Lofty Words, Lofty Ground: Portius C. Deming
One of the lesser-known park heroes in Minneapolis history left us with inspiring advice — for both citizens and park commissioners. His most memorable words come from his writing in park board annual reports when he was the president of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners 1915-1917. His most enduring actions to create parks and preserve nature’s beauty, however, had nothing to do with Minneapolis. We would honor his service to the state and city if we maintained more thoughtfully the park named for him.
Julius Caesar enriched the common people of Rome by bequeathing to them all his parks and gardens. The people of Minneapolis do not need await the death of an Emperor to enjoy such treasures. They possess them in their own rights. Every man or woman that walks beneath the refreshing shade, or treads the green grass of our parks, or rides upon their sparkling waters, or listens to strains of enchanting music in an environment of nature’s beauty — every boy and girl that gains health of body and mind within our playgrounds — every one of these can proudly say, “These parks are mine; I am joint owner of all these splendors.”
— Portius C. Deming, President, Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners, 1915 Annual Report
Portius C. Deming was a realtor and insurance agent — the two professions went hand-in-hand in the years Minneapolis grew the fastest in the late 1800s. Deming lived on the corner of 23rd Ave. NE and Central Avenue and had his office a block away on the other side of the street. He was one of the men who helped put together the proposal for the park board to acquire what became Columbia Park in northeast Minneapolis in 1892. He was 38 at the time.
The creation of a large park, which included part of Sandy Lake, was certainly in Deming’s long-term business interest, although he was not a large landowner in the vicinity of the park and residential development had not reached within several blocks of the new park at the time. Most of the land near the park had not yet been platted into residential lots — and the Shoreham railroad yard was already quite extensive to the south of the new park. While sprawling railroad yards have never been converted into attractive scenery, the yard did provide the jobs that would support the construction of new houses, new businesses, and a flourishing community north of what was commonly called “New Boston” in northeast Minneapolis.
Still, as a business leader and realtor, Deming certainly would have appreciated the benefit to the city of a large park beside the only significant body of water in that part of the city. And William Folwell had argued convincingly for such a park only a year earlier when he applied the term “Grand Rounds” to the linked system of parks he supported.
Deming was elected to the park board in the fall of 1894 after he won the Republican Party nomination for the seat over the incumbent president of the park board, J. A. Ridgway. Ridgway would later become the secretary to the Board, a full-time position, a job he held for more than 20 years. (Deming’s wife was the niece of Adin Austin, one of the original 12 park commissioners when the Minneapolis park board was created in 1883.) Deming did not complete his six-year term as park commissioner, because he was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in November 1898. He had to relinquish his park board position when he took his seat in the House in January 1899.
It took very little time for Deming to make an impact in the House and leave a profound mark on the state.
Driving north on Highway 71 about twenty miles beyond Park Rapids, you reach the southern entrance to Itasca State Park. You’ve already passed so many lakes since Park Rapids — Fishhook, Portage, Little Mantrap, Eagle, Island — not to mention “Christmas World”, and you are so eager to get to Lake Itasca and the slippery stones that create a path across the lake’s outlet stream, the modest beginning of the Mighty Mississippi, that you probably don’t notice the third lake on your left after you enter the park: Josephine, Arco, Deming. Yep, Deming as in Portius C. The lake once named “Danger”, was renamed to honor the legislator from Minneapolis who adroitly managed the passage of a law in 1899 that appropriated the first money for the state to buy private land within the 35 square miles that had been designated Itasca State Park in 1891.
The legislatures of Minnesota and the United States had already contributed the land they owned within the park boundary, and the railroads cut generous deals to convey their lands to the park, but about 8,000 acres still remained in private hands in a patchwork within the park boundaries, including several tracts bordering Lake Itasca itself. Deming and others believed that the additional land had to be acquired by the state before it was clear-cut of its majestic white pines. A “Stumpage State Park” had little appeal, particularly as a setting for the source of the continent’s mightiest river.
The “Deming Law”, which appropriated $20,000 for land purchases, didn’t end battles between park proponents and the lumber companies over rights to cut pine, create lumber roads across public park land, and dam Lake Itasca to float the lumber down the Mississippi River to Minneapolis saw mills. But it did establish a precedent and legal justification for action.
One of the great stories in Minnesota park history is how Mary Gibbs, in 1903, confronted the lumbermen and opened the dam they had built on the Mississippi River that was flooding the shores of Lake Itasca. Gibbs was the acting commissioner of Itasca State Park at age 24 after the previous commissioner, her father, died. She was quickly stopped from upholding state law by a local judge and promptly replaced by Governor Van Sant with someone more malleable to lumbering interests. Still, the young woman who had the integrity and courage to take on powerful interests is an inspiration. The visitors center in the park at the headwaters of the Mississippi is named for her.
Despite the efforts of Deming, Gibbs and others like them, lumber companies opposed preservation efforts in the park effectively for many years. But Deming and Gibbs made a critical contribution to protecting natural resources, a forward-thinking effort that continues to provide benefits today.
For the in-depth story of efforts to protect the park, and Deming’s role, read the Illustrated History of Itasca State park by Jacob V. Brower here. Note whose picture is on the cover of this edition of the Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. You can’t mistake the high hair of Portius C. Deming. That book is also the source of his signature.
