Before the birth of White Bear Lake, Vadnais Heights, Gem Lake or North Oaks, there was White Bear Township -- a 36-square-mile stretch of land that included them all.

The township was organized 150 years ago this year, prompting civic leaders to commission the first history book to explore the history -- both serious and silly -- shared by these communities.

"White Bear: A History" is a 223-page glossy, coffee table book published last month. Readers will meet some of the roughly 60 families interviewed for the project, as well as find copies of turn-of-the-century hotel ledgers, farm financial reports, community "sing along" sheets, newspaper articles and a rich array of historic photographs.

"I tried to write the stories of ordinary people, and of how local, state and national events shaped their lives," said author Catherine Carey, a White Bear Lake journalist who now lives in St. Paul. "The history of the township has really never been told."

The outline of White Bear's history is not unusual. It was home to Indians for thousands of years. French traders arrived next. Then came Europeans settlers, later followed by the lakeside summer resort crowd. By the 1950s, the vast stretches of farmland were developed into housing and suburbia was born.

But the book drills deeper into the region's history. We learn such odd facts as:

• The town board created a 10-cent-per-head bounty on gophers in 1892. It even considered a $300 gopher levy.

• In an era when women rarely showed their ankles, the Bald Eagle community hosted a local "Girls of '92 Review" -- as in 1892 -- featuring young women in above-knee skirts and tight-fitting shirts that bared one entire shoulder.

• White Bear women, who were not eligible to vote in municipal or national elections, nonetheless voted illegally in local elections in 1894 and 1902.

Meanwhile, a ledger for one summer guest at the former Hotel Benson offered a peak into prices at the turn of the century. Brandy, 25 cents; supper and horse feed $1; a bottle of champaign, $2; a half-dozen lemons, 20 cents; horse shoeing 80 cents.

"The women's temperance movement was after the Bensons," joked Carey, referring to the many booze purchases listed on the ledger.

The book also features letters sent home from happy tourists, such as this one dated 1914:

"Our cottage has a big screened porch we couldn't live without in this land of mosquitoes, [and] electric lights and the ladies of the church furnish the ice for the ice box ... we feel as though we had fallen on a bed of roses."

Carey is the publisher of Town Country Magazine, which covers issues in the White Bear area, and a former associate editor of the White Bear Press. She said she spent two years researching the book, poring over archived newspapers, town board meetings, historic civic clubs materials, other history books.

She interviewed dozens of residents, often gaining access to old photographs kept in attics.

One photograph, for example, features the "king of the cowboys," TV actor Roy Rogers, with resident Orin Benson, circa 1955.

"It had been in a family chest, rolled up with a rubber band," Carey recalled.

But the real stars in this book are White Bear residents themselves -- both those from today and days gone by.

Current resident Al Lindholm, who was a 6-year-old in 1933, recalls getting paid $5 for mowing the lawn of gangster leader Ma Barker -- known to neighbors only as Mrs. Wilson.

Dick Sand, town board member at White Bear Township, said he appreciated that the book focused on the city's rich social history. The book, he said, gave the city a chance to unveil its "history untold."

"White Bear: A History" is available at several locations in White Bear Lake. They include Lake Country Booksellers, the Depot, White Bear Lake Area Historical Society, the Nest and Kowalski's Markets, said Carey. In addition, Festival Foods in Vadnais Heights and Cub Foods in White Bear Township carry the book, she said.

Books are also available at White Bear Township offices, 1281 Hammond Road. For more information, call 651-747-2750.

Jean Hopfensperger • 651-298-1553