Theodore Wirth, Francis Gross and Me: A Friday Photo and a Re-assessment

The dedication of the Heffelfinger Fountain in Lyndale Park, 1947. This is the only photo I've seen of Theodore Wirth and Francis Gross together, along with another well-known Minneapolitan. From left: Park Superintendent Emeritus Theodore Wirth, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey, Park Board Presdient Francis Gross, Park Superintendent Charles Doell. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

The dedication of Heffelfinger Fountain in Lyndale Park, 1947. This is the only photo I’ve seen of Theodore Wirth and Francis Gross together. They are joined by an even better-known Minneapolitan. From left: Park Superintendent Emeritus Theodore Wirth, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey, Park Board President Francis A. Gross, Park Superintendent Charles E. Doell. Wirth was then 84 and Gross 77. The fountain had been discovered and purchased in Italy by Frank Heffelfinger, shipped to Minneapolis, and given to the park board. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

As I began my initial, intensive assault on Minneapolis park history in 2007 to write City of Parks, I was inclined to attribute the great success of our park system to Theodore Wirth — as so many people do. I had heard his name—attached as it was to a park, lake and parkway — for many years, and I promptly read his book on the park system—part history, part memoir.

Theodore Wirth served as superintendent of Minneapolis parks for 30 years, 1906-1935. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Theodore Wirth was superintendent of Minneapolis parks for 30 years, 1906-1935. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

It was the beginning of an up-and-down ride for me with Mr. Wirth and his legacy, one that I am reexamining in light of comments by Francis Gross in the autobiography he wrote in 1938.

I knew little about Wirth in 2007, but I did recall vividly being introduced to a Swedish gentleman at a party in Stockholm, Sweden in 1986 who, when he learned where I was from, gushed about what a great park planner Theodore Wirth had been. He knew much more about Wirth than I did and he knew of Wirth not because of any connection between Sweden and Minnesota. Contrary to what you’d expect with all the manifestations of Swedish heritage in Minnesota, I met few Swedes who had the slightest interest in or knowledge of any connection between their country and my state. In that regard, Swedes were not much different from people in England, Spain or Fredonia. This was also true of the gentleman who spoke so highly of Wirth; his knowledge grew solely from professional interest, untainted by any bonds of kinship with Minnesotans.

At the same party, I had another memorable conversation. I spoke at length with a young U. S. Marine from St. Paul, Clayton Lonetree, who told me he hoped to join the CIA one day. Lonetree was in Stockholm on temporary duty providing security for American diplomats attending an international conference. His regular duty was providing security at American diplomatic missions. He was stationed in Vienna then, but had previously been detailed to the U. S. Embassy in Moscow. Lonetree intimated to me that he had already been involved in some cloak and dagger stuff, which had whetted his appetite for a career of it. His comments struck a discordant note, something with his story was off. I had worked with Marines and representatives of intelligence agencies in four years as a Foreign Service Officer in American embassies. I knew a bit about the interactions among people in embassies and what Lonetree told me didn’t fit. His comments were puzzling enough to me that I commented on my feelings later that night to a friend in the American intelligence community.

A few months later, back in Minneapolis, I was astonished to read in my morning Trib that Lonetree had been arrested for espionage for his activities while in Moscow. He was accused of being manipulated by a Soviet girlfriend into allowing her “uncle”, a KGB operative, to gain access to the Embassy and classified information.  I was enthralled by the coverage of the case and recalled my own unease—with a hint of pride in sensing something amiss—with Lonetree.

I was even more surprised a few months later when I received a call from the Naval Investigative Service (not Jethro LeRoy Gibbs) asking to interview me about my conversation with Lonetree many months earlier. I met Special Agent Not Gibbs in a downtown Minneapolis hotel and recalled what I could of a party conversation. I never did find out how they learned of my exchange with Lonetree; my friend in intelligence insisted he had not reported my comments about Lonetree.

The saga continued when I received a call from an investigator working for Lonetree’s civilian defense attorney, William Kunstler, telling me they wanted me to testify at Lonetree’s court-martial in Quantico, Virginia. I never was called to testify because Kunstler decided not to call any defense witnesses. It appeared to me that Kunstler was grandstanding, making his own political statement at the expense of his client.

I was spared the drama of testifying at an espionage trial, and Lonetree was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was paroled after serving nine years. I never did quite understand how his defense team thought my testimony could help him. I had no facts to give really, just a vague disquiet at the young man’s inflated claims.

What in Charles Loring’s name does Clayton Lonetree have to do with Theodore Wirth?

The connection between my conversation about one man and with another on the same night 21 years earlier four thousand miles from Minneapolis was that as I began to dig more deeply into Minneapolis park history in 2007 I became more and more uneasy with many of the claims made about Wirth’s contributions to Minneapolis parks. Without in any way equating the admirable career of Wirth with the dishonorable actions of Lonetree, something about those claims for Wirth’s accomplishments was oddly skewed. I felt something akin to listening to Clayton Lonetree talk about espionage. Uneasy. More and more skeptical. I knew that not all of the claims about Wirth’s career were made by Wirth himself. Many people over many years had made claims about Wirth that were not completely accurate. But Wirth did contribute at times to the inflation of his own accomplishments.