From Park to Parole
Deming’s influence as a legislator was also significant as an advocate for the University of Minnesota, but the other piece of legislation with which his name is linked is the bill passed in 1901 providing for the possibility of parole for convicts with life sentences. The “Deming Bill” is also referred to as the “Youngers’ Bill”, because its practical effect was to provide for the parole of two infamous residents of Stillwater Prison who had been model prisoners for 25 years: Cole and Jim Younger.
The Younger brothers had been captured after the notorious robbery of the Northfield Bank by the James-Younger Gang in 1876. Cole and Jim Younger entered a plea of “guilty” in 1876 to the bank robbery and murder of a bank clerk to avoid the death penalty. If they had pleaded “not guilty” and been convicted, they could have been executed — and I don’t believe anyone, including them, ever claimed they hadn’t committed the robbery, although accounts of the robbery suggest they did not shoot the clerk. Another brother, Bob, also plead guilty to the charges, but died in Stillwater prison of tuberculosis in 1889. Following the passage of Deming’s Parole Bill, written solely for humanitarian purposes, the Youngers were paroled. (The only other prisoner who met the strict conditions of the bill was an old man who refused parole because he had been in prison so long he no longer knew anyone outside of prison and had no means to support himself. Prison was his home.) Jim Younger committed suicide a year after his release. Cole Younger returned to his Missouri home and lived until 1916.
The results of a quick search revealed only one other especially interesting piece of legislation sponsored by Deming. In 1903, he sought a legislative appropriation of $5,000 for victims of a famine in Sweden, Norway and Finland — an unusual venture into international relations. The bill did not pass.
President of the Park Board
After three sessions in the legislature, Deming stepped away from politics for a few years until he was tapped by the Minneapolis park board in November 1909 to complete the unexpired term of park commissioner Milton Nelson, who had resigned. The other candidate nominated to fill Nelson’s post was a young banker from north Minneapolis, Francis A. Gross. While Deming prevailed in that selection process, Gross was elected by park commissioners to fill another unexpired term a few months later in May 1910. With a few interruptions, Gross served on the park board into the 1940s.
Following the expiration of the partial term that he was selected to fill, Deming stood for popular election for another term and during that term was elected President of the park board by his fellow commissioners for 1915 and 1916.
Deming’s focus as a park commissioner is not associated with any particular park developments, although the decade of his second stint on the board was an extremely productive time in Minneapolis park history: the lakes were linked with canals, land for the northern half of the Grand Rounds was acquired and the parkways partially completed, the Lake Calhoun bathhouse was constructed, Glenwood (Wirth) Park was developed, the land around Lake Nokomis was acquired and development began, the John Deere Webber Baths at Camden (Webber) Park were built, and playgrounds and neighborhood parks became an important focus. During this period, parks also became accepted as the appropriate venue for active, athletic recreation and the park board began to provide extensive athletic facilities for the first time, including the Logan Park field house.
Portius Deming’s service to his city as a park commissioner ended in 1919 when he was 65. His place in park history was commemorated shortly after his death in 1930 when a ten-acre park commanding one of the highest points in Minneapolis, Grandview Park astride St. Anthony Parkway in northeast Minneapolis, was renamed Deming Heights.
Beyond a lake, a park and a plaque, we have Deming’s words to remember him by. I find especially appealing the excerpt quoted to open this article and the last paragraph he wrote for the 1915 Annual Report:
The story of the Board’s work for these past thirty-three years is impressed upon our City as upon on open book. Representing the whole people, this Body has conscientiously striven to do equal justice to all, to develop the park system in an equitable relation to the whole city, ever remembering the diverse uses for which parks are demanded and created. It has aimed to carry the opportunity for outdoor rest and recreation to every locality; it has acknowledged the supreme duty of acquiring and reserving for all the people the God-given lakes and streams, which are the City’s grandest heritage. This open book now presents to us an unwritten page. May it be as worthily filled as those which have preceded it.
— Portius C. Deming, 1915 Annual Report
Deming Heights is — or could be — one of the most charming places in the Minneapolis park system. From the top of the hill — surpassed in elevation in all of Minneapolis only by a point a few blocks northeast near Waite Park — one can see a great distance in three directions. The only problem with the park is that it’s not nearly as spectacular as it should be.
If ever there were a place where some discretion should be used in cutting trees it is here. Why put parks on the highest ground with the most splendid views if we allow trees and brush to obscure the views we purchased? Especially when most of the trees obscuring that view are not the most desirable tree species and some are simply invaders. Can we not cut a tree of any kind? Much of the brush growing on the side of the hill should be cleared as well.
I don’t even mind the dilapidated railing along the best staircase in the city. It has its own charm. But clear the brush and trim a few trees. Part of the park was purchased specifically to remove buildings that blocked the view from the crest of the hill. Now we allow scraggly trees to do what we would not let houses do.
The park board has wonderful gardeners and foresters. They could make this view spectacular. Let’s let them. Something worthy of Portius C. Deming. If they need a hand clearing brush, I’ll help. My tribute to Mr. Deming.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© David C. Smith 2013