Archive for the ‘Minneapolis Parks: General’ Category
The Minneapolis Park Board and Hennepin County Library report that we are probably only weeks away from the transfer of the park board’s historical archives to the downtown Minneapolis library. A valuable trove of historical information will be preserved, protected and made available to the public as never before.
Among the more intriguing documents discovered in preparing those archives for transfer to a better place was a letter from Theodore Wirth to Charles Loring, July 4, 1905, after Wirth visited Minneapolis to consider taking the position of Superintendent of Parks. Upon returning to his home in Hartford, Connecticut, where he held a similar position, Wirth wrote to thank Loring for his hospitality and, more importantly, to outline his terms for accepting the position in Minneapolis.
The letter was an exciting discovery because for many years I and others have looked for evidence that Loring and the park board had agreed in 1905 to build a house for Wirth. That house was eventually built in 1910, four years after Wirth came to Minneapolis, at Lyndale Farmstead on Bryant Avenue near Lake Harriet. Theodore Wirth lived in the house until 1945, ten years after he retired as park superintendent. It was occupied by succeeding superintendents from then until David Fisher moved out of the house to one of his own choosing in the mid-1990s. The house became the residence of the superintendent once again in 2010, however, when Jayne Miller chose to live there when she moved to Minneapolis.
The construction of a house on park property for Wirth was very controversial in 1910. The park board’s authority to build it was challenged in court. The park board justified its decision in part by claiming that the structure was not just a residence, but an administration building — and also claimed that the house fulfilled a condition of Wirth’s employment years earlier.
Although park board plans to build the house as a residence for Wirth survived a court challenge — by a split vote in the Minnesota Supreme Court — historians, including me, had found no proof that the park board had agreed to provide housing for Wirth. I had seen a copy of Wirth’s five-page letter from 1905 proposing the terms of his employment, but the pertinent portions of that copy were utterly illegible. Now, we can read them in Wirth’s original ink.
In a subsequent letter to Loring, Wirth wrote that while he was torn between staying in Hartford or moving to Minneapolis, he had stated his terms for accepting the Minneapolis job and the park board had agreed to them, so he felt honor-bound to accept the new job. That is as close as we can get, without seeing Loring’s actual response to Wirth, to knowing that Loring and the park board had agreed to meet Wirth’s expectation of a house.
Why had the original letter been missing for so long? We found it in a file of park board correspondence not from 1905, but 1911! No one ever would have looked for it there. I suspect it was filed there after the court case had been decided and the supporting documents were no longer needed and were thrown into a current file. It probably hadn’t been looked at between 1911 and last summer.
Proper Attribution: A Park within a Half-mile of Every Residence?
Another discovery of interest to me in the documents soon to take up permanent residence at the library was a memorandum from Wirth that sheds light on the often-repeated claim that he championed a playground within a half-mile of every residence in the city.
The attribution of that claim to Wirth often presumes that he not only supported it but that it originated with him. I have scoured Wirth’s writing and the park board’s published records for the source of that particular measure for playground location. No luck. I couldn’t find that standard proposed by Wirth even in the hundreds of pages he wrote for his annual reports.
The only similar claim I was able to find was in the autobiography of Wirth’s son Conrad, who was the director of the National Park Service 1951-1964. In Parks, Politics and the People, published in 1980, more than 30 years after his father’s death, Conrad associated the “park within a half mile” concept with his father.
Then came the deep dive into once dusty archive boxes. A 1916 committee file contained many petitions signed by residents of south Minneapolis asking for a park at 39th and Chicago — what eventually became Phelps Field. Theodore Wirth submitted his opinion to a joint committee considering the issue. He opposed the playground because it was within the district already served by Nicollet (Martin Luther King) Field and Powderhorn Park. He explained,
“It is conceded by playground authorities from all parts of the country that one good-sized playground per square mile of city area is sufficient for even densely populated districts.”
That hardly seems the statement of a man who had created the standard. While I have not researched the subject on a national scale to see where the standard did originate, it appears that the park per square mile standard was already widely used. Keep in mind that Minneapolis was fairly late to the practice of establishing playgrounds under the auspices of a park board, so it was an unlikely pioneer in developing standards for playground locations. To the credit of Minneapolis and Theodore Wirth, however, Minneapolis probably came closer to meeting that standard eventually than almost all other cities.
By the way, the park board did not take Wirth’s advice in this instance and approved the acquisition of Phelps Field despite its proximity to other playgrounds and the large amount of grading that Wirth asserted would be required to make the land into usable playground space.
Hundreds more documents, like these, that provide information and insights into the creation and evolution of Minneapolis’s parks will soon be available to everyone at the library.
The transfer of the park board archives culminates the work of several years. Park commissioners, led by Scott Vreeland, superintendent Jayne Miller, and park board staff, especially Dawn Sommers and former real estate attorney Renay Leone, deserve thanks for their commitment to preserving park historical records. The project also owes a great deal to the cooperation of Josh Schaffer in the City Clerk’s office, and Ted Hathaway, director of Special Collections at Hennepin County Library.
I would encourage local historians, especially those with an interest in the first half of the 20th Century, as well as park enthusiasts, to take a look at the archives once Ted and his staff at the library can make them available. They provide a fascinating historical view of not just a park system, but a city.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
When I landed in Lusaka, Zambia in 1980, the country was a relatively stable island surrounded by wars and brutal governments. That meant it was a refuge for people fleeing death, destruction and brutality on nearly all sides. As the new Vice Consul at the American Embassy, I had a professional interest in those horrors. Part of my job was to implement a new U.S. State Department program of refugee resettlement from Africa. That experience informs my deep anger and embarrassment at the shameful, unnecessary and likely counterproductive ban on travel, immigration and refugee resettlement in the U.S. targeted at Muslims last week by President Trump.
Zambia shared borders with Angola, Mozambique and Namibia, all of which were war zones as those nations wrestled with their very recent colonial pasts. The fight in Angola in particular was complicated by the presence of Cuban and South African troops. To the south, Zimbabwe had just ended a long civil war against the rule of the white minority, which had displaced many people. To the east, Malawi was governed by a brutal despot and to the north Zaire was afflicted with periodic violent rebellions against an oppressive and corrupt regime. People sought refuge in Zambia in large numbers.
