Archive for the ‘Minneapolis Park Hero’ Category

Influential Women in Minneapolis Park History

I just received a new post from the Minneapolis Parks Foundation blog by Janette Law about five important women in the history of Minneapolis parks. Janette wrote her tribute to celebrate Women’s History Month. I wanted to add to Janette’s tribute by adding the name of Alice Dietz to her list, as well as Inez Crimmins and Lorna Phillips. I have re-posted from my archives a profile of some of Ms. Dietz’s accomplishments as well as additional information on one of Janette’s notable women, Maude Armatage. Armatage was the first woman to serve as a park commissioner and still holds the record for the longest consecutive term of service as a commissioner at 30 years. (Francis Gross served a total of 33 years as a commissioner, but in four segments.) The piece on Armatage is especially important because it includes a photo of Armatage with Crimmins and Phillips, the second and third women to be Minneapolis park commissioners. I also re-posted a charming photo and info sent by reader Bea Dunlap on her memory of Alice Dietz and the playground pageants she wrote, choreographed and directed.

I would encourage someone, perhaps even young historians for History Day projects, to investigate further the contributions of park commissioners Crimmins and Phillips who served from the mid-1950s and Beverly Smerling who served as a commissioner from 1963-1969. In addition, little has been written, to my knowledge, of the first women to be elected President of the Park Board:  Naomi Loper was the first in 1980, succeeded by Patricia Hillmeyer in 1982 and Patricia Baker in 1985.

Many other women who served as recreation directors at parks have also had a profound influence on the people and neighborhoods they served. If you remember someone from your park, I’d be happy to publish your recollections here.

David C. Smith


Alice Dietz and Bea Dunlap in 1939 Playground Pageant

I received this note and photo today from Bea Dunlap of Dallas, Texas, under the subject line, “Alice Dietz and me 75 years ago.”

“This picture was taken about 75 years ago (I am now 85 years old) when I was in a Park board pageant representing Farview Park. Me and almost ever kid in my block were Raindrops in a skit called Umbrella Man. The little ones were turtles who hid under a big umbrella until the “sun came out”. Our costumes were made of silver and blue crepe paper. My Mom sewed most of the costumes for our group.”
Alice Dietz, creator and director of the playground pageants, with ten-year-old Bea Dunlap from Farview Park in 1939. Bea is dressed as a raindrop. (Photo courtesy of Bea Dunlap.)

Alice Dietz, creator and director of the playground pageants, with ten-year-old Bea Dunlap from Farview Park in 1939. Bea is dressed as a raindrop. (Photo courtesy of Bea Dunlap.)

The playground pageants, held at the end of summer, included children from every park in Minneapolis. They were presented on the hillside above the Rose Garden at Lyndale Park. The pageants were created and directed by Alice Dietz. This was one of the last playground pageants. With the creation in 1940 of the Aquatennial, that became the focus of summer celebration in the city and the pageant was discontinued.

Thanks for the wonderful photo and information, Bea.

David C Smith

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 1916 (MPRB)

Portius C. Deming, 1916. Lofty hair, too. (MPRB)

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.

Deming Lake

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.Mary H. Gibbs, Acting Commissioner, Itasca State Park, 1903

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.

Lake Itasca as log reservoir, 1903. (Illustrated History of Itassca State Park)

Lake Itasca as log reservoir, 1903. (Illustrated History of Itasca State Park)

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.Deming 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.

As president of the park board, Deming presided over the dedication of The Gateway in 1915. He also commanded the podium at the dedication of two other memorials that year, one to Thomas Lowry at Virgina Ttriangle; the other to Gustav Wennerburg at Minnehaha Park. (MPRB)

As president of the park board, Deming presided over the dedication of The Gateway in 1915. He also commanded the podium at the dedication of two other memorials that year, one to Thomas Lowry at Virginia Triangle; the other to Gunnar Wennerburg at Minnehaha Park. (MPRB)

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.

The plaque set in a boulder in Deming Heights Park.

The plaque set in a boulder in Deming Heights Park.

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

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.

The view from Deming Heights -- without leaves. The downtown Minneapolis skyline is out there -- somehwere.

The view from Deming Heights — without leaves. The downtown Minneapolis skyline is out there — somewhere.

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.

The stairway and path up Norwegian Hill.

The stairway and path up Norwegian Hill.

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.

Fill in some leaves and there's no view at all. Might as call it Deming Flats.

