Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

Recommended Reading from Horace W. S. Cleveland

We haven’t had much of a winter yet in Minnesota, but it’s inevitable. When it comes and you’re imprisoned in your cozy den, your thoughts may turn to spring and the gardens you’ll plant or visit. To get you thinking about warmer weather, I’m providing a reading list from the man who envisioned Minneapolis’s park system and designed the first parks acquired by the Minneapolis park board in the 1880s.

In 1886, the secretary to the Minneapolis park board, Rufus J. Baldwin, apparently asked landscape architect Horace W. S. Cleveland to recommend books on his profession. It’s not clear if Baldwin was interested in furthering his own education (he was a prominent Minneapolis attorney) or if he was acquiring books for the park board. Below is Cleveland’s reply dated 23 Sep. 1886.

(All of the books Cleveland cited are now available free online at Google Books. The links in the letter take you to the online volume of the work cited.)

In considering your request that I would furnish you a list of desirable works on landscape gardening I find the subject growing in my mind so rapidly and attaining such dimension that the chief difficulty lies in making a judicious selection. The literature of the last century was especially rich in the discussion of the principles on which the art is founded. “Repton’s Landscape Gardening” is perhaps the ablest and most elaborate of the works of that date, but I think I learned more of first principles from the “Essays on the Picturesque, By Sir Uvedale Price,” than from any book.

It is doubtful however whether either of these books can be purchased in this country unless by chance at a second-hand store. “Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Horticulture,” contains perhaps the most detailed, practical instructions of any English work and is still a standard of reference and can be had in England though it has not been republished here.

Downing’s Landscape Gardening” is at the head of all works on the subject in this country and is in fact a compilation and adaptation to our wants of all the essential principles of the best foreign writers. Next to that and in fact supplying much in which Downing’s work is deficient is “Country Life By Robert Morris Copeland.” He was for many years my partner and was a man of rare taste and skill, and his book is an admirable one. “Scott’s Suburban Homes,” is also an excellent treatise and full of judicious advice in regard to the arrangement of grounds and tasteful use of trees and shrubbery. These books can be procured of any of the leading booksellers or at the seed stores of the principal cities. In ordering Downing’s book, be sure to get the edition which has the appendix by Winthrop Sargent, which contains a vast amount of very valuable information.

I do not think of any other work directly devoted to the subject that would add to the value of what is contained in the above.

The Horticulturist during the time it was edited by Downing was rich in essays on different branches of useful ornamental gardening, but it is doubtful if a complete set could be had, and indeed the three works above enumerated comprise I think all the essential principles so far as they can be given by print and illustration.

If I think of others that would be desirable I will let you know.

The letter is signed, “Very truly yrs, H.W.S. Cleveland.”

(The original letter is in the files of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board at Special Collections, Minneapolis Central Library, Hennepin County Library.)

Amazing, isn’t it, that works Cleveland cited as unavailable in the United States in 1886 — or available at “the seed stores of principal cities” — are now free to anyone with access to a computer. Some people have a problem with a company such as Google having so much control over information — I just read The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) by Siva Vaidhyanathan — and while I agree with concerns over the concentration of information control, the widespread availability of so much information, even as old and arcane as these texts, is an invaluable resource.

Happy reading.

David C. Smith

P.S. Minneapolis still doesn’t have a park named for Horace W. S. Cleveland — and we should. I’m still in favor of naming the west side of the Mississippi River Gorge for him.

Ostrich in the Park: This Month’s Contest

Here’s your chance to win a free subscription to Do what the Minneapolis park board said it couldn’t afford to do—put an ostrich in a Minneapolis park. Of course the park board refused an offer to put real ostriches in parks, but all you have to do to be this month’s lucky winner is photoshop an ostrich into your favorite park picture and send it to us at minneapolisparkhistory[at]

An ostrich admiring Minnehaha Falls, canoeing in Lake of the Isles, stealing a golf ball at Gross, or skating at Logan Park. Imagine the possibilities.

The inspiration for this contest was an item in the February 24 issue of the Minneapolis Morning Tribune in 1913. The headline proclaimed:

No Ostriches This Year
Park Board Can’t Buy Birds
Yet Because of Slimness in
Public Pocket Book

“There are to be no ostriches imported this year to add to the attractions of the parks,” the Tribune reported. “Much though Superintendent Wirth would like to see the large birds roaming through the parks, he readily acquiesced when the park board, for reasons of economy, refused the offer of a California ostrich farmer to stock the parks with ostriches at relatively small cost. Mr. Wirth and some of the park commissioners hope, however, that by next year the board’s finances will allow the purchase of at least a limited number of ostriches.”

And John Erwin and Jayne Miller think they’re being squeezed by lack of funds!

