Archive for the ‘Francis A. Gross’ Tag

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

Fear in the Hearts of Children: More from the Autobiography of Francis A. Gross

Last weekend I read Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota and Our Way or the Highway: Inside the Minnehaha Free State. That followed a recent rereading of Folwell’s History of Minnesota, Volume I, and I also had read Spirit Car recently. They were part of my continuing research into the history of Minnehaha Falls. (More on that project soon.)

With the sad story of the disintegration of relations long ago between American Indians and whites fresh in mind, I recalled a passage in the unpublished autobiography of former park commissioner Francis Gross. (Background on Gross and his autobiography.) Gross was born in Minnesota in 1870 and lived near the intersection of Plymouth (13th) Avenue and Washington Avenue North in north Minneapolis from 1875 into his teen years. Among his memories of childhood on the north side was this:

“Until shortly after 1880, the shore lands of the Mississippi river were grandly beautiful. Other than a small sawmill at the bridge on Plymouth Avenue, there stood virgin timber of many varieties. For a few years after our coming to the northside, each spring many Indians, their squaws and papooses, would travel from the north on the river in canoes and locate their camp at about 14th Avenue North on the river flat there. The many Indians, young and old, their tepees, boiling pots, the furs and beaded leather goods and trinkets they had brought to trade or sell was an interesting sight. Each evening they would entertain their white visitors with war dances. Made their drums taut by the heat of the campfire, painted their faces in most hideous designs and wore their best and most beautifully patterned and beaded dress. As this time was not long after the most serious of the wars with Indians in this territory, fear of the Indian was in the heart of every child. It can therefore be easily guessed that the sight of these hideously painted, tomahawk-swinging savages, performing at night in the sinister-appearing light given by a few torches, was a scene as exciting as any small boy could wish for.” (Emphasis added.)

I wonder if that fear may have been heightened for Gross as a child because he grew up in a community of predominantly German immigrants. In another section of his hand-written autobiography he recalled:

“On the north side until after 1885, it was common to hear German spoken whenever people congregated. The early settlers of the north side were mostly of German birth…When German immigrants came to Minneapolis, very few spoke English, hence it was necessary that they were met on their arrival by an American. Often, my father would meet those immigrant German families with his grocery delivery wagon.”

The connection between the fear and the immigrants is that many of the settlers in the Minnesota River Valley—the violent epicenter of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War—were also German immigrants. I suspect the violence of that war was painfully felt by many in the German community in Minneapolis, too. While that war was 13 years in the past by the time Gross’s family moved to north Minneapolis, local newspapers carried many stories in the later 1870s of continuing battles between American Indians and U.S. forces not far to the west, including lurid accounts of battles featuring such famous names as Custer, Sheridan, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

I hadn’t planned to write here about this passage in Gross’s autobiography when I first read it, because it did not relate to parks or early land use in Minneapolis, nor do I believe it reflects on Gross whom I have always admired as a fair, just, and humane man. But I was drawn back to it in the convergence of my research.  Gross’s description had power and it had nothing to do with some anachronistic terms. Rather, the power comes from the poignant phrase: “fear of the Indian was in the heart of every child.”

It is not the object of the fear that impressed me—I can imagine as well fear of the White Man in the hearts of Indian children—but the sad realization that fear in the hearts of children can take lifetimes to conquer.

The greatest injustices, the greatest atrocities grow from fear of some monolithic, broadly-defined “Other” instilled young—a conviction reinforced last night as my daughter described watching the film Hotel Rwanda in her geography class.

The dangers of implanting fear in the hearts of children are as great today as ever. Let’s keep that seed from being planted and nourished in our children’s hearts.

David C. Smith

If you know of accounts or pictures of American Indian encampments along the Mississippi River in North Minneapolis in the 1870s-1880s, such as Gross described, I’d like to learn more.

© David C. Smith

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

Who, Exactly, Were the “Huns”?

Discussions of Minneapolis during World War I in a recent post have pointed to another factor that may have reinforced the willingness of the park board to sell the first Longfellow Field to Minneapolis Steel and Machinery as the company expanded to fulfill military contracts: Theodore Wirth, the superintendent of Minneapolis parks was a German speaker and, based on newspaper accounts from early in his tenure as parks superintendent in Minneapolis, he spoke English with a German accent.

Theodore Wirth, Minneapolis parks superintendent, 1906-1935.

