Norma Olson Remembers Prospect Park Triangles

In Devon, England last week a former resident of Minneapolis found this website and was intrigued by my account a few years ago of the smallest parks in Minneapolis, the triangles in Prospect Park, near Tower Hill. Becky Stannard, my correspondent, remembered them well, having attended Pratt School. But she had more than memories, she had a story about how the boulders appeared on the triangles there. It was written by her mother, Norma Olson. I have printed it below, with thanks to Becky and Norma.

Maris’s Mini Parks
By Norma Olson, 2-28-94

In Prospect Park
Where we lived for 40 years
Scattered through the neighborhood
At the intersections of streets
Are small triangles and squares of land
Left over from the making of streets
Whose design was influenced
By the old cow paths
Dating back to farming days.

When Lady Bird declared
With enthusiasm, if not passion
That Beauty was important
That wherever possible, in America
We plant a shrub or tree
We took it to heart.

The local Beauty Committee
Especially Maris Thomes
Who has lived some in Japan
Started talking about the opportunity
Offered by our bits and pieces — the triangles.
She cocked her head and mused
Wouldn’t it be nice
If we had some big rocks
To help us dress up those triangles?

For some months, after finding myself
President of the Minneapolis Committee on Urban Environment
An organization with big ideas, little power and no budget
I had been visiting around City Hall
With the pros at the Park Board, the Housing Authority and Public Works
It’s sort of a treat for middle management bureaucrats
To dream a little and to visit with neighborhood people
Who aren’t asking for anything.

While I knew most of these folks from other contexts
They might have eyed me with
A certain amusement
But a condition of trust existed.
On this day, in late winter I dropped in on Martin,
Associate Operations Engineer
At Public Works, during his coffee break.
“Well, come in and sit a spell. What are you up to today, Norma?”
“Nothing much.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t have a project up your sleeve.”
“Well, there is Maris’ dream.”
“Heavens, what’s that?”
“Well, you know all those triangles in our neighborhood
That you folks long ago left behind
When you designed the streets.
They look bad but they could be a visual asset.”
“How so?”
“We have in mind that we’d like to do
Something with them.
Like clean them up, do some planting.
Maris says we need some big rocks
To add a sculptural quality.
Remember, Martin, you asked me and I thank you.
So thanks for listening.
But as you can see, I’m not setting
The world on fire.”

One evening in early fall, the phone rang at 10 P.M.
“Hello, Norma, this is your friend
Martin from Public Works.
You know, we are excavating
For those huge storm sewers all over S.E.
And you can’t believe the big rocks we are encountering
I mean two or three tons.
Could you use some?
“Oh, yes!”
“How many”
“Twenty-seven. Three for each of the nine street triangles
We talked about earlier.
But we’ve got no trucks, no transport, no manpower, no budget.”
“Well, no problem,” says Martin.
“If you will wait until the ground freezes
So we don’t break the curbs driving over them
And if you will let me know
Exactly where you want them
I will deliver them to you in the evening
And give you warning when they are coming.”
Maris responded to this offer with wild enthusiasm.
And with three weeks of lead-time!
Preparing plans would be easy. Agreed.

Being an artist, it was not difficult for her to take
Measurements of the nine sites.
And in consultation with resident architects
She mapped each triangle xxxing in the rock locations
Respecting that some would be more round or oblong
Than others.
Then came the phone call.
Meet Martin at the Franklin Hill triangle at 8 P.M. tomorrow night.
Before midnight, under Maris’ directions
All 27 rocks were in place
In dynamic groupings of three.
In the morning, neighbors looked out on a new landscape.

Well, not everyone was enchanted.
Bill called to say, “Do you know that one neighbor is hopping mad
To find those big rocks on her triangle.”

But the unfriendly soil was worked
Tulips bought with memorial money were planted
A few shrubs went in
And we sat back to wait for spring.
Propriety residents from the immediate rock locations
Joined the work crews
And soon the neighborhood had a new visual identity
The triangles had become a unifying factor in the
Neighborhood design.

Then came the day
When the street repaving crews showed ready and raring to tear up
Existing curbs and streets. Panics. The phone rang off the hook.
We went immediately to see
Perry, the chief of Public Works and told him our story
And insisted that the triangles had to be respected as follows:
Leave the rocks in place or replace them precisely if the have to be moved.
Let the new landscape designs for the neighborhood include the triangles.
Assign a budget number for new materials
As compensation for time and plant materials expended.

