David C. Smith

Notes for Stories I Could Tell, Some about Parks

I grew up in St. Paul near Mounds Park, one of the great parks anywhere. What a place to dream: the mighty river, sprawling railroad, airport, highways, skyline all stretched out below. Mysterious mounds. We ran up and down them then, intending no disrespect. We played at Dayton’s Bluff and Margaret Street playgrounds. Skated at one or the other most winter days. Won my first trophy playing in a citywide basketball tournament representing Margaret playground. No coach or uniforms, just plain t-shirts with a number inked by hand. The playground director was astonished when we brought him a trophy. Visited downtown library every few weeks. Never was really aware of Rice Park outside. On Sunday evenings our family went to the Como Park pavilion on the lake for hymn sings. We swam in the summers at Lake Phalen; watched tough, muscular guys work out on gymnastic apparatus on the beach. Hoped the girls we liked would show up, and not think us hopelessly wimpy compared to the muscular guys.

College at Hamline University. Near Como Park. Newell Park too, a little gem of oak savannah. Inducted into an honor society in that park. Played basketball for the Pipers. We were terrible, but formed lasting friendships. Coached by the first white man to lose his job as a professional baseball player to a black man: Howie Schultz was the first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers when Jackie Robinson was called up and took over at first. Howie was a funny man and a great athlete. I wrote a few poems that were published in school literary magazine. Someday I’ll find them. Officially studied political science.

Spent a semester of my senior year in London. Lived near Kensington Garden and Hyde Park. Favorite place was Peter Pan statue. Sundays I listened to poetry and politics at Speaker’s Corner. “Who put the bop in the bop shoo bop shoo bop?” Recited as serious poetry. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

Drove a truck in the mountains of Arizona, near Sedona, delivering feed to ranches. Before it was a trendy place. Walked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Nice park. Big park.

Went to Colombia in the Peace Corps. After learning beginners Spanish, worked as a recreation director in a national prison. Don’t remember parks in Colombia. Too poor for parks. An influential prisoner took me under his wing. Ismael Castilla’s nickname: Al Capone. Usually wore a black turtleneck and a deerstalker hat. The best athlete in the prison, also a playwright. Said he was a political prisoner. Today would be called a terrorist. He cried the day his parole was denied. Six months later, after I was gone, he got his parole. He died weeks later, killed by police who were attempting to rescue a kidnapped government minister.

Transferred by Peace Corps to Nigeria where I became the national basketball coach. Won a silver medal at first All-Africa University Games in Accra, Ghana. Spent most of a year living out of a white and green VW bug, staying in hotels as I drove from town to town conducting basketball clinics. Learned the oppressing visibility of looking different. Was once the only white man I could see in a stadium of 50,000 people. Was nearly always treated well, but got tired of standing out. How much did I stand out? When I attended a local basketball game in a small town, the big attraction court side was a tame monkey — until I showed up. The young children abandoned the monkey as they fought to sit next to me, so they could touch the blond hair on my arms. Monkeys they could see anytime. Not every day could they touch an oyebo. Not many parks in Nigeria either. Hope they’ve preserved some open space since in that crowded part of the world. Lagos, Enugu and Port Harcourt needed open spaces then. Probably need them more now. Someday I’ll tell the story of the man who almost drowned swimming in the surf near Lagos.

Attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Journalism. Lived in Prospect Park. Rode my bike past Tower Hill every day. Missed the opening week of school the third quarter to attend my grandma’s funeral in southern Ohio. Didn’t run in that cemetery. Saw my grandfather a last time. The one who was a safecracker, convict and later an undercover operative for FBI. I never returned to grad school. Took the entrance exam for the Foreign Service instead. Passed.  Became a diplomat.

Went to Washington, D.C. for training and orientation at the State Department. Great parks. Lived a couple blocks from Lincoln Memorial. Assigned to U.S. Embassy in Madrid, Spain as Vice Consul. Spent many hours in Retiro, the great central park of Madrid. Went there mostly with Angeles, eyes and hair the color of coal, with as much latent heat. Sometimes to the country park instead, Casa De Campo. Loved the fountains in streets. Favorite was the one with dolphins playing near my home. Driving past it once I made my first pun in Spanish. To Angeles. Had to do with complejo and espejo. I thought I was very clever. She laughed at me, eyes smoldering a little.

Cuenca. A favorite stop on the way from Madrid to Cordoba. (David C. Smith)

Second assignment was Lusaka, Zambia. Game parks were spectacular. Best in the world said some who knew about those things. Endless open spaces outside cities. Lightly populated place then. Fewer people now, I’m told. Aids. Travelled often in the bush. Visited American missionaries. Investigated starvation near border with Angola. A war zone. Helped organize delivery of relief food.

Luangwa National Park, Zambia. The one on the left looked like he was trying to remember something. (David C. Smith)

Resigned from Foreign Service. Restless. Travelled across Africa, Middle East and Europe for four months on my way home.