Overshadowing even this cauldron of displacement was the presence of the headquarters in Lusaka of the African National Congress, the outlawed opposition political party in South Africa. Many fleeing South Africans ended up in Lusaka, too, escaping through Botswana or Zimbabwe. Roads and riverbanks on Zambia’s southern and western borders were littered with land mines. Weapons had poured into the region from nearly every major power. In Lusaka, AK-47s were for rent by the night.
The first refugee resettlement program in Africa was a part of the United States humanitarian response to the situation that had overwhelmed the capacity of a country like Zambia to manage. While Zambia presented unique challenges for refugee resettlement, American embassies throughout Africa joined in the effort to resettle the most vulnerable and deserving refugees in the U.S.
With a strict cap on the number of refugees we were allowed to begin processing that year in Lusaka – fewer than two dozen, as I recall – we focused on the most deserving applicants. The experienced staff of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Lusaka was a valuable ally in sorting out legitimate refugee claims.
It was not easy to corroborate or confirm the individual stories we heard from refugees, but we followed a rigorous process. Our concern was not to weed out terrorists, of course – it was a different time – but we were intently focused on granting refugee status to those most deserving, not opportunists. Practically by definition refugees come from chaotic circumstances where record keeping has broken down or where government-sanctioned persecution and reprisals cast doubt on all official records. How were we to evaluate claims or verify details? You don’t send polite letters to dictators who routinely torture and kill their own citizens to ask if torture claims or death threats are true. Sometimes the evidence of torture was visible physically on refugee applicants; in others, it was evident in behaviors. In still others, experienced observers could distinguish fact from fiction. We evaluated claims and investigated as thoroughly as possible given the much more limited investigative tools of that day.
On our end – the screening process – we could rely on our eyes, ears and brains. The other end of the refugee resettlement process required heart and soul. The State Department worked with organizations around the country, mostly faith-based, to find sponsors for refugees. A group of people would provide a community and resources, both material and emotional, for scarred people lucky enough to have a fresh start, unlucky enough to need one. I learned from my State Department colleagues that one of the most reliable places in the U.S. to find generous sponsors for refugees was Minnesota.
In time, with help, we did our job of processing refugees for resettlement in the U.S, although far fewer than were worthy. I later received letters from some of those who established new lives in the U.S.; one worked in an Arizona copper mine, another was working full-time at two 7-11s, saving money for college. All were grateful, even as they were staggered by the incredible wealth of even average Americans. I suspect that the vast majority became contributing members of American society. I hope they healed.
I was proud to play a small part in implementing that humanitarian effort – and proud of the thousands of generous Americans who played their own parts in it for refugees from Africa and around the world.
My reaction was quite different last week when America symbolically discriminated against an entire religion, turning our backs on visitors, students, immigrants, refugees and fellow citizens for purely religious reasons. The oft-repeated defense of the travel and refugee ban imposed – that it didn’t apply to all Muslims – is nonsense, as is the argument that the order targeted only people from countries already identified by President Obama as potential threats. The government of the United States of America officially discriminated against people solely because of their religion.
The outrageous excuses defeated themselves anyway, because terror attacks by immigrants from the cited countries have not happened. So Trump’s “extreme” actions are a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist either because visitors, potential immigrants and refugees from those countries do not pose a threat or because the vetting system already in place has been effective. Whichever explanation you choose, Trump’s loudly proclaimed “extreme” solution is wrong and reprehensible, and more so because it is unnecessary.
A vetting system – “regular vetting,” I suppose – has been in place and improved upon for years since my days in the State Department. By all evidence, it has been successful. And please don’t forget that most of the people who have been doing the “regular vetting” are people like me who had family and friends at home to protect just as much as Donald Trump has ever had and were as patriotic as he has ever been. The people doing that “regular vetting” were not only doing so to protect their families and their country, but were often doing it at personal risk in dangerous places. Don’t tell me those people were unpatriotic or unconcerned about the safety of Americans. Don’t tell me that their “regular vetting” has made you less safe, because it hasn’t. They have succeeded spectacularly in helping to keep us safe without insulting or endangering millions of people who should be our allies and friends, and often are our neighbors
Trump’s “extreme vetting” is a meaningless, concocted term that has no substance and will likely lead to no change at all anyway. (Just think of the Goldman Sachs-plated Cabinet that is supposed to drain the swamp, or James Comey’s suspicious emails, or Mexican payments for a wall.) Why does Trump propose an “extreme” solution for an invented problem? Without “enemies,” without fear, Trump stands for nothing. So he creates straw men to knock down, to prove how tough he is, to show us he’s got our back. In this case, the straw men, women and children are Muslims, and not just potential terrorists from seven countries, but all Muslims everywhere. “They” are his enemy. President Trump has placed them all in the shadow of evil. He clearly asserts that if we cannot yet prove they are terrorists, we just have to look harder, extremer. (Maybe some extreme water-boarding would yield proof.)
The scary part of the episode? Who’s next?
As abhorrent as I find our government’s actions of the past week, I am truly baffled by only one thing in President Trump’s explanation of his edict on immigrants and refugees. Why did he single out Christians for preferential treatment, a group with which, by my observation, he has so little in common?
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
I do not apologize for posting political and humanitarian comment on a site that has been largely apolitical. I have always recognized that people of different political beliefs can find common ground on many issues, such as managing and preserving public spaces. But the time comes when silence is not acceptable, when we all must use whatever means we have at our disposal to condemn policies that are so objectionable.
I will approve no comments on this post. If you agree with me, feel free to share my thoughts with others and add your voice. If you disagree, create your own blog.
I’ll return to my regular park-related topics soon.
What has changed in 100 years? A few times on this site, I have looked back 100 years at park history. I’ll expand my scope this year because of extraordinary political developments. Politics first, then parks.