If the park board had found the funds to buy ostriches in 1913, the birds would have joined deer, elk and buffalo that roamed the hillside at Minnehaha Park in the park board’s menagerie. The much larger animal collection kept at the Minnehaha Park from the mid-1890s—including bear, mountain lion, sea lions, alligators and exotic birds—were given to Fish Jones for his private zoo at Longfellow Garden in 1907. The park board kept the deer and elk at Minnehaha until 1923.

Wirth’s other notable contribution to the Minneapolis bestiary was the gray squirrel. Wirth imported the gray squirrels from Kansas in 1909 to replace the red squirrels he hired someone to shoot in Loring Park because they were eating songbird eggs. Wirth believed the less aggressive grays would make better neighbors. He noted in 1919 that the gray squirrels had extended their range throughout the city.

I doubt the ostriches would have been quite as adaptable. And I bet they would have made a bigger mess than the geese that many park visitors and neighbors despise.

Do you know what Fish Jones paid for the animals he got from the park board’s Minnehaha Park zoo in 1907? He had to provide free admission to his zoo one day a week—usually Saturday.

David C. Smith

The Two Pieces of Thomas Lowry Park

After an exchange of several e-mails with Bill Payne on the history of Thomas Lowry Park, I thought I should post the rest of what I know about the former Mt. Curve Triangles. (See the first of my exchanges with Bill in the comments section of the “About” page; and see the posts that generated his questions here and here.) After reading my posts and the historical profile of Thomas Lowry Park at the park board’s website, Bill questioned whether all of the park had ever been called Douglas Triangle before the park was officially named Mt. Curve Triangles on November 4, 1925. I think Bill is right that the larger part of the park—perhaps all of it—never had an official name until then.

On this 1903 map there is no “triangle” of land bounded by Bryant, Douglas and Mt. Curve, center right, at what would become Thomas Lowry Park. (John S. Borchert Map Library, University of Minnesota)

The questions arise because Thomas Lowry Park comprises two parcels of land acquired at different times: the tiny triangle—0.07 acre—bordered by Douglas Avenue, Mt. Curve Avenue and Bryant Avenue South and the much larger quadrangle—2.25 acres—between Douglas and Mt. Curve, Colfax and Bryant. This was before Bryant Avenue between Douglas and Mt. Curve was closed.

The 1903 plat map of Minneapolis at left doesn’t show a triangle of land at all east of Bryant. So it’s nearly certain that requests in 1899 from residents of the area, including Thomas Lowry, whose house is upper right on the map, that the park board maintain the grounds between Mt. Curve and Douglas apply to the lot between Bryant and Colfax. The park board denied that request because it didn’t own the land.

The park board’s first acquisition there is a bit cloudy. For all the details…

Stone Quarry Update: Limestone Quarry in Minnehaha Park at Work

I was technically correct when I wrote in October that the park board only operated a limestone quarry and stone crushing plant in Minnehaha Park for one year: 1907. But I’ve now learned that the Minnehaha Park quarry was operated for nearly five years by someone else—the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

From early 1938 until 1942 the WPA, a federal program that provided jobs during the Depression, operated the quarry after “tests revealed a large layer of limestone of hard blue quality near the surface” in the park near the Fort Snelling property line at about 54th, according to the park board’s 1937 Annual Report. The WPA technically operated the plant, but it was clearly for the benefit of the Minneapolis park system.

“Although this plant is operated by the WPA, our Board supplied the bed of limestone, the city water, lighting, gasoline and oil, and also some small equipment, since it was set up primarily for our River Road West project, which included the paving of the boulevard from Lake Street to Godfrey Road, and also to supply sand and gravel to the River Road West Extension project (north from Franklin Avenue) where there was a large amount of concrete retaining wall construction.”
— 1938 Annual Report, Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners

In 1938 the park board estimated that 85% of the product of the stone crushing plant was used on park projects, the remainder on other WPA projects in the city.

The quarry was established in an area that “was not used by the public and when the operations are completed, the area can be converted into picnic grounds and other suitable recreational facilities,” the park board reported. (I bet no one thought then that a “suitable” facility would include a place where people could allow their dogs to run off leash!)

“The Stone-crushing Plant at Minnehaha Park” (1938 Annual Report, Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners) Doesn’t look much like one of our favorite wild places, does it?

The plant consisted of “two large jaw crushers” and a conveyor that lifted the crushed rock to shaker screens over four large bins. It was operated by gasoline engines and was lit by electric lights so it could operate day and night. (The fellow with the wheelbarrow in the photo might have liked more conveyor.)

