The Big Bowl: Seven Oaks Oval

It’s a steep descent into Minneapolis’s cheapest park, more than twenty-five feet down from the street. And it contains no river or creek bed; at least there’s no water in it anymore. It’s a huge bowl full of wild greenery one block west of West River Parkway and East 34th Street. There are many little parks in Minneapolis that no one but neighbors really knows about, like the triangles I wrote about earlier this summer. But this park covers more than two acres, more than half the size of a typical city block. And the only evidence that the park board has ever spent a penny on the interior of the park is the dreaded orange paint ring around the tree trunk in the picture: a park board forester has been here. Someone is watching.

Seven Oaks Oval: The cheapest park in Minneapolis, twenty-five feet below street grade

Seven Oaks Oval has to be the cheapest park in the city measured by the cost-per-acre to acquire and maintain the property during its life as a park. Seven Oaks Oval officially became a park in 1922, at least that’s when the park board accepted the property as a park. Park board proceedings claim it was platted as a park in the original plat of Seven Oaks River Lots in 1913, but that plat already shows up with a park in the middle on the 1903 plat map of the city. Regardless, it cost the park board nothing to acquire.

A young woman, maybe a phantom, darted through the green and disappeared.

The year the park was acquired, 1922, was such a busy one at the Minneapolis park board that the acquisition wasn’t even mentioned in the park board’s annual report for the year. Park superintendent Theodore Wirth included a modest plan for the park in the 1928 annual report, a few criss-crossing paths and two campfire sites for the Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls, but nothing ever came of it. Perhaps the park board placed the boulders in a small bit of grass border around the bowl, but what they cost to place there might have been the only money ever spent on the park beyond mowing the thin fringe of grass beside the curb.

It seems a place to exercise the imagination, a kind of spooky hideaway, the kind of I-dare-you place kids tell their visiting cousins scary stories about. When I visited, old branches had been stacked to form a crude shelter halfway down the hill, a pirate’s lair or the shelter of a shipwrecked sailor. I’m sure once inside that one would hear lions or tigers sniffing about the entrance. Perhaps someone who lived in the neighborhood can provide an account of the odd park. I’d love to know more. If any geologist out there could explain this topographical oddity to me, I’d also appreciate that.

Odd Shapes

What I know for sure is that Seven Oaks Oval is one of only two park properties named for shapes that don’t have angles. The other is Caleb Dorr Circle on the east end of the Franklin Avenue Bridge. Ironically, Caleb Dorr Circle has for many years actually been a triangle. There used to be other ovals and circles, but they’ve been lost to streets and traffic.

By my last count there are 33 “triangles” and 7 “squares” remaining in the Minneapolis park system. The squares are nearly evenly distributed throughout the city. How many can you name?

David C. Smith


16 comments so far

  1. gary on

    I also grew up near the ‘oval’, (1950’s), and spent quite a bit of time there. One night I had a nightmare of that place that was so frightening and disturbing I remember it with exact details to this day, (enuff said). I attended academic meeting where the subject of that park was addressed. That park was indeed a sinkhole but with deep passages under south mpls. More interesting, there is a lake attached to one of the passages. The presenter, a geologist researcher, had pictures and maps of the underground areas. There is an entrance to the complex (not in the oval) and it is sealed off and extremely hard to find. Over the years only a very rare opening has been permitted for research studies.

  2. Louise on

    I grew up a block away from the Oval and spent a lot of time exploring for fossils in the early 60’s. There were a lot of stories about scary people doing strange things down there, so I stayed to “safe” side of the bowl and never, ever went into the pit at night. I thought it was connected to the Mississippi at one point. A collapsed cave makes sense, and should have been searching for artifacts!

  3. Dan Nash on

    My dad grew up near Seven Oaks Oval in the early 1900’s. In those days it didn’t have an official name. It was known locally as the “Boiling Kettle” or something like that. And the kids were absolutely forbidden by their parents to go anywhere near it, for fear that they would be unable to get back out. They told the kids that dragons and monsters lived in there…just to scare them out of any notions of exploring. And according to neighborhood legend, children had disappeared into the abyss, never to be seen again. How times have changed…

  4. […] have reposted an old piece on Seven Oaks Oval to keep a promise made this morning. It’s the most unusual park in […]

  5. Derick on

    I grew up in the area, us kids in the neighborhood would often grow bored during various times of the year and somebody would suggest heading down to “The Oval.” Before I was a teenager, we’d play amongst the trees and brush and as teenagers it would be an after-dark gathering place. I remember we’d play games like “Sixty” or a game we made up in the 1980’s we called “Rambo,” named after the Sly Stallone franchise movies. Every couple of years I’d take a slight detour off the River Road to swing by, stop for a moment and reminisce fondly about those days.

    • David Smith on

      Thanks, Derick. A great place for creative play.

  6. Jo on

    I, too, grew up by the “Oval.” My understanding is that it was a collapsed sink hole. Our home on Edmund Blvd. did have a cave underneath it. We’ve seen a map and know how far the cave extends. Also, “back in the day”, my brother would bounce his basketball in our unfinished basement (concrete floor) and our next door neighbor could hear the bouncing basketball in their house!

    • David Smith on

      Thanks, Jo. Must have been hard to keep secrets!

  7. mnwindowrestoration on

    According to a neighbor who grew up here in the 1930’s , there was an additional sink hole on the northeast corner of 47th Ave and 34th St. It was filled in the 1930’s and the two houses that stand there now were erected on the site. At one point these holes were part of the Mississippi River system and connected to the river via a cave. The cave still exists. There is an access door in the road on West River Parkway below the stone wall at 34th St. but it is sealed shut. Allegedly, the cave goes back 800 ft from the river bluff towards the sink holes.

  8. […] one has answered correctly my challenge of a couple weeks ago to name the seven “squares” that are parks in the Minneapolis park […]

  9. Jim on

    I grew up in the neighborhood in the 60’s. We simply called it “the Oval”. It was a great playground with great hiding places. It was a wonderful place for little imaginations to run wild!

  10. David C. Smith on

    Thanks for the info Tim and Michael.

  11. […] read from original news source: The Big Bowl: Seven Oaks Oval « Minneapolis Park History […]

  12. Tim Casey on

    It’s a sinkhole. A cave collapsed.

  13. Michael on

    Oh, no! You let out one of our neighborhood secrets! We often swing on the ropes hanging from the trees and explore the stick forts; in the winter there are some (kind of scary) sled runs down the hills, and it’s a great place to practice hill climbing in snowshoes.

    My wife, who is a water resource engineer, tells me that this is the site of a cave collapse, and that there are networks of caves under the neighboring houses. It’s basically a sink hole, and undesirable for much use beyond its current state (you nail it perfectly as the “I-dare-you place kids tell their visiting cousins scary stories about”). Every neighborhood should have a neglected piece of wasteland around which imaginations can weave terrible tales.

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