Simple architecture and a secluded location make the John H. Stevens House easy to overlook on a visit to Minneapolis' Minnehaha Park — a place where flashier attractions catch the eye.
But this lesser-known landmark is arguably the most significant relic of the city's earliest history. This is, in many ways, where it all began.
Minneapolis got its name inside these walls. Early settlers met here to found Hennepin County, select Minneapolis as its county seat and create its first school district. This was — as the historical marker outside explains — the "civic and social hub" of the settlement that became Minneapolis.
"Everything that happens in this city today started in this little house," says Jack Kabrud, who oversees the Friends of the John H. Stevens House, which manages programming at the property. "And here it still sits. It's just amazing to me."
Completed in 1850, the building is also notable for a successful 1890s effort to preserve it by having thousands of schoolchildren pull it to the park across town. The initiative was spearheaded by the Minneapolis Journal — a predecessor of this newspaper.
The Junior League of Minneapolis, which restored the house in the 1980s, called the move the "earliest example of historic preservation in Minneapolis."
The Stevens House is now located just down the road from the 1875 Minnehaha Depot, a restored railroad depot, and the 1907 Longfellow House, a replica of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's home in Cambridge, Mass.
It has few of the decorative embellishments that people associate with its historic neighbors. The rooms inside are simple, but packed with exhibits and artifacts explaining the key players and events that shaped Minneapolis' earliest years.
"This is a treasure," says Lynette Crane, a longtime volunteer with the Friends group. "And it is something about which we can have municipal pride."
The house's wooden siding has suffered from years of deferred maintenance. But the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board — which owns the property — has designated funding to address the problem this summer.
"It's a modest little house. It's not like a Pillsbury mansion," says Susan Larson-Fleming, another volunteer. "Traditionally, I think historic preservation has focused more on great people, great men and their great houses. And this is just maybe closer to how lots of people had to live for many years."
'Birthplace of Minneapolis'
John H. Stevens had just served in the Mexican-American war in 1848 when he came to Minnesota, then still a territory, for health reasons.
The west bank of the Mississippi River, now downtown Minneapolis, was part of the Fort Snelling military reservation at the time. Stevens persuaded the U.S. War Department to grant him 160 acres of land there, if he operated a ferry across the river to the infant town of St. Anthony.
The house was built on the banks of the river, close to where the downtown post office stands today — there is a historical plaque along West River Parkway.
Stevens and his wife, Frances, initially lived largely alone on the west bank, alongside Native Americans who occasionally set up camp there — as they had for hundreds of years. A daguerreotype from the period shows the house nestled amid tepees. Stevens wrote later that members of the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes, which lost much of their land to the U.S. government in this era, were frequent guests at his house.
Soon the west bank was home to a growing settlement, which used the Stevens House as its home base. In 1852, the Territorial Legislature passed a law creating Hennepin County. In an election held at Stevens' house, 71 voters elected the county's commissioners and officers — each by a unanimous vote, according to Stevens' memoirs.
The county commissioners soon returned for their first meeting, where they selected the county seat and named it "Albion."
"[After the meeting] considerable feeling was exhibited by the residents of the county, and the almost unanimous sentiment was against the name selected by the commissioners for the new county-seat," Stevens later wrote.
At what Stevens described as "an accidental meeting of most all the citizens" in his house, many residents endorsed one commissioner's suggestion to combine a Dakota word for water and a Greek word for city to form "Minneapolis." The County Board ultimately agreed to the name — after flirting with the idea of Winona.
"This settled forever one of the most troublesome matters the original settlers in this neighborhood had to contend with," Stevens wrote.
A farmer at heart, Stevens didn't stick around in the new burg — which was not yet a formal city. In 1856, he moved west to what is now Glencoe, which he co-founded, to continue farming.
The house was moved several times, including to a spot in Cedar-Riverside. In 1896, a campaign to save it that began in the pages of the Minneapolis Journal culminated in thousands of schoolchildren bringing it to Minnehaha Park. One of those schoolchildren, Joseph Zalusky, would later co-found the Hennepin County Historical Society and become a pioneer of historic preservation in Minneapolis.
Stevens, then 75, had planned to attend the moving. But he was "stricken with paralysis as the result of the excitement," according to the Minneapolis Tribune.
Alderman Fred B. Snyder, who was born in the Stevens House in 1859, told the assembled crowd that there was "no cosier cottage in all the land ... surely none had more sublime surroundings," according to an account in the Minneapolis Journal.
"It is precious because of its associations," Snyder said at the time. "It has a history peculiar to itself. It stirs within us sentiments of loyalty for our city. There it stood, solitary and alone, surrounded by hazel brush and scattering oaks, where now is reared a mighty city."
Peter McLaughlin, who held a meeting in the house as chair of the Hennepin County Board in the 1990s, said the Stevens House is underappreciated and that its history shows how the community operated in the past to get things done.
"People know that the Falls is there. And there are people who travel to Minnehaha Park to go see the Falls," McLaughlin says. "But ... many of them don't know of the existence of this building and the history."
The John H. Stevens House Museum is typically open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Admission is $1.