Future generations will know more about Wayzata’s past thanks to Irene Stemmer’s work rescuing historic buildings from the wrecking ball. The former City Council member and preservation advocate saved several places including a log cabin — the city’s oldest-known building.
“The word ‘can’t’ wasn’t part of her vocabulary,” said Bridget Anderson, a former city leader. “She was the Wayzata historian, there’s no doubt about it.”
Stemmer died Nov. 8 at age 93.
Born in 1926, Stemmer was the youngest of three kids. After growing up on a North Dakota farm, she moved to Minneapolis for school and was enamored by Wayzata after visiting the west metro city, landing a job as a secretary with the school district in 1945. Soon after, she met Lew Stemmer Jr. — thanks to a burnt grilled cheese sandwich.
She turned up at Wayzata Electric Co. for help with a malfunctioning toaster and met the electrician. The couple later married and had two children. Over the years, Stemmer balanced parenting with her work at the Wayzata Insurance Agency and then Targa Financial Inc.
After her husband served on the Wayzata City Council, the self-described feminist and political junkie ran and won a three-year term in 1980. But her lack of a college degree nagged at her, so at 56, she enrolled at what was then Augsburg College. By 70, Stemmer retired and just got busier, alarmed that her once-quaint town was becoming a suburb facing teardowns and redevelopment. She joined the city’s Heritage Preservation Board in 2003 and spent a decade on the advisory group.
“Once she got into preservation, she was hooked,” said her daughter, Gretchen Stemmer of Wayzata. “She was passionate about saving Wayzata.”
In 2009, Irene Stemmer documented the history of Bushaway Road before a massive project to repave and widen the century-old road, also known as County Road 101. The next year, she spent months petitioning passersby to support saving Wayzata’s 1940s post office. But her biggest accomplishment was likely in 2013, when she helped save the “Trapper’s Cabin,” a log cabin made in the 1800s from tamarack trees. Stemmer persuaded a developer to donate and restore it, moving it to Shaver Park.
The cabin is “an icon of Wayzata history,” Stemmer told the Star Tribune in 2013, adding that “it’s not just from any old place. It’s out of our woods, and that makes it special.”
By 2015, the Thomas Wise house, built in 1904 by one of Wayzata’s first residents and leaders, was destined for demolition for a subdivision. Again, Stemmer rallied to history’s defense. Historic houses “get torn down pretty fast,” Stemmer told the Star Tribune in 2015. “I’m very proud we’re going to save it.”
“Her desire to try to preserve the heritage of Wayzata is her legacy,” said her son, Luke Stemmer III of Plymouth.
She was tenacious, and perpetually fascinated by the stories behind people and places, added friend Sue Sorrentino. They led historic walking tours, donning straw hats rimmed with faux flowers — “fancy hats” that became Stemmer’s signature look for presentations or tours.
“She was somebody who stood up for what she believed,” added Joanie Holst, another longtime friend.
Stemmer was also an avid news consumer and traveler — whether to Europe or Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. She was proud of her Norwegian ancestry, which her children noted made her stoic, opinionated and terribly independent. In her 90s, she self-published a book on the Trapper’s Cabin. Then she turned to preserving her own story, publishing her memoir last fall.
Besides her children, she’s survived by three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services have been held.