The national electoral map flipped. The electoral map of the 1916 Presidential contest is astonishing. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, won a close re-election against Republican candidate Charles Hughes, a Supreme Court Justice. Compare red and blue states below to today. Nearly inverted. The Northeast, Upper Midwest and Far West — well, Oregon — voted alike. Republican. And lost.
While Minnesota’s electoral votes were cast for the Republican — although Hughes received only 392 more votes than Wilson out of nearly 400,000 cast — Minneapolis elected Thomas Van Lear as its mayor, the only Socialist to hold that office in city history. One hundred years later, Minneapolis politics are again dominated by left-of-center politicians.
The population of Minneapolis in 1916 and 2016 was about the same: now a little over 400,000, then a little under. Minneapolis population peaked in mid-500,000s in mid-1950s and dropped into mid-300,000s in late 20th Century. One hundred years ago, however, Minneapolis suburbs were very sparsely populated.
The world 100 years ago was a violent and unstable place. World War I was in its bloody, muddy depths, although the U.S. had not yet entered the war, and Russia was on the verge of revolution. Now people are killed indiscriminately by trucks, guns, and bombs. People worldwide debated then how to address the excesses of capitalists, oligarchs and despots unencumbered by morality. We still do.
One notable change? Many Americans campaigned in 1916 to put women in voting booths, in 2016 to put a woman in the Oval Office.
Continuing Park Growth: North and South
How about progress in parks? The Minneapolis park board added significantly to its playground holdings in 1916 and 1917 as public demand for facilities and fields for active recreation increased. In North Minneapolis, Glenwood (Theodore Wirth) Park was expanded and land for Folwell Park was acquired. In South Minneapolis, Nicollet (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) Park and Chicago Avenue (Phelps) Park were purchased and land for Cedar Avenue Park was donated. In 1917, the first Longfellow Field was sold to Minneapolis Steel and steps were initiated to replace it at its present location.
One particular recreational activity was in park headlines in 1916 for the very first time. A nine-hole course was opened that year at Glenwood (Theodore Wirth) Park, the first public golf course in Minneapolis. Golf was free and greens weren’t green, they were made of sand. In less than ten years, the park board operated four 18-hole courses (Glenwood [Wirth], Columbia, Armour [Gross], and Meadowbrook) and was preparing to add a fifth at Lake Hiawatha.
The Grand Rounds were nearly completed conceptually, when first plans for St. Anthony Boulevard from Camden Bridge on the Mississippi River to the Ramsey County line on East Hennepin Avenue were presented in 1916. Park Superintendent Theodore Wirth also suggested that the banks of the Mississippi River above St. Anthony Falls might be made more attractive with shore parks and plantings, even if the railroads maintained ownership of the land. One hundred years later we’re still working on that, but have made some progress including the continuing purchase by the Park Board of riverfront lots as they have become available.These have been the only notable additions to park acreage in many years.
One important result of the increasing demand for playground space in Minneapolis one hundred years ago was the passage by the Minnesota legislature in 1917 of a bill that enabled the park board to increase property tax collections by 50%. In 2016, the Park Board and the City Council reached an important agreement on funding to maintain and improve neighborhood parks.
In a city blessed with water and public waterfronts, however, some of the most significant issues facing the Minneapolis park board in 1917 involved shorelines — beyond beautifying polluted river banks.
The most contentious issue was an extension of Lake Calhoun, a South Bay, south on Xerxes Avenue to 43rd Street. Residents of southwest Minneapolis wanted that marshy area either filled or dredged — dry land or lake. There was no parkway at that time around the west and south shore of Lake Calhoun from Lake Street and Dean Parkway to William Berry Parkway. As a part of plans to construct a parkway along that shoreline, the park board in 1916 approved extending Lake Calhoun and putting a drive around a new South Bay as well.
The challenge, of course was how to pay for it. The park board’s plan to assess property owners in the area for the expensive improvements was met with furiuos opposition and lawsuits. Many property owners thought that assessments they were already paying for acquisitions and improvements over the years at Lake Calhoun, Lake Harriet and William Berry Park were too heavy. The courts eventually decided in favor of the park board’s right to assess for those improvements, but by then estimated costs for the project had increased and become prohibitive and the South Bay scheme was abandoned.
Instead land for Linden Hills Park was acquired in 1919 and the surrounding wet land was drained into Lake Calhoun in the early 1920s. Dredged material from the lake was used to create a better-defined shoreline on the southwestern and northwestern shores of the lake in 1923 in preparation for the construction of the parkway.
Flowage Rights on the Mississippi River and a Canal to Brownie Lake
Minneapolis parks also lost land to water in 1916. The federal government claimed 27.6 acres of land in the Mississippi River gorge for flowage rights for the reservoir that would be created by a new dam to be built near Minnehaha Creek. Those acres, on the banks of the river and several islands in the river, would be submerged behind what became Lock and Dam No. 1 or the Ford Dam. In exchange for the land to be flooded, the park board did acquire some additional land on the bluffs overlooking the dam.
The other alteration in water courses was the dredging of a navigable channel between Cedar Lake and Brownie Lake, which completed the “linking of the lakes” that was begun with the connection of Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun in 1911. The land lost to the channel was negligible and probably balanced by a slight drop in water level in Brownie Lake. (A five-foot drop in Cedar Lake was caused by the opening of the Kenilworth Lagoon to Lake of the Isles in 1913.)
Another potential loss of water from Minneapolis parks may have occurred in 1917. William Washburn’s Fair Oaks estate at one time had a pond. I don’t know when that pond was filled. The estate became park board property upon the death of Mrs. Washburn in 1915. Perhaps in 1917 when the stables and greenhouses on the southwest corner of the property were demolished, the south end of the estate was graded and the pond was filled. Theodore Wirth’s suggestion for the park, presented in 1917, included an amphitheater in part of the park where the pond had once been.
The Dredge Report
The year 1917 marked the end of the most ambitious dredging project in Minneapolis parks — in fact the biggest single project ever undertaken by the park board until then, according to Theodore Wirth. The four-year project moved more than 2.5 million cubic yards of earth and reduced the lake from 300 shallow acres to 200 acres with a uniform depth of 15 feet.
