A People’s History of Circle Pines

Photo courtesy city of circle pines; An early brochure touts the cooperative, courtesy minnesota historical society

The landscape of Circle Pines is bleak. Entering town off I-35W, drivers are greeted by a stretch of newly constructed townhouses in varying shades of fawn and ecru. The wayside scenery along Lake Drive, the main thoroughfare, is similarly hued by swampy meadows peppered with sandburs. In the middle of town, there’s a blip of a strip mall. Then, finally, the landscape offers up a few splashes of blue and green, mostly in the form of the cracked and peeling paint of the city’s old ranch homes and split-levels.

Outsiders seldom have reason to pass through Circle Pines. Those who do, I’ve learned, are often there to visit an area gun range.

This, my drab little hometown, is located just fifteen miles north of Minneapolis, in the famously unprogressive northern suburbs—an area formerly, and not long ago, considered a last bastion of white flight, a collection of communities in which conservative Star Tribune letter-writers and talk-show hosts are known to live. A kid who grew up in Circle Pines in the 1980s and 90s probably hasn’t forgotten the racial slurs commonly bandied about, even though few people of color actually lived there in those days. She might also remember the time dozens of bagels were thrown onto the ice when the Centennial Chiefs hockey team played Edina High School, Circle Pines fans having assumed there’d be Jews on the opposing team.

Given these memories, and the realities of the city’s present, it’s hard to imagine that a visionary once set his sights on Circle Pines as the breeding ground for a socialist utopia of sorts, a model of cooperative living.

On a sunny afternoon in the summer of 1945, V. S. Petersen was sprawled along the shores of Golden Lake, located on the northern side of Circle Pines and these days, lined with the city’s most upscale homes. Petersen, a left-leaning Danish immigrant and peripatetic banker, was, at the time, an employee of Midland, an organization of credit unions and other cooperatives; at the time he was in charge of building a lakeside picnic-area pavilion for credit union employees. While enjoying his day off, the proverbial lightbulb lit up in his mind. Or so the story goes. He sat up suddenly, turned to his wife, Fylla, and said: “I have an idea.” Petersen would proceed to spend the rest of his days, numbered though they were, organizing, financing, and promoting his vision for a carefully planned community featuring such modern conveniences as public water, electricity, and sewage systems. In this case, however, the maintenance costs involved would be split equally among residents, and in fact, the utilities would be resident-owned. This dream—fueled by Petersen’s dedication to socialist principles and constructed from an inexpensive prefab building material called Cemesto —was christened “Circle Pines.”

This being the World War II era, building materials were in short supply and prices were high. Working folks couldn’t shoulder the cost of building their own homes. “V. S. Petersen thought that savings could be achieved through mass production of houses and with the dollar-saving benefits of cooperative living. Profits from any cooperative venture would be redistributed to members.” So writes Stephen Lee, a Circle Pines local, in his exhaustive portrait of the city’s past, Circle Pines & Lexington, Minnesota: History of the 1800s to 2000. In other words, by buying a home in the community and paying cooperative association fees, residents would own shares of the town’s café, grocery, meat market, and tavern. In theory, profits from these businesses would be shared among citizens, but that part of the plan was never actually realized.

The reality, from the very beginning, was that Circle Pines’ creators confused idealistic “social protections” with capitalist aspirations. Although Petersen played the central role of visionary and cheerleader, in his quest to make fiscal sense of his project, he had enlisted the help of two others—Tom Ellerbe, essentially an urban planner, and Paul Steenberg, a Danish-born contractor. The success of the community hinged on the trio’s ability to lure residents. But even while they scrambled to entice buyers, Petersen couldn’t resist screening potential residents to ensure that their politics aligned with his own. This made a certain sense, considering that Petersen would later invite residents to his family’s Golden Lake estate for rousing house parties (his version of a parade), featuring bean-bakes, sing-alongs, and homemade wine. Ellerbe and Steenberg, sympathetic though they were to Petersen’s ideologies, meanwhile proceeded as though Circle Pines were any other suburban, moneymaking venture. Theirs was to be a short-lived experiment. Although the three-man team had projected that Circle Pines would have about 500 homes by 1948, only eighty-four had been built by 1949.

Then there was the issue of financial backing, which proved elusive. Even organizations like Midland, which had a history of supporting cooperative ventures, weren’t sure bets. Ellerbe and Steenberg imagined the most lucrative homesites would be along the shoreline of Golden Lake (around which Petersen wanted to pave a public walkway), but that stretch was never actually developed during the cooperative’s lifetime. Of greater consequence was the ultimate failure of Petersen, Ellerbe, and Steenberg to attract enough residents to sustain the cost of utilities and city services. Adding insult to injury, those who did buy into the community discovered that their homes were of substandard construction; the builders hadn’t adequately sealed the seams between the cheap, cement-like slabs of Cemesto at the four corners of each home, making the houses drafty during harsh Minnesota winters.

