Period ended. These glaciers scraped vast quantities of rock and soil as they flowed south, redepositing them as drift or till as the ice retreated north. Glacial features are still evident in the Park’s sandy/gravelly soils, ridges and carved hollows.

When Europeans came to settle this area over 150 years ago, a lightly forested grassland called Oak Savanna was a common natural landscape in the area. It is a transition zone located between the great forests of Southeast Minnesota and the vast prairie to our west. These lightly forested grasslands were dominated by a combination of oak tree varieties and prairie plants. The openness of the savanna areas was maintained through wildfires that periodically cleared underbrush.

Regionally, this landscape has all but disappeared. Sunfish Lake Park is the home of the largest parcel of the Oak Savanna plant community in Washington County.

  • Native Americans – The Original Citizens

by Rolf Larson and Ian Dorney

People have explored these forests and slopes since glaciers departed some 10,000 years ago. The first visitors were Native American hunters and gatherers in search of food and shelter from the elements. Burial mounds are among the few remaining archaeological resources that show Native American historical presence in Minnesota. Of close to 12,000 mounds identified, the only documented site in Lake Elmo is located close to Sunfish Lake Park.

The Ojibwe people:

The rich culture of the Objibwe people, who inhabited the northern portions of modern-day North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, was carried on in part because of their detailed oral and written history. The harvest of wild rice and cultivation of crops by these people made them more stationary than nomadic, their settlements marked by wigwams of birch, juniper, and willow. Graves were not marked by stereotypical mounds, but by a jiibegamig (spirit-house) with particular clan markings.

In 1837, the Ojibwe ceded the land between the Mississippi and the St. Croix. Despite a different understanding of land rights between the Ojibwe and the newer settlers, the land went for $24,000 of cash and goods each year for twenty years.

The Santee (Eastern) Dakota people:

The Santee Dakota (meaning ally) people consist of four groups: the Bdewakantunwan (Mdewakanton), Wahpetunwan (Wahpeton), Wahpekute, and Sissitunwan (Sisseton). Often the Santee tribes would move throughout the year based on food availability, the men hunting and fishing while the women farmed seasonally, prepared animal hides, and tended to their village made of tipis. The “traditional lifestyle of communal support and a deep connection to the land and natural resources are the basis for Dakota society and culture” (Minnesota Historical Society).

In 1837, they signed a treaty with the U.S. government to cede their land east of the Mississippi for the sum of $300,000.

3) Farming in Lake Elmo

by Rolf Larson.

The first European travelers to visit the area were fur traders bringing pelts from the far North to Fort Snelling. In turn, these were followed by German settlers homesteading the area’s fertile farmland.

Lake Elmo is one of the oldest farming communities in Minnesota. The first farmers came to the Lake Elmo area during the mid 1850’s. Early immigrants arrived from Germany and neighboring Central European countries; Denmark, Luxembourg, Prussia and Switzerland, coming in search of a new life and carefully crafting farms that were passed from generation to generation.

Now approaching the 175th anniversary of farming in this community (first known as Lohmanville, later Bass Lake and now Lake Elmo), people have long celebrated this agricultural tradition.

As the Native American before them, these farming settlers were at the mercy of the elements; the fertility of the land was dependent on the availability and timing of the Minnesota rain and warmth.

However, the culture of the Plains Indians was soon overwhelmed by a new set of values. Relying less on seasonal movements of game than the Dakota people, European farmers saw the land more as a blank canvas to be fashioned to their needs.

Europeans molded the land, replacing geographic features with surfaces that serve the values of functionality and productivity. The power of technology changed the face of the land and the minds of the people who benefited from taming wilderness. Under this modern ideology, land became something to be owned and transformed rather than revered. Prosperous city dwellers found recreation along Lake Elmo’s developing shoreline, and wilderness in the area became increasingly threatened.

Fortunately for the Park, a competing philosophy emerged from the American experience in the 19th Century. An important theme in the message of people like John Muir was the attraction felt by all who experienced the lure of wilderness. Though we no longer directly depend on the offerings of nature, we respond to something in the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of nature. This ideology spurred members of the Lake Elmo government and community to respond to the increased development of the city’s natural areas.

