Minneapolis Park Names Added and Reconsidered

In light of rekindled debates over park names, prompted by the Appeals Court decision rescinding the name change of Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska, the park board’s vote to alter the process for changing parkway names, and debate at the University of Minnesota over changing building names, I revisited my compilation of people commemorated in Minneapolis parks.

I just added two names that were designated since I originally compiled that list.

  • Annie Young: the meadow in Riverside Park was named to honor the former park commissioner who died in 2018.
  • Mary Merrill: the headquarters building of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, previously unnamed, was named after the former park superintendent and park commissioner, known then as Mary Merrill Anderson, who also served as the acting superintendent in 2018.

Changing Names

The park board suspended its naming rules to approve both names, which had also been done in recent years to name park baseball fields for Rod Carew, Frank Quilici and Sid Hartman. Previous board policy had prevented naming park properties for people still living or for a couple years after they died. The policy was refined after controversy in 1964 over the naming of Todd Park across Portland Avenue from Diamond Lake. George Todd was a park commissioner dying of cancer at the time. The objective was to honor him while still living for his work in creating the park . The policy was also suspended in 1968 to rename Nicollet Field for Martin Luther King, without a waiting period, shortly after his murder.

The park board also, with little discussion, has altered the process for changing parkway names. The new policy removes former steps requiring more public input on name changes, enabling the board to change parkway names with a simple two-thirds majority vote by the board. Removing requirements for public participation seems at odds with the present board’s claim to represent uniquely the “people”—in contrast, they would have us believe, with previous boards that collectively created our world-famous park system. Those historic boards, we must presume, acted in utter disregard for the wishes of  “people”, including I suppose accepting without righteous indignation the geographical fact that one half the city had more lakes than the other.

I have written before that I am not opposed to renaming what was and maybe still is Lake Calhoun. I have always admired William Watts Folwell as a wise and fair man, a historian devoted to accuracy, although he used the language of his time, which has opened his historical writing to criticism by present standards, and he’s the one who pushed for a name change for Lake Calhoun in the 1890s. He bore the scars of war. As a former Union officer in the fight against slavery and secession, he would have been no fan of John C. Calhoun or his perverse logic.

I’m also confident that Folwell would have understood why some army surveyors would have named a lake for Calhoun who as Secretary of War (Defense) sent them west on their mission. Folwell would have known that in 1820 Calhoun had not yet overseen the removal of Indian tribes from the southeastern U.S. nor had he yet written his indefensible defense of slavery.  History is nearly always more complicated than it appears at a glance. At the time Calhoun’s name was first attached to the lake, he wasn’t considered such a reprehensible guy.  That’s a bit like arguing that Hitler didn’t kill anybody until he was in his forties, but still, I’m with Folwell: good riddance to Calhoun. It is true, however, that I, among most others, would know little of Calhoun’s life and thought as a significant chapter in our national history but for the fact that I have dived into the lake named for him. There should be a plaque on the shores of the lake or along the curb of soon-to-be Bde Maka Ska Parkway explaining why the name was changed. So we don’t forget.

Where did Maka Ska come from?

What troubles me is that there has never been a very good case made for the standard explanation that, “Bde Maka Ska was the name of the lake for hundreds of years.” I have not been able to find where that name was used in decades of writing by settlers, visitors, or Dakota—including people like the Pond brothers who lived beside the lake in the 1830s and wrote a dictionary of the Dakota language as they heard it spoken. Many, many Dakota (and Ojibwe) names survive in Minnesota, so why was Maka Ska an exception if it was commonly and widely used? Why, for instance, is “mni tanka” now called Minnetonka instead of something like Lake Ramsey? And why did the river once called St. Peters revert to “mni sota” from which our state name is also derived? Dakota names were readily adopted in many instances. Why did Maka Ska never stick if it was called that for generations? People such as Folwell who were 150 years closer to pre-settlement names than we, heard the Dakota name of the lake as “Medoza” or sometimes “Mendoza”, which they explained came from the Dakota word for “loon”, as in lake of the loons. I have seen other names too, but not Maka Ska. I am not quibbling, but inquiring. I am asked repeatedly about the name and I don’t have a good answer based on extensive reading of early accounts of the area. I don’t recall the park board ever giving us a good answer either.