Not only did the president of the park board, Francis Gross, have close ties to German immigrants and descendants as president of the German-American Bank, and, presumably spoke German, based on accounts of his speeches, but the park board’s top administrator, Wirth, who was from Winterthur, Switzerland, only several miles from the German border, also spoke German. Seems suspicious, nein?

Even though Wirth had immigrated to the U.S. thirty years earlier, was not from Germany, and Switzerland was neutral during the war, I don’t know if those distinctions were known or made by most people. Could someone like Wirth have felt pressure to profess or demonstrate his “loyalty” to the U.S.—perhaps by agreeing to the sale of park land to a growing munitions maker?

Remember those were days of loyalty oaths, “Americanization” meetings, and arrests of “enemy aliens.” I recently read that the director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, German-born Karl Muck, was arrested as an enemy alien in Cambridge, Massachusetts in March, 1918. He was accused of nefariously featuring too many German composers in his programs—damn that Beethoven!—and was suspected of using his score markings as a secret code. His claim that he was a naturalized citizen of Switzerland proved true, but didn’t keep him from being locked up in a prison camp in rural Georgia for 17  months. He had been offered a conducting job once by Kaiser Wilhelm. He was kept in prison for ten months after the end of the war that made the world safe for democracy, perhaps to ensure that he wouldn’t detonate a lethal Eroica in a crowded concert hall.

Wirth’s native tongue and the proximity to Germany of his hometown may have had no bearing on his standing in Minneapolis or on park board actions during WWI, but in a world where musicians could be locked up for their taste in fugues, it is not out of the question that it crossed someone’s mind. Especially when you read of speeches like those of former President Theodore Roosevelt on a stop in Minneapolis in October 1918. Minneapolis Tribune reporter George E Akerson wrote on October 8:

Theodore Roosevelt, American’s foremost private citizen, yesterday preached his gospel of thorough-going Americanism, to more than 15,000 persons in Minneapolis. At five different meetings, the former president, exhibiting all of his old time aggressiveness, delivered his message, never missing an opportunity to pillory the “Huns within our gates” along with the “Huns without.”

Theodore Roosevelt addressing more than 5,000 workers at Minneapolis Steel and Machinery, October 7, 1918. As WWI neared its end, Roosevelt urged vigilance against the “Huns within.” His black armband signified that he had lost a son in the war. (Minnesota Historical Society.)

Roosevelt was not referring specifically to Germans as much as to those he perceived as enemies of the U.S government, but that would have been a fine distinction to those reading the lead quoted above. The taint of all Germans, past and present, could easily be inferred. One of Roosevelt’s five speeches in his one-day stop in Minneapolis was at the munitions factory of Minneapolis Steel and Machinery, pictured above.

The derogatory “Hun” to describe Germans was derived from the Huns of Attila fame and equated with “barbarian.” Germans and Huns had little in common historically, but the term was a staple of Allied propaganda during the war. Some older warriors, such as Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, stuck with the term in WWII, but “Krauts” became the more popular alternative.

David C. Smith

Longfellow Field: The Park that Bombs Bought

If any park in Minneapolis should be a “memorial” park, perhaps it should be Longfellow Field, because it was bought and built with war profits. It would be hard to explain it any other way. The neighborhood around present-day Longfellow Field  is one of the few in the city that didn’t pay assessments to acquire and develop a neighborhood park. That’s because the park board paid for it with profits from WWI.

The story begins with the first Longfellow Field at East 28th St. between Minnehaha Avenue and 26th Avenue South. (There’s a Cub Store there now.) It was once one of the most popular playing fields in the city—and it is the largest playground the park board has ever sold.

The park board purchased the field in the upper right of this photo in 1911 and named it Longfellow Field. This photo, looking northwest, was taken from the top of Longfellow School at Lake St. and Minnehaha Ave. shortly before the land was purchased for a park. Minnehaha runs through the center of the photo and ends at E. 28th St. where the vast yards of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway begin. Minneapolis Steel and Machinery is on the left or west side of Minnehaha. (Charles Hibbard, Minnesota Historical Society)

The origins of that field as a Minneapolis park go back to 1910 when the park board’s first recreation director, Clifford Booth, recommended in his annual report that the city needed a playground somewhere between Riverside Park and Powderhorn Park.

Clifford Booth, shown here in 1910, was the first recreation director for Minneapolis parks and an unsung hero in park history.

It was the only addition he recommended to the playground sites he already supervised around the city.