These requests were in written form
We were accompanied on this mission by the
Administrative Assistant of our Alderman.
Perry was impressed that the requests were reasonable
Agreement was reached. The neighborhood was reassured.

And so the newly curbed triangles, after consulting, were
Expertly planted with many new evergreens as a base
Were ready for spring materials.
And so they have become a vital part of
The Neighborhood landscape
With adjacent owners feeling possessive
Looking after maintenance.

Mandy managed her triangles.
Kate planted a tree for John Berryman
The Franklin Avenue Bridgehead Planting included a Ginkgo Tree.
It was a project of enormous satisfaction to me
Because it cost so little, brought staff and citizens
Into an effective working relationship
And strengthened the neighborhood
With another point of pride. It was fun making it happen.

Thanks also to Maris Thomes, Martin, Perry, Bill, Kate, Mandy and everyone else who took part in this successful collaboration.

While on the subject of Prospect Park and Tower Hill, I have a question. Does anyone know the inside story on what happened to plans to vacate Malcolm Ave. S.E. between Pratt School and Tower Hill Park? I recently came across park board resolutions and drawings of plans to vacate the street and turn it into a playground for the school. The original plans were dated 1928, but the issue was raised again in 1950 in response to petitions from the neighborhood and another resolution was approved to complete those plans. The park board announced in the 1950 annual report that the vacation of Malcolm Ave. had added 0.17 acres to Tower Hill Park. But Malcolm Ave. still runs between the school and park. Was it closed, then reopened? I’m sure someone knows the story. Please share.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]


Minnesota River Valley National Park?

What does the Minnesota River have to do with Minneapolis parks? The Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners, in 1934, tried to help Minnesota Gov. Floyd B. Olson convince the federal government to acquire the Minnesota River valley from Shakopee to Mendota and make it a national park.

I only have the bare bones of the story, but I wanted to throw them out there so someone else could expand it if so inclined. I find this bit of history particularly interesting in light of important efforts by Friends of the Mississippi River and the National Park Service to protect and preserve our rivers. In 1934, Gov. Olson wrote to the Minneapolis park board asking for assistance. I’ve reproduced the letter in full.


Gov. Floyd B. Olson asked the Minneapolis park board for help in creating a national park of the Minnesota River Valley in April 1934.

Always willing to cooperate on park projects, the Minneapolis park board, with Supt. Theodore Wirth’s support, voted on May 2 to give Harold Lathrop, “an employee in the Engineering Department,” leave of absence with pay to go to Washington, D.C. “and spend such time as is necessary in the interest of the proposed plan.”

It’s obvious from Gov. Olson’s letter that he had already secured the assistance of Wirth and Lathrop, and the park board presumably, in creating a map of the “recreational possibilities” of the area. I have never seen such a map created solely for that purpose, but in 1935, the park board published Theodore Wirth’s Tentative Study Plan for the West Section of a Metropolitan Park System. That report contained a detailed map of all of Hennepin County and more, including the closeup below of the Minnesota River Valley. (The full report and map are appended to the park board’s 1935 annual report.)


Detail of park possibilities in the Minnesota River Valley, Shakopee to Mendota, from a 1935 study plan by Theodore Wirth. Harold Lathrop, a park board employee in the engineering department, assisted Wirth on the report. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.)

I don’t know what became of Gov. Olson’s idea of a national park when Lathrop went off to Washington, D.C. An update came a month later when, at its June 6 meeting, the park board approved Wirth’s recommendation that Lathrop be given two months leave of absence without pay “to act as Project Director for the Federal Government in connection with the proposed Minnesota River Valley development.”

Barbara Sommer writes in Hard Work and A Good Deal that Lathrop was then hired by the National Park Service, which ran the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a federal work-relief program, to supervise CCC work in state parks in Minnesota. There is no indication that any of that work involved a potential park along the Minnesota River. The young National Park Service employee running the CCC program was Conrad Wirth, Theodore’s middle son. Conrad’s performance in that role set him on a trajectory to become the Director of the National Park Service in the 1960s.

I don’t believe Lathrop ever returned to the Minneapolis park board. From his job  coordinating federal work in state parks, he was hired as the first director of Minnesota State Parks less than a year later in July 1935. He held Minnesota’s top state parks job until 1946, when he supposedly retired at age 45. Eleven years later, however, he became the first director of state parks in Colorado. Colorado’s first state park is named Lathrop Park.

