Minneapolis Parks 100 Years Ago

The Minneapolis park board and other park activists in town have a full plate this year: a new park superintendent, reorganization and significant staff turnover, Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition and Initiative, development of Boom Island and B. F. Nelson parks, proposed green finger of parks running into downtown from the river through Gateway Park past the library, potential power plant — Crown Hydro — on park property, and a budget inadequate to do much else. Those are only a handful of the bigger challenges.

But, hah!, Wilbur Decker and Theodore Wirth, park board president and superintendent respectively in 1911, would smirk at this puny agenda. It’s nothing compared to what the park board did 100 years ago. Here’s a summary of what the park board accomplished in 1911. I’ll write more about individual projects in coming months.

The duties of park commissions are not discharged when the petitions of those who realize their needs have been acted upon favorably, nor when the requests of groups of citizens who have worthy ends in view but have not considered the whole problem have been complied with.
— Wilbur Decker, president, Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners, 1911 annual report

The park board accepted, purchased or condemned land for the following parks:

  • Dorilus Morrison Park (donated as a site for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts): 8.49 acres
  • Washburn Fair Oaks: 7.48 acres
  • Bryn Mawr Meadows: 39.3 acres
  • Glenwood-Camden Parkway (Victory Memorial Parkway): 169.6 acres
  • Longfellow Field (this park no longer exists): 4.22 acres
  • Sumner Field: 3 acres
  • Seventh Ward Park (Stewart Field): 2.7 acres
  • Columbia Park expansion: 13.37 acres
  • Glenwood (Wirth) Park expansion: 24.6 acres
  • Riverside Park expansion: 22.5 acres
  • Triangles (all acquired from the city council): 3 acres

These acquisitions brought the total surface area of Minneapolis parks to 3,686 acres, almost exactly one-third of which was water. That’s about 3,000 acres less than today. The population of the city was about 325,000 that year, or about 60,000 less than today. In other words, Decker wrote, there were 322 square feet of park per person, exclusive of water.

If every man, woman and child in Minneapolis were to go to the parks at one time, there would be room for each one to “swing a cat” without interfering with neighbors.
— Wilbur Decker, 1911 annual report

Officially opening the lagoon linking Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles, 1911 (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Other accomplishments of the Board of Park Commissioners in 1911:

  • Completed the connection of Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun, including building four bridges over the “lagoon” dredged between lakes
  • Planned a week-long civic celebration of the Linking of the Lakes, which culminated with 4th of July fireworks over Lake Harriet that was watched by a crowd estimated at 100,000.
  • Completed five years of dredging at Lake of the Isles and constructed paths around the lake
  • Began dredging and filling in the northwest corner of Lake Calhoun
  • Began building a bath house on the north shore of Lake Calhoun
  • Moved part of the old Lake Calhoun bathhouse to Lake Nokomis and the other part to Glenwood (Wirth) Lake to serve swimmers there
  • Graded North Commons

    Eloise Butler in the garden named for her. (Minneapolis Collection, Hennepin County Library)

  • Hired Eloise Butler as a paid, full-time curator of the Wildflower Garden (she had been doing the work as a volunteer for four years already)
  • Built four tennis courts at The Parade and reached agreement with a private tennis club to operate them
  • Installed backstops on the baseball fields at The Parade and North Commons and the tennis court at Tower Hill
  • Installed football goal posts at North Commons
  • Restricted the taking of minnows in Powderhorn Lake to 100 per day for personal use and banned their sale (the level of Powderhorn Lake dropped two feet for unknown reasons)
  • Granted Theodore Wirth permission to keep a cow, pony and chickens for the use of his family at his house/office at Lyndale Farmstead
  • Planted 1857 trees along Minneapolis streets
  • Reconstructed the south wing of the Lake Harriet pavilion by driving 65-foot pilings into the lake
  • Stocked Lake Harriet with 1,500 Chinook salmon and 2,500 young speckled lake trout
  • Stocked Lake Calhoun with 7,000,000 walleyes, 500,000 perch and 5,000 crappies
  • Planted 138,000 bedding plants on park property, 1/4 of them in Loring Park
  • Conducted a design competition for a field house at Logan Park, which was won by Minneapolis architect Cecil Bayless Chapman
  • Built a reinforced concrete bridge over Shingle Creek below the dam near the Webber Bath House
  • Moved the Powderhorn Lake playground from 10th and 32nd to 15th and 34th
  • Drove wells in Loring Park, Powderhorn Park, Elliot Park, Franklin Steele Square, Humboldt Triangle, Cedar Avenue Triangle and Lake Calhoun

Every citizen cannot have a beautiful lake or other great park feature opposite his residence, but it is quite possible for this board to establish beauty spots and places of recreation within easy walking distance of every home.
— Wilbur Decker, 1911 annual report

And that doesn’t begin to convey the depth of services from the forestry, horticulture and recreation departments. The park board reduced its workforce for the second half of the year as money for park maintenance was considered insufficient. Wirth wrote in the 1911 annual report, “All parks showed more or less the lack of proper care.”

In days to come our proudest claim should not be that our natural park features are among the finest in the country, but that people in every quarter of the city enjoy adequate park privileges.
— Wilbur Decker, 1911 annual report

Theodore Wirth concluded his section of the 1911 annual report by writing, “The year of 1911 stands on the records of the Board as one of great achievements and, in the minds of the commissioners and officers at least, as one of many tribulations and much anxiety.”

May the present commissioners and officers accomplish as much with fewer tribulations and less anxiety.

David C. Smith

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