That wasn’t the end of work at Lake Nokomis, however. The park surrounding the lake, especially the playing fields northwest of the lake couldn’t be graded for another five years, after the dredge fill had settled.
Dredging may again be an issue in 2017 if the Park Board succeeds in raising funds for a new park on the river in northeast Minneapolis. Dredges would carve a new island out of land where an old man-made island once existed next to the Plymouth Avenue Bridge. But that may be a long time off — and could go the way of South Bay.
One other development in 1917 had more to do with standing water than was probably understood at the time. The Park Board joined with the Real Estate Board in a war on mosquitoes. However, after spending $100 on the project and realizing they would have to spend considerably more to achieve results, park commissioners terminated the project. It was not the first or last battle won by mosquitoes in Minneapolis.
As we look again at new calendars, it’s always worth taking a glance backward to see how we got here. For me, it is much easier to follow the course of events in Minneapolis park history than in American political history.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
Comments: I am not interested in comments of a partisan political nature here, so save those for your favorite political sites.
I was researching other things last spring when I found two letters written by Ralph Waldo Emerson to his daughter Ellen from Minnesota in 1867 — 150 years ago this month.
Emerson was on one of his annual lecture tours to the West, but it was his first venture across the Mississippi River into Minnesota.
He seemed to like the place — even commenting in his letter that Minneapolis was “said to be of admirable climate.” Perhaps he was not willing to trust his own judgment on the matter as he was visiting in January and in an account of his visit published in Minnesota History, June 1930, Hubert H. Hoeltje wrote that Emerson travelled from LaCrosse to Winona in an open carriage on a day that the temperature tumbled to 20 below zero. Emerson was kind enough not to frighten his daughter with accounts in his letters of such extreme hardship.
Emerson likely knew something of Minnesota from his old friend Henry David Thoreau who had visited Minneapolis, residing for a time on the shore of Lake Calhoun, in 1861. We also learn from the letters that he had cousins here. And Hoeltje observes in his article that Emerson had purchased property in Wisconsin in 1856.
Despite these connections and a history of lecturing in other not-quite-so-exotic locales since 1852 when he first lectured in St. Louis, Emerson reassured his daughter in his January 31 letter from Faribault that he was “in good new country with plenty of robust people who take kind care of me.” Still he felt it “a little pathetic” that people “born to be delicate and petted” had “removed into this rough yeomanly lair of the giants.”
Writing from St. Paul the next day he recounted for Ellen his meeting with his cousin Hannah Ladd Meyer and her children who lived in Northfield. Hannah, he wrote, “was as good & almost as handsome as in her youth.”
Emerson also recounted that his host in Faribault, grandson of the founder of the eponymous city, had taken him to visit eight “Sioux tepis (conical tents)” near town. He noted that the small village included only older men, women and children as the warriors had been “removed to Nebraska.” With Faribault, who “spoke Indian”, Emerson had visited the tents and in one had listened to two girls sing “quite prettily.” He also wrote that young Faribault, who was three-quarters Indian himself, had gone to school in Montreal and “was as handsome & as accurately dressed and did the honors as gracefully…as any youth from New York could be or do.” Emerson was disappointed that light in the tepis was provided not by burning pine-knots or birchbark, but by kerosene lamps. “I inquired,” he concluded, “whether I could see such another Indian picture between that spot and Boston and I was assured I could not.”
From Faribault, Emerson travelled to St. Paul, which he called a “proud, new, thriving town” of 12-15,000 people with handsome buildings and fine banks. Escorted by Governor William Marshall, he visited the State Capitol, but seemed most struck by the fact that Gov. Marshall was Swedenborgian by religion, a subject on which they conversed.
I do not wish to sow seeds of strife in these troubled times, but I am only here as a chronicler, and am compelled to cite Emerson’s comparison of my present home with my boyhood home.
“Thence to Minneapolis,” Emerson wrote two days later from there, “a town of greatest promise in all the northwest…If Edward [his son, recently graduated from Harvard] were to come west, let him come here. It is the house, St. Paul being only the front door.”
Emerson was not left alone much on his visit. His travelling companion from Faribault to St. Paul was Wisconsin Congressman and future governor, and famous miller, C.C. Washburn, and he ate Sunday dinner in Minneapolis with C.C.’s younger brother and future Minnesota Senator, William Drew Washburn. That day he also visited another cousin, Phebe Chamberlain, whom he had not seen in 30 years.
While in Minneapolis, Emerson lectured twice, once for the Athenaeum Library Association at Harrison Hall and again at the Universalist Church at 4th Ave. South and 5th St. Hubert Hoeltje noted that the only local newspaper coverage of the first Minneapolis lecture cited the time and place and a “large and attentive audience,” but concluded, “lack of space forbids comment.” A newspaper account of Emerson’s second lecture ended with the observation, “So great was the rush of people that scores were unable to obtain admission–among whom was the writer.”
As popular as Emerson was, he was not the biggest draw for the lecture series that year. Hoeltje reports, for instance, that Frederick Douglass drew an audience to St. Paul twice as large as Emerson’s. Perhaps Emerson’s star had faded somewhat by then. He had been lecturing for many years and was 63 years old, nearing the end of his lecturing career.
Emerson had nothing to do with Minneapolis parks apart from any influence his philosophy may have had on H. W. S. Cleveland’s view of nature and preservation of natural features of the landscape, especially in cities. Cleveland and his partner at the time, Robert Morris Copeland, had designed Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Emerson’s hometown of Concord, Mass. in 1855. Emerson was on the committee that commissioned their work and gave the address at the dedication of the cemetery. He was also buried there — along with Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa Mae Alcott. Cleveland and Emerson certainly knew each other. Cleveland scholar Daniel Nadenicek considers Emerson an important influence on Cleveland’s aesthetic. While there are similarities between the two men’s views, the more I have learned of Cleveland’s life, the less weight I have come to place on Emerson’s influence on Cleveland. But that’s probably subject matter for a book one of these days.