That’s all I know of the proposed Minnesota River Valley National Park — an intrigue sparked by one letter from the governor in a correspondence file. If you know more, I’d be happy to hear from you.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]

P.S. Timely! Friends of the Mississippi River is hosting a fundraiser tomorrow night — October 4 — at the Nicollet Island Pavilion in Minneapolis. Suggested donation $100. Worthy cause! Also read the current StarTribune series on threats to the health of the Mississippi.


Burma-Shave, Clinton O’Dell and Minneapolis Parks

Thanks to Lindsey Geyer for sending this picture of Painter Park last week.


The sign at Painter Park, 34th and Lyndale, on September 30, quotes a famous Burma-Shave sign.

Lindsey is probably one of the few people who know the deeper connection between Burma-Shave and Minneapolis parks, especially the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Theodore Wirth Park.

Burma-Shave was an invention of a Minneapolis company, Burma-Vita. It was a shaving cream that didn’t require a brush to whip it into a lather and apply. You just rubbed it on with your fingertips. The company president was Clinton O’Dell. He and his sons were looking for a way to market their invention and hit upon the idea of creating signs to post along highways. They painted their advertising on a series of signs and placed them 100 feet apart, a nice distance to read comfortably for people in cars travelling at the dizzying speed of 35 mph.

The O’Dells painted the signs and dug the post holes for them along highways after getting permission from landowners. This was in 1925. The first signs were placed on highways from Minneapolis to Albert Lea and St. Paul to Red Wing. Sales boomed. The signs spread.

In 1940, letterhead of the Burma-Vita Company featured a faint map with a red dot to show the location of every set of Burma-Shave signs the company had placed.


Every dot is a set of Burma-Shave signs in early 1940s, long before interstate freeways. It appears that only five states did not have any Burma-Shave signs. (Enlarged by Lindsey Geyer from Burma-Vita Company letterhead from a letter dated May 6, 1940 to the Minneapolis park board. Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.)

Sales of Burma-Shave peaked more than a decade later when there were 35,000 Burma-Shave signs. (I haven’t tried to count these dots, but it looks to be considerably shy of 35,000.) They were still being placed along highways into the 1960s, but by then interstate highways and much faster speeds had made the landmark signs a less effective marketing ploy. (Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification program in the mid-1960s restricted advertising along for federal highways, which had a large impact, too.)  The Burma-Shave signs were, however, still a highlight of cross-country car travel in the 1960s. When my family travelled, everyone was roused from whatever they were doing as soon as anyone spotted the first red sign in the distance.


Silly jingles, mostly touting the benefits — often romantic — of a clean shave, were always followed by the Burma-Shave logo. For a catalog of the jingles visit

So what does this have to do with Minneapolis parks? When Clinton O’Dell attended Minneapolis Central High School in the 1890s he had a botany teacher named Eloise Butler. Ms.Butler went on to fame as the creator and tender of a fabulous wildflower garden in a portion of what was then Glenwood Park, later renamed Theodore Wirth Park. First as a successful insurance man and later as the owner of Burma-Vita, O’Dell was a significant contributor to the wildflower garden Butler created. For many years he donated money for work in the garden, but in 1944 he donated $3,000 to expand the garden beyond the woodland garden it originally was. An upland or prairie section was added thanks to O’Dell’s generosity. Several years later, in 1951, O’Dell was one of the founders of the Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, an organization that has been critical to the continued success of the garden for more than 60 years. (More info on Friends of the Wild Flower Garden and Clinton O’Dell.)

Thanks to his Burma-Shave fame, O’Dell was named to the Minnesota 150: The People, Places, and Things that Shape Our State, by Kate Roberts, a book by the Minnesota Historical Society Press and an exhibit at the historical society in 2007.

Bottom line: Those catchy Burma-Shave jingles and the ubiquitous red roadside signs were partly responsible for one of the most venerated and beloved patches of Minneapolis park land.

And “Past the school take it slow. Let the little shavers grow” is pretty good advice at any time — even though it had been replaced on the Painter Park sign by Saturday, October 1. In its place was news of a new Zumba class. Fitness is good, too!

David C. Smith    minneapolisparkhistory[at]


What were the first two names for Loring Park?

