'Onion Capital' turned suburb marks 150 years

  • Article by: PETER COX
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • January 6, 2010 - 12:41 PM


These days, Eagan might be better known for Northwest Airlines, being the political starting point for Tim Pawlenty and suburban living. But 100 years ago, the city had a different label: "The Onion Capital of the World."

"We no longer carry that title," joked Scott Swenson.

This year is Eagan's sesquicentennial, or 150th year. Swenson, who is chairman of the 150th Anniversary Executive Board, said he's learning that Eagan has more history than most people, including himself, think.

"I was surprised," he said. "I had no idea it was 150 years old."

At one time, about 80 to 90 percent of the area's farmers were raising onions, said former town constable (eventually police chief) Martin DesLauriers -- although the height for Eagan onion growers was before his time.

The vegetables were sent all over the country.

It's one example of how much Eagan has changed in its 150 years. And this year, the city will host several events to commemorate its history and its big birthday. The celebration starts Saturday with a party at the Eagan Community Center.

Eagan was established as a township in 1860, a year before the Civil War began, and two years after Minnesota became a state.

While the suburban landscape is all some Eagan residents know, others have watched it slowly transform from a rich agricultural community dotted with farms into a St. Paul suburb sprouting developments, warehouses and strip malls.

For Martin DesLauriers, the celebration is as much a family history as a city history.

His mother's family came to Eagan to homestead in 1858 and was there during the Dakota War of 1862, he said. The family remained safe, as they'd been trading with the Sioux for the previous few years.

Not long before the Jesse James Gang made its way to their ill-fated bank robbery in Northfield, the gang stopped at DesLaurier's grandfather's farm so members could water their horses.

"I suppose grandpa was an accomplice to [the Northfield robbery]," he joked.

DesLauriers grew up on a dairy farm and spent his early life picking up milk from farmers to sell. In the early 1950s, he became the town constable, and later the police chief -- a position he held until 1983.

"It's been quite a change," he said.

The city has been collecting historical photos, and Eagan Communications Director Tom Garrison said he's been surprised looking at them. A photo of a car accident on Yankee Doodle Road and Pilot Knob Road in the early 1960s shows the intersection was surround by almost all fields. Today, it is one of the busiest intersections in Dakota County.

The idea is to celebrate the town's history, but not by creating a whole slew of new events. Swenson said that the plan is to bolster existing events, such as Eagan's July 4th Funfest celebration.

"We want to have a lot of fun," he said. "To connect the dots to existing events."

Still, the committee is planning the kickoff, a fall celebration banquet and a massive food drive.

"We are hoping to collect 150,000 pounds of food for our 150th year," Swenson said.

Ted Wachter, chairman of the Eagan Historical Society, served 13 years on the city's Planning Board and 27 years on the City Council. He says the city has definitely lost what it had when he moved there in the 1940s.

"That small-town feel is gone," he said.

But, he said, he feels the city did a good job of keeping open, natural spaces, and keeping the growth gradual.

"We developed it slowly and I think it turned out pretty good that way," he said.

He's looking forward to the city's celebrating its past.

"There's a lot of good things that have happened in Eagan, no doubt about that," he said.

Peter Cox is a St. Paul freelance writer.

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