DIY Minneapolis Park History at the Library

I have been very lucky over the last decade to have had access to the archives of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board because of some park board history projects I was working on. I have always advocated making those archives accessible to the public and it has finally happened. Nearly all of the historical documents of the park board from its creation in 1883 until 1970 have been transferred to the Minneapolis Central library.

Webber Pool 1

The community center at Webber Park was best known for its pool, which was fed originally by water from Shingle Creek. But the building also housed the first branch library in a park building. Branch libraries also were located at Logan Park and the Gateway Pavilion. In addition, the Longfellow House near Minnehaha Creek was leased to the library board as a branch library for 30 years until 1968. If you want to learn more about the community center at Webber Park, you can now go the Central Library and read Charles Webber’s letters to the park board announcing his desire to upgrade the building he and his wife Mary had donated to the park according to her wishes before she died.

Special credit for the new collection at the library should go to park superintendents Jon Gurban, who initiated a park history project to celebrate the park board’s 125th birthday in 2008—that’s when I became involved—and Jayne Miller who committed in 2015 to the big task of organizing park board archives and transferring many historical records to the library for preservation and public access. Credit is also due to park commissioners for recognizing amid the stress of daily challenges that preserving park records and making them accessible was important. Among others, Scott Vreeland and former commissioner Bob Fine were especially supportive of  efforts to document and preserve the history of Minneapolis parks.

Thanks to Dawn Sommers at the park board and Ted Hathaway, manager of special collections at the Minneapolis Central library, for managing with enthusiasm the considerable task of transferring thousands of documents even as they performed their “regular” duties. I should also note that the Minneapolis City Clerk’s Office was very helpful in facilitating the two-stage movement of some documents from City Hall to Park Board to Library.

These are all public servants of the highest order and too-rarely praised for their contributions to the outstanding quality of life in this city. As you will see if you have a chance to dig into the park board’s archives at the library, they follow in the footsteps of giants. The men and women who created Minneapolis parks—and libraries—were far-sighted people who tried to look beyond immediate needs to the future of the city. Where they made mistakes, let’s fix them, but let’s also continue to emulate the qualities that led to their many successes from which we derive daily benefits.

You can learn more about the park board’s mistakes and successes over nearly 100 years by looking at park board records on the fourth floor of the Minneapolis Central Library every Monday to Thursday and some Saturdays.

David C. Smith


2 comments so far

  1. michaelwilsonmpls on

    I wholeheartedly second your excitement over the shifting of this vast treasure trove of Park Board documents to Special Collections. The citizens of Minneapolis and park lovers everywhere are indeed fortunate to have your remarkable book and your website chronicling the history of our parks. But new details will emerge because of the new availability of the archives that will add richness to the narrative and help resolve some long-unanswered questions.

    And I wholeheartedly second your round of thanks to the “public servants of the highest order [who] are too-rarely praised for their contributions to the outstanding quality of life in this city.” Ted Hathaway, Scott Vreeland, Jon Gurban, Jayne Miller, Dawn Sommers, Casey Carl, Christian Rummelhoff, Bailey Diers, Josh Shaffer: they all believe in what I’ve heard called “radical access” — making primary source material as widely and easily available as possible to the greatest number of citizens.

    The next challenge will be to get these archives digitized and up on the HCL Special Collections website. Then we’ll all really be cookin’ with gas!

    • David Smith on

      Thanks, Michael. Sorry I didn’t post your comment sooner. For some reason it was diverted from my pending box. Just found it. You will love those files, but be prepared: they will eat days of your time!

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