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City celebrates its heritage with a heaping bowl of borscht

The city of Mountain Lake has an interesting history, and that history really shines through at a unique community event each year. While other cities and towns come together for meatballs, fish or pancakes, the people in Mountain Lake come together to enjoy something quite different — borscht.

History of Mountain Lake

Sign located at the lake north of town, tells the story of the new lake.  Photo Josh Stoesz

Sign located at the lake north of town, tells the story of the new lake. Photo Josh Stoesz

Approaching the town on Highway 60, the surrounding area is a smooth plane stretching before you with only a few moderate hills on the horizon. You can imagine an early settler, traveling slowly by oxcart or Conestoga wagon through never-ending prairie, surrounded by tall grasses on each side. Perhaps feeling the monotony of the daily trip with nothing but prairie ahead, the settler finally sees a hill in the distance. Getting closer, he discovers a lake with an island in the middle, trees growing tall and strong on the island. The excitement must have been palpable – a lake with a mountain growing out of it in the middle of the prairie! Why not call it Mountain Lake?

The man credited with naming the town is William Mason, who is considered to be the first Euro-American settler in the area. “Mountain Lake” was an apt name for this beautiful interruption of the vast prairie. Mason held on to the name, even going up against the railroad, who preferred the name “Midway,” since the town was located approximately halfway between St. Paul and Sioux City, Iowa. Mason stuck to his guns, and won. The town, platted in 1872, was called Mountain Lake.

By 1873, the town was attracting residents. Wanting to recruit hard workers and “people of good character,” William Seeger, of the Minnesota State Board of Immigration, actively recruited German-speaking Mennonites from Russia. These religious men and women had been persecuted for their beliefs in their native Holland and had immigrated to Russia in the late 18th century. In Russia, the pacifist Mennonites enjoyed independence and freedom and were excused from military service. However, in 1871, conditions changed. No longer spared from military service under Czar Alexander II, they left Russia looking for new land and religious freedom. Many immigrated to the United States, where they were welcomed.

As William Seeger stated in his Report on Russo-German Immigration of 1873, “These people have proved themselves possessed of so high a degree of energy and public spiritedness, that they entitle themselves to our warmest sympathy and active support.”

The Mennonite immigrants who settled in Mountain Lake in the late 1800s soon became the backbone of the town. Many of the current residents of this small Minnesota town (population 2,104 in the 2010 census) are descended from the original Mennonite settlers recruited by William Seeger. The town is also made up of other ethnic groups, including people from other northern European backgrounds, and, more recently, Hispanic, Laotian and Hmong immigrants.

Mountain Lake’s fascinating settlement history is not all it has to brag about. The story of its namesake, the lake with the mountain rising out of it, includes some interesting twists and turns.

The town was originally platted about two miles north of the lake containing the island, which was surrounded by farms. By 1905, with agriculture booming, the lake seemed –well – to get in the way of farming in the area. So a decision was made to drain the lake and increase the available agricultural land around it. A small area around the lake, including the island, was set aside as a park. It is currently known as Cottonwood Mountain Park. In 1976, ancient artifacts were discovered on the island, showing that it had been inhabited by humans since 500 BC, which makes it the oldest inhabited site in Minnesota. These artifacts are now on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota; the site is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

By the 1930s, town residents began to realize it would be a good idea for a town called Mountain Lake to actually have a lake. A site was picked just north of town, and a dam and bridge were built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1937-38. The new lake also contains an island, which – like its predecessor – rises out of the lake. Although not quite as high as the mountain to the south of town, it does a good job of looking like a mountain coming out of a lake. The island is accessible by a boardwalk and bridge across a marshy area; a narrow trail leads to the top and around the side of the island. The lake itself boasts a large parking lot with public water access and is surrounded by paths for walking or bicycling, which extend a few miles into the country, completing a 5.25-mile paved trail.

Mountain Lake is also the home of interesting businesses and historical sites. The Heritage Village and Historical Museum gives visitors a peek into the pioneer experience of the early residents, including the Mennonite immigrants from Russia. There are many communitywide events, including Utschtallung (Heritage Fair), held in September.

One of the most remarkable occasions in Mountain Lake is the annual Borscht Supper, when residents come together, making and eating a hearty soup which is rooted in their German heritage.

“You can see everybody there,” said Josh Stoesz, a lifelong resident of Mountain Lake. “Even people who have moved away come back to town for the Borscht Supper.”

“Other towns have football games and homecoming and stuff like that, but nobody else does something like this!” added Josh, showing his town pride.