A comment received today from Joan Pudvan on the “David C. Smith” page made me think of some little known facts in Minneapolis park history. So here’s your park trivia fix for today.

Joan asked if Loring Park was once named Central Park? Joan is a post card collector and has seen many post cards from the early 1900s labelled “Central Park.” Those cards feature images of what we know is Loring Park, so the answer to Joan is, “Yes.” When did the name change?

Central Park officially became Loring Park in 1890 when the park board’s first president, Charles Loring, was leaving the board. He, along with every other Republican on the Minneapolis ballot that year, had been defeated at the polls in a shift of political power. At the end of Loring’s tenure, his friend and fellow park advocate, William Folwell, proposed renaming Central Park for the man who had helped create it, and had even supervised much of the landscaping in the park (to H.W.S. Cleveland’s design). Loring said he would prefer that the park be named Hennepin Park for its location on that avenue, but the rest of the board agreed with Folwell that Loring should be honored. So the name was changed, a fact that the post card publishers hadn’t caught up with as many as ten or fifteen years later.

Loring was not, however, the first person to have a Minneapolis park named for him. That distinction goes to Jacob Elliot who, in 1883, donated his former garden to the city as Elliot Park. Elliot had been a prominent doctor in Minneapolis who had retired to Santa Monica, California. The handwritten document (as all were at that time) donating the land to the city as a park — recently discovered in a park board correspondence file — was signed by Wyman Elliot as the attorney-in-fact of his father Jacob Elliot. Wyman Elliot later became a park commissioner himself, when he was elected to fill out Portius Deming’s term from 1899-1901 after Deming was elected to the Minnesota legislature.

In the document that officially donated the land, the most interesting paragraph required the creation, within 18 months, of a fountain in the park with a reservoir “of oval shape” with a diameter of at least 50 feet.


One condition of Jacob Elliot’s donation of land for Elliot Park in 1883 was the creation of fountain. Elliot Park was the first Minneapolis park named for a person. The clause pictured is a part of the original document donating the land. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Additional recently found correspondence sought Dr. Elliot’s approval for the plaque he had specified.


The fountain built as a condition of the donation of Elliot Park. From a postcard published around 1910. The “fountain” was a single standpipe in the middle of the pond. The Elliot Park pond was very similar to the one created in Van Cleve Park in the early 1890s.


Elliot Park fountain and Asbury Hospital from a post card with an eerie pink tinge. A soccer field now occupies this section of the park.

One other bit of naming trivia before we get to the other name for Central/Loring Park. In 1891, Judson Cross, one of the first 12 appointed park commissioners, wrote to the park board suggesting that the pond in Loring Park be named Wilson Pond for Eugene M. Wilson, one of the first and greatest park commissioners. He also served as the board’s attorney in the 1880s. He had also been elected to Congress and as Mayor of Minneapolis twice. He died at age 56 in 1890 in the Bahamas where he had gone to try to regain his health. Cross claimed that the name was appropriate because Wilson had been the strongest advocate of securing the land surrounding what had once been Johnson’s Pond for the park that became Central Park. Wilson may have played one of the most important roles in creating a park system in Minneapolis because he was one of the most prominent Democrats to strongly favor the creation of the park board. Without Wilson’s influence among Democrats, many of whom opposed the Park Act — the Republican Party supported it — Minneapolis voters may not have passed the act in the April 1883 referendum.

The board did not add Wilson’s name to Loring Park, but it did rename nearby Hawthorne Square, Wilson Park — which was particularly appropriate because Eugene Wilson’s home faced that park. Unfortunately, the park was wiped out for the construction of I-94 in 1967, so we have been without Wilson’s name in our park system for nearly 50 years.

The other name by which Central and Loring Park was known lasted only a month. In 1885, the park board voted to name the park Spring Grove Park. Without much explanation, but apparently in the face of considerable opposition, the park board backtracked to Central Park a month later.

So…Central Park, Spring Grove Park, Loring Park. I think the park board ended up in the right place.

One among many reasons for that opinion is another historical document rediscovered in the last few months: a letter from Charles Loring to the board from which the excerpt below was taken. In the letter, Loring proposes to create a Memorial Drive, a tribute to fallen American soldiers, as part of the Grand Rounds. The result was Victory Memorial Drive.


