Behind the Scenes: Minneapolis’s First Park?

You have a rare opportunity in April to tour the greenhouses in one of the first parks in Minneapolis: Lakewood Cemetery.

Technically, the first park in Minneapolis was Murphy Square, which Capt. Edward Murphy donated to the city as a park in 1857, but Murphy Square was used as a pasture for nearly two decades.

Lakewood Cemetery was created in 1871 — 12 years before the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners was created — by many of the same people who helped create the Minneapolis park system. Names such as Loring, Brackett, Morrison and King are as much a part of cemetery history as they are of park history. Lakewood Cemetery even donated some of the land that is now the Thomas Sadler Roberts Bird sanctuary on the north shore of Lake Harriet to the park board. Once when the park board was short of cash, it borrowed money from the cemetery.

H.W.S. Cleveland and Lakewood Cemetery

Another name that links Lakewood Cemetery with Minneapolis parks is Cleveland — but not in the way that many assume. Horace William Shaler Cleveland, whose blueprint guided the development of Minneapolis and St. Paul parks, did not design Lakewood Cemetery, although he designed many cemeteries across the country. In 1884, the cemetery’s trustees hired Ralph Cleveland, Horace Cleveland’s son, as superintendent. The fact that Ralph had no prior experience in such a position and the trustees consisted largely of men who had worked closely with Horace Cleveland in creating the Minneapolis park system suggests that Ralph’s hire may have been a favor to the father. That became a larger issue in the future of Minneapolis parks in 1886 when Horace and Maryann Cleveland moved from Chicago to Minneapolis, in part to be nearer Ralph and his family.

Cleveland reading

H. W. S. Cleveland 

They had good reasons. Horace was 72 at that time and looking to the day when he could no longer perform the often strenuous physical duties of a landscape architect. He was also raising his two young granddaughters, whose father, Horace’s oldest son, Henry, had died of disease in the jungles of Colombia in 1880. And he couldn’t count on help from his wife, Maryann, who was frail and ill much of her adult life. Living near their only surviving child made sense.

I don’t think the St. Paul and Minneapolis park systems would be what they are today if Horace Cleveland had not moved to Minneapolis when he did. He became a strong presence in park debates. The opinions of Professor Cleveland, as he was called, were often quoted in the newspapers, which would have been far less likely if he had remained at the distance of Chicago. Would Minneapolis have acquired Minnehaha Falls without Cleveland’s prodding? Would St. Paul and Minneapolis have acquired the Mississippi River Gorge on both sides of the river without his constant encouragement and dire warnings? Would park commissioners have continued to heed Cleveland’s advice to forego improvements and decorations in the parks in order to buy more land if Cleveland hadn’t been looking over their shoulders? I suspect the answer to one or all of those questions is “No!”

I think a case could be made that Lakewood Cemetery, by hiring Ralph Cleveland as superintendent in 1884, is indirectly responsible for much of the success of the park systems in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

You’re Invited!

From its inception, Lakewood followed the national trend of creating “garden” cemeteries that were designed to be picturesque parks as well as cemeteries. An integral part of the operations of those cemeteries was growing their own flowers and decorative plants in greenhouses. The flowers were planted to beautify the cemetery grounds and were sold for placement on graves.

Lakewood Cemetery retains one of the largest cemetery greenhouse operations in the country raising 95,000 plants annually in two greenhouses. And it is inviting you to take a closer look and learn more about this colorful part of its history at a time when its greenhouses will be at their showiest!

Lakewood Cemetery will conduct tours of its two greenhouses on Earth Day, April 22 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. There is much more information at lakewoodcemetery.com. You’ll even get to pot a plant to take home!

I encourage you to check out the website, but don’t wait too long. The tours have a limited capacity, so reservations are required. The tour is open to all ages and it’s free, with an optional donation of $5 suggested.

Whether you’re a gardener or a history buff, it sounds like a great opportunity to see something that’s usually out of sight. Spend a couple hours in the morning helping clean up your favorite park — or join the Minneapolis Parks Foundation or Friends of the Mississippi River in their cleanup efforts — and then dash over to Lakewood Cemetery.

While you’re there, pay your respects at the graves of Horace, Maryann and Ralph Cleveland.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com

© 2017 David C. Smith

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3 comments so far

  1. […] it’s the only one I’ve seen of an outlet from Lake Calhoun. But in light of today’s public tours of Lakewood Cemetery’s greenhouses I looked at the picture differently. Until I was told by Katie Thornton at Lakewood that the […]

  2. sueleaf on

    Great blog!

    • David Smith on

      Thanks, Sue. You should let us know what you’re writing these days.


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