Fill in some leaves and there’s no view at all. Might as well be Deming Flats.

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

© David C. Smith 2013

Theodore Wirth, Francis Gross and Me: A Friday Photo and a Re-assessment

The dedication of the Heffelfinger Fountain in Lyndale Park, 1947. This is the only photo I've seen of Theodore Wirth and Francis Gross together, along with another well-known Minneapolitan. From left: Park Superintendent Emeritus Theodore Wirth, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey, Park Board Presdient Francis Gross, Park Superintendent Charles Doell. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

The dedication of Heffelfinger Fountain in Lyndale Park, 1947. This is the only photo I’ve seen of Theodore Wirth and Francis Gross together. They are joined by an even better-known Minneapolitan. From left: Park Superintendent Emeritus Theodore Wirth, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey, Park Board President Francis A. Gross, Park Superintendent Charles E. Doell. Wirth was then 84 and Gross 77. The fountain had been discovered and purchased in Italy by Frank Heffelfinger, shipped to Minneapolis, and given to the park board. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

As I began my initial, intensive assault on Minneapolis park history in 2007 to write City of Parks, I was inclined to attribute the great success of our park system to Theodore Wirth — as so many people do. I had heard his name—attached as it was to a park, lake and parkway — for many years, and I promptly read his book on the park system—part history, part memoir.

Theodore Wirth served as superintendent of Minneapolis parks for 30 years, 1906-1935. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Theodore Wirth was superintendent of Minneapolis parks for 30 years, 1906-1935. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

It was the beginning of an up-and-down ride for me with Mr. Wirth and his legacy, one that I am reexamining in light of comments by Francis Gross in the autobiography he wrote in 1938.

I knew little about Wirth in 2007, but I did recall vividly being introduced to a Swedish gentleman at a party in Stockholm, Sweden in 1986 who, when he learned where I was from, gushed about what a great park planner Theodore Wirth had been. He knew much more about Wirth than I did and …Read more about how Francis Gross convinced me that Theodore Wirth was a good guy

Francis A. Gross Autobiography I: North Minneapolis and the Origin of North Commons

My wish was granted.

Last April, in an article about the original Longfellow Field and its sale to a munitions maker during WWI, I wrote,

“Of all the park commissioners in Minneapolis history, Frank Gross is one of the most intriguing to me. If I could find some cache of lost journals of any of the city’s park commissioners since Charles Loring and William Folwell, I would most want to find those of Frank Gross. He’d be a great interview subject.”

Francis Gross was first elected to the park board in 1910 by other commissioners to fill out the term of a commisioner who had resigned. From then until 1948 Gross served 32 years as a park commissioner, also serving as president of the board 1917-1919 and again 1936-1948.

A couple months after I wrote about my interest in Gross, I received a comment on that post from Francis A. Gross III, the great-grandson of the man once known as “Mr. Park Board.”

Francis Gross was the starter for the Pushmobile Derby in 1936, two years before he wrote his autobiography. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Francis Gross was the starter for the Pushmobile Derby in 1936, two years before he wrote his autobiography. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

The great-grandson, who goes by “Tony” and is not from Minneapolis, informed me that he had many documents from his great-grandfather, including a handwritten autobiography.

Thanks to Tony and his wife, Joy, who scanned the documents, I have now had the good fortune to read the autobiography of Francis A. Gross, Glimpses into Happy Lives, which he wrote in 1938.

With Tony Gross’s permission, I will write about a couple topics of particular interest to me that Francis Gross addressed in his autobiography, especially his work on Minneapolis parks and anti-German sentiment during World War I. But I’d like to begin with Gross’s description of North Minneapolis during his childhood.

Gross was born in Medina Township in 1870, but his parents opened a hotel and boarding house just off Bridge Square a year later. He lived at the center of city life only until he was five, when the family moved—for the benefit of an impressionable child — to a quieter part of the city on Plymouth Avenue (then still called 13th Avenue North). According to city directories, the address, 210 13th Avenue North, was between Washington and 2nd Street North, or very near the busy commercial intersection at Plymouth and Washington.

