Francis A. Gross Autobiography I: North Minneapolis and the Origin of North Commons

My wish was granted.

Last April, in an article about the original Longfellow Field and its sale to a munitions maker during WWI, I wrote,

“Of all the park commissioners in Minneapolis history, Frank Gross is one of the most intriguing to me. If I could find some cache of lost journals of any of the city’s park commissioners since Charles Loring and William Folwell, I would most want to find those of Frank Gross. He’d be a great interview subject.”

Francis Gross was first elected to the park board in 1910 by other commissioners to fill out the term of a commisioner who had resigned. From then until 1948 Gross served 32 years as a park commissioner, also serving as president of the board 1917-1919 and again 1936-1948.

A couple months after I wrote about my interest in Gross, I received a comment on that post from Francis A. Gross III, the great-grandson of the man once known as “Mr. Park Board.”

Francis Gross was the starter for the Pushmobile Derby in 1936, two years before he wrote his autobiography. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Francis Gross was the starter for the Pushmobile Derby in 1936, two years before he wrote his autobiography. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

The great-grandson, who goes by “Tony” and is not from Minneapolis, informed me that he had many documents from his great-grandfather, including a handwritten autobiography.

Thanks to Tony and his wife, Joy, who scanned the documents, I have now had the good fortune to read the autobiography of Francis A. Gross, Glimpses into Happy Lives, which he wrote in 1938.

With Tony Gross’s permission, I will write about a couple topics of particular interest to me that Francis Gross addressed in his autobiography, especially his work on Minneapolis parks and anti-German sentiment during World War I. But I’d like to begin with Gross’s description of North Minneapolis during his childhood.

Gross was born in Medina Township in 1870, but his parents opened a hotel and boarding house just off Bridge Square a year later. He lived at the center of city life only until he was five, when the family moved — for the benefit of an impressionable child — to a quieter part of the city on Plymouth Avenue (then still called 13th Avenue North). According to city directories, the address, 210 13th Avenue North, was between Washington and 2nd Street North, or very near the busy commercial intersection at Plymouth and Washington.

Francis Gross, 1919 (Lee Brothers, Minnesota Historical Society)

Francis Gross, 1919 (Lee Brothers, Minnesota Historical Society)

His family ran a grocery store there for most of his childhood. Gross writes about his family’s grocery business, but city directories of the time also list his father, Mathias Gross, as the owner of both a hotel and a saloon at the same address at various times. (The hotel was listed in the directory as “Minneapolis House,” then “North Minneapolis House” in the early 1880s before reverting to a listing as only grocery store and saloon. The business was listed separately under both “Grocery” and “Saloon” in the business sections of the directories — think yellow pages before there were telephones. The family lived at the same address as the business until 1886, when the residence of Mathias Gross was listed as 1517 N. 5th St. In looking back on his own life, it appears that Gross preferred to think of his father’s business as grocery store, rather than saloon.

Gross provides these descriptions of the north side when he was a child:

“South of Plymouth Avenue and west of Washington Avenue was largely occupied by homes extending to Lyndale Ave. and thence southward. North of Plymouth Avenue and west of Washington Avenue, other than some business at what is now called lower W. Broadway, the north side was sparsely settled and was covered by fine oak trees…”

“On both sides of Plymouth Avenue between 5th and 6th streets there were ponds. My father shot ducks there the first years we resided on Plymouth Avenue and the pond on the north side of Plymouth Avenue was a favorite skating place…”

“Bassett’s Creek, now covered by a concrete tunnel part of the way to the river, was a beautiful winding stream and the land adjoining was covered with fine trees and shrubs. From Lyndale avenue to the river, to a width of five or more hundred feet, the land laid low, making a shallow valley. Viewing this beautiful stream valley and the vegetation in it made a landscape a delight to see. It was one of nature’s beauties within the confines of Minneapolis that its park board was not able to preserve. Bassett’s Creek was also a favorite fishing and skating place. At near the point of 7th Street and Lyndale Avenue was the “7th Street swimming hole” patronized by the boys residing in center town, north side and some from the north-east side of the river. Many Minneapolitans have fond recollections of this fun-giving place during their childhood.”