Charles Loring suggested a Memorial Boulevard and pledged to create a trust fund that would provide an annual revenue of $2,500 for the perpetual care of trees along the drive. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Without any such intention when I started writing this, I have highlighted the incredible time and resources that have been donated to the Minneapolis park system. Loring, Elliot, Wilson: all people who shared a commitment to parks and were willing to give time, money and land to the city to realize their visions of what city life should be. Their example is particularly significant now as park leaders are trying to raise funds for new park developments downtown, along the river, and in north and northeast Minneapolis. Not a bad way to be remembered.

David C. Smith    minneapolisparkhistory[at]





More Lake Nokomis Bath House

In an enjoyable article on Lake Nokomis in MinnPost, Andy Sturdevant provided a link to a couple photos I posted last month of the Nokomis Bath house, so I thought I’d return the favor. I’ve been intending to post this new photo of the bath house I found on a 1920s postcard, so Andy’s article provides a good excuse. I had not seen this photo until a few weeks ago.


Lake Nokomis Bath House in the 1920s. Photographer unknown.

Anyone who knows old cars might be able to date this photo more precisely than I have. Anybody know their early autos? Let us know a likely date range. Based on the age of the trees I would guess it must be very early 1920s.

You can make out the Cedar Avenue bridge in the background. Theodore Wirth wanted to reroute Cedar Avenue around the southwest lagoon shortly after the area was annexed by Minneapolis from Richfield in 1926, but there was too much opposition from property owners in that direction, so we still have that unusual bridge on a county road over a lake.

David C. Smith  minneapolisparkhistory[at]

The Danger of Danger

It’s popular these days to point out how awful Minneapolitans sometimes were and probably still are. Some writers gleefully discover examples of bigotry in our past and present them almost as badges of honor, “See, we’re really not so nice after all and neither were our grandmas and grandpas.” I don’t know who are more smug, those who find no faults or those who find all faults. Same thing really; an inability to distinguish good from bad. Laziness. The root of all prejudice.

No surprise, we’re flawed. We’ve fixed some of our grandparents’ flaws and I dearly hope our children will fix some of ours. Then it will be up to their children … and so on. Let’s just hope that we don’t backslide.

In the midst of today’s discussions of peace and justice, security and danger, I paused when I came across two letters in a file of documents from the Minneapolis Park Board’s Playground and Entertainment Committee in 1947. This was the committee that, in addition to overseeing playground recreation programs and concerts at bandstands in parks around the city, also issued picnic permits to large groups.

In the early 1900s most of the picnic requests came from church groups, but in the years immediately after World War I, the requests tilted heavily in favor of the newly created veterans groups, mostly American Legion posts, which sponsored neighborhood and charitable picnics in every major park. A bond of brothers perhaps.The only requests for picnics that were refused were from groups that planned to have religious or political speeches. The park board didn’t like partisanship in its parks.

Of the dozens of picnic permit requests filed in 1919 and 1920, the park board rejected only two that I could find: one from a labor union and the other from the Republican Party women’s auxiliary because both planned to have political speeches. When the groups adjusted their programs, they got their permits.

Gradually, however, the park board relented on all counts, even allowing church groups to hold baptisms in city lakes. Labor unions, especially, argued, eventually successfully, that political speech couldn’t be prohibited on public land.

Permits were denied later apparently only because groups were using picnics to raise money that wasn’t going to charities or because of space limitations. That was the issue in July 1947 when the park board got this request from the Twin City Nisei Club. Nisei were second generation Japanese-Americans.

Nisei Picnic Request Rev

Letter from the Twin City Nisei Club requesting a picnic permit at Minnehaha Park.

The response, written the same day, came from Karl Raymond, the supervisor of recreation. Note that the date was barely a year after the last of the Japanese internment camps had closed in the western United States. Those prison camps had held more than 100,000 Japanese, many American citizens, born and raised in the United States, due to hysteria – absent any evidence of a threat – that any Japanese person, even if raised thoroughly American, was a security risk following Pearl Harbor.

Recreation Staff 1910

The recreation staff in 1910. One of my heroes of early park history is the man in the suit in the front row, Clifford Booth, the first director of recreation. Karl Raymond, a new hero, is second from right in the second row. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Karl Raymond had worked for the park board for nearly forty years. He was the supervisor of recreation from 1919 to 1947, when he retired.