My other question is how Ojibwe speakers or descendants feel about adopting a Dakota name for a Minneapolis lake? If we are going back to when John C. Calhoun’s surveying party arrived here, we would find ourselves in a time when many Dakota and Ojibwe were in mortal conflict. If our goal, as the park board has argued, is to make everyone feel welcome and respected in our parks, do we right one wrong by commmiting another. Are there not Ojibwe people in Minneapolis? Perhaps you think such an argument is silly, and it is an exaggeration to make a point: how far back in time do we go to correct injustices? Which injustices? How far back do we apply today’s standards of morality and behavior?

Why don’t people change their own names?

I am puzzled by the earnestness with which people pursue name changes for places without considering name changes of people—including themselves. Perhaps everyone who sits in a position of influence on naming issues, such as park commissioners or university regents, should conduct a thorough review of their own family history. If it is found that any of their forbears could be accused of hateful behavior or thought, they would have two options: they could recuse themseves from naming decisions, or they could change their own names before they could participate.

If your name were Kohler or Bern, for instance, and it was discovered, or alleged, that your grandfather or great-great-grandmother had insulted someone or treated them badly—or had not challenged to a duel (fisticuffs at a minimum) anyone else who had mistreated someone—they would not be allowed to participate in the name-changing process or even express an opinion. They could participate only if they removed the stain from themselves first. So if this Kohler, if descended from any person of questionable character, by whatever definition we care to apply, changed her name to Sthrngx, then she could proudly vote “Aye!’ when asked if the name of Northrup Auditorium should be changed to Concert Hall, hoping of course that Mildred Concert had never said or done anything she regretted, or should have regretted whether she knew it or not at the time. Most new names, like Sthrngx, would have to be invented to avoid choosing yet another besmirched name.

Who am I to say such things?

I am torn because I have no doubt that some Smith somewhere had to have been a truly bad person and I might not be able to prove that I am not related. Yet my name was anglicized from the German several generations ago (probably to avoid some form of persecution or prison), but I am resigned to the fact that some distant, distant cousin who still goes by my former surname in the old country probably was a Nazi. So I can’t stay here, but I can’t go back either.

And as for David, well, we know my Biblical namesake stole another man’s wife, then had him killed. Despite saving his people in other respects and writing some damn fine poetry, that could be a naming no-no. I just don’t know how far to go. Makes me wonder about everybody. Are you clean? To turn a paraphrase from a song about sympathy for someone, “Pleased to meet you, can you clear your name.”

Currie: The Last Name

When I wrote individual histories of Minneapolis parks for minneapolisparks.org, one of the more difficult challenges was to find information about the man for whom Currie Park on the West Bank was named. He did not appear in accounts of parks or the park board. I have since learned a great deal about Edward A. Currie and developed enormous respect for what he did as the director of Pillsbury House. He began working at the settlement house as a young man in about 1918 and remained as the executive director (he lived on the premises) until 1959. Few men in city history have had such an impact on so many lives. I recently asked Hillary Hardeman about Ed Currie and he responded, “Nobody ever said anything bad about Mr. Currie.” Hardeman said “Pill House” was like a second home for him in the 1950s and 60s. I was talking with Hillary about his dad, LeRoy Hardeman, who is one of the greatest athletes in Minneapolis history that very few know. One source of that opinion was Bud Grant who competed against Hardeman on the basketball courts of Minneapolis.

I am currently writing about Ed Currie and his connection to LeRoy Hardeman and other great athletes about whom so little has been written. I feel a connection to the Hardeman family because although I didn’t know LeRoy, I was a basketball teammate and friend of his youngest son, Keith. Some of my fondest basketball memories include playing with Keith, who was a high school star at Minneapolis South, in regional tournaments. I only recently began digging into his dad’s remarkable athletic past.