The cooperative was already in dire straits when an influential group of University of Minnesota sociology professors, sympathetic to the cooperative model and interested in joining the community themselves, approached Petersen about inviting minority groups to live in Circle Pines. It was the professors’ thinking that families of color were in greatest need of the financial benefits the cooperative could, at least in theory, yield. After deliberation, Petersen, Ellerbe, and Steenberg agreed that the banks and savings and loan companies would be unwilling to shoulder the credit risk for minority applicants, and they held back on issuing an up-front-and-open invitation to families of color. Instead, minority families would be quietly accepted, so long as their down payments were in hand. It was a painful decision for Petersen, a lifelong bleeding heart, and the professors responded angrily. Ultimately, they refused to relocate to Circle Pines, and their defection from the project turned out to be a huge financial and ideological blow for the cooperative.

Meanwhile, the shortage of building materials continued, and slow home sales as well as profit-mongering among the Ellerbe-Steenberg sect took additional tolls. Townspeople responded with increasing anger to the cooperative’s mismanagement and the resulting rise in association fees. As Stephen Lee notes: “On April 7, 1950, the citizens of Circle Pines voted 89-5 in favor of incorporating as a village, thereby abandoning the idea of a cooperative community.”

And, adding further drama, according to an old article from the local newspaper, Circulating Pines: “Just hours before the polls opened and the people voted to incorporate Circle Pines as a village, V. S. Petersen had been struck down by a cerebral hemorrhage [at age 54]. Stunned mourners felt without his inspired leadership Circle Pines would probably never become the cooperative community he had envisaged … and some wondered if the strife and disappointment had not brought about his premature death.”

As a young person growing up in the town, I always thought “Circle Pines” had a funny ring to it. I thought it sounded fictional, eerily reminiscent of, say, “Green Acres,” “Mayberry,” and other such Xanadus. When, at age 18, I left Circle Pines for the University of Minnesota, I was embarrassed to tell my classmates, whom I presumed were all big-city types, the name of my hometown. No one had ever heard of Circle Pines—though a mere half-hour away—but the schmaltzy name nonetheless inspired eye-rolling from my hip new friends. As it turns out, I might’ve been able to impress the cosmopolitan lefties of my acquaintance if I’d known then that the name pays homage to a classic emblem of cooperative organizations: a pair of encircled pine trees. To me, it looks reminiscent of a smil-ey face, but the symbol stands for the idealistic vision of shared responsibilities and resources. All over the country, the twin pines logo can be spotted in credit union lobbies, at cooperative campgrounds, and on the packaging for organic foods.

Even the street I grew up on—the blandly named Edge Drive—is a nod to the old Circle Pines order. My childhood home was a no-frills Cape Cod, built in 1954, after the Petersen era, as part of a development that went up quickly and on the cheap for returning veterans and their families. These houses had lured a new crop of working-class families to Circle Pines, and it’s safe to say that, given the burgeoning postwar economy, the ideals of these new residents stood in stark contrast to the values of the old Circle Pines order. Still, the peculiar, half-moon-shaped grid to which my childhood home belongs was part of Petersen and Ellerbe’s master vision for the city’s planning: a clustered, walkable community in which a park is never far away. An aerial view shows that the town’s layout mimics Circle Pines’ round emblem. There are few cul-de-sacs; instead, the streets loop back into themselves. Inner Park sits at the center, where Petersen wanted it—at the heart of the community.

Growing up there, I saw no obvious remnants of the socialist ideals to which my city once aspired. But as it turned out, I’d need to venture out into the world before coming to appreciate any of Circle Pines’ amenities or off-beat characteristics. Even today, the town thumbs its nose at corporate Minnegasco by maintaining its own cooperatively owned gas utility. As for electricity, residents get that from Connexus, the state’s largest customer-owned utility. And until 1994, Circle Pines had its own rather left-leaning news rag, the aforementioned Circulating Pines, a long-lived outgrowth of the old cooperative broadsheet. As a young reader, I enjoyed its witty columnists and primitive political cartoons, oblivious to how slanted they were. In an interview, town historian Lee laughed as he recalled how Andrew Gibas, Circle Pines’ first-ever village clerk and founder of the paper, used to chronicle his own civic activities in the paper. In a story about a city council meeting, he wrote, of himself: “Citizen Andy Gibas rose and addressed the council.”

