Prior to Caucasian settlement, the Elm Creek basin served as hunting ground, first for aboriginal Indians who built mounds near Hayden Lake and later for the Chippewa and Winnebago tribes who had encampments on the Mississippi River north of Elm Creek. French and British fur traders operated in the area from the late 1700’s to 1815. Lt. Zebulon Pike recorded a British post near Champlin in 1805.
The first immigrants arrived from the north in 1836. They were Swiss, Scottish, and French farmers who had abandoned Lord Selkirk’s Winnipeg colony. They remained near Dayton, possibly at French Lake, until 1839, when they were driven out by the Indians. A large-scale agricultural settlement began in 1851.
Settlement and subsequent growth of the area was dependent on two factors – proximity to the St. Paul-Anoka route to the Red River Valley, followed by the present Highway 10; and accessibility to Minneapolis markets provided by the Minneapolis-Monticello Road, present-day Highway 152.
The western area is provided access by the Corcoran Road (County Road 10) and Highway 55. All of these routes have maintained their importance into the automobile era and significantly affect the location of suburban development. The junction of two new routes, Interstates 94 and 494, created a location of regional accessibility attracting concentrated development.
Prior to 1855, the pattern had been for settlers to enter the region by way of Anoka – crossing the Mississippi River to Champlin or Dayton. The belt of the prairie land associated with the level of outwash terrace of the Mississippi was considered the choicest location for a farm. The soil was easy to break and till and immediately available for planting. The shores of French Lake were also favored and a group of French farmers arrived there as early as 1853.
The settlement pattern changed in 1855, when a bridge to the west bank of the Mississippi was opened in Minneapolis. Minneapolis boomed and the population moved northwest along the Monticello Road to the Red River Valley. Previous biases against the heavily wooded, clay soils were gradually overcome as their natural fertility was proven. Commonly called the Big Woods, this upland area was originally covered by dense stands of maple, oak, elm, ash, and other hardwoods, with an occasional cluster of white pine. These woodlands supplied the cordwood markets of Osseo and Minneapolis.
The period between 1860 and 1890 saw an increase in farm population and the harnessing of the water power of Elm Creek for flour mills at Maple Grove and Champlin, important industries for the area.
The coming of the railroads in 1890 caused a movement to towns. Farm populations and the number of farms have continued to decline since that time, while farm size (exclusive of hobby farms) has increased. The greatest population growth has occurred since 1950, practically all of it non-farm rural and suburban.
When the Commission’s first Watershed Plan was adopted in 1983, the basin had a rural nature, but was going through a transition characterized by residential development, local shopping centers and hobby farms, co-existing with old mainline commercial farms engaged in dairy and crop farming. Residential development was especially prevalent in the areas surrounding Fish and Rice Lakes in Maple Grove. Development in these areas was sewered.
In parts of the watershed that were unsewered, residential development consisted of scattered large lot residences. Vacant land held by speculators was often put into cash crop production, rented by local farmers who had equipment, soil management skills, and experience, until development took place.
In 1983, 46 percent of the land in the Elm Creek watershed was cropland, producing mainly corn, small grain, hay, some vegetable crops and sod. Of the remaining land, 16 percent was woodland; 22 percent was wetlands, lakes, and parkland; 12 percent was farmsteads and rural residences, subdivisions, commercial highways, and other uses. In its 1983 plan, the Commission anticipated that by 1990 residential use could increase by 1,015 acres while cropland would decrease by 920 acres. Based on estimates from the Metropolitan Council from 1997, 46 percent of the land is vacant or in agricultural production, 30 percent is used for public, recreational, wetlands, or lakes, 20 percent is residential, and 4 percent is commercial/industrial.
The Elm Creek Watershed Management Commission was formed on February 1, 1973, through a Joint Powers Agreementby Champlin, Corcoran, Dayton, Maple Grove, Medina, Plymouth, and the Hennepin Conservation District, under the authority conferred to the member parties through Minnesota Statutes Sections 471.59 and 103B.211. On July 18, 1980 the Town of Hassan entered the agreement with Rogers following in 1983. Greenfield was a member of the Commission, but left in 2001.