The Last Judgment

I hope I have made myself clear about Calhoun. But in less clearcut cases, such as those at the University of Minnesota, or in future Minneapolis parks, how do we determine someone’s worthiness for commemoration of any kind? In an age when one of the most damning insults is to call someone “judgmental”, we still judge without hesitation. In one breath we claim “You don’t know me” and in the next we make blanket or ill-informed condemnations of those we don’t know. And people on neither end of the political spectrum can plead innocence or ignorance.

The quandry was made more real for me recently as I scoured archival newspapers for stories about Currie, Hardeman and others. In the process I also searched for references to one of my ancestors with a “colorful” past, to put it gently: many brushes with the law which resulted in more than one period of incarceration, although not for violent crimes. He had lived a hard life in a part of the country that wasn’t “deep” south, but could just as well have been for its attitudes about race. Was he a racist? Certainly—if you will grant me dispensation to pass judgment on someone from my own lineage—but never, in his own mind, maliciously. Despite his attitudes and environment and crimes of thought and deed, he did some things I admire. At considerable risk, he helped gather undercover information that contributed to convictions for the perpetrators of some heinous race-based crimes. I know because I also acquired the FBI’s heavily redacted file on his clandestine work for them.

So was he a bad guy because he subscribed to racial biases or a good guy because he believed “It ain’t right to kill little kids”—his words, without mentioning their race—and accepted danger to pursue with pride his own notion of what was “right”? Good, bad? He was mostly neither, at different times both. Like the rest of us.

Maybe instead of spending time and energy on erasing the sins of our ancestors—important as it is that we understand their shortcomings—we should focus on demonstrating actively that we are better than they were. I believe we are. As a society—and as individuals—by recognizing our progress, we summon the energy, sustain the will, for further improvement. It is still badly needed.

D. C. Sthrngx (nee Smith)


8 comments so far

  1. Rita Martinez on

    Hello David. Always enjoy your posts. Mueller Park dedicated in the early 70’s in the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood was also named for living folks: Bob and Herb Mueller who were active and dearly loved elders of the neighborhood and writers for the Wedge newspaper for many years. Bob initiated the Dutch Elm Watch and Herb wrote extensively in favor of a rail solution to our transportation woes – & that was back in the 70’s!

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks, Rita. Excellent info. I had forgotten about the Mueller brothers, the kind of people that should be remembered.

  2. Gail Lofdahl on

    I was a child when I attended the dedication of Todd Park (we kids rode our bikes everywhere in those days, but I did live only three blocks away). George Todd attended; I remember clearly that he was smoking even then.

    • David C. Smith on

      Gail do you remember the property before it was a park? What do you recall?

      • Gail Lofdahl on

        If you look at http://www.historicaerials.com, the 1947 aerial photograph shows a marsh and shallow lake where Todd Park now stands. (It was an arm of Diamond Lake.)

        Per my dad, when Portland Avenue was paved (between roughly 55th and 58th Streets) the highway department had to pound pilings into the marshy land to support the road. (Portland was previously an unpaved dirt road.)

        In the late 1950s/early 1960s, the lake and marsh were filled in with excavation dirt and concrete chunks, and probably some garbage as well. (I can remember riding by the dump as a kid.)

        My dad always bemoaned the fact that the Todd Park site wasn’t dredged instead to expand Diamond Lake. But the Parks Department has always dredged or filled lakes at will, depending on its needs.

      • David C. Smith on

        Great info, Gail. Thanks! So many of Minneapolis’s neighborhood parks were created on low land. In most cases the land was undesirable for building, so it was available–and affordable–for a park.

  3. Laurie Johnson Larsen on

    Wow! So very well-written and edifiying. This needs to show up as a Commentary in the Strib (at the very least!) Thank you!!

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks, Laurie. This piece is a little long for the Strib. I sent a more concise piece of it to the paper, but they demured.

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