The following year, the park board found the perfect place within the area Booth suggested: an empty field just off Lake Street, about equidistant from Powderhorn and Riverside, a stones throw from Longfellow School, easily accessible by street car, and it was already used as a playing field. The park board purchased the 4-acre field in 1911 for just over $7,000 and spent another $8,000 to install football and baseball fields, tennis, volleyball and basketball courts, and playground equipment.

An architect was hired to create plans for a small shelter at the south end of the park, but when bids for the shelter came in at more than $10,000, double what park superintendent Theodore Wirth had estimated, the park board decided it couldn’t afford the shelter.

This plan for the development of Longfellow Field was published in the 1911 Annual Report of the park board. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.)

Despite the absence of a shelter, Wirth wrote in 1912 that Longfellow was one of the most active playfields in the city. Longfellow Field and North Commons were the venues for city football and baseball games for two years while the fields at The Parade were re-graded and seeded. The popularity of the field was attested to by the police report in the 1913 annual report of the park board, which claimed that additional police presence was necessary to control the crowds at football games at Longfellow Field and North Commons.

This Is Where the Intrigue Begins

I was surprised when I learned that the park board sold the park in 1917. The park board had never sold a park before. Why then—after 34 years of managing parks? And why this park? The park board’s explanation in the 1917 annual report was pretty weak, stating only that the field “became unavailable for a playground on account of the growth of manufacturing business in the vicinity.” The property was already on the edge of an industrial zone—see photo above—when it was purchased, so this was no revelation.

Longfellow School, on Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue, was built in 1886 and used until 1918. (Minnesota Historical Society)

The park board resolution on October 17, 1917 to sell the land provided a bit more explanation, but it still seemed less than forthcoming. It wasn’t just the growth of manufacturing business, the resolution claimed, it was also the school board’s decision to close Longfellow School and build a new school farther south. Moreover, the park board claimed that to make the playground useful it would be necessary to invest in improvements and a shelter. Given the other shortcomings of the site, the park board didn’t think it prudent to make those investments at that site.

So the park board declared that the site was no longer useful for a park, a legal requirement to get district court permission to sell the land, and it was sold for $35,000 to the Minneapolis Steel and Machinery Company.

At the time the park board decided to sell the field it also expressed its intention to find a “more suitable area” for a park and playground nearby in south Minneapolis. Less than two weeks after the sale was announced, the board designated land for a second Longfellow Field, the present park by that name, about a mile southeast in a much less populated neighborhood. The park board paid the $16,000 for the new land—not just four acres, but eight—and for initial improvements to the park from the proceeds of the earlier sale. It was a boon for property owners in the vicinity of the new Longfellow Field: a new park without property assessments to pay for it. The owners of three houses that had just been built across the street from the park must have been thrilled.

When I learned all of this a few years ago, I assumed that in the end the land deal was about the money—the opportunity to sell for $35,000 land the board had bought only six years earlier for $7,000. Even if you subtract the $8,000 spent on improvements, that was a nice return. And to keep that sum in context, remember that the park board shelved plans for a park shelter when bids exceeded estimates by $5,000. Thirty-five grand was a lot of money for a cash-strapped park board.

But the deal still puzzled me, especially because of the unusual way the transaction was introduced in park board records.

Park board proceedings, October 9, 1917, Petitions and Communications:

“From the Minneapolis Steel and Machinery Company —
Asking the Board to name a price at which it would sell the property included in the tract of park lands known as Longfellow Field.”

Talk about asking to be gouged! Who starts negotiations that way? Name a price? That seemed fishy. So did the speed of the deal. Two committees were asked to report back on the issue the following week, the first indication that someone was in a big hurry to get a deal done. The joint committees not only reported back a week later, they had come up with a price, $35,000, and had essentially concluded the deal. There hadn’t been time for much dickering over the number; the park board had a very motivated buyer. Moreover the board selected land to replace Longfellow Field only two weeks later. As decisive as early park leaders often were, this was unprecedented speed. Too much money. Too fast. Too little explanation.

Perhaps too little deduction on my part as well, but that’s where the matter stood for me the last few years until I decided recently to look into it a bit more as I was compiling a list of “lost parks” in Minneapolis. What I learned is that the decision to sell Longfellow Field had less to do with demographic shifts or manufacturing concentration in south Minneapolis than what was happening in the fields of France and the waters of the North Atlantic.