This image of the north Minneapolis is from the 1892 plat book. Ply.mouth Avenue is at the top, Lyndale at far right and Washington angling inot the picture from lower right. Gross livedin the "blue" block at the top of this map.

This image of north Minneapolis is from the 1892 plat book. Plymouth Avenue is at the top, Lyndale is at far left and Washington angles in from lower right. The Mississippi River is in the top right corner. As a child, Gross lived at 210 Plymouth, between Washington and 2nd at the top of this map. As an adult he worked at the German-American Bank near the corner of Plymouth and Washington. So he spent a lot of his life near that street corner. (Click, then click again to enlarge. For the full map go to the John R. Borchert Map Library, University of Minnesota)

Gross’s autobiography also provides a nugget of park history apart from his writing about the park board. He made this remark when remembering his role in the creation of an influential neighborhood business group in 1904:

“The northside’s leading citizens came together and organized the North Side Commercial Club and I became its first president…It induced the Board of Park Commissioners to establish a park which is now North Commons; I was the first to propose this.”

Park board documents reveal very little background information on the creation of North Commons in 1907, so Gross’s comment is informative.

North Commons

North Commons about 1910. Have you ever seen a taller slide? And are you impressed by the little girl in the dress climbing the pole? (Minnesota Historical Society)

Gross may have proposed to the commercial club the site of a second north side park — the first was Farview — but the possibility of such a park had been kicked around for many years.

As early as 1889 the park board had designated the land around Todd’s Pond for a park. But residents near the pond, which was just south of 20th, now Broadway, at about Emerson, near where North High School was later built, were divided on the need for a park there. Opposition came from those who didn’t want to be assessed for the cost of acquiring the land. They argued that Farview Park was not far away and provided enough of a park for north Minneapolis. The Minneapolis Tribune reported February 9, 1890 that the park board was likely to abandon efforts to acquire Todd’s Pond, “for one reason — because there are no funds.” This was after reports in the Tribune two days earlier that the asking price for the nine acres that contained Todd’s Pond — referred to as a “mud hole” — was $120,000. One person who opposed the transaction called that figure “extravagant.”

The major park issue on the north side in those early years of the park board was not how to acquire another neighborhood park, but how to create a parkway from North Minneapolis to the lakes in the southwestern part of the city and to Loring Park. Lyndale Avenue North was not considered an adequate parkway connection from Loring Park to Farview Park — although that was attempted.

The St. Paul Daily Globe captured the issue in its June 6, 1885 edition:

Hon. W. W. McNair, who has just returned from the East, where he spent the winter recuperating his health, brings up the subject of the land he wished to donate for a boulevard from Central [Loring] to Prospect [Farview] parks. He proposed to donate a 100-foot boulevard through his ground by way of Cedar lake, which would make about four miles in length the whole route, with the exception of a few pieces, being on his land. He made this proposition some time ago, but the park commission halted on it because a portion was beyond the city limits, but this disability was removed by act of the last legislature. There was a difference of opinion as to whether such a boulevard should not be 200-feet wide; the difference would be about forty acres of land, but there is no doubt Mr. McNair would donate that amount if altogether desirable. It is probable this matter will be brought before the park commission today.

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.)

The park board did maintain a skating rink and warming house at Todd’s Pond as early as 1890, and continued operating it every winter (except 1897) through 1900, apparently with permission from the landowners. The park board paid for the rink at Todd’s Pond, the first year at least, by transferring funds that had been earmarked for a toboggan slide at Farview Park. The Tribune reported that spring (5/9/1890) that a drain installed near Todd’s Pond was lowering the water level in the pond and that plans for a new three-story brick building at 20th and Emerson would cover a portion of the “mud puddle.”