In his recommendation to the Playground and Entertainment Committee, Raymond noted that as a general policy the park board did not issue group picnic permits at Minnehaha Park for Saturdays or Sundays, “as the grounds are just about filled up with general use.” But Raymond did not use that excuse. He continued,

“Because of the lateness of the season and the make-up of this group, which includes many veterans of both the Pacific and European sector of the late war, I wish to recommend that this request be granted.”

It was.

It’s worth remembering that the wounds of war were still fresh then. The American death toll had not been 50 or 100 brothers and sisters, but four hundred thousand. It was much easier to recognize a wrong many years later. Forty-one years after this insignificant permission to hold a picnic at Minnehaha Park, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that acknowledged our nation’s horrible failing, our unwillingness to accept a minority that was different and often misunderstood.

Ronald_Reagan_signing_Japanese_reparations_bill 1988

President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that provided for reparations to Japanese Americans who had been imprisoned during Word War II. The bill was sponsored by Alan Simpson, a Republican Senator and Norman Mineta, a Democrat in the House of Representatives. Mineta later became the only Democrat to serve in George W. Bush’s cabinet. (Courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Perhaps I’m a softy, but when I read Karl Raymond’s recommendation to grant a picnic permit, against general policy, I found myself smiling. Way to go, Karl! A little victory for humanity. We can always use more of those — whether you think we’re mostly bad, mostly good or completely woebegone.

Let’s hope we don’t need to find courageous sponsors and signers of legislation forty years from now to correct mistakes we can avoid today.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]

©2016 David C. Smith

Lake Nokomis Bath House

One of my favorite pictures of Lake Nokomis. Construction of the bath house was completed in 1920, not long before this photo was taken. The barren landscape — on both sides of the lake — is surprising. (Click the image to enlarge.) This is one of many park board photos that may become available to the public in the near future through the Minnesota Digital Library.

The new playing fields and bath house at Lake Nokomis. Construction of the bath house was completed in 1920, not long before this photo was taken. The barren landscape -- on both sides of the lake -- is surprising. This is one of many park board photos that may become available to the public in the near future through the Minnesota Digital Library. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.)

The new playing fields and bath house at Lake Nokomis. Early 1920s.  Taken from Cedar Avenue. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.)

What became of that bath house? The Minneapolis Star ran the photo below on May 2, 1966. The building had been declared unsafe, but demolition was prompted by thousands of dollars of damage done by vandals that winter. Only the toilet rooms of the bath house were left standing for the summer of 1966. A new, smaller bath house was built the next summer. At the time it was the most heavily used beach in the city.



David C. Smith  minneapolisparkhistory[at]\


Charles Loring: “We must control the lake.”

If you have read my history of the Minneapolis park system, City of Parks, you may recall that Charles Loring’s efforts to acquire land around lakes Harriet, Isles and Calhoun remain a subject of speculation. No one has ever found a clear strategy or well-documented plan by Loring, the first president of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners, to acquire the lakes, even though he spent the better part of several years in getting those complicated real estate deals done. I focused mostly on Loring’s desire to create a parkway from Loring Park, then still called Central Park, around the lakes to Lake Harriet, which had been acquired already for the fledgling park board largely by gift. Even the generous gift of land around Lake Harriet by Henry Beard, James Merritt, Charles Reeve and, ultimately, William King, was prompted by the desire to have a parkway around the lake, which accounts for the limits of the original gift: a strip of land only 125 feet wide around Lake Harriet — just enough for a walking path, a carriage way and a few trees or flowers to dress it up.

A new discovery suggests, however, that Loring had much more in mind than parkways. As part of the ongoing project to inventory the park board’s historical records with the goal of making them more accessible to researchers, I recently found a letter written by Loring in 1886 that sheds more light on his thinking about the lakes.

The letter, dated June 14, 1886 and addressed to park board secretary Rufus Baldwin, discusses Loring’s views on what needs to be done to acquire land at Lake of the Isles. Loring notes that Alfred Dean, who owned much of the land that had to be crossed by a parkway at Lake of the Isles, had already told Loring he could do whatever he wished. Loring then wrote,

“My opinion is that we do not want the land on the outside, but do want it next the lake. As the plat now is, the boulevard goes around the little marsh thus.”

Loring then includes a small drawing.


Charles Loring’s letter to Rufus Baldwin, June 14, 1886

He is very explicit, writing on the road next to the lake “This is what we want” and concluding bluntly, “We must control the lake.”