An example. In the annual reports prepared under Wirth’s direction, he often included comparative maps that showed the Minneapolis park system at various stages. For instance in 1910, he included a map of the park system as proposed by H. W. S. Cleveland in 1883, as it was in 1888, then as it stood in 1905 and 1910. In 1917, he again compared the maps of parks in 1883, 1888, 1905 and 1917. By 1923 he simply compared the maps of 1905 and 1923. He did the same in 1930: 1905 v. 1930. Now the year 1905 was in no way significant in Minneapolis park history in terms of park acquisition or development. Comparing any year to 1905 was quite irrelevant except for one fact: it was the year before Wirth became superintendent. By comparing Minneapolis parks in 1905 to any later year was the equivalent of Wirth saying, “Hey, look what I did.” Apart from demonstrating an egotism that I didn’t find appealing, there was a willingness, even eagerness, to take credit for something he really didn’t deserve credit for.

The claims that the park system tripled in acreage under Wirth’s superintendency is often cited as a measure of his achievement. In one way, it is. He had to manage a far larger park system after thirty years than when he was hired. To his enormous credit, he managed it well. But to make the leap that he was responsible for the increase in park acreage is wholly without justification. The park land acquired while Wirth was superintendent were partly due to longstanding plans and hopes, the growth of the city, and the changing demands on a park system, especially the demand for athletic fields. He was a passenger on that train, not the engineer. Not even the conductor.

Another example. Wirth makes a great deal of his taking down “Keep off the grass” signs in parks and his promotion of playgrounds. He did take those signs down, but it was not revolutionary or even new to Minneapolis. The man who was responsible for hiring Wirth in 1905, Charles Loring, had been advocating taking down those protective signs for years. An association to promote playgrounds in the city had also been created seven years before Wirth arrived in Minneapolis (by Loring and William Folwell among others). Yet it was when Wirth was hired as park superintendent that for the first time those leaders began to see the park board, not an independent playground board, as the proper authority to develop playgrounds. Again, the idea was not Wirth’s, and while part of the implementation was, he tends to get credit for the whole concept.

On a related topic, Wirth is often cited for advocating the placement of a playground within a quarter-mile of every home in the city. I can find no evidence that he ever advocated such a position. That position was, to my knowledge, first attributed to him in the autobiography of his son, Conrad, which was written in 1980, 31 years after the father’s death. (Conrad Wirth was the Director of the National Park Service.) The placement of a playground within easy walking distance of residences was actually a standard developed by the National Recreation Association, a standard that Minneapolis was chastised for not meeting during Wirth’s superintendency (1914) and after (1944).

Even in his treatment of the creation of Victory Memorial Drive, Wirth emphasizes his own role, while William Folwell gives most of the credit for the project to Charles Loring who personally put up the money for the memorial trees on the parkway, as well as their perpetual care. We do know from architect William Purcell’s notebooks that Loring had been considering commissioning a monument of some kind to veterans a decade before World War I, which tends to corroborate Loring’s central role. Perhaps due to my gnawing distrust of Wirth’s perspective or memory, I put greater stock in Folwell’s version of events than Wirth’s. Wirth was 82 when he wrote his book, Folwell was in his 90s when he completed Volume 4 of his History of Minnesota, the volume that salutes Loring as the “Apostle of Parks.” I suppose either man could be suspected of memory lapses at their ages, but I have also seen Folwell’s incredibly detailed notes for his book at the Minnesota Historical Society.

My suspicions mounted that Wirth was credited with other accomplishments that at the very least he should have shared with others. Further evidence of that came with a chance discovery that the mother of a close friend, Minneapolis attorney Peter Beck, was the niece of Louis Boeglin and lived with Boeglin and his wife on the shores of Glenwood Lake in summers when she was a girl. Boeglin was hired by Wirth in 1906 to be the first florist of Minneapolis parks. Boeglin remained with the park board as horticulturist until the 1940s. Catherine Beck showed me several documents and photos of Boeglin, who was an accomplished florist and gardener, and planted and tended the Minneapolis park gardens—Rose Garden, Armory Garden, Perennial Garden, Rock Garden—that are considered among the notable achievements of Theodore Wirth. She also related that in her family’s stories her uncle got much less credit than he deserved for the floral decoration of Minneapolis parks. That seemed to me consistent with what I had learned about Wirth and his tenure as park superintendent. It was not exactly a lie that Wirth did those things—they did occur on his watch—but it wasn’t exactly true that he did them either.