Francis Gross, 1919 (Lee Brothers, Minnesota Historical Society)

Francis Gross, 1919 (Lee Brothers, Minnesota Historical Society)

His family ran a grocery store there for most of his childhood. Gross writes about his family’s grocery business, but city directories of the time also list his father, Mathias Gross, as the owner of both a hotel and a saloon at the same address at various times. (The hotel was listed in the directory as “Minneapolis House,” then “North Minneapolis House” in the early 1880s before reverting to a listing as only grocery store and saloon. The business was listed separately under both “Grocery” and “Saloon” in the business sections of the directories — think yellow pages before there were telephones. The family lived at the same address as the business until 1886, when the residence of Mathias Gross was listed as 1517 N. 5th St. In looking back on his own life, it appears that Gross preferred to think of his father’s business as grocery store, rather than saloon.

Gross provides these descriptions of the north side when he was a child:

“South of Plymouth Avenue and west of Washington Avenue was largely occupied by homes extending to Lyndale Ave. and thence southward. North of Plymouth Avenue and west of Washington Avenue, other than some business at what is now called lower W. Broadway, the north side was sparsely settled and was covered by fine oak trees…”

“On both sides of Plymouth Avenue between 5th and 6th streets there were ponds. My father shot ducks there the first years we resided on Plymouth Avenue and the pond on the north side of Plymouth Avenue was a favorite skating place…”

“Bassett’s Creek, now covered by a concrete tunnel part of the way to the river, was a beautiful winding stream and the land adjoining was covered with fine trees and shrubs. From Lyndale avenue to the river, to a width of five or more hundred feet, the land laid low, making a shallow valley. Viewing this beautiful stream valley and the vegetation in it made a landscape a delight to see. It was one of nature’s beauties within the confines of Minneapolis that its park board was not able to preserve. Bassett’s Creek was also a favorite fishing and skating place. At near the point of 7th Street and Lyndale Avenue was the “7th Street swimming hole” patronized by the boys residing in center town, north side and some from the north-east side of the river. Many Minneapolitans have fond recollections of this fun-giving place during their childhood.”

This image of the north Minneapolis is from the 1892 plat book. Ply.mouth Avenue is at the top, Lyndale at far right and Washington angling inot the picture from lower right. Gross livedin the "blue" block at the top of this map.

This image of north Minneapolis is from the 1892 plat book. Plymouth Avenue is at the top, Lyndale is at far left and Washington angles in from lower right. The Mississippi River is in the top right corner. As a child, Gross lived at 210 Plymouth, between Washington and 2nd at the top of this map. As an adult he worked at the German-American Bank near the corner of Plymouth and Washington. So he spent a lot of his life near that street corner. (Click, then click again to enlarge. For the full map go to the John R. Borchert Map Library, University of Minnesota)

Gross’s autobiography also provides a nugget of park history apart from his writing about the park board. He made this remark when remembering his role in the creation of an influential neighborhood business group in 1904:

“The northside’s leading citizens came together and organized the North Side Commercial Club and I became its first president…It induced the Board of Park Commissioners to establish a park which is now North Commons; I was the first to propose this.”

Park board documents reveal very little background information on the creation of North Commons in 1907, so Gross’s comment is informative.

North Commons

North Commons about 1910. Have you ever seen a taller slide? And are you impressed by the little girl in the dress climbing the pole? (Minnesota Historical Society)

Gross may have proposed to the commercial club the site of a second north side park — the first was Farview—but the possibility of such a park had been kicked around for many years.

As early as 1889 the park board had designated the land around Todd’s Pond for a park. But residents near the pond, which was just south of 20th, now Broadway, at about Emerson, near where North High School was later built, were divided on the need for a park there. Opposition came from those who didn’t want to be assessed for the cost of acquiring the land. They argued that Farview Park was not far away and provided enough of a park for north Minneapolis. The Minneapolis Tribune reported February 9, 1890 that the park board was likely to abandon efforts to acquire Todd’s Pond, “for one reason—because there are no funds.” This was after reports in the Tribune two days earlier that the asking price for the nine acres that contained Todd’s Pond—referred to as a “mud hole”—was $120,000. One person who opposed the transaction called that figure “extravagant.”

The major park issue on the north side in those early years of the park board was not how to acquire another neighborhood park, but how to create a parkway from North Minneapolis to the lakes in the southwestern part of the city and to Loring Park. Lyndale Avenue North was not considered an adequate parkway connection from Loring Park to Farview Park—although that was attempted.