As I learned more about Circle Pines, I became eager to swap stories with old friends and neighbors. But I was disappointed to learn that few Circle Pinesians, even some folks I regarded as old-timers, had ever heard about the city’s cooperative origins. And among the handful of people who were clued in, there was ambivalence about what it all meant. Lee, by far the most knowledgeable source on Circle Pines history, was unwavering in his characterization of the founders’ socialism. Petersen’s own son, 80-year-old V. S. Petersen Jr., responded with a blank, confused stare when asked how the pinko little city of Circle Pines had fared in the early throes of the Cold War (he was serving in the military during the cooperative’s earliest days, including the time of his father’s tangle with the University professors). Joel Hogstad, the brother of one of my childhood friends, had discovered Circle Pines’ history while writing a college paper. His take was that Petersen had simply tried to create an affordable community for working-class families, not necessarily a socialist refuge. And Jim Keinath, a twenty-year veteran in his post as Circle Pines city administrator, wasn’t comfortable de-scribing the founders as “socialist,” choosing instead to refer to them as “Scandinavian.”

There’s an interesting contrast between the city plan of Circle Pines (population: 4,663) and that of its closest neighbor, Lexington (population: 2,214). While Circle Pines’ streets—not just Edge Drive but also North, East, South, and West roads, and Inner and Outer circles—are ringed with homogenous, two- and three-bedroom homes, Lexington is a ragtag collection of apartments and one-of-a-kind houses. It’s dominated by Paul Revere Manufactured Home Park, which appears as vast as a white-pine forest but is less stark than most trailer parks thanks to residents having enthusiastically added flower gardens, lawn ornaments, and other decorative elements to personalize their homes. The roads in the patriotic-themed development have names like Minuteman and Patriot lanes.

These street signs demonstrate that there had been some tension between Circle Pines and Lexington in the old days. Back when Circle Pines was being designed as a stringently planned, circular community, Lexington was being populated by the sort of resourceful folks who built homes out of found materials. Not happy with what they saw taking shape across the border, Circle Pinesians took to calling Lexington “Shack Town.” Representing Lexington in the skirmish was a prominent landowner named Art Otte, a man V. S. Petersen Jr. likened to “a Republican farmer,” who spoke out fervently against the “socialist-community experiment” next door. “This cooperative concept was out of his league; he called it all sorts of names for a while,” said Petersen Jr. He believes Otte penned an anonymous 1957 letter to the Circulating Pines signed “Lexington Old-Timer,” which opined: “They did not like our houses. We did not like their ideas.”

Nearly fifty years later, Circle Pines’ idealists and Lexington’s individualists have been absorbed by the melting pot. Both remain blue-collar towns, and a downtown business district has grown up on the border, bleeding into the two communities. They share a police department, a school district, and a post office, and sit on the same inhospitable marshland that was regarded by a Minnesota state surveyor in 1847 as “almost unacceptable for either men or beast except when frozen up …”

More to the point, as housing costs have skyrocketed, especially in the last ten or so years, lots of working-class families have found both Circle Pines and Lexington to be especially welcoming. Housing prices there have remained among the lowest in the Twin Cities, though for me, including “Circle-Lex” as part of the metropolitan area remains hard to swallow. Developers have been gobbling up every available inch of Circle Pines and putting up townhouses, condos, and other glossy new structures that reek of gentrification; still, there’s an ample supply of “starter” homes, including a block with six of the original Cemesto houses and the development where I grew up. In Lexington, the Paul Revere enclave continues to provide an affordable option for some of those in the Twin Cities’ lowest income brackets. In an interesting turn of events, the park’s residents incorporated Paul Revere in 2005, making it one of just two resident-owned trailer park cooperatives in the state.

As a kid, the thing I appreciated most about Circle Pines was all the sandy, open space. I could go snowmobiling, dirt-biking, or salamander hunting pretty much wherever I pleased. On summer evenings, my friends and I played football in the sandbur fields. Or we hopped on our Huffy bicycles and traced every line of the town’s semispherical blocks, which never took us very far and eventually wound back to our homes. Back then, there was a small grocery, a shopping strip (technically in Lexington), a gas station, a balloon shop, Mar-Dee’s diner (where I worked throughout high school), and always plenty of kids to scuffle with. But I certainly didn’t regard my town’s growth as a bad thing; I remember the arrival of McDonald’s, circa 1982, and how cool that was to my second-grade friends and me.