No gleaming sun on Mykonos. Airport was closed for three days by a snowstorm in March. (David C. Smith)

Took up writing to make a living. Helped clients sell everything from soup to soap, silicon to silicone. Ghost writer, speech writer, copy writer. About the only thing I’ve not written for hire is limericks. Might try it sometime. If you know anyone who needs a limerick writer…

Became a husband, became a father, stayed a son. Stayed in Minneapolis longer than I expected, too. Keep losing, then rediscovering, the little things. Miracles. The small, secret happinesses on which we thrive. Some to be shared, some to be savored, hoarded. That’s why Minneapolis parks have their hold on me. Places for any mood. And the founders amaze me. Loring, Cleveland, Brackett, King, Morrison, Folwell. I might tell their stories, too. Anybody know Levi Stewart? Didn’t think so. Now there’s a story.

21 comments so far

  1. Dee Dee Larson on

    I have an original surveyors plot map from October of 1882 by Baker and Gilmore of Calhoun Park. I would like to sell it and am wondering if you know anyone who would be interested?

    • David C. Smith on

      If anyone is interested they can contact me and I’ll give them your email address.

  2. Joe Finley on

    What can you tell us about the pond in Loring Park?

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks for the question, Joe. I’ll pull together some info for you and post it soon.

  3. Tony Gross on

    I am Francis A Gross III. I have many of my great grandfathers writings including his notes for the speeches he gave during WW1, and the original handwritten copy of his autobiography.

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks for contacting me, Tony. I’m a huge admirer of your great-grandfather. I’ll be in touch soon.
      David C. Smith

  4. Bob Wolff on

    Mr. Smith,

    I enjoyed the original post about Longfellow Park – your additional post about the Toro ad in a 1919 Parks and Recreation magazine was just brought to my attention as I’m the unofficial/official historian for the Toro Company. I’ll offer a couple notes and then a question.

    As you know, we did have an affiliation with Minneapolis Steel and Machinery but I don’t know if you are aware of the exact nature. Toro was founded on July 10, 1914 as The Toro Motor Company by 7 men, 6 of whom were executives or key investors in The Bull Tractor Company and the 7th was J.L. Record, co-founder and at one time president of Minneapolis Steel and Machinery. Bull tractor had been an overnight success, essentially creating the small farm tractor business with the introduction of their first Bull tractor. Smaller and more affordable than the typical tractor behemoths of the day, it was sized and priced to better fit the average farmer’s needs – consequently in its first full year of production Bull outsold every other brand in the business. The growth was so explosive the out-of-state engine suppliers could not meet the demand so the group I mentioned founded Toro to build motors for Bull. Bull’s fortunes soured almost as quickly as they had risen and, contrary to published accounts, they were pretty much finished in the tractor business by the end of 1916 existing simply on paper for a couple years longer. Toro, an independent company, continued by building steam steering winches for merchant marine ships as part of the World War I effort and manufacturing heavy duty engines for tractors and trucks as well as other automotive components. Following the war we introduced our own farm utility tractor and transitioned, as you noted, to the turf maintenance business. Our first small plant was in St. Paul (570 North Prior Ave) but when Bull failed we relocated our plant and established our corporate offices (our executives had officed at Bull’s HQ at 2628 University Ave SE, Minneapolis) at 3042 Snelling Ave, Minneapolis, which is across what is now Lake Street from the former location of Minneapolis Steel. I know that’s more than you wanted to know.

    Now, my question: you noted the ad you posted is from a 1919 issue of Parks and Recreation magazine. We have the same ad on file but not the entire tearsheet so we could not confirm the date. Our early years were such a challenge that historical records are less than complete and the date of our first mowing unit (from the ad’s photo) had been identified as 1920 or 1921. Other materials I have recently discovered led me to believe the correct date is 1919 – so if you can confirm that the ad you have in your files is definitely from a 1919 issue, that will help narrow my search considerably (in fact it makes me wonder if perhaps 1918 is more likely). So if you can let me know if your document shows the 1919 date, I’d really appreciate.

    I assume you are aware of the Lake Street Council’s “Museum in the Streets” project that is posting placards for walkng tours in the area – both Minnepaolis Steel’s and Toro’s sites will be included.

    Thanks

    Bob Wolff
    The Toro Company

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks for all of the info, Bob. Much appreciated.

      Here is a link to the ad for the Toro lawnmower in Parks and Recreation I reprinted: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/chi.72780251?urlappend=%3Bseq=524. Unfortunately I had the date of the ad wrong. The library volume that was scanned included issues of Parks and Recreation magazines from 1919-1921, but this ad is from the April, 1921 edition. I checked some earlier editions of the magazine and this is the first Toro ad — or reference to Toro — I could find. Sorry to mislead you on the date.