The St. Paul Daily Globe captured the issue in its June 6, 1885 edition:

Hon. W. W. McNair, who has just returned from the East, where he spent the winter recuperating his health, brings up the subject of the land he wished to donate for a boulevard from Central [Loring] to Prospect [Farview] parks. He proposed to donate a 100-foot boulevard through his ground by way of Cedar lake, which would make about four miles in length the whole route, with the exception of a few pieces, being on his land. He made this proposition some time ago, but the park commission halted on it because a portion was beyond the city limits, but this disability was removed by act of the last legislature. There was a difference of opinion as to whether such a boulevard should not be 200-feet wide; the difference would be about forty acres of land, but there is no doubt Mr. McNair would donate that amount if altogether desirable. It is probable this matter will be brought before the park commission today.

Unfortunately, the unspecified illness to which the article refers took McNair’s life three months later, before the park board and McNair could work out his donation of land in North Minneapolis. He owned part of the shore of Cedar Lake and a large swath of land across North Minneapolis. (See more on the McNair estate in a post about the naming of Brownie Lake.)

The park board did maintain a skating rink and warming house at Todd’s Pond as early as 1890, and continued operating it every winter (except 1897) through 1900, apparently with permission from the landowners. The park board paid for the rink at Todd’s Pond, the first year at least, by transferring funds that had been earmarked for a toboggan slide at Farview Park. The Tribune reported that spring (5/9/1890) that a drain installed near Todd’s Pond was lowering the water level in the pond and that plans for a new three-story brick building at 20th and Emerson would cover a portion of the “mud puddle.”

Although the park board reports maintaining a skating rink at the pond until 1900, there is no mention of the pond again in park board reports or the press until the Minneapolis Journal reported on December 3, 1905 that the North Side Commercial Club wanted skating rinks in the community and recommended Todd’s Pond as a good location. I can find no evidence on maps that a pond still existed in that vicinity.

The reference in the Journal, however, does establish that the North Side Commercial Club was advocating more park services—even if not more parks—early in its history.

The catalyst for establishing another park in north Minneapolis appears to have been the push by residents farther south for a neighborhood park. On March 4, 1907 the park board designated for purchase the land that became Kenwood Park at the northern tip of Lake of the Isles. The same day the board noted receipt of petitions from the North Side Commercial Club and other organizations requesting a parkway connection from North Minneapolis to the lakes via Cedar Lake and for the establishment of another park in the “Third Ward.” Immediately after voting to acquire the land for Kenwood Park, the board directed Theodore Wirth to make preliminary surveys of lands for a parkway around Cedar Lake to Glenwood (Wirth) Park and an expansion of Glenwood Park to encompass Keegan’s (Wirth) Lake.

At its meeting on June 3, 1907—without additional discussion, explanation, negotiation, or appraisal—the board voted to pay $48,750 for the land known as McNair Field that would become North Commons. The acquisition was most unusual in that the deal came to the park board with a price and payment terms already agreed upon. Clearly negotiations had been conducted behind the scenes. Perhaps the price — only 40 percent of what had been asked for a smaller parcel of land around Todd’s Pond 17 years earlier — was too good to let slip away.

The rapid progress on the deal for a major new park on the north side reflected the growing influence of the North Side Commercial Club, Frank Gross and associates. The Tribune had already noted the significant clout of the club when it wrote on November 25, 1906, “It is getting to be a well-known fact that when the commercial interests of the North side speak up and say “We want so and so,” that they generally are heard, and very often they get what they want.”

Shortly after the acquisition, the club announced a contest for naming the new park — with a $5 prize for the best suggestion. On August 19, 1907 the park board noted that it had received a letter from the North Side Commercial Club suggesting a name: North Commons, which was promptly approved. There is no record of who claimed the five bucks.

I’ll write more about the remarkable public service of Francis A. Gross in the near future. Until then, thanks to Tony Gross for sharing some of his great-grandfather’s papers with us. And he tells me there may be more to come.

Not many people have a lifetime memrbership in a golf club named for them. This card was among the memorabilia of Francis A. Gross in the possessoin of his great grandson, Tony Gross. The former Armour Golf Course was renamed to honor Gross in 1947, an action by the park board that came as a completel surprise to Gross, who was then president of the board. (Francis A. Gross III)

Not many people have a lifetime membership in a golf club named for them. This card was among the memorabilia of Francis A. Gross in the possession of his great-grandson, Tony Gross. The former Armour Golf Course was renamed to honor Gross in 1947, an action by the park board that came as a complete surprise to Gross, who was then president of the board. (Francis A. Gross III)

David C. Smith

Minneapolis Park Hero: Maude Armatage

Dan Greenwood recently produced a report on KFAI radio about Maude Armatage, the first woman on the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners. Armatage, for whom a park and school in south Minneapolis are named, served on the park board from 1921 until 1951, the longest continuous service on the board in its history. (Francis Gross, nicknamed “Mr. Park Board,” served more years, but his service was divided into several terms.) I appreciated the opportunity to tell Dan and his listeners some of what I know about this extraordinary public servant. She is also the namesake of Cafe Maude, a popular cafe near the park and school on Penn Avenue South.

