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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