These days, Circle Pines is swimming in fast food and increasingly resembles a first-ring suburb—an aesthetic cousin of Roseville or Maplewood. Upon the demolition in 2002 of a block of Army-green, Petersen-era Cemesto motels collectively known as Circle Court (an eyesore with a bad reputation; it had long been the least expensive place to live in Circle Pines), condos and townhouses immediately went up in its place. Since then, more spacious (and beige) townhouses and condos have appeared on nearly every available plot, including former swamp acreage that’s been sucked dry to fuel the boom; like Circle Court, they all look exactly alike.

Plenty else has changed as well, of course. Nearby, just across the borders into Blaine and Lino Lakes, there’s a growing constellation of the usual chain-retail behemoths— SuperTarget, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and strip upon strip of familiar shops and restaurants—to lure Circle Pinesians away from their city’s remaining businesses. Petersen’s old farmhouse still sits along Golden Lake, though it’s been remodeled to the point of being unrecognizable. As for that central body of water itself, it’s become so tainted by overdevelopment and storm runoff (being the terminus of a wetland system that’s dried up) that it’s taken on a deep, not particularly attractive shade of its namesake color.

Despite Circle Pines’ drastic modern makeover, V. S. Petersen Jr. maintains an attachment to the place that goes far deeper than anything I’ve ever managed to feel. When we met for lunch recently at Matthew’s, the restaurant that now inhabits the former Mar-Dee’s site, he showed up wearing a tan flannel button-up and a black-leather driving cap, which he removed before sitting down, revealing a thatch of gray hair. As we talked, he leaned across the table, clearly relishing the conversation. He enjoyed telling stories about the good old days in Circle Pines and how he and his wife, Stella, have kept busy over the years, remaining active in the Democratic party, at their local Lutheran church, and as volunteers at a nearby battered women’s shelter.

In 1946, when he returned from World War II, Petersen Jr. enrolled at the University of Minnesota and helped his dad with odd jobs around Circle Pines. After his father’s sudden death (the younger Petersen was twenty-three years old at the time) and the demise of the cooperative, he embarked on a career as an insurance salesman. “When I first started selling insurance, the company I represented sent me to Edina because that was where all the money was. After a year, I was so sick of it, I wanted to throw up on my chest,” he said. He moved back to Circle Pines, started selling insurance to its residents, and became even more entrenched in the community. “I enjoyed the working people and they enjoyed me,” he said. He went on to become a prominent local landlord, eventually buying the building in which Circulating Pines was published. Today, two of his sons run the family insurance business, which is still located in an inconspicuous office building just off Lake Drive.

But with the passing years, Petersen Jr. confided, he and Stella have felt less and less at home in Circle Pines. “We’re kind of stuck,” he said with an uncomfortable laugh. The feelings of uneasiness first surfaced in the 1970s, when, sensing the same intolerance and stifling homogeny that I felt in the town’s school system, the Petersens contemplated sending their children to school elsewhere. More recently, they downsized, selling the home they owned at Golden Lake and moving into a nearby townhouse. “We’re believers in the simple-living concept,” said Petersen with a smile. But they’d also started feeling ill at ease with the sociopolitical climate that was developing around Golden Lake, which has housed Circle Pines’ most affluent families since the mid-1950s. “Stella and I just had to get outta there,” he said. “They simply weren’t our people.”

Before meeting with Petersen Jr., I had a brief phone conversation with Jim Keinath, Circle Pines’ current city administrator, who remarked that Circle Pines’ cooperative history had still been a strong influence when he first arrived on the job in 1984. Back then, the city’s “founding families” were highly regarded and still played prominent roles in community affairs. But today, Keinath said, the cooperative is all but ancient history. When I asked Petersen about this, he strongly disagreed. He sees his dad’s influence on everything from the city’s plentiful park space to the credit union and gas utility, both of which are still going strong. Still, he admitted, it’s been sad to watch the progressive roots of Circle Pines wither. For example, along with Shoreview, Arden Hills, and Lino Lakes, the residents of Circle Pines are represented by the staunchest fiscal conservative in the state legislature, Republican Phil Krinkie. (“He’s sick,” Petersen Jr. said. “I think he’s illiterate.”)

Perhaps Circle Pines has been swept into the gulf of working-class, independent voters to which it now rightfully belongs—Minnesota’s sixth congressional district, a block that stretches from the northern suburbs up through St. Cloud and that likely represents our state’s best showing of the “NASCAR Dad” demographic. At any rate, the city’s obviously not the stronghold of liberalism it once aspired to be.

“Circle Pines has always been progressive—up until three years ago, when we started dropping off the liberal side,” Petersen Jr. said, remembering a version of the town history very different from my own. He was bothered that Circle Pines seemed to be turning against the founding principles of his father. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that precious few of the town’s current residents—let alone anyone outside the city limits—had heard of the Circle Pines Cooperative in the first place.