The “Brownie” in Brownie Lake

In the historical profile I wrote about Brownie Lake for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, I reported that I had found a handwritten note on an old park board document that attributed the lake’s name to the nickname of William McNair’s daughter. Now, I’ve also found a newspaper reference to that.

The Minneapolis Tribune of November 13, 1910 reported on the origin of the names of Minneapolis lakes. The article said Brownie Lake was taken from the nickname of Mrs. Louis K. Hull. Louis Hull, a prominent young attorney in Minneapolis, married Agnes McNair, one of two daughters of William McNair, on December 12, 1892.

Agnes “Brownie” McNair Hull, namesake of Brownie Lake, about 1890 (Jordan, Minnesota Historical Society)

William McNair was an influential attorney and businessman in Minneapolis who had died in 1885. Among his many real estate holdings in the city was a 1,000-acre farm that stretched across much of near north Minneapolis to include Brownie Lake. At the time of his death he was said to be in negotiation with the park board to donate a 100-foot-wide strip of land for a parkway that would have extended from Lake of the Isles, around Cedar Lake, to Farview Park in north Minneapolis. It was said he already owned nearly all the land that would be required for that four-mile parkway. His obituary (September 16, 1885, Minneapolis Tribune) claimed that he was building a mansion at 13th and Linden (facing Hawthorne Park) that would rival W. D. Washburn’s “Fair Oaks” in south Minneapolis. Louise McNair, his widow, apparently finished it, judging by this photo. Whatever happened to it? Did it outlive Fair Oaks?

McNair home, about 1890, Hawthorne Park, Minneapolis. “Brownie” McNair was married here. (Minnesota Historical Society)

A curiosity about Brownie Lake: about half of the lake was platted into streets and “blocks.” The map of Cedar Lake and environs in the 1909 annual report of the park board shows Drew, Chowen and Beard avenues platted through Brownie Lake.  Much of the land for Cedar Lake Parkway, and park board control of Cedar Lake, came from donations by McNair’s widow, Louise. She was the sister of McNair’s first law partner, Eugene Wilson, who was an important park commissioner and the attorney for the first park board. Hawthorne Park, where the McNair’s were building their mansion, was later renamed Wilson Park after Eugene Wilson. Wilson Park was condemned in the 1960s to become part of the I-94 interchange.

Wilson Park, once known as Hawthorne Park, in about 1942, looking southwest with Basilica in background (Jack Delano, Minnesota Historical Society)

The park and playground west of Cedar Lake, which has always been known as Reserve Block 40, but never formally named, is in a neighborhood known as McNair Park. As residents of the Bryn Mawr neighborhood consider renaming Reserve Block 40, they could do worse than to keep the McNair Park name.

A final bit of Brownie Lake-related trivia: One of the pall bearers at William McNair’s funeral was Charles M. Loring. What makes that noteworthy in these days of political and philosophical rancor is that Loring and McNair were local leaders among Republicans and Democrats respectively. Clearly they were able to see past their political differences.

David C. Smith

© David C. Smith

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2 comments so far

  1. […] Unfortunately, the unspecified illness to which the article refers took McNair’s life three months later, before the park board and McNair could work out his donation of land in North Minneapolis. He owned part of the shore of Cedar Lake and a large swath of land across North Minneapolis. (See more on the McNair estate in a post about the naming of Brownie Lake.) […]

  2. […] we look forward to improvements at Brownie Lake later this year and in 2013 I find it informative to look at photos of how the area looked long […]


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