Sunfish Lake Park was created from land that was sold to the city to protect the natural features. These forest parcels were left untouched by their owners; places of beauty in their own rights. Landowners Lehart and Frances Friedrich, Mervin and May Nippoldt, William (Percy) and Betty Collopy, Everett and Evelyn Beaubien, William Sander, and Edward and Laverne Whitman passed up much more lucrative private-party offers to preserve land for this natural park. In 1990, the children of Joseph and Charlotte Moris added half of the farm’s acreage at the northwest side of the Park to the Land Trust.

When he sold the largest segment of the park to the City of Lake Elmo, Lehart Friedrich said it best: “I never want to wake to find this beautiful landscape replaced by endless rows of roofs.”


4) The Park Builders

by Judith (Moris) Blackford.

The Beginning. In 1974, the City of Lake Elmo Village Council, Planning Commission, and Park Advisory Board distributed a fact packet to residents of the City proposing a $725,000, four park bond budget seeking community financial support to purchase and preserve undeveloped farmland and private open space for park use. The passage of this Park Bond created Sunfish Lake Park, Demontreville Park, Reid Park, and Tablyn Park.

Most of the land selected for purchase had not been farmed and was not tillable due to woods, steep slopes and wetlands. The largest area of contiguous land was Sunfish Lake Park. Some of the most desirable land was being considered for early housing development. The City packet mentions this as a strong impetus to pass the bond before these potential parklands were lost forever. Land purchased by the City for park use was sold at a substantial discount below the assessed valuations.

Sunfish Lake Park. Farm couples expressed their desires to preserve the parcels as parks. The bond issue presented to the taxpayers listed preservation of natural wilderness, hiking trails, nature areas, and cross-country skiing for Sunfish Park’s woods. The owners followed up by selling the lands which became Sunfish Lake Park at a discounted cost to the City of Lake Elmo for its citizens.

In 1973, The Nature Conservancy performed an inspection and catalogue of the flora and fauna. The report called these woods the best upland forest in the County with species of red maple, wild lily-of-the valley, bracken, and pyrola. The soils were characterized as Edith sand and the topography as irregular.

The Lake Elmo Park Advisory Board members, identifying this parkland and working with landowners were Don Dau, David Morgan, Jess Mottaz, Mike Johnson, Ruthmary Logue, Ed Nielsen, and Diane Trudeau. Others mentioned in this fact packet were the City of Lake Elmo Village Council— Mayor Maynard Eder, Councilmen (Robert) Bruce Abercrombie, Calvin Brookman, Lloyd Shervheim, and Francis Pott, and the Chair of the Planning/Zoning Commission, William Lundquist.

5) Minnesota Land Trust

by Judith Blackford and Rolf Larson.

On September 22, 2009, Sunfish Lake Park was put into the Minnesota Land Trust for permanent preservation/protection (Attachment D). This legal document contains usages/restrictions for Sunfish Lake City Park.

A narrative from the Land Trust document states:

“As residents and lovers of nature, we’ve left relatively dense stands of woods within Sunfish untouched for wildlife. We’ve cleared trails so that the beauties of the woods could be enjoyed. We’ve planted trees when water damaged existing trees. When trails needed grooming or damage occurred, we’ve tended the park with excellent care overseen by Mike Bouthilet, Lake Elmo Parks Supervisor…. We’ve tried to be good stewards of Sunfish Lake Park.”

In 1974, Lake Elmo Park Commissioners and its citizens were visionaries in investing in the preservation of Sunfish’s beautiful wild places. Sunfish Lake Park has often been called the “Jewel” in our necklace of parks. At almost 300 acres, its quality/size for a city park are rare. On September 22, 2009, our finest park became permanently protected and preserved through legal placement into the Minnesota Land Trust that current and future generations of Lake Elmo City citizens may enjoy its beauty, wildlife, and passive recreational opportunities—our permanent slice of wild.

Sunfish’s enchanting beauty will easily claim your heart and loyalty. Like others, you will be quick to speak up for any needs this treasure might have in the future. It is like that when you love something!