The United States Joins a World at War

For more than two years, the United States had stayed out of the Great War that embroiled much of the rest of the world. But in early 1917 Germany took the risk that a return to unrestricted submarine warfare and a blockade of Great Britain, including attacks on American ships, could bring about an end to the war before the United States could mobilize its army and economy to have a significant impact on the ground war in Europe. Germany knew that its actions would bring the U.S. into the war—and they did. The U.S. Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917—and began to mobilize in earnest. Part of that mobilization was the enactment of the selective service, or draft, law in May 1917 to build an army. Another part was the procurement of weapons and equipment needed to fight a war.

Of course the manufacturing capacity for war couldn’t be built from scratch. Existing expertise, process and capacity had to be converted to war products. That meant beating plowshares into swords.

That’s where Minneapolis Steel and Machinery came in. In the fifteen years since its founding, Minneapolis Steel had become one of the leading suppliers of structural steel for bridges and buildings in the northwest. That was the “steel” part of the name. The “machinery” was represented most famously by Twin City tractors, but also by engines and parts it manufactured for other companies.

Doesn’t the logo for a line of products from the Minneapolis Steel and Machinery Company remind you of the logo of our favorite boys of summer? (Thanks to Tony Thompson at

All I knew about Minneapolis Steel and Machinery was that in the 1920s it was one of the companies that merged to become Minneapolis-Moline and that it was notoriously anti-union. I didn’t know that it was an important military supplier, too.

The first evidence I found of the company’s production for war was a November 10, 1915 article in the Minneapolis Tribune that claimed the company would begin shipping machined six-inch artillery shell casings to Great Britain by January 1, 1916. The paper reported that the initial contract, expected to be only a trial order, was for almost $1.5 million.

Less than two weeks later, another Tribune report made it clear that the company’s involvement in the war was much broader. The paper reported on November 23 an order from Great Britain for 100 tractors from Bull Tractor, another Minneapolis company, for which Minneapolis Steel did the manufacturing and assembly. The tractors, still a relatively new invention, would be shipped from Great Britain to France and Russia to supplant farm horses drafted for war service or already killed in the war. Minneapolis Steel was also shipping 50 steam shovels to be used to dig trenches on the Russian front. Both orders were placed by the London distributor for both Minneapolis Steel and Machinery and Bull Tractor.

Shell orders must have continued for Minneapolis Steel and Machinery after the initial order in 1915, too, because on August 16, 1917 the Tribune reported a new order for the company. Under the headline, “Steel and Machinery Plant to Be Enlarged to Meet Uncle Sam’s Demand for Shells,” the paper reported,

“War orders just taken will necessitate a considerable enlargement of the buildings of the Minneapolis Steel & Machinery company. The company, after completing its shell contract with the British government last spring, decided not to accept any more shell orders, but the United States insisted and a large contract is the result.”

Artillery played an unprecedented role in a war in which both sides were dug into trenches. Blanket bombardments preceded most offensive actions. The result was a French countryside that resembled nothing earthly.

The report, which quoted Minneapolis Steel vice president George Gillette, continued that the company was also manufacturing steam hoists for ships and expected more contracts as the building program progressed. More contracts, unsolicited according to Gillette, did indeed materialize in the next month for carriages for 105 millimeter guns and steering engines for battleships. Those contracts reportedly required a doubling of the company’s manufacturing capacity. At that time government contracts accounted for 75 percent of the company’s output. By early 1918, the Tribune reported that Minneapolis Steel and Machinery had already been awarded $23 million in government contracts.

In the midst of this rash of new military contracts, Minneapolis Steel asked the park board to name its price for Longfellow Field. Even before the district court finished its hearings on the park board’s proposed sale, the company had  obtained building permits for three new warehouses, two of them in the 2800 block of Minnehaha Ave., a short foul pop-up from home plate at the former Longfellow Field.

A Civic Duty

The spirit of the times suggests that while money may have been a factor in the park board’s prompt action, it likely was not the primary motivation for selling Longfellow Field. The park board probably viewed the sale as its civic and patriotic duty to assist the war effort—especially given the other valid reasons for moving the playground.

An example of the patriotic fervor generated by the war—to which park commissioners could not have been immune—was a dinner held at the Minneapolis Club, June 12, 1917, to raise funds for the American Red Cross, which was preparing field hospitals to treat wounded soldiers. (Did the army not have a medical or hospital corps?) The next morning the Tribune reported that in one hour the 200 business and civic leaders at the dinner pledged more than $360,000 to the Red Cross. That amount eclipsed the city’s previous one-evening fund-raising record of $336,000 for the building fund for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts a few years earlier.