For now suffice to say that the frontier city of the northwest that held significant appeal for Emerson in 1867, was also the city in which Cleveland chose to live years later — and beautify with his vision, however it was shaped.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© 2017 David C. Smith
Thanks Barbara MacLeish for correcting the date Thoreau lived at Lake Calhoun: 1861, not 1860. Corrections are always appreciated.
In Devon, England last week a former resident of Minneapolis found this website and was intrigued by my account a few years ago of the smallest parks in Minneapolis, the triangles in Prospect Park, near Tower Hill. Becky Stannard, my correspondent, remembered them well, having attended Pratt School. But she had more than memories, she had a story about how the boulders appeared on the triangles there. It was written by her mother, Norma Olson. I have printed it below, with thanks to Becky and Norma.
Maris’s Mini Parks
By Norma Olson, 2-28-94
In Prospect Park
Where we lived for 40 years
Scattered through the neighborhood
At the intersections of streets
Are small triangles and squares of land
Left over from the making of streets
Whose design was influenced
By the old cow paths
Dating back to farming days.
When Lady Bird declared
With enthusiasm, if not passion
That Beauty was important
That wherever possible, in America
We plant a shrub or tree
We took it to heart.
The local Beauty Committee
Especially Maris Thomes
Who has lived some in Japan
Started talking about the opportunity
Offered by our bits and pieces — the triangles.
She cocked her head and mused
Wouldn’t it be nice
If we had some big rocks
To help us dress up those triangles?
For some months, after finding myself
President of the Minneapolis Committee on Urban Environment
An organization with big ideas, little power and no budget
I had been visiting around City Hall
With the pros at the Park Board, the Housing Authority and Public Works
It’s sort of a treat for middle management bureaucrats
To dream a little and to visit with neighborhood people
Who aren’t asking for anything.
While I knew most of these folks from other contexts
They might have eyed me with
A certain amusement
But a condition of trust existed.
On this day, in late winter I dropped in on Martin,
Associate Operations Engineer
At Public Works, during his coffee break.
“Well, come in and sit a spell. What are you up to today, Norma?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t have a project up your sleeve.”
“Well, there is Maris’ dream.”
“Heavens, what’s that?”
“Well, you know all those triangles in our neighborhood
That you folks long ago left behind
When you designed the streets.
They look bad but they could be a visual asset.”
“We have in mind that we’d like to do
Something with them.
Like clean them up, do some planting.
Maris says we need some big rocks
To add a sculptural quality.
Remember, Martin, you asked me and I thank you.
So thanks for listening.
But as you can see, I’m not setting
The world on fire.”
One evening in early fall, the phone rang at 10 P.M.
“Hello, Norma, this is your friend
Martin from Public Works.
You know, we are excavating
For those huge storm sewers all over S.E.
And you can’t believe the big rocks we are encountering
I mean two or three tons.
Could you use some?
“Twenty-seven. Three for each of the nine street triangles
We talked about earlier.
But we’ve got no trucks, no transport, no manpower, no budget.”
“Well, no problem,” says Martin.
“If you will wait until the ground freezes
So we don’t break the curbs driving over them
And if you will let me know
Exactly where you want them
I will deliver them to you in the evening
And give you warning when they are coming.”
Maris responded to this offer with wild enthusiasm.
And with three weeks of lead-time!
Preparing plans would be easy. Agreed.
Being an artist, it was not difficult for her to take
Measurements of the nine sites.
And in consultation with resident architects
She mapped each triangle xxxing in the rock locations
Respecting that some would be more round or oblong
Then came the phone call.
Meet Martin at the Franklin Hill triangle at 8 P.M. tomorrow night.
Before midnight, under Maris’ directions
All 27 rocks were in place
In dynamic groupings of three.
In the morning, neighbors looked out on a new landscape.
Well, not everyone was enchanted.
Bill called to say, “Do you know that one neighbor is hopping mad
To find those big rocks on her triangle.”
But the unfriendly soil was worked
Tulips bought with memorial money were planted
A few shrubs went in
And we sat back to wait for spring.
Propriety residents from the immediate rock locations
Joined the work crews
And soon the neighborhood had a new visual identity
The triangles had become a unifying factor in the
Then came the day
When the street repaving crews showed ready and raring to tear up
Existing curbs and streets. Panics. The phone rang off the hook.
We went immediately to see
Perry, the chief of Public Works and told him our story
And insisted that the triangles had to be respected as follows:
Leave the rocks in place or replace them precisely if the have to be moved.
Let the new landscape designs for the neighborhood include the triangles.
Assign a budget number for new materials
As compensation for time and plant materials expended.
These requests were in written form
We were accompanied on this mission by the
Administrative Assistant of our Alderman.
Perry was impressed that the requests were reasonable
Agreement was reached. The neighborhood was reassured.
And so the newly curbed triangles, after consulting, were
Expertly planted with many new evergreens as a base
Were ready for spring materials.
And so they have become a vital part of
The Neighborhood landscape
With adjacent owners feeling possessive
Looking after maintenance.
Mandy managed her triangles.
Kate planted a tree for John Berryman
The Franklin Avenue Bridgehead Planting included a Ginkgo Tree.
It was a project of enormous satisfaction to me
Because it cost so little, brought staff and citizens
Into an effective working relationship
And strengthened the neighborhood
With another point of pride. It was fun making it happen.
Thanks also to Maris Thomes, Martin, Perry, Bill, Kate, Mandy and everyone else who took part in this successful collaboration.
While on the subject of Prospect Park and Tower Hill, I have a question. Does anyone know the inside story on what happened to plans to vacate Malcolm Ave. S.E. between Pratt School and Tower Hill Park? I recently came across park board resolutions and drawings of plans to vacate the street and turn it into a playground for the school. The original plans were dated 1928, but the issue was raised again in 1950 in response to petitions from the neighborhood and another resolution was approved to complete those plans. The park board announced in the 1950 annual report that the vacation of Malcolm Ave. had added 0.17 acres to Tower Hill Park. But Malcolm Ave. still runs between the school and park. Was it closed, then reopened? I’m sure someone knows the story. Please share.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
What does the Minnesota River have to do with Minneapolis parks? The Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners, in 1934, tried to help Minnesota Gov. Floyd B. Olson convince the federal government to acquire the Minnesota River valley from Shakopee to Mendota and make it a national park.