Geneva Stoesz (left) wears her special borscht apron and poses with Karen Flaten in front of a canner of borscht.  Taken by Josh Stoesz

Geneva Stoesz (left) wears her special borscht apron and poses with Karen Flaten in front of a canner of borscht. Taken by Josh Stoesz

Josh and his family have participated in planning and cooking the Borscht Supper for many years. This year his grandmother, Geneva Stoesz, and his mother, DeeAnn Stoesz, were both in the kitchen. The 2016 Borscht Supper was the 50th anniversary of the annual get together.

“Normally, I would be in the kitchen now, stirring,” admitted Josh, “but I get a break because I have company this year.”  “It’s OK,” he said, “my arms can get tired from all the stirring anyway.”

The entire Stoesz family was in attendance at the Borscht Supper. Josh’s father, Merlin, enjoyed his meal while explaining some of the customs relating to the Borscht Supper. Josh’s brother, Josiah, who was the model for one of the brochures about the supper, attended separately with friends. Josh pointed out his maternal grandfather, Eldin Classin, a retired Mennonite minister, also eating at the long tables set up in the old gym at the Mountain Lake Christian School.

Mike Nelson, the current mayor of Mountain Lake, attended the dinner, as did Gary Hildebrandt, a local high school cross-country coach, who was there with his wife. Family, friends and community members sat together as well, enjoying the hearty vegetable soup served with vinegar and/or cream. Across the table, the Mountain Lake Christian School’s Spanish teacher, Miriam Rojas, who moved to the Minnesota town from Mexico with her husband, helped her daughters to borscht and bread.

“We have something similar in Mexico,” she commented, “a vegetable soup which is very much like this.”

The approach to the old gym, where the Borscht Supper was served, was filled with bake sale items, made by students and parents (and grandparents) alike. There was also a table filled with many slices of pie of all kinds – apple, pecan, banana cream, silk and so many others. The first stop was the cashier, where the meal was paid for ($8 for adults allowed a slice of pie and all you can eat borscht and bread). Then there was a visit to the pie table, where you could choose your slice of pie. You could pick out a bake sale item or come back later. Bringing your pie, you approached the door of the gym, where hosts and hostesses welcomed and found seats for the newcomers at the long tables. Once seated, servers brought dishes and cups, and finally the hot, steaming bowl of borscht arrived. Coffee and water was on hand to drink, and baskets of homemade bread were on every table.

Everyone added what they wanted to their bowl of soup – some added vinegar, some cream, some a little of each.

“It’s the German way to add vinegar to everything,” explained Merlin Stoesz, Josh’s father, pouring some into his borscht from a small pitcher on the table.

“Can you taste the sauerkraut flavor? It really brings it out,” he said, pointing out that cabbage is an important ingredient in borscht.

Neighbors and friends passed bread and butter, served each other from the large bowls of soup, and were waited on by servers when something ran out. Thermoses of coffee and pitchers of water were passed up and down the table. The servers also functioned as clearers…when guests finished, their places were cleared to make room for the next group.

Cooked in large “canners” or canning kettles, the organizers made sure to make enough to go around. They poured extras into quart-sized mason jars, available at the exit for sale: A quart-sized mason jar of “gudt borscht” (translated as “good borscht”) was $10; a gallon-sized ice cream pail of the hearty soup was $35. Homemade bread was available as well, loaves and half loaves wrapped in plastic to accompany the borscht for an at-home meal to remind you of the community supper.

Many Americans think of borscht as a soup made from beets, deep red in color, and often served cold with sour cream as a garnish. But the borscht of Mountain Lake has no beets in it. In fact, the list of ingredients for this community supper includes cabbage, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, onions and beef. Beets aren’t even on the list.

In the U.S., most borscht is associated with the cuisine of Russian immigrants, as well as that of Jewish immigrants from Russia or Eastern Europe. But borscht is actually a term for a tart soup, and can be made from many different ingredients. Originally made from common hogweed, the borscht made with beetroots was invented in the Ukraine. However, there are many other types of borscht, including rye-based white borscht, sorrel-based green borscht and cabbage borscht; it can be found in Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Romanian, as well as Russian, Ukrainian and Jewish cuisine.

According to Judith Fertig in Prairie Home Cooking, in ethnic Mennonite cuisine, borscht refers to a whole range of seasonal vegetable soups based on beef or chicken stock – from spring borscht made with spinach, sorrel and chard to summer borscht with cabbage, tomatoes, corn and squash to fall and winter borscht with cabbage and potatoes.

The “new” lake by Mountain Lake, with its island. Photo by Karen Flaten

The “new” lake by Mountain Lake, with its island. Photo by Karen Flaten

But in Mountain Lake, borscht is a way for the community to come together, to celebrate its roots, to enjoy camaraderie, and to bond with each other through shared work and a shared love of good food.

The Borscht Supper is actually a fundraiser for the Mountain Lake Christian School, but there is no pressure, no special presentation designed to get people to pull out their checkbooks. There is just a wonderful community of people enjoying preparing, serving, and eating good food together.

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