Lake Elmo Parks Commissioners moving this protection piece forward for Lake Elmo citizens were David Steele, Parks Chair (who crafted much of the Trust language), John Ames, Rolf Larson, Judith Blackford, Sue Dunn, Mike Zeno, Marty Dobbs, Vincent Adadene, and John Booher. The Lake Elmo City Council supporting this Park recommendation was Mayor Dean Johnston and Council Members Steve DeLapp, Anne Smith, Liz Johnson and Nicole Parks.

In 2010, the Parks Commission restored 17-acres of farmed parkland south of the parking lot into prairie w/ park funds and grants brought to Parks by staff, Carol Kriegler. Better trail location maps were also placed within Sunfish. Concentrated flower/grass plugs were planted within the prairie. Interpretive kiosks, boulder barriers, flower gardens, and flower plug plantings were completed in 2010/2011 for Sunfish’s entrance/prairie.


7) Land Trust Goals and Objectives (abbreviated)

Sunfish Lake Park – Parameters for a Land Trust that protects and serves the community

Sunfish Lake Park is a symbol of what the City of Lake Elmo has seen itself in the past.  For this symbol to be sustained into the future, we need to prepare it for changing populations and the growing/changing needs of the community.


To create a land trust document that protects the Upland Oak Forest and remnants of Oak Savanna that will serve both current and future generations.  

Note. This needs to be a ‘blueprint’ that serves the entire community in a variety of manners consistent with the historical use of the land currently within park boundaries and compatible with the needs of a large natural area.


  •      To invite the entire Lake Elmo community to this unique resource for diverse recreation activities.  
  •      To participate in meeting current and future needs for diverse recreation space (fields, play structures and facilities) as the community grows.
  •      To make the park a community gathering point all year round.
  •      To establish a primary entry point to focus and organize access to the natural area.
  •      To maintain open space so that there is a corridor for resident wildlife to migrate between Sunfish Lake Park and the Regional Park (as is presently the case).
  •      To create a trust that is capable of adjusting to the needs of the future while protecting current historical and natural values and resources.
  •      Of Sunfish Lake’s 240 acres, better than 200 of these acres have been left virtually untouched since the land was sold to the city in the mid-1970’s.  There are about 24 that have been continually farmed under the direction of the city.
  •      Historical land use should be used as a guideline in future development of this park in the future.  
  •      Natural areas should be left untouched, as has been the historical pattern.  All accepted past uses (and user groups) in the park should be protected and preserved.
  •      Disturbed areas should be put to the best available use of the community as a whole, as has been true in the past.  

This said, it must be understood that all future use must be compatible with the natural area, not impacting it negatively.  These parameters would be written out in the trust document, taking into account community needs and the recommendations of experts in natural and wildlife management.


8) Conclusion (Ian and Rolf)

The impulses that draw us to natural areas are important clues to understand ourselves. Before the Park were the farmers, before them the hunters. Before them there was the open land. The key to understanding personal connections with wilderness are the emotions these amazing places draw from each of us. There is a haunting tune that calls out to all who visit wilderness. Naturalist Sigurd Olson identified this call as the “Pipes of Pan”. It is a harmony that beckons us to explore; to find meaning in wild places. The music is strongest when we are young but never totally fades away as we grow older.

Lake Elmo’s Sunfish Lake Park provides a unique opportunity to answer this call, with the mature forest as a backdrop for hiking, observing nature, skiing, snow-shoeing, or simply embracing its quiet and pristine beauty. Through the ages, people have recognized and respected its value, and we welcome you to celebrate Sunfish Lake Park the same!



The Washington County MN Parcel Identification Numbers (PIN) of the lands of Sunfish Lake Park are 1402921220001, 1502921110001, 1502921210002, 1502921210003, and 1002921340001 according to S. Kinde in the Sunfish Lake Park  Forest Management Plan 2015 update.

The image below is a copy of the hand-drawn survey of land ownership in the Sunfish Lake Park area done in 1974 by Charles Winden and provided to Tony Manzara by Ed Nielsen in 2017.

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