I only have the bare bones of the story, but I wanted to throw them out there so someone else could expand it if so inclined. I find this bit of history particularly interesting in light of important efforts by Friends of the Mississippi River and the National Park Service to protect and preserve our rivers. In 1934, Gov. Olson wrote to the Minneapolis park board asking for assistance. I’ve reproduced the letter in full.
Always willing to cooperate on park projects, the Minneapolis park board, with Supt. Theodore Wirth’s support, voted on May 2 to give Harold Lathrop, “an employee in the Engineering Department,” leave of absence with pay to go to Washington, D.C. “and spend such time as is necessary in the interest of the proposed plan.”
It’s obvious from Gov. Olson’s letter that he had already secured the assistance of Wirth and Lathrop, and the park board presumably, in creating a map of the “recreational possibilities” of the area. I have never seen such a map created solely for that purpose, but in 1935, the park board published Theodore Wirth’s Tentative Study Plan for the West Section of a Metropolitan Park System. That report contained a detailed map of all of Hennepin County and more, including the closeup below of the Minnesota River Valley. (The full report and map are appended to the park board’s 1935 annual report.)
I don’t know what became of Gov. Olson’s idea of a national park when Lathrop went off to Washington, D.C. An update came a month later when, at its June 6 meeting, the park board approved Wirth’s recommendation that Lathrop be given two months leave of absence without pay “to act as Project Director for the Federal Government in connection with the proposed Minnesota River Valley development.”
Barbara Sommer writes in Hard Work and A Good Deal that Lathrop was then hired by the National Park Service, which ran the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a federal work-relief program, to supervise CCC work in state parks in Minnesota. There is no indication that any of that work involved a potential park along the Minnesota River. The young National Park Service employee running the CCC program was Conrad Wirth, Theodore’s middle son. Conrad’s performance in that role set him on a trajectory to become the Director of the National Park Service in the 1960s.
I don’t believe Lathrop ever returned to the Minneapolis park board. From his job coordinating federal work in state parks, he was hired as the first director of Minnesota State Parks less than a year later in July 1935. He held Minnesota’s top state parks job until 1946, when he supposedly retired at age 45. Eleven years later, however, he became the first director of state parks in Colorado. Colorado’s first state park is named Lathrop Park.
That’s all I know of the proposed Minnesota River Valley National Park — an intrigue sparked by one letter from the governor in a correspondence file. If you know more, I’d be happy to hear from you.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
P.S. Timely! Friends of the Mississippi River is hosting a fundraiser tomorrow night — October 4 — at the Nicollet Island Pavilion in Minneapolis. Suggested donation $100. Worthy cause! Also read the current StarTribune series on threats to the health of the Mississippi.
Thanks to Lindsey Geyer for sending this picture of Painter Park last week.
Lindsey is probably one of the few people who know the deeper connection between Burma-Shave and Minneapolis parks, especially the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Theodore Wirth Park.
Burma-Shave was an invention of a Minneapolis company, Burma-Vita. It was a shaving cream that didn’t require a brush to whip it into a lather and apply. You just rubbed it on with your fingertips. The company president was Clinton O’Dell. He and his sons were looking for a way to market their invention and hit upon the idea of creating signs to post along highways. They painted their advertising on a series of signs and placed them 100 feet apart, a nice distance to read comfortably for people in cars travelling at the dizzying speed of 35 mph.
The O’Dells painted the signs and dug the post holes for them along highways after getting permission from landowners. This was in 1925. The first signs were placed on highways from Minneapolis to Albert Lea and St. Paul to Red Wing. Sales boomed. The signs spread.
In 1940, letterhead of the Burma-Vita Company featured a faint map with a red dot to show the location of every set of Burma-Shave signs the company had placed.
Sales of Burma-Shave peaked more than a decade later when there were 35,000 Burma-Shave signs. (I haven’t tried to count these dots, but it looks to be considerably shy of 35,000.) They were still being placed along highways into the 1960s, but by then interstate highways and much faster speeds had made the landmark signs a less effective marketing ploy. (Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification program in the mid-1960s restricted advertising along for federal highways, which had a large impact, too.) The Burma-Shave signs were, however, still a highlight of cross-country car travel in the 1960s. When my family travelled, everyone was roused from whatever they were doing as soon as anyone spotted the first red sign in the distance.
So what does this have to do with Minneapolis parks? When Clinton O’Dell attended Minneapolis Central High School in the 1890s he had a botany teacher named Eloise Butler. Ms.Butler went on to fame as the creator and tender of a fabulous wildflower garden in a portion of what was then Glenwood Park, later renamed Theodore Wirth Park. First as a successful insurance man and later as the owner of Burma-Vita, O’Dell was a significant contributor to the wildflower garden Butler created. For many years he donated money for work in the garden, but in 1944 he donated $3,000 to expand the garden beyond the woodland garden it originally was. An upland or prairie section was added thanks to O’Dell’s generosity. Several years later, in 1951, O’Dell was one of the founders of the Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, an organization that has been critical to the continued success of the garden for more than 60 years. (More info on Friends of the Wild Flower Garden and Clinton O’Dell.)
Thanks to his Burma-Shave fame, O’Dell was named to the Minnesota 150: The People, Places, and Things that Shape Our State, by Kate Roberts, a book by the Minnesota Historical Society Press and an exhibit at the historical society in 2007.
Bottom line: Those catchy Burma-Shave jingles and the ubiquitous red roadside signs were partly responsible for one of the most venerated and beloved patches of Minneapolis park land.
And “Past the school take it slow. Let the little shavers grow” is pretty good advice at any time — even though it had been replaced on the Painter Park sign by Saturday, October 1. In its place was news of a new Zumba class. Fitness is good, too!