The crushed stone was used in paving River Road West and East, Godfrey Road and many roads, walks and tennis courts throughout the park system. The rock was also used as a paving base at the nearby “Municipal Airport,” also known as Wold-Chamberlain Field, which the park board owned and developed until it ceded authority over the airport to the newly created Metropolitan Airports Commission in 1944. According to the 1942 Annual Report of the park board, in four-and-a-half years the quarry produced 76,000 cubic yards of crushed limestone, 50,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel and 36,000 cubic feet of cut limestone.

The cut limestone was used to face bridges over Minnehaha Creek, shore retaining walls at Lake Harriet, Lake Nokomis and Lake Calhoun and other walls throughout the park system.

The plant was used to crush gravel only in 1938. The gravel was taken from the banks of the Mississippi River, “it having been excavated by the United States Government to deepen the channel of the Mississippi River just below the dam and locks.” After that, the WPA acquired the sand and gravel it needed from a more convenient source in St. Paul.

The project was terminated in 1942 near the end of the WPA. In his 1942 report, park superintendent Christian Bossen wrote in subdued tones that, “For a number of years, practically the only improvement work carried on was through WPA projects. In 1942, WPA confined its work almost exclusively to war projects: and under these conditions considerable work was done at the airport and a very little work was done on park projects.” The WPA was terminated the following year.

The next time you take your dog for a run at the off-leash recreation area at Minnehaha, have a look to see if there are any signs of the quarry and let us know what you find.

David C. Smith

Name That Park

1. This Minneapolis park is commonly refered to by a name that indirectly commemorates one of the most famous people in the history of the United States, a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution.

2. The man for whom the park is named built this house at 5th Street and 12th Avenue SE in 1883.

5th St. and 12th Avenue SE, built 1883 (History of the City of Minneapolis, Atwater)

3. The namesake of this park, pictured below, was one of three civic leaders in Minneapolis in the 1870s and later who acquired their social, political and economic influence after serving in the Confederate army, unusual for this famously “Yankee” town.

This Kentuckian entered the Confederate army at age 19 and finished the Civil War as a prisoner of war. The other prominent Confederate soldiers in Minneapolis were Thomas Rosser, a Confederate general, who was the city engineer in 1878, and Phillip “P. B.” Winston, Rosser’s aide during the war, who was elected Minneapolis mayor in 1890. Winston married Katherine Stevens, the daughter of Minneapolis pioneer Col. John Stevens. Katharine donated the sculpture of her father that now stands near Minnehaha Falls.

In the History of the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Isaac Atwater addressed in 1893 this man’s Civil War service thirty years earlier:

A generation has passed since the war of the Rebellion. The survivors of its contests in arms have passed the meridian of life. Their animosities have softened, their judgments matured, and their love for a common Union strengthened, or if once alienated, has been restored. Those who once wore the blue fraternize with those who donned the gray, and the acrimonies which were once bitter between them have melted into common respect. Minneapolis entered into the struggle with enthusiasm and sent her choicest citizens to the front. But she has always been kind and tolerant to those who were on the other side. Her cosmopolitan citizenry cherish neither bigotry nor proscription…With courtesy and forbearance she received Mr.______ after the war was over and entrusted to him her dearest interests and placed upon him her chief honors. And no one born within her own limits, and following her tattered flags, could more loyally or honorably bear them than he.

More than a bit flowery, but apparently a subject that Mr. Atwater believed needed to be addressed. The man described served on the city council from the late 1870s, the first park board in 1883 and the school board 1884-1891. He was a trustee of Hamline University, a regent of the University of Minnesota, and president of the state agricultural society.

4. He made his fortune in lumber, but he also founded a planing and shingle company that bore his name and once occupied the property that is now a park.

This is the view of the mystery park looking east from Boom Island in 1901 — when Boom Island was still an island. (Minnesota Historical Society)

And the Answer Is…

The park in question has never been named officially, but it is commonly referred to as the B. F. Nelson site, after the company that occupied the property for nearly 100 years. The company was created by Benjamin Franklin Nelson in the 1880s.

B. F. Nelson was not one of the commissioners named in the legislation that created the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners in 1883, but shortly after the act passed the legislature and was approved by a referendum in Minneapolis, one of the named commissioners, Andrew Haugan, resigned. The other commissioners elected Nelson to take Haugan’s place until the first election of park commissioners in 1884. Since then park commissioners have been elected, although as in Nelson’s case, vacancies between elections are filled by a vote of the other commissioners. Nelson chose not to stand for election to the park board in 1884, opting instead for a seat on the school board.

Nelson was one of three park commissioners who resided east of the river—Samuel Chute and John Pillsbury were the others—who selected the site of Logan Park as the first east-side park in 1883.

David C. Smith



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