One of the entrancing stories of Northeast history surrounds the origins of Beltrami Park, that inviting plot of land at Polk and Broadway, most easily identified by the bocce ball courts, just one of Beltrami Park’s living reminders of the Italian-American heritage of the neighborhood. The fact is, the Beltrami Park site was Maple Hill Cemetery from 1857 until 1890 when it morphed to Maple Hill Park until 1948.
Although it is of record that the earliest settlers of St. Anthony interred some of their dead in a small tract near the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street Southeast, the first cemetery whose line is unbroken to the comparatively recent day was Maple Hill. In 1849 Robert W. Cummings obtained some land from the government in St. Anthony township, now part of the city of Minneapolis. Cummings reserved a twenty acre tract for a cemetery along what is now Broadway. The dedication of these private burial grounds as Maple Hill Cemetery in February, 1857, gave the people, especially the early settlers of the east side, a resting place for their dead which was not disturbed for more than forty years. By that time, it is said that no fewer than 5,000 bodies had been laid away on the slopes of Maple Hill,
In time, negligence and vandalism took their toll at Maple Hill Cemetery. In 1890, with the increase of population, coupled with the rising impact of vandalism, health authorities halted further interments. The following year the city council condemned land on either side of the cemetery for street purposes; removal of the bodies commenced.” Many bodies were moved to Lakewood and Hillside cemeteries. A City Engineers Report from 1894 reports that 1321 bodies and 82 monuments had been removed from Maple Hill. Clearly, this is a fraction of the 5,000 estimated interred.
Still, because Maple Hill Cemetery was in part a potters’ field there was no great attention to perpetual care, much less record-keeping. By 1906 the non-denominational cemetery had been abandoned and had become a community eyesore and cause of consternation. Community members took matters into their own hands. Actually, they took reins into their own hands, hitched up their horses, and one night cleared the cemetery not only of debris but of all of the tombstones. The tombstones, including a civil war veterans memorial, were later found dumped in a ditch. City officials, understandably outraged, made pronouncements about capture and prosecution of the miscreants.
In time, the idea of a quiet urban park tempered the cry for retribution. Writing in his History of Minneapolis, Reverend Marion Daniel Shutter reflects that “the pretty little park bounded by Broadway, Fillmore, Polk and Summer streets is what remains of the old burial grounds.” In 1908 the Park Board purchased Maple Hill Cemetery for $8,000. The City Council contributed $5,000 for the initial improvement of the land. That improvement included construction of a seven-foot high wire mesh fence around the cemetery to protect the Civil War-era stone monuments from vandalism. That fence lasted until the early 1920’s when the neighbors declared it too unsightly and the Park Board decided it was too costly to repair.
In 1978 The Minnesota Genealogist (Volume 12, No. 2, 1978) carried a detailed article about the cemetery, submitted by Barbara Sexton and Lauraine Kerchner. Sexton and Kerchner report that in 1908 an Improvement Association was formed; the cemetery was restored and fenced in at a cost of $12,000. Ten acres of the original tract were cleared and used for a playground. The playground area was eventually awarded to the Park Board and the park renamed Maple Hill Park. In the first plans for Maple Hill Park Superintendent Theodore Wirth proposed a picnic ground for most of the park, with a small section, where no bodies have been buried, reserved for a school garden for the children of Pierce School across the street from the park. Early plans also called for a warming house and skating rink which were finally approved in 1913. The warming shelter was also for “lectures” and a tool room. Wirth lamented in his 1909 report that the park was not much frequented and probably wouldn’t be as long as it “retains the appearance of a cemetery.”
Wirth, with neighborhood support, continued to propose upgrades of the park for many years. At some point ice skating was added to the list of park amenities. One of Beltrami’s claims to fame was that the skating club at the park produced the city’s first qualifier for a US Winter Olympic team. Though Charles Leighton of the Maple Hill Club qualified to represent the US in speed skating he never got the chance when the 1940 winter games scheduled for Sapporo, Japan, were cancelled because of World War II.
As early as 1915 park enthusiasts had also begun to petition – to no avail — for a tennis court. The Park Board history of Beltrami indicates there is no firm attribution of the date for installation of the tennis court that currently exists at Beltrami. Still, the report notes, “the enormous oak tree branch that stretches over the court, removing the lob from the arsenal of shots Beltrami tennis players could use, suggests it has existed at least since the first concrete wading pool was built in the park in 1953.”
Sexton and Kerchner report that, by 1916, vandalism became a serious problem. “Residents of the area and members of the Dudley P. Chase Post of the GAR and the Rev. Harvey Klinger protested the desecration of the Soldiers Monument. Again there was debate, legislation, and litigation for much of 1916. Stones were carried away leaving little or no evidence as to any remaining graves. In August the old Maple Hill Cemetery-Park was dedicated as Beltrami Park. When the Park Board started construction of Beltrami Park, concerned citizens protested the bulldozing of broken monuments to the edges of the park. To this day, reminders of Maple Hill Cemetery remain. Sexton and Kerchner refer to an earlier article in which Alfred J. Dahlquist reported finding in Beltrami Park a plaque listing names of Grand Army of the Republic soldiers who had been buried in Maple Hill Cemetery. The inscription on the updated tablet reads in part: “Although men’s thoughtless actions have deprived them of their right to individually marked and cherished graves, the children of future ages will gather here to honor them.” Though the Park Board did maintain records of what could be salvaged, remains of gravestones were found much later. Family members continued for some time to protest the moving of their relatives’ graves.
Sexton and Kerchner meticulously combed the files of the Minneapolis Park Board to identify protests and the names and dates of those who were interred at Maple Hill Cemetery..
Beyond the six bocce ball courts, the tricky tennis courts, and the picnic grounds of Beltrami Park lies an intriguing history of one of the city’s oldest memorials to early settlers, known and unknown, families, community leaders, Civil War veterans, children and mothers who died in childbirth. The memorials, including a statue of Count Giacomo Constantino Beltrami himself, are worthy of exploration.
The story of Beltrami Park also reflects the vision of the neighborhood and of the visionary Theodore Wirth. Today’s Beltrami Park offers a unique mix of history and of leisure time activities, both of which enhance the life of the city.