Everyone on the Washington County Board agrees there’s no place in the county for a lake name like Halfbreed, considered an antiquated and offensive term for the offspring of European immigrants and Native Americans.
But a move by two cities to re-christen the body of water as Sylvan Lake is on hold, after commissioners learned last week that some local residents prefer a new name for the lake that takes account of the area’s Indian heritage.
“As old timers pass, the history is going with them,” said Sandra Moser of Forest Lake. “Let’s not erase more history.” She asked the board to consider Keewahtin Lake, which translates to “wind of the north” — the name given to a major lakeside road that itself once was called “Halfbreed.”
The board decided to postpone the matter to May 9.
The lake crosses the border between Scandia and Forest Lake, and it was residents of the latter who initially petitioned to officially rename the lake as Sylvan, a name that is not only already in use among most residents but appears on some signs in the area.
As commissioners learned, though, the Sylvan name is seen by some as merely the invention of a real estate developer decades ago and one which has no local roots beyond that.
Pete Boulay of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, who oversees the naming and renaming of the state’s natural features, said state officials typically defer to the County Board. But in the end, he said, the state likes to see a name that people in the area truly use and can agree has valid roots.
“It’s good to hear some of this history get flushed out,” he said after listening to public testimony.
The hearing opened in January but was postponed to allow notice to be given to Scandia, as well as provide time to gather more background on the lake’s original name. Legend has it that a mixed-race person once lived on the lake, giving rise to the name Halfbreed.
The Scandia City Council then voted to rename the lake Sylvan.
Seven residents spoke at the county hearing Tuesday, which further complicated matters. The one point of agreement was that Halfbreed had to go. Said County Board Chairwoman Lisa Weik: “We need to avoid ethnic slurs.”
If the name Sylvan already appears on some maps, it is also the case that dialing up “Halfbreed” on Google Maps results in a close-up on that lake.
Not all commissioners agreed on the need to wait to change the name. Aaron Parrish, city administrator in Forest Lake, pressed for quick action.
“I know it’s a tough issue for the board,” he said, “but both cities agreed on Sylvan and with reason. Making a decision today allows us the opportunity to move on from an obviously insensitive name that our community is not proud of. I’m not averse to an alternative but that would take time. And right now the name doesn’t reflect positively on our community.”
The board promised to move quickly to find consensus, so that a change can be passed on to the state in May.