Burnsville can join the AARP this year.

It's officially 50 years old as an incorporated city, but as organizers of this year's 50th anniversary cele­bration point out, the city's history actually goes back much further. And when you look at the big picture, it's much more than a Twin Cities suburb, they say.

It was once a thriving farming community created by immigrants going back to 1858 when it became a village — 156 years ago, according to the Burnsville Historical Society. And the Dakota Sioux once lived along the river's pristine waters throughout at least the 1800s.

"We come from hardworking farming stock, and the Sioux before that," said Elizabeth Kautz, who has been Burnsville's mayor since 1994 and has overseen a lot of its changes. "We have a rich history."

The city's modern history begins when Bloomington attempted to annex it, leading to a dispute that the town took to the state Supreme Court and won, kicking off an inter-suburban rivalry that lives on to this day. The move also led to Burnsville's official 1964 incorporation as a city to prevent a repeat of the episode.

"If we hadn't have fought off Bloomington for who got Black Dog [power plant] and the tax base it provided, we'd probably still be a typical farm community, left out of everything," said Burnsville Historical Society President Len Nachman, 82.

"Maybe we'd still have 495 happy Irish farmers running around," said Nachman, who along with his wife, Mimi, has contributed to two Burnsville history books. "We may have had one or two Scandinavians, too, but they were the minority."

Burnsville is more than just the southern confluence of 35W and 35E into I-35, or "that town by the airport or casino," city leaders and historical society members said.

Nachman said he knows that a lot of people don't think of suburbs as having any real history or culture.

"It's called the Minnesota River, and it's a mental block for so many in the metro," he said of Burnsville's dismissal as a Twin Cities bedroom community. "There's a city [Bloomington] on one side, and this distant place on the other."

Recent changes

Burnsville has, of course, had its growing pains and changes.

With I-35 came lot of homes built suddenly in the '70s, as well as apartments to accommodate St. Paul and Minneapolis shortages, including low-income housing.

"We're not Edina," Nachman said. "Burnsville has gone from a community that was 95 percent white to almost 50 percent minority students in its schools today.

"Now, we are a very diverse community that looks like the rest of the world," he said. "That's a significant change, and for the better."

The city also has cultivated a very strong business community, particularly in the medical field, Nachman says, and it has all kinds of churches, a mosque and a large performing arts center.

It also has a downtown now — the Heart of the City area developed in the 2000s — even though it never had a Main Street with a soda fountain and a movie theater way back in the day, Nachman said.

To help with 50th-themed events all year long, the city is seeking photographs, items or documents from the 1960s and stories from longtime residents, according to a news release.

"It's just a great place to raise a family, and we have an exciting future ahead of us," the mayor said.

Christopher J. Hamilton is a Twin Cities freelance writer.