This evidence that Loring was thinking far beyond parkways is reinforced by the concluding page of his letter when he addresses a new topic: boats on Lake Harriet. He notes that a steamer has been placed on the lake and he has asked the owner to remove it, but adds that after talking with “Judge Fish” — park board attorney Daniel Fish — Loring doesn’t want legal questions raised yet about “rights on the water”.  Clearly, Loring is thinking about park board control not just of boulevards around the lake, but activity on the lake as well. His earlier comment, “We must control the lake”, takes on even greater significance.

We may owe even more to Charles Loring and his vision than we previously knew.

While on the subject of Loring I want to mention a note I received a while ago from, William Scott, the great-great-nephew of Charles Loring’s second wife Florence Barton Loring. You can read more about his family’s relationship with the Bartons and Lorings in the “Comments” section here.

This is the carte de visite of Florence Barton that he refers to. Thanks to William Scott for sharing the photos below.

Florence Barton

Florence Barton, date unknown. (Beal Art Gallery, Harold W. Scott Collection, courtesy William Scott)

This must have been taken long before she married Charles Loring at age 45 in 1895. Read much more about Florence Barton Loring here.

William Scott also sent a photograph of family and friends at Minnehaha Falls in about 1910. Love those hats! The new bridge with the boulder face over a concrete structure was brand new in 1910. Appears to be a dry year.

1912 ca. Falls Scott

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]

© 2016 David C. Smith

Shared History: Edina’s Early Days

Edina and Minneapolis share more than France Avenue — and history buffs aren’t restricted by city boundaries.

Henry Brown played an important role in the history of Edina as well as the history of Minnehaha Falls as a Minneapolis park.

There is a Chowen Park in both Edina and Minneapolis.

Minnehaha Creek flows through Minneapolis parkland  before it gets to Edina — and, of course, all of Minnehaha Creek after it leaves Edina on its way through Minneapolis to Minnehaha Falls and the Mississippi River is parkland.

The Interlachen neighborhood grew up around a golf course created by golfers who had outgrown their nine-hole Bryn Mawr course near downtown Minneapolis. 

That’s just a taste of the rich information on Edina history — and Minneapolis history  — on the web site of realtor Ben Ganje. Go to the neighborhood directory on his site then look at the right margin for a list of Edina neighborhoods. Each of Edina’s 45 official neighborhoods is profiled with historical info and interesting bits of trivia.

I read about Todd Park because of my interest in famous diva Emma Abbott, a Minneapolis girl made good. Her father was one of those first interested in developing this part of Edina.

Why was I interested in Emma Abbott? She was buried next to her husband in Oak Grove Cemetery in his home town, Gloucester, Mass. Their monument is the most impressive in that cemetery, which I visited this fall.

Oak Grove, Emma Abbott Memorial

Emma Abbott’s memorial in Oak Grove Cemetery, Gloucester, Mass. Designing the cemetery was one of H.W.S. Cleveland’s first commissions as a landscape architect in 1854. (Photos: David C. Smith)

Laying out Oak Grove Cemetery was one of the first commissions Horace William Shaler Cleveland received as a landscape architect. Oak Grove, Emma Abbott WetherleyHe was hired for that job, with his young partner Robert Copeland, in 1854. The next year they tackled the design of the much more prestigious Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass., the eventual resting place of many of the great writers of early America: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia, a childhood friend of Horace Cleveland.

More Edina History of Interest to Minneapolitans

Another Edina neighborhood profile I liked was Creek Knoll, which borders Minneapolis and was first promoted as a residential development for its nearness to Lake Harriet.

Also check out the profile of Morningside, a neighborhood that was also subdivided and developed partly because of the rapidly rising prices of residential lots nearer Lake Harriet in the early 1900s.

For those of you interested in park history in general, you might want to read about park development at Pamela Park, Bredesen Park and also the land once owned by four-term Minneapolis mayor, George Leach, that became Braemar Golf Course. The Lake Cornelia history also presents some of the challenges of park making as well as stormwater management that face cities as well as suburbs.

Can you still catch northern pike in Centennial Lakes?

Worth a look if you want to know more about our southwestern neighbor — and our metropolitan area from water management and freeways to shopping centers.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]

Arts and Parks: Part II

Another of my favorite recent photo finds is a good intro to my next speaking engagement on Minneapolis park history this Saturday.