The report is noteworthy especially for the accounts of the number of men present, among the wealthiest and most influential citizens of Minneapolis, who had sons and nephews on their way to France—so different from the wars of the last four decades.

“Almost every man who rose to name his contribution had a son already in France or on his way. So often did the donor, in making his contribution, add that his boy was wearing the khaki of the army or navy blue that Mr. Partridge (the emcee of the evening) called the roll to ascertain just how many present had sons or nephews in the service. Including two who announced that they themselves were entering the service, the total was 56—mostly sons.”

One of the two men present who was entering military service himself was introduced as Dr. Todd, son-in-law of J. L. Record, who was president of Minneapolis Steel and Machinery. Record pledged $10,000 to the Red Cross on behalf of his company that night.

Ernest G. Wold was one of two WWI pilots  from Minneapolis who died in the air over France. The other was Cyrus Chamberlain. (Minnesota Historical Society)

Among others who pledged money were two bankers who had sons in the military aviation services, F. A. Chamberlain, chairman of First and Security National Bank, and Theodore Wold, governor of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank. Both men—and Chamberlain’s wife—were leaders in raising funds for the Red Cross and in selling Liberty Bonds. Their sons never came home. Ernest Wold and Cyrus Chamberlain died in the air over France in 1918. They were jointly honored by having Minneapolis’s airport named Wold-Chamberlain Field, a name that still stands. This was several years before the Minneapolis park board assumed control of building and operating the airport.

The Park Board During the War

Also making pledges at the Minneapolis Club dinner were park commissioners William H. Bovey and David P. Jones. Two other park commissioners who took active roles in the war effort were Leo Harris who resigned from his seat on the park board to enlist and Phelps Wyman who took a leave of absence from the park board to serve as a landscape architect for a group designing new towns for the workers needed at military factories and shipyards.

But it was the president of the park board in 1917 who had the most to lose—or prove—during those days of heated anti-German rhetoric. Francis Gross was the president of the German-American Bank in north Minneapolis. Gross had worked his way up from messenger to the presidency of the bank, which was said to be the largest “non-centrally located” bank in Minneapolis. The bank, founded in 1886, had been located on  the corner of Plymouth Avenue and Washington Avenue North since 1905. Gross eventually served 33 years as a park commissioner between 1910 and 1949, earned the nickname “Mr. Park Board,” and had a Minneapolis golf course named for him. He must have been indefatigable, because his name pops up in association with many civic and financial endeavors.

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 A. Gross, 1918 Annual Report of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners

In the second year of the war, before the U. S. entry into the conflict, Gross was quoted in the Tribune expressing his view that Germany’s desire for peace was “sincere.” He urged the U. S. and other neutrals to push for peace. “I have no sympathy with the assertion that one side must be victor,” he said. “There can be a fair settlement now on nationality lines.”

Gross’s role in the war effort changed considerably after the U.S. entered the war. The tension of war in the U.S. was underscored when in March 1918, the German-American Bank officially changed its name to North American Bank. Gross asserted that the old name no longer represented the bank’s business or clients, adding “it is not good or desirable that the name of a foreign nationality be attached to an American institution.” In announcing the name change, Gross emphasized that his bank had been the first Minnesota bank to join the federal reserve system in 1915 “to do its part to establish a national banking system in our country so strong and efficient that it could meet any demand our country might make upon it.” (Tribune, March 8, 1918.) Gross’s implicit message: those demands could even include making war on the fatherland of the bank’s founders.

Only three weeks after Gross’s bank changed its name, he went on a speaking tour of towns outside Minneapolis that had large populations of German immigrants or descendants. The Tribune described his visit to Waconia on March 28, 1918. “In line with the belief of the state war savings and Liberty Loan committees that there is a distinct desire in German communities to have the war explained by persons of German birth or descent, Frank A. Gross, president of the North American bank, has spoken to several meetings composed entirely of Germans in the last few days,” the Tribune’s report began. Gross told of how he had circulated among the estimated crowd of 300 people of German descent, mostly farmers, before he spoke and found a “feeling that anyone of German birth or German descent is not wanted as a citizen of this country.”