Although the park board reports maintaining a skating rink at the pond until 1900, there is no mention of the pond again in park board reports or the press until the Minneapolis Journal reported on December 3, 1905 that the North Side Commercial Club wanted skating rinks in the community and recommended Todd’s Pond as a good location. I can find no evidence on maps that a pond still existed in that vicinity.

The reference in the Journal, however, does establish that the North Side Commercial Club was advocating more park services — even if not more parks — early in its history.

The catalyst for establishing another park in north Minneapolis appears to have been the push by residents farther south for a neighborhood park. On March 4, 1907 the park board designated for purchase the land that became Kenwood Park at the northern tip of Lake of the Isles. The same day the board noted receipt of petitions from the North Side Commercial Club and other organizations requesting a parkway connection from North Minneapolis to the lakes via Cedar Lake and for the establishment of another park in the “Third Ward.” Immediately after voting to acquire the land for Kenwood Park, the board directed Theodore Wirth to make preliminary surveys of lands for a parkway around Cedar Lake to Glenwood (Wirth) Park and an expansion of Glenwood Park to encompass Keegan’s (Wirth) Lake.

At its meeting on June 3, 1907 — without additional discussion, explanation, negotiation, or appraisal — the board voted to pay $48,750 for the land known as McNair Field that would become North Commons. The acquisition was most unusual in that the deal came to the park board with a price and payment terms already agreed upon. Clearly negotiations had been conducted behind the scenes. Perhaps the price — only 40 percent of what had been asked for a smaller parcel of land around Todd’s Pond 17 years earlier — was too good to let slip away.

The rapid progress on the deal for a major new park on the north side reflected the growing influence of the North Side Commercial Club, Frank Gross and associates. The Tribune had already noted the significant clout of the club when it wrote on November 25, 1906, “It is getting to be a well-known fact that when the commercial interests of the North side speak up and say “We want so and so,” that they generally are heard, and very often they get what they want.”

Shortly after the acquisition, the club announced a contest for naming the new park — with a $5 prize for the best suggestion. On August 19, 1907 the park board noted that it had received a letter from the North Side Commercial Club suggesting a name: North Commons, which was promptly approved. There is no record of who claimed the five bucks.

I’ll write more about the remarkable public service of Francis A. Gross in the near future. Until then, thanks to Tony Gross for sharing some of his great-grandfather’s papers with us. And he tells me there may be more to come.

Not many people have a lifetime memrbership in a golf club named for them. This card was among the memorabilia of Francis A. Gross in the possessoin of his great grandson, Tony Gross. The former Armour Golf Course was renamed to honor Gross in 1947, an action by the park board that came as a completel surprise to Gross, who was then president of the board. (Francis A. Gross III)

Not many people have a lifetime membership in a golf club named for them. This card was among the memorabilia of Francis A. Gross in the possession of his great-grandson, Tony Gross. The former Armour Golf Course was renamed to honor Gross in 1947, an action by the park board that came as a complete surprise to Gross, who was then president of the board. (Francis A. Gross III)

David C. Smith

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3 comments so far

  1. […] I recalled a passage in the unpublished autobiography of former park commissioner Francis Gross. (Background on Gross and his autobiography.) Gross was born in Minnesota in 1870 and lived near the intersection of Plymouth (13th) […]

  2. Scott Vreeland on

    I do enjoy learning about the people and the historical context that have lead us to this great park system, but I am also just fascinated about the pictures you found of the playground swing sets at Longfellow and North Commons. At North Commons, the crowd with umbrellas on a sunny day, all focused on the climbing above as if this were some event, and at Longfellow…the height of those slides…I would love to learn more about our past playgrounds over time and what they looked like.

    I also noticed an island across from Hall’s island on the map. I wonder if it had a name?
    Thanks,
    Scott Vreeland

    • David C. Smith on

      The old playground photos are incredible, aren’t they? I hope to post more. I’m not aware of names for the islands on the west side of river near Hall’s Island. My impression is that they came and went — probably too fast to be named. Does anybody know more?
      Thanks for reading, Scott.


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