I recently found this photo of the Washburn Fair Oaks mansion built by William Washburn in 1883.


Washburn Fair Oaks mansion, probably in the 1880s. Looking west across Third Avenue South in foreground. (W.S. Zinn)

Compare it to this photo taken two Sundays ago from about the same vantage point across Third Avenue South.

Washburn Fair Oaks from 3rd Ave.

Washburn Fair Oaks Park looking west across Third Avenue South.

Now turn about 90 degrees left and you get this image of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.


Minneapolis Institute of Arts looking southwest across Third Avenue South.

I’ll be talking about both parks and arts, and how many of the same people created Minneapolis’s parks and its art institutions at the Washburn Library on Lyndale Avenue, Saturday, November 21 at 10 a.m. My presentation is being hosted by the Minnesota Independent Scholars’ Forum, but the event is free and open to the public.

For more information visit here. Hope to see you Saturday.

If you want to know more about the landscaping of the Washburn Fair Oaks grounds, you can begin here. Of course, the story features H.W.S. Cleveland.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]

The Demise of the 10th Avenue Bridge

In response to the previous post on Charles Tenney’s photos of Highland Avenue and the 10th Avenue Bridge, MaryLynn Pulscher sent her favorite photo of the 10th Avenue Bridge. It’s a fascinating bit of history itself. We don’t know the origin of the photo but believe it’s from a newspaper. If anyone knows who took it or where it was published, please let us know so we can give proper attribution.

David C. Smith

Lost Minneapolis Parks: Highland Oval

The elegant neighborhood on the hills surrounding Oak Lake — now the site of the Farmer’s Market off Lyndale Avenue — has been gone for decades. Oak Lake itself was filled in 100 years ago. You can read the whole story here. The latest news: I finally found a picture of one of the five small parks in the Oak Lake Addition. I give you Highland Oval.

The title on the photo is "Highland Avenue, Oak Lake Division." but the open space in the middle of the photo can only be Highland Oval. The view is looking northwest. (Photo by Charles E. Tenney, used with permission of owner.)

The title on the photo is “Highland Avenue, Oak Lake Division”, but the open space in the middle of the photo can only be Highland Oval. The view is looking northwest. Tiny, isn’t it? But the effort to preserve any open green space in rapidly expanding cities was a novel concept. (Photo by Charles A. Tenney)

The photo was probably taken in the mid-1880s, before the park board assumed responsibility for the land as a park. The land was designated as park in the 1873 plat of the addition by brothers Samuel and Harlow Gale. Although I have no proof, I believe it likely that H.W.S. Cleveland laid out the Oak Lake Addition, owing largely to the known relationship between Cleveland and Samuel Gale. The curving streets that followed topography and the triangles and ovals at street intersections were hallmarks of Cleveland’s unique work about that same time for William Marshall’s St. Anthony Park in St. Paul and later for William Washburn’s Tangletown section of Minneapolis near Minnehaha Creek. It was also characteristic of Cleveland’s work in other cities.

Photographer Charles A. Tenney published a few series of stereoviews of St. Paul and Minneapolis 1883-1885. He was based in Winona and most of his photos are of the area around that city and across southern Minnesota.

Highland Oval was located in what is now the northeastern corner of the market.

As happy as I was to find the Highland Oval photo, my favorite photo by Tenney tells a different story.

10th Avenue Bridge. Charles E. Tenney.

10th Avenue Bridge. (Photo by Charles A. Tenney)

At first glance, this image from Tenney’s Minneapolis Series 1883 was simply the 10th Avenue Bridge below St. Anthony Falls, looking east. The bridge no longer exists, although a pier is still visible in the river. What makes the photo remarkable for me are the forms in the upper left background being built for the construction of the Stone Arch Bridge. (See a closeup of the construction method here.) The Stone Arch Bridge was completed in 1883 — the same year the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners was created.

Nearly 100 years after the bridge was built, trains quit using it and several years later the park board, Hennepin County and Minnesota reached an agreement for the park board to maintain the bridge deck for pedestrians and bicyclists, thus helping to transform Minneapolis’s riverfront — a process that continues today.

Note also the low level of the river around the bridge piers. This was long before dams were built to raise the river level to make it navigable.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]

© 2015 David C. Smith