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
A comment received today from Joan Pudvan on the “David C. Smith” page made me think of some little known facts in Minneapolis park history. So here’s your park trivia fix for today.
Joan asked if Loring Park was once named Central Park? Joan is a post card collector and has seen many post cards from the early 1900s labelled “Central Park.” Those cards feature images of what we know is Loring Park, so the answer to Joan is, “Yes.” When did the name change?
Central Park officially became Loring Park in 1890 when the park board’s first president, Charles Loring, was leaving the board. He, along with every other Republican on the Minneapolis ballot that year, had been defeated at the polls in a shift of political power. At the end of Loring’s tenure, his friend and fellow park advocate, William Folwell, proposed renaming Central Park for the man who had helped create it, and had even supervised much of the landscaping in the park (to H.W.S. Cleveland’s design). Loring said he would prefer that the park be named Hennepin Park for its location on that avenue, but the rest of the board agreed with Folwell that Loring should be honored. So the name was changed, a fact that the post card publishers hadn’t caught up with as many as ten or fifteen years later.
Loring was not, however, the first person to have a Minneapolis park named for him. That distinction goes to Jacob Elliot who, in 1883, donated his former garden to the city as Elliot Park. Elliot had been a prominent doctor in Minneapolis who had retired to Santa Monica, California. The handwritten document (as all were at that time) donating the land to the city as a park — recently discovered in a park board correspondence file — was signed by Wyman Elliot as the attorney-in-fact of his father Jacob Elliot. Wyman Elliot later became a park commissioner himself, when he was elected to fill out Portius Deming’s term from 1899-1901 after Deming was elected to the Minnesota legislature.
In the document that officially donated the land, the most interesting paragraph required the creation, within 18 months, of a fountain in the park with a reservoir “of oval shape” with a diameter of at least 50 feet.
Additional recently found correspondence sought Dr. Elliot’s approval for the plaque he had specified.
One other bit of naming trivia before we get to the other name for Central/Loring Park. In 1891, Judson Cross, one of the first 12 appointed park commissioners, wrote to the park board suggesting that the pond in Loring Park be named Wilson Pond for Eugene M. Wilson, one of the first and greatest park commissioners. He also served as the board’s attorney in the 1880s. He had also been elected to Congress and as Mayor of Minneapolis twice. He died at age 56 in 1890 in the Bahamas where he had gone to try to regain his health. Cross claimed that the name was appropriate because Wilson had been the strongest advocate of securing the land surrounding what had once been Johnson’s Pond for the park that became Central Park. Wilson may have played one of the most important roles in creating a park system in Minneapolis because he was one of the most prominent Democrats to strongly favor the creation of the park board. Without Wilson’s influence among Democrats, many of whom opposed the Park Act — the Republican Party supported it — Minneapolis voters may not have passed the act in the April 1883 referendum.
The board did not add Wilson’s name to Loring Park, but it did rename nearby Hawthorne Square, Wilson Park — which was particularly appropriate because Eugene Wilson’s home faced that park. Unfortunately, the park was wiped out for the construction of I-94 in 1967, so we have been without Wilson’s name in our park system for nearly 50 years.
The other name by which Central and Loring Park was known lasted only a month. In 1885, the park board voted to name the park Spring Grove Park. Without much explanation, but apparently in the face of considerable opposition, the park board backtracked to Central Park a month later.
So…Central Park, Spring Grove Park, Loring Park. I think the park board ended up in the right place.
One among many reasons for that opinion is another historical document rediscovered in the last few months: a letter from Charles Loring to the board from which the excerpt below was taken. In the letter, Loring proposes to create a Memorial Drive, a tribute to fallen American soldiers, as part of the Grand Rounds. The result was Victory Memorial Drive.
Without any such intention when I started writing this, I have highlighted the incredible time and resources that have been donated to the Minneapolis park system. Loring, Elliot, Wilson: all people who shared a commitment to parks and were willing to give time, money and land to the city to realize their visions of what city life should be. Their example is particularly significant now as park leaders are trying to raise funds for new park developments downtown, along the river, and in north and northeast Minneapolis. Not a bad way to be remembered.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
In an enjoyable article on Lake Nokomis in MinnPost, Andy Sturdevant provided a link to a couple photos I posted last month of the Nokomis Bath house, so I thought I’d return the favor. I’ve been intending to post this new photo of the bath house I found on a 1920s postcard, so Andy’s article provides a good excuse. I had not seen this photo until a few weeks ago.
Anyone who knows old cars might be able to date this photo more precisely than I have. Anybody know their early autos? Let us know a likely date range. Based on the age of the trees I would guess it must be very early 1920s.
You can make out the Cedar Avenue bridge in the background. Theodore Wirth wanted to reroute Cedar Avenue around the southwest lagoon shortly after the area was annexed by Minneapolis from Richfield in 1926, but there was too much opposition from property owners in that direction, so we still have that unusual bridge on a county road over a lake.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
It’s popular these days to point out how awful Minneapolitans sometimes were and probably still are. Some writers gleefully discover examples of bigotry in our past and present them almost as badges of honor, “See, we’re really not so nice after all and neither were our grandmas and grandpas.” I don’t know who are more smug, those who find no faults or those who find all faults. Same thing really; an inability to distinguish good from bad. Laziness. The root of all prejudice.
No surprise, we’re flawed. We’ve fixed some of our grandparents’ flaws and I dearly hope our children will fix some of ours. Then it will be up to their children … and so on. Let’s just hope that we don’t backslide.
In the midst of today’s discussions of peace and justice, security and danger, I paused when I came across two letters in a file of documents from the Minneapolis Park Board’s Playground and Entertainment Committee in 1947. This was the committee that, in addition to overseeing playground recreation programs and concerts at bandstands in parks around the city, also issued picnic permits to large groups.
In the early 1900s most of the picnic requests came from church groups, but in the years immediately after World War I, the requests tilted heavily in favor of the newly created veterans groups, mostly American Legion posts, which sponsored neighborhood and charitable picnics in every major park. A bond of brothers perhaps.The only requests for picnics that were refused were from groups that planned to have religious or political speeches. The park board didn’t like partisanship in its parks.