I hope to write more about Armatage and her role on the park board in the near future. Until then, read this very informative article by Caitlin Pine, which originally appeared in the Southwest Journal in 2003, I believe, and has since been reprinted.

David C. Smith

Minneapolis Park Hero: Alice Dietz

Early in my research of Minneapolis park history for City of Parks, Alice Dietz caught my attention. She had a forty-year career in Minneapolis parks, 1916-1957. She rose to prominence in the park system quickly from her start as a recreation director. In January 1918, the park board received a letter from an appreciative mother asking that Dietz be reappointed as recreation director at Maple Hill (Beltrami) Park. She was not reappointed at Maple Hill; in the park board’s annual report for 1918 Dietz was singled out for praise for her work at bigger, busier Bryant Square Park. The next year Dietz moved again, this time to the most visible and important recreation job in the city as the director of the Logan Park field house, the only year-round facility the park board operated.

Dietz needed very little time to establish her reputation at Logan Park. In an article on the opening of the 1920 summer playground season, the Minneapolis Tribune (June 20) commented that Dietz had already “taught the Logan Park neighborhood what a field house was really meant to be.” Apparently in the seven years between its construction in 1912 and Dietz’s arrival the field house had been less successful.

By the end of that summer the Tribune (October 17) provided an unusual glimpse of park life “in a community where there are a dozen nationalities struggling with the intricacies of life in a new country.” In that environment, the paper reported, Mrs. Dietz was trusted by “children and mothers alike.” As a result, Dietz was able to “buoy the self-confidence of the women who are awed by the greater facility of their children in the new tongue and to make the children realize what they owe to their parents.”

Among her responsibilities were teaching drama, dance and arts and craft classes, directing all athletic activities for girls, and putting on plays and pageants. The previous year she had also managed boys athletic activities developing “proficiency in boxing and football that surprised even herself” the Tribune reported. The paper continued that “almost to her regret,” a man had then been brought in to look after the boys and young men. In between all this she “listens to all the troubles that everybody tells her…and never turns a hair through it all.” The Tribune also praised the “Logan Park spirit” she had instilled noting that “the children have come to feel that the place belongs to them and they look over a newcomer with stern eyes.  He has to measure up to what they think is proper Logan Park behavior.”

Dietz’s work with pageants and performances at Logan Park led to her being handed responsibility for the citywide playground pageants staged at Lyndale Park at the end of each summer.

The first playground pageant on the hill above the Rose Garden at Lyndale Park attracted a crowd estimated at 10,000. (1918 Annual Report, Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners)

The first two pageants, “Mother Goose” in 1918 and “The Pied Piper” in 1919, were directed by Julia Beckman, a teacher at North High School, but from 1920 Dietz wrote and directed the playground pageants as they became one of the highlights of the summer playground program. Children from every Minneapolis park were involved in creating costumes and props for the program. Up to 1,500 children appeared in the pageants each year which were staged on the hill overlooking the Rose Garden in Lyndale Park. The two-night performances were attended by up to 40,000 people.  The popularity of the pageants caused the park board to consider more than once (first in 1930) the construction of an  amphitheater on the site. Except for a brief hiatus during the Depression, the pageants continued through 1941. The pageant was incorporated into the Aquatennial in 1940, the first year of that celebration. With the ascendancy of the Aquatennial, and with the nation at war, the pageant was discontinued a year later.

The pageants were original scripts written by Dietz. While she created small roles in her pageants for park commissioners, she never allowed commissioners to have speaking parts. After her second pageant in 1921, “Weaver of Dreams,” Dietz asked the park board to allow her to retain copyright of the pageant scripts. The park board agreed that she could retain those copyrights as her personal property. (I have seen no indication that Dietz ever licensed those or subsequent scripts for performances by others.)