I could go on—and might some day. The bottom line is that I began to seriously question Wirth’s stature in Minneapolis lore. He was obviously an able manager of parks—although even there, some people credited his lieutenant and successor as superintendent, Chris Bossen, for keeping the parks running smoothly. I wondered if Wirth had become a legendary figure simply by outliving those with whom he shared the credit for developing Minneapolis parks. He who dies last can best shape history, especially if the longest-lived are inclined, as I believed Wirth was, to take credit, or at least allow others to give credit, where it may not have been fully due.

I’ll admit that I finally got to the point that I didn’t like Theodore Wirth much. In writing City of Parks, I tried very hard to be fair to Wirth and give him credit for what he did do, without diminishing those accomplishments by crediting him with things he did not do. I think I succeeded in that, while also conveying my sense that the vision for Minneapolis parks came largely from Charles Loring, Horace Cleveland and William Folwell long before Loring recruited Wirth to the scene. I always considered Wirth more the craftsman than the artist.

The beauty of studying and writing about history, however, is that over time much of what we learn is challenged and revised. That’s one reason I’ve stuck to writing about Minneapolis park history on this blog; there’s always more to learn, the story is never fully told.

The Autobiography of Francis A. Gross

That was my state of thinking on Wirth when I learned less than a year ago that Francis Gross had written an autobiography in 1938 and that his great-grandson had it in his possession and was willing to share a copy with me.

Francis A. Gross, 1918 Annual Report of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners

Francis A. Gross, 1918 Annual Report of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners

I was very curious to learn if Gross, who was a park commissioner for 33 years between 1910 and 1949 and served 14 years as the president of the park board, had written anything about the park board and, especially, about Theodore Wirth. In contrast to my generally negative perceptions of Theodore Wirth, I had developed a fondness for Gross during months of research. I was particularly impressed by his thoughtful views of the city’s changing needs and the desirability of more recreation facilities in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, which had been overlooked by the park board for many years while Wirth was superintendent.

My favorite quote from Gross comes from his 1945 annual report: “In spite of our professed principles of human justice, we still do not have equal opportunities in all quarters. The most satisfying argument for equal recreational opportunities for all remains the simple one of human justice.”

So I was delighted to find that Gross did indeed write a few pages about Wirth in his autobiography. I knew that Wirth and Gross had been friends and that they shared the bond of being German speakers. Still, I was struck by Gross’s high praise for Wirth.

“In securing Mr. Wirth’s services, the city of Minneapolis was most fortunate. He soon proved himself a park man of the greatest ability. A very determined and progressive person. This combined with his thoro knowledge of park building in all its branches, and his plans therefore that gave the maximum of service to the people, made him the ideal man to take these many acres of rough and swampy land that had been acquired by Minneapolis and to make of them a thing of beauty and service…That the parks must serve the people was always uppermost in his mind. That the people have the health-giving benefits of the out-of-doors and the joy of beautiful surrounds for their recreation was his supreme desire.”

Gross had more to say about Wirth.

“Soon after I became a member of the park board I recognized the great ability and the fine and truly public-spirited character he possessed. My admiration for him was great and he soon had my fullest confidence. The longer the time I was associated with him, the more he imbued in me the idea of the necessity, importance and value of parks and recreation for the welfare of a city and its people. As I had a willingness to give a part of my time for service to my home town to compensate for the privilege of my citizenship in it, I soon decided that the work of building and directing an efficient park and recreation system for the people of Minneapolis, was most to my liking. The principal factor that caused me to give the many years of service in this public office that I have was Mr. Wirth’s great ability, fine leadership and his loyal and friendly character. My association with Mr. Wirth also gave me a very dear friend, a friendship that put much happiness into my life.”

I still dislike the fact that Wirth is given credit for things he didn’t do and those who sometimes deserve credit don’t get it, but I’m willing to look at Wirth in a more favorable light as a person after reading those passages from Frank Gross. I thank Mr. Gross for that.

I read nothing in Frank Gross’s book that diminished my high regard for him. He concluded his chapter on his park work with these words.

“My long career in the work of parks and recreation has been of much satisfaction to me. It has given me the feeling that I have contributed my share to my home and city and thereby met my obligation to it.”

Judging from a distance of many years, I would have to concur. Many times over.

David C. Smith

Don’t forget the 130th birthday of Minneapolis parks with the Linden Hills History Study Group and me. “Highlights, Lowlights and Unsolved Mysteries: 130 Years of Parks in Minneapolis,” April 4, 7:00 p.m., St. John’s Episcopal Church, 4201 Sheridan Avenue South.

© David C. Smith

2 comments so far

  1. Gary O'Maxfield on

    Theodore Wirth was not only a Park Commissioner in Minnesota, he helped develop Hartford Connecticut’s park system as the Park Commissioner. He was very astute as to the purpose of parks and how best to serve the people that owned the parks, the citizens. I think he was ahead of his time and unfortunately he has been lost to history.

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks for your comment, Gary. Wirth is well-remembered and highly regarded in Minneapolis, but he worked here much longer than he did in Hartford.

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