Of the dozens of picnic permit requests filed in 1919 and 1920, the park board rejected only two that I could find: one from a labor union and the other from the Republican Party women’s auxiliary because both planned to have political speeches. When the groups adjusted their programs, they got their permits.
Gradually, however, the park board relented on all counts, even allowing church groups to hold baptisms in city lakes. Labor unions, especially, argued, eventually successfully, that political speech couldn’t be prohibited on public land.
Permits were denied later apparently only because groups were using picnics to raise money that wasn’t going to charities or because of space limitations. That was the issue in July 1947 when the park board got this request from the Twin City Nisei Club. Nisei were second generation Japanese-Americans.
The response, written the same day, came from Karl Raymond, the supervisor of recreation. Note that the date was barely a year after the last of the Japanese internment camps had closed in the western United States. Those prison camps had held more than 100,000 Japanese, many American citizens, born and raised in the United States, due to hysteria – absent any evidence of a threat – that any Japanese person, even if raised thoroughly American, was a security risk following Pearl Harbor.
Karl Raymond had worked for the park board for nearly forty years. He was the supervisor of recreation from 1919 to 1947, when he retired.
In his recommendation to the Playground and Entertainment Committee, Raymond noted that as a general policy the park board did not issue group picnic permits at Minnehaha Park for Saturdays or Sundays, “as the grounds are just about filled up with general use.” But Raymond did not use that excuse. He continued,
“Because of the lateness of the season and the make-up of this group, which includes many veterans of both the Pacific and European sector of the late war, I wish to recommend that this request be granted.”
It’s worth remembering that the wounds of war were still fresh then. The American death toll had not been 50 or 100 brothers and sisters, but four hundred thousand. It was much easier to recognize a wrong many years later. Forty-one years after this insignificant permission to hold a picnic at Minnehaha Park, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that acknowledged our nation’s horrible failing, our unwillingness to accept a minority that was different and often misunderstood.
Perhaps I’m a softy, but when I read Karl Raymond’s recommendation to grant a picnic permit, against general policy, I found myself smiling. Way to go, Karl! A little victory for humanity. We can always use more of those — whether you think we’re mostly bad, mostly good or completely woebegone.
Let’s hope we don’t need to find courageous sponsors and signers of legislation forty years from now to correct mistakes we can avoid today.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
©2016 David C. Smith
One of my favorite pictures of Lake Nokomis. Construction of the bath house was completed in 1920, not long before this photo was taken. The barren landscape — on both sides of the lake — is surprising. (Click the image to enlarge.) This is one of many park board photos that may become available to the public in the near future through the Minnesota Digital Library.
What became of that bath house? The Minneapolis Star ran the photo below on May 2, 1966. The building had been declared unsafe, but demolition was prompted by thousands of dollars of damage done by vandals that winter. Only the toilet rooms of the bath house were left standing for the summer of 1966. A new, smaller bath house was built the next summer. At the time it was the most heavily used beach in the city.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com\
If you have read my history of the Minneapolis park system, City of Parks, you may recall that Charles Loring’s efforts to acquire land around lakes Harriet, Isles and Calhoun remain a subject of speculation. No one has ever found a clear strategy or well-documented plan by Loring, the first president of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners, to acquire the lakes, even though he spent the better part of several years in getting those complicated real estate deals done. I focused mostly on Loring’s desire to create a parkway from Loring Park, then still called Central Park, around the lakes to Lake Harriet, which had been acquired already for the fledgling park board largely by gift. Even the generous gift of land around Lake Harriet by Henry Beard, James Merritt, Charles Reeve and, ultimately, William King, was prompted by the desire to have a parkway around the lake, which accounts for the limits of the original gift: a strip of land only 125 feet wide around Lake Harriet — just enough for a walking path, a carriage way and a few trees or flowers to dress it up.
A new discovery suggests, however, that Loring had much more in mind than parkways. As part of the ongoing project to inventory the park board’s historical records with the goal of making them more accessible to researchers, I recently found a letter written by Loring in 1886 that sheds more light on his thinking about the lakes.
The letter, dated June 14, 1886 and addressed to park board secretary Rufus Baldwin, discusses Loring’s views on what needs to be done to acquire land at Lake of the Isles. Loring notes that Alfred Dean, who owned much of the land that had to be crossed by a parkway at Lake of the Isles, had already told Loring he could do whatever he wished. Loring then wrote,
“My opinion is that we do not want the land on the outside, but do want it next the lake. As the plat now is, the boulevard goes around the little marsh thus.”
Loring then includes a small drawing.
He is very explicit, writing on the road next to the lake “This is what we want” and concluding bluntly, “We must control the lake.”
This evidence that Loring was thinking far beyond parkways is reinforced by the concluding page of his letter when he addresses a new topic: boats on Lake Harriet. He notes that a steamer has been placed on the lake and he has asked the owner to remove it, but adds that after talking with “Judge Fish” — park board attorney Daniel Fish — Loring doesn’t want legal questions raised yet about “rights on the water”. Clearly, Loring is thinking about park board control not just of boulevards around the lake, but activity on the lake as well. His earlier comment, “We must control the lake”, takes on even greater significance.
We may owe even more to Charles Loring and his vision than we previously knew.
While on the subject of Loring I want to mention a note I received a while ago from, William Scott, the great-great-nephew of Charles Loring’s second wife Florence Barton Loring. You can read more about his family’s relationship with the Bartons and Lorings in the “Comments” section here.
This is the carte de visite of Florence Barton that he refers to. Thanks to William Scott for sharing the photos below.
This must have been taken long before she married Charles Loring at age 45 in 1895. Read much more about Florence Barton Loring here.
William Scott also sent a photograph of family and friends at Minnehaha Falls in about 1910. Love those hats! The new bridge with the boulder face over a concrete structure was brand new in 1910. Appears to be a dry year.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© 2016 David C. Smith