He ascribed the feeling to the manner in which “overzealous orators” had attacked the German people, “not distinguishing between German imperialism, against which we are making war, and the German people.” Gross said that he then told the people of Waconia they “certainly were wanted as American citizens, but that the citizenship carried with it the responsibility of 100 per cent loyalty to this nation.” Gross said he also dispelled the notion that this was a “rich man’s war,” asking if they thought the “rich would send their boys to war just so their fathers could make a little more money.”

Family experience: My father, who grew up in a small town in rural Minnesota, recounts that his older brother and sister, born before WWI, spoke primarily German before they went to school, but my father and another sister, born after WWI, were never taught German.

Gross later was a prominent speaker at meetings promoting the purchase of Liberty bonds, especially in predominantly German communities such as New Ulm, Hutchinson and Glencoe, and he spoke at “Americanization” meetings—scheduled in Minneapolis neighborhoods with large “foreign elements” according to the Tribune—about “Patriotism.” He shared the podium at one such meeting in north Minneapolis with Rabbi S. M. Deinard whose subject was “The Obligation of the New Generation to the Old” and Mr. E. Avin of the Talmud Torah who gave a patriotic address in Yiddish. Gross also became an instructor, along with future Minneapolis mayor Wallace Nye, at a school for Minneapolis draftees before they were sent off to military camps.

The park board’s annual reports written while Gross was president of the board in 1917 and 1918 reveal very little of the impact of war on parks other than brief references to the heavy burden of taxes and contributions to welfare organizations and the lack of funds for park maintenance. From Gross’s other activities, however, as well as those of other park commissioners, it is apparent that the board would have had a strong sense of patriotic obligation to do what it could to assist the war effort. And that certainly extended to providing expansion space for one of Minneapolis’s largest military suppliers. So the original Longfellow Field became a casualty of war—and the neighborhood surrounding the new Longfellow Field acquired a park without having to pay property assessments.

The Last Link

One connection remains between the descendants of Minneapolis Steel and Machinery and Minneapolis parks. Minneapolis Steel and Machinery built Bull tractors, but the engines were supplied by another local company, the Toro Motor Company. Bull, Toro, get it? One contemporary newspaper account (November 17, 1918), describes Toro as a subsidiary of Minneapolis Steel and Machinery, but the website of The Toro Company today does not claim that connection. (The Toro website does claim the company produced steam steering engines for ships during WWI, however, a product that newspaper reports in 1917 attributed to Minneapolis Steel and Machinery.) Regardless of legal relationship, the two companies were closely connected and Toro is the sole survivor of the Bull, Minneapolis Steel, and Toro tractor trio.

Toro later focused its efforts on lawn-care products, famously lawn mowers, and still specializes in turf management products mostly for parks, athletic fields and golf courses. Each year in recent times, Toro and its employees, along with the Minnesota Twins Community Fund, have donated the materials, expertise and labor to rehabilitate or upgrade a baseball field in a Minneapolis park. These little gems of ball parks now exist in several Minneapolis parks, from Stewart Park to Creekview Park. Thank you, Toro. I don’t know specific park board needs now, but wouldn’t it be appropriate if Toro helped put in a fabulous field at Longfellow Park in honor of the connection long ago?

I’ll leave the final word on WWI in Minneapolis to a preacher.

“I rejoice that I am no longer needed as a partner in the grim business of killing.”
— Rev. Elmer H. Johnson, pastor of Morningside Congregational church who had worked for 11 months at the artillery shell factory of Minneapolis Steel to augment his church salary. (Minneapolis Morning Tribune, December 22, 1918)

David C. Smith

NOTE: Bob Wolff of The Toro Company provides additional details on that company in a “Comment” on the David C. Smith page. (May 31, 2012). In a separate note, Bob said he’d also look into finding photos of the first Toro turf management products used in Minneapolis parks. Stay tuned.

© David C. Smith

Minneapolis Park Memory: Meetings with Grandpa

I feel so fortunate having our parks in Minneapolis. My late husband, Bob, used to tell how his mother saved her coins until she could buy a toboggan for the family to use in Minnehaha Park. I have used the tennis courts at Nokomis.

My family has a personal interest in the park system, as my grandfather, William Lohff, was on the park board with Francis Gross and others. I remember Theodore Wirth and Gross meeting with Grandpa at his home in south Minneapolis. They had a hard time convincing people that the parks and lakes should be for all the people and not allow park land to be sold. We have all benefitted from those decisions.

Mary Thompson

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