Parks and Plagues

The battle against COVID-19 brings to mind a couple episodes in Minneapolis park history.

Several people have asked if anything similar to the coronavirus-related closures of park buildings has happened in Minneapolis history. From my notes I can find no references to the impact on parks in 1918 of the Spanish flu, but polio did have a significant impact on parks in the years after WWII. The park board’s 1946 annual report notes that there was a sharp upward post-war trend in attendance at parks but it was “cut short” by the polio epidemic. Park superintendent Charles Doell in his segment of the report claimed that most summer recreation programs had to be shut down in July due to the polio scare. Parents wouldn’t allow their kids to go to parks, or beaches, because it was thought that the polio virus was transmitted through bathing water.

The final two weeks of the 1946 concert season at Lake Harriet were cancelled due to the epidemic and community sings were cancelled in July for the remainder of the season due to the polio scare. The sings were conducted for the rest of the summer over radio station WDGY.

The polio scare lasted much longer than we expect the coronavirus scare to last. Three years later, the park board reported that a new spike in polio cases and the associated “scare” had slashed beach attendance in 1949 by 68%. (The polio scare didn’t end until Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for the virus, which went into use in 1955.)


Sister Elizabeth Kenny, 1950. By New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The most lasting reminder of the polio epidemic, however, is Kenny Park. The park was named in 1955 for Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian nurse who promoted a successful treatment for many polio victims. There was no cure. (“Sister” was a courtesy title for a nurse in the British Commonwealth, not a religious title.)

Kenny established an institute in Minneapolis, her base in the U.S., for the treatment of polio patients. In 1951 she was named in a Gallup Poll as the most admired woman in the U.S., the only woman to be so named in the first 20 years of the award who wasn’t a First Lady.

One of the only other connections between Minneapolis parks and present pandemic discussions is reference to the Defense Production Authority. President Trump last week invoked this authority, created in 1950 during the Korean War, and later backed away from it, to assert the control of the federal government over producing and securing medical supplies. It is cited now in regard to protective equipment and ventilators, but its application was far broader in 1950.

When the authority was created one of its provisions was to prohibit the construction of recreation and amusement projects in order to conserve materials for defense purposes. The authority would have killed park board plans to build a 17,000-seat lighted football stadium at the Parade. The stadium had been the highest-priority project on the park board’s post-war (WWII) project list.

Parade Stadium 1952 MPRB

Parade Stadium, 1952. Loring Park in background, Walker Art Center top right. Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

Park superintendent Charles Doell and mayor Eric Hoyer went to Washington to argue for stadium construction and came home with approval to proceed because the project was initiated before creation of the Defense Production Authority.  Another park project was also given a green light at that time because construction had already begun: Waite Park School and Park, a joint project of the park board and school board.

Can you think of other health-related restrictions on park usage, other than periodic e coli-related beach closures?

Two Minneapolis parks are named for nurses from the British Commonwealth. The other is…Cavell Park, named for Edith Cavell.

David Carpentier Smith



5 comments so far

  1. […] of 1946, when a polio outbreak left the city’s parks and beaches deserted, according to parks historian David C. Smith. The Minnesota State Fair was canceled that year for the same […]

  2. tom Balcom on

    I remember polio shots in the mid-fifties, maybe my first vaccine. Those shots were followed a year later by an oral vaccine, much better and easier than shots. Polio was a scary condition for children then, so I was happy to get the vaccines. They were administered through the Minneapolis Public School System.

  3. Joan Pudvan on

    My family also had a brush with Sister Kenny. While she was in MPls, she often came to the office of the Dean of the Med.School at the U. My mom was his asst/ at the time. She was very impressed by Sister K. and said she was a “no nonsense” kind of lady. Also,between jr and sr. years of high school, my best friend & I both worked as nurses aides at the u Hosp. i was busy helping with ventilator pts…she with new in-pts. Now i wonder why they let two teens work with polio patients newly in hosp with the disease..It all worked out..neither of us got sick….I don’t remember being scared…kids are invulnerable…Joan

    • David C. Smith on

      I think we should all appreciate that, unlike polio, the current pandemic seems to spare children.

  4. Dan Lapham on

    Polio was a huge fear and outbreaks also caused schools to close at times. Mothers would keep us kids home and away from others. My mother was a model in the 1940’s-’50’s and Sister Kenny often frequented Dayton’s style shows. Most always dressed in black and rarely smiling, mom said that she was somewhat intimidated by her.

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