I recently found in a scrapbook kept by Victor Gallant evidence that Dietz had a background in theater as a performer before she worked for the park board. I had found an item in park board proceedings that Dietz requested a leave of absence for a week in the 1920s to attend a dance workshop in New York at her own expense, which was granted by the board. From that reference I knew Dietz had an interest in dance beyond the classes she taught at Logan Park and the dances she had incorporated into her pageant scripts. But the undated newspaper clip that appeared at the time of her 40th anniversary of employment with the park board (her last year), mentions her own theater performances as a girl.

Alice Dietz in 1957 near the time of her retirement and as a child actor, from an undated newspaper clip.

The article that accompanied the photos above attributed the 1906 photo to a touring company of “Buster  Brown,” the 1910 photo to a performance of J. M. Barrie’s play, “The Little Minister,” with the greatest Broadway actor of that era, Maude Adams, and the 1912 photo to an Orpheum Theater production of “School Days.” In addition to performing with Adams — who originated the role of Peter Pan on Broadway in 1905 and was by some accounts the highest paid actor of her time and the most famous woman in America — Dietz also performed with Eddie Cantor, although that was well before Cantor’s fame on radio.

As the Director of Community Centers in Minneapolis parks, Dietz played a central role in the redefinition of recreation in the park context. The range of activities and classes offered at Logan Park was unprecedented in Minneapolis. In addition to expanding the range of activities provided for both children and adults, Dietz oversaw the conversion in 1922 of the large social room at Logan Park into a gymnasium for sports. The other recreation centers in Minneapolis at that time were little more than warming houses for skaters. They were later criticized by a national park expert as too big for warming houses and too small for anything else. (Weir Report, 1944.) Despite the phenomenal popularity of Logan Park under Dietz’s direction, the park board did not build another similar facility until the 1960s. Perhaps park commissioners feared that while they could replicate the field house they could not replicate Dietz.

Dietz’s role in the development of park programming in the 1920s at Logan Park was significant, but her greatest achievement may have been in training the army of recreation supervisors who worked in parks across the city in the 1930s. With the onset of the Depression in 1930 and the slashing of recreation budgets, Dietz lost her three assistants at Logan. Summer recreation positions in parks across the city were slashed from seventy-five to zero in 1933. When the American Legion tried to fill the void in eleven parks by providing volunteer supervisors, they were sent to Dietz for training.

That was just a glimmer of what would follow. For the 1934 playground season the Works Progress Administration inaugurated a recreation program that at its peak would place more than 240 recreation supervisors in Minneapolis parks and playgrounds. The WPA recreation program continued until 1943. During those ten years, thanks to federal and state work-relief programs, Minneapolis parks offered the most comprehensive, year-round recreation programming in the city’s history. The entire program, including the training of hundreds of new personnel, was coordinated by Alice Dietz from her office at Logan Park.

That experience served her and the city well after WWII when the park board was able to expand recreation programming and offer year-round activities at a handful of parks. Dietz was once again responsible for training the first generation of full-time, year-round recreation supervisors employed by the park board.

These are the outlines of Alice Dietz’s remarkable career in the recreation department of Minneapolis parks. I know little about Alice Dietz beyond what I have related here other than the fact that she was president of the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association in 1947. If you can tell us more about Dietz — or you have another person to nominate as a Minneapolis Park Hero — please comment here or contact me at the e-mail address below.

David C. Smith

© David C. Smith

Florence Barton Loring

Charles Loring was married to Emily Crossman for 38 years, to Florence Barton for only 27, but he probably knew Florence longer than he knew Emily.

The “Father of Minneapolis Parks” likely met Florence more than 30 years before he married her, but he may not have noticed her much at first. She was the daughter of his friend and business associate Asa Barton. Barton, like Loring, was an immigrant from Maine. (Barton also has his name on the Minneapolis map: Barton Avenue in Prospect Park.) Continue reading

The Smack and Tang of Elemental Things

One of the coolest things I’ve ever purchased online was a book of poetry about trees published in 1923 or 1924. Not your ordinary, run-of-the-paper-mill tree poetry book. It was published by Florence Barton Loring as a remembrance from her husband, Charles M. Loring, “The Father of Minneapolis Parks.” (Do not accept imitation “creators” of the Minneapolis park system. More to come on that subject.) Only forty-eight pages with a hard cover. The little book was explained this way in a brief foreword by Mrs. Loring:

In explanation of this booklet’s publication, it may be stated that my beloved husband requested me, when circumstances favored, to compile a collection of  verses from which we had derived much pleasure, on the subject of trees, for distribution as a parting souvenir of himself, among those who knew him well, and share his tastes and enthusiasm…It does not require this parting remembrance from Charles M. Loring to keep his memory alive in the hearts of his friends, but that may render it none the less acceptable to the recipients; while, to the compiler, it has been not only a means of redeeming a promise, but, also, has provided a labor of love.