      David C. Smith

  5. Linda Swalin on

    I am searching for information on family member James Chase. It seems he was a parkkeeper at Glenwood/Wirth Park for 30 years, starting about 1890. I am wondering if there are any records/documents/photos with the Park Board that would be available to me. What would have been his parkkeeping duties? Thank you. Linda Swalin

    • David C. Smith on

      I am not aware of any records of park personnel that long ago. Very few photos exist from that time period and I don’t recall seeing a James Chase in a photo. I did a quick search of park board proceedings and annual reports that are searchable at Hathitrust.org and didn’t get any hits with that name, but the years covered are limited. You might go to the library and find the proceedings of the park board for 1890 or 1891 and flip through them to see if the name appears. It would probably only show up if he applied for the position. That would likely be listed under “petitions and communications” at the beginning of each park board meeting. You could also try a name search in the Historical Minneapolis Tribunes available at the Hennepin County Library website hclib.org. They are searchable 1865-1922. It’s possible the name could have been in the paper. Park keepers were responsible for maintenance of the parks. Sorry I can’t provide more specific information.
      David C. Smith

    • David C. Smith on

      Linda, I just stumbled across an interesting entry in the Minneapolis Tribune from November 20, 1916, while researching another story. The article relates the efforts of “J. O. Chase, head park keeper” to capture 21 Canadian geese–whose wings were clipped–in Glenwood Park to put them in “winter quarters.” The annual “game” was abandoned after a few days due to dangerous ice on the lake. The headline? “Wild Goose Chase Is Postponed Until There Is More Ice On Lake.” Clever.

      So, there is proof of a “Chase” as park keeper at Glenwood Park. As I had suspected, there was reference to him in the paper. The key fact here is that he used his initials instead of first name, which should inform further searches for him in the papers.

      Good luck.

  6. Cara Letofsky on

    David:

    I’m wondering if you can tell me when the Minneapolis Park Board designated Hennepin Avenue as a parkway. I know that that designation was removed in 1905, which opened it up for more intensive development. Thanks!

    • David C. Smith on

      Cara, the first land to widen Hennepin Avenue from 66 feet to 88 feet to make it a parkway was acquired in 1884. The park board acquired eleven feet on each side of Hennepin from Lyndale to Lake Street at a cost of over $16,000. Work on the avenue began late in 1884. In the first annual report of the park board for 1883 the board expressed its intention to make Hennepin a parkway 200-feet wide, but as often happened available funds didn’t permit the board to acquire everything it wanted. I don’t have the exact date of designation in front of me, but it must have been in 1884. If you need to know an exact date you could check in the 1884 Proceedings of the Board of Park Commissioners at the Central Library.
      Thanks for reading.
      David C. Smith

  7. karen on

    David Smith I am researching a Frederick B Chute. an early settler to the old Cheevertown area of the University of Minnesota and founding parishoner of St Lawrence Chuch 1887. His wife was Elizabeth. Would this be any relation to the Richard Chute of Chute Square? From my research Frederick B Chute had dealing with a man named Broderick

    • David C. Smith on

      I’m sorry, Karen, but your question seems to have been cut off. Here’s what I have found: Frederick Butterfield Chute was a nephew of Richard Chute for whom Chute Square was named. Fred’s father was Samuel H. Chute who was one of the original Minneapolis park commissioners appointed in 1883. Fred was born in 1872 and was a away at school in 1887, so was not likely a founder of any church at that time. You can find an extensive biographical sketch of Fred Chute in Horace Hudson’s, A Half Century of Minneapolis, published in 1908. It is available at many area libraries as well as on line.

  8. john orrison on

    Dave,
    Thanks for talking to our Prospect Park garden club tonight. At another party later someone remembered that when the freeway gorge for 94 was excavated the neighborhood requested some large boulders that were found Where are they?
    John Orrison

  9. Hope A. Hilliker on

    I am the widow of Darrell Densmore Hilliker of Corinna, Maine, who was a direct decendant of Levi M. Stewart. The library in Corinna was a gift to the town by Levi and is now on the Historical Records. His law library and large collection of books on Napoleon and on Abraham Lincoln are in that library,as well as personal effects, such as his top hat which he wore to the opera, opera tickets, his typewriter and desk. He and his family were well-respected. My youngest grandson is named Levi Stewart Hilliker.

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks so much for your comment on Levi Stewart. I’m delighted to hear of your grandson’s name. I’ve been planning for a long time to write much more about Levi Stewart, who was a prominent attorney and land owner in Minneapolis. Two Minneapolis parks, Stewart Field and Cedar Avenue Field, were donations in part from Levi Stewart’s estate managed by his brother. I haven’t yet made a trip to Corinna to see the library and Levi Stewart’s papers, but I hope to do so soon. I have been in correspondence with others in Corinna about those papers. I will reply to you directly about that.

      David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory.com

  10. Debbie Ross on

    I love your description of Mounds Park, it is a special oasis in the city one that I enjoyed many, many times with good friends.My second favorite is Minehaha Falls; the Twin cities are very lucky to have the parks and such a great historian. The east coast could use some of these parks!

  11. Jim Krave on

    Mpls. golf history seems to give little note to the Westwood Hills course out in St. Louis Park. The site was not developed until the 50′s and has a 60′s vintage jr. high were MSA soccer clubs Cardinals, Corinthians, and Royals would play. What prompted change from Westwood to Meadowbrook. Great site. JimK

    • parkhistorian on

      Glad you enjoy the site, Jim. Westwood and Meadowbrook are different properties. Meadowbrook is on Excelsior Blvd. and was built and is still owned by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. The course opened for play in 1926.
      David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com


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