Poets included range from Byron, Longfellow and William Cullen Bryant (Bryant Avenue) to Minnesota poets Henrietta Jewett Keith and May Stanley.

The poem excerpt that caught my attention though was a few lines from “Lincoln: The Man of the People,” by Edwin Markham. Loring cites only six lines of the poem including the closing four lines:

And when he fell in whirlwind, he went down
As when a lordly cedar, green with boughs,
Goes down with a great shout upon the hills
nd leaves a lonesome place against the sky

That was perhaps Mrs. Loring’s tribute to Lincoln as well as her husband, who had been a stalwart of Lincoln’s party. But she left out Markham’s great description of Lincoln including the fabulous line used as a title here:

The color of the ground was in him, the red earth;
The smack and tang of elemental things;

A reading of Markham’s poem was part of the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in May, 1922. Markham, who had published the poem in 1901, read it himself. The dedication took place a little more than a month after Charles Loring died at the age of 88.

Florence Barton Loring and Charles Loring, about 1915, likely in Riverside, California where they often spent the winter. (Minnesota Historical Society, por 16225 r3)

I first saw the book at the Minnesota Historical Society Library in St. Paul (there is also a copy in Special Collections at the Hennepin Country Central Library downtown Minneapolis). Because relatively few copies were printed for gifts to Loring’s friends I was surprised to find one for sale online from a Los Angeles rare book dealer. It is one of only a few souvenirs I have collected from my research of Minneapolis parks.

More on Florence Barton Loring soon.

David C. Smith

© David C. Smith

Charles M. Loring, Father of Minneapolis Parks

“We must all work and work together, and it will be but a short time before we shall see what a united effort and good example can do toward forming a public sentiment so strong that the city government will give us the trees and parks we so much need for breathing spaces for the poor who cannot ride to the country for air.”

—  Charles M. Loring, April 14, 1882

Charles M. Loring, Father of Minneapolis Parks, about 1900 (Brush, Minnesota Historical Society)

If you’ve read City of Parks or the history of Loring Park at you already know how much I admire Charles Loring, the first president of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners (BPC). He was one of the most effective advocates for parks before the park board was created and during a couple stints on the park board. He was a man of national reputation and influence on park matters. In addition, he donated the recreation shelter at Loring Park in 1906, paid for an artificial water fall to be built beside Glenwood (Wirth) Lake in 1917, and paid for the original trees for Victory Memorial Drive and created a $50,000 fund for the perpetual care of those trees. He was one of the most remarkable men in Minneapolis history. So once in a while I will tell a story here about Charles Loring that I haven’t had space to tell anywhere else. I will likely do the same for William W. Folwell, but that comes later.

On April 14, 1882, nearly a year before the creation of the BPC by the Minnesota legislature, Loring was asked to address the first annual meeting of the Oak Lake Addition Improvement Association. The neighborhood, which once stood where the Farmer’s Market now stands beside I-94, was the first in the city to create a homeowners association to care for the streets and grounds and sanitary requirements of  a neighborhood. For their annual meeting, which was held at Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church, they asked Loring to speak about the care and culture of trees in the city.

According to newspaper coverage, Loring’s remarks focused on the experiences of W. R. Smith, the superintendent of parks in Washington, D.C. and the president of the Botanical Garden there. The park commission in D. C. had the power to plant and remove trees at will and they consulted with no one. (Loring obtained that same much-envied power for the BPC from the Minnesota legislature in 1887.) Loring commented that he thought Congress had done a very wise thing when it put the important matter of trees in the hands of arboriculturists “who go about their work without fear or favor,” Loring said.

Loring told that night of an unnamed U. S. Senator who sent a messenger to W. R. Smith asking if the superintendent could not remove a tree that the Senator believed obstructed his view from a window in his home. Loring said Smith responded by asking the Senator if he could not move his house.

The tree stayed and Loring had a story that entertained an influential Minneapolis audience and perhaps helped nudge public sentiment toward acceptance of a park commission that would also plant trees without fear or favor and convert a city that was largely open prairie into one of the greenest cities in the United States.

David C. Smith

%d bloggers like this: