Category Archives: Minneapolis Park and Recreation

MPRB records now at Central Library!

Not so long ago but in another journalistic era I spent many hours enjoying the rich resources and incredible staff of  Special Collections at Minneapolis Central Library.  My quest was to learn and share the stories of the parks and neighborhoods  of Northeast Minneapolis.  (See attached)

In those days my key leads to park records were the MPRB website (https://www.minneapolisparks.org/about_us/history/) , the library’s “vertical file,” crammed with clippings, posters, letters, newsletters, and other mementoes of park history,  the brief outline of MPRB posted on the Hennepin County Library website, the grand plan for the Grand Rounds (https://www.minneapolisparks.org/_asset/vkz2qm/grand_rounds_masterplan_1999.pdf)  and David C. Smith’s  essential guide to the park system: https://www.minneapolisparks.org/about_us/history/city_of_parks_book/

Both the Grand Rounds and my series of posts about the magnificent park system remain works in progress….

As I enjoy the sights and sounds of  the city’s parks these summer days I often vow to complete that series of posts – and  a recent note from Edward (Ted) Hathaway, head of Special Collections at Minneapolis Central Library, inspires  me to take long overdue action.  Clearly, the task of researching the histories has been greatly simplified for all of us who want to be more engaged – or who just want to better understand – the city’s magnificent park system.

The essence of the news is this: The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) and Hennepin County Library (HCL) are excited to announce the successful transfer of a huge collection of MPRB proceedings, reports and other historic documents to Minneapolis Central Library.

Attached is the announcement  that explains the full import of the move and offers more information about access.  Because it seems relevant I’m also attaching a list of park/neighborhood related articles and posts from this blog.

~~~

Attachment #1 –  Announcement:

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) and Hennepin County Library (HCL) are excited to announce the successful transfer of a huge collection of MPRB proceedings, reports and other historic documents to Minneapolis Central Library.  (See full  notice attached.)

Thousands of documents providing a detailed, fascinating record of Minneapolis park history are now open to the public at the James K. Hosmer Special Collections located on the fourth floor of Central Library. This collection holds archival material that shows the growth, improvement and programming of the Minneapolis park system from the early 1880s through the 1960s. It includes:

  • Proposals and correspondences tracing the evolution of the Minneapolis park system as it grew to encompass 15% of the city’s land
  • Reports and petitions illuminating significant park issues across different eras
  • Official Board actions including agreements, policies and contracts

James K. Hosmer Special Collections is open to the public Monday-Thursday, 10 am-4:30 pm, as well as the first and third Saturdays of the month, 10 am-4:30 pm.

Discover the history of your neighborhood park or learn more about the development of iconic Minneapolis landmarks in the Minneapolis Parks Collection, now available at Central Library.

If you haven’t discovered the wonders of the Minneapolis Central Library’s James Hosmer Special Collections start here:  http://www.hclib.org/specialcollections#visitors-guide

Attachment #2  – Links to the park stories posted or published to date – more to follow!

Neighborhoods USA Conference – Ideas, Energy and an Opportunity Missed

The Neighborhoods USA conference which I’ve been attending for the past two days was a delight and a disappointment – the first being the responsibility of the planners who get great credit, the latter the responsibility of local organizatons and neighborhoods who missed the boat.

During my time at the national conference I met some incredible people who had a message their community wants to share.  For example, I learned stories about the Little Rock school integration that I will always remember.  There were great discussions of neighborhood concerns ranging from sustainability to economics to organizing for social justice and change.

I also met some local representatives of what is happening in the Twin Cities, mostly Minneapolis.  The Heart of the Beast, for example, staff of Park and Rec who had great ideas for positive action, representatives of local organizations including Amicus, Loring Park, Windom and Seward neighborhoods.   Attendees had a chance to take some great bus tours of the Riverfront, the Northeast arts district, the Midtown Greenway,  the Lake Street Corridor and more.

Regrettably, it seemed to me that there were the omissions.  There was no mention of Metro Transit or the impact it has on our community and our neighborhoods;  no discussion of community-building and support systems such as community gardens or food shelves that might serve neighbors in need, nothing about our community’s public education system or community media (other than police);  CURA had a booth and the U of M Libraries Tretter collection was reflected in a display.  I saw very little about the dynamics of neighborhood forces such as coops, senior centers, or projects related to communities of faith.  In truth I was most saddened by the fact that public libraries were nowhere to be seen on the program or in the exhibits.  I’ve always told myself that strong libraries were the glue the binds the neighborhood in a common pursuit of learning.

Bottom line, there are hundreds of people of good will who are giving their all to build community within their neighborhoods  They are working in very different urban environments, subject to influences beyond the neighborhoods in which they hope to create harmony and healthy living conditions for all.  Meeting the attendees from around the country was an inspiration.

As I reflect on the conference experience I am thinking that institutions may be so focused on themselves that they don’t put a priority on the agencies and individuals – often volunteers – that make a neighborhood work.  Schools, libraries, police, transit and city government are all top down operations.  Though neighborhoods exist on a wall map, they are real to the residents, not the decision-makers.

Strong neighborhoods with which  residents identify and in which we take pride takes time, focus and footwork not just on the part of over-stressed staffs but on the part of residents.   It was informative and fun, also humbling, to learn about what’s happening and could happen in other cities and to think of how I can be a more active participant in my own Windom Park neighborhood in beautiful Northeast Minneapolis.

 

John James Audubon Would Enjoy a Stroll in His Namesake Park

Residents of the Audubon Park Neighborhood have lots going for them, including one of the city’s hilliest parks and one of the city’s best known neighborhood namesakes.  John James Audubon for whom the park and the neighborhood are named is a legend.

The roots of Audubon Park itself go back to 1910 when the Park Board arranged to close Pierce Street and purchased five acres of land for $5400 for the beginnings of today’s multi-purpose recreation area.  Within a few years the Park Board drained a shallow pool, closed Buchanan Street between the park and the Thomas Lowry School, and began to create a playground site.  The rest is history – some of the steepest hills were leveled a bit a shelter was built, and, by the end of the 1970’s, the current recreation center was dedicated.

The park is a fitting tribute to John James Audubon, 1785-1851, whose name is synonymous with ornithology and with his famed paintings of nature, more specifically, of his color-plate book entitled The Birds of America, 1827-1829.  It is said that Audubon actually identified as many as 25 species of birds in North America.

Born in Saint Dominique (Haiti) Audubon grew up in France, his father’s homeland. His early interest in wildlife, birds in generally, seems to have been spurred by his French stepmother.  In part to avoid the draft and in part as a result of his father’s prodding  Audubon explored many options before  left France to settle in Pennsylvania.  Always a nature lover, he began his study and depiction of American birds in the region where he lived.  A skilled taxidermist, Audubon conducted the first known bird-banding experiment in North America and created his own nature museum which some say was inspired by the museum of natural history created by Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia.  Audubon also married Lucy Bakewell with whom he had two sons, both of whom continued in the family “business.”

When his businesses came on hard times, Audubon and his family moved to the Midwest, first to Genevieve, Missouri, the first European settlement west of the Mississippi, where he was in the shopping business.

Next he moved to Kentucky where he found that fishing and hunting helped to feed his family when the shipping business was slow.  It was there that he met and became friends with the Osage and Shawnee Indians.  Audubon was much impressed with the Native Americans about whom he wrote “Whenever I meet Indians, I feel the greatness of our Creator in all tis splendor, for there I see the man naked from His hand the yet free from acquired sorry.”

For some time Audubon and his family moved from place to place as President Jefferson’s embargo of British trade put a damper on the shopping business.  At one time Audubon worked as a naturalist and taxidermist in the Cincinnati museum, a position that must have fueled his passion or nature.

Times were so hard that at one time that in 1819 Audubon was actually jailed for bankruptcy.  Giving up on the business life Audubon moved on to explore his true love, the effort to depict America’s birds.  He traveled and lived off the land while Lucy supported the family as a tutor.

Everything changed in 1826 when Audubon’s influential friends convinced him to take his portfolio and sail to England to have his drawings engraved.  Though he was never well received in this country, Audubon was welcomed by the Brits with open arms.  He arrived in Liverpool in 1826 with his portfolio of 300 drawings in hand.  The money raised in England and Scotland was enough for him to begin publishing is Birds of America – 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of nearly 500 bird species, made from engraved copper plates, printed on sheets measuring 39×20 inches.  His dramatic bird portraits and descriptions of the American wilderness captured the spirit of the European Romantic Era.

His European success as a published artist allowed Audubon to settle with his family in New York City.  He continued to depict the birds of America and in 1838 traveled to the Western U.S. where he captured the completed his final work of mammals, a work that was largely coplted b his sons.

Audubon died at age 65, suffering by this time with senility that thwarted his wish to return to the U.S. West to capture more images.  He is buried in the Trinity Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway in NYC.

There are numerous accounts of the life of Audubon.  After hise return to America in 1828 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science in 1830.  He published Ornithological Biographies, a sequel to Birds of America.  He traveled widely, from Key West to Labrador and Newfoundland.  Many of his works depict what he saw and captured on these trips.   Unfortunately, poor health prevented his travels to the West Coast of the U.S. where he had hoped to record more Western species.

Minnesota lovers of books and birds are aware that the Athenaeum is the proud owner of an Audubon original, hand-colored edition of Birds of America.  The treasure is now housed at Minneapolis Central Library Special Collections where it is given the TLC becoming its heritage.   Because the engraving and the paper itself is so fragile, the volume is not available for viewing by the public.

Audubon’s work has been honored in countless ways – in books, with a U.S. postal stamp in the Great Americans series, and best known perhaps by the 1905 establishment of the National Audubon Society, named in his honor “to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds.”

 

Still, for residents of Northeast Minneapolis who slide on the steep hills in winter, cool off under the shade tress in summer and enjoy the birds year found, John James Audubon is best known for the beautiful park that honors his name.

Northeasters Love Their Neighborhood – and Their Presidents

In Minneapolis it is a sad fact that most of the street names are logical, but boring.  Still, there are exceptions.  Streets in Southwest Minneapolis, for example, still bear the names of prominent citizens who built the city.  Some neighborhood street names are just plain quirky, often the remnants of the original landowners.  Northeast stands out as the most patriotic of all neighborhoods.  The Presidents’ Streets are legendary, an inspiration to most and a conundrum to those who aren’t up to speed on American history.

Writing in The Northeaster in 1988 Penny Jacobson describes in detail the story of how “many early settlers’ names disappeared from streets for the sake of uniformity.”  It’s a great story of how Northeast streets got their historic names.

Though street names have changed more than once over time, the “permanent” names of today’s Northeast neighborhood streets reflect a burst of Americanism surrounding World War I and welcoming the wave of immigrants coming to the community.  One way to learn the Presidents’ names was to walk the neighborhood itself.

Jacobson reminds residents that Tyler Street Northeast was once known as Clayton; Polk Street was Wilkin; Taylor Street used to be Cummings; Fillmore was known as Eastwood; Pierce was Brott; Buchanan was Wells; Lincoln was Maryland and Johnson was East.  The previous names, with the exception of Maryland and East, were those of property owners in the early era of Northeast development.

And so the street names of Northeast continue, Ulysses (as in Grant)  through McKinley,  until  it comes to Stinson Parkway.   James Stinson donated the land for Stinson Boulevard in 1885; naming rights for the Parkway are the responsibility of Minneapolis Parks and Recreation.

Sometime in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s the city fathers continued the re-naming of Northeast streets.  The Committee on Roads and Bridges recommended and the City Council approved, changing the name of “L” Street to Harding, “M” street to Coolidge, “O” Street to Hoover Street, and “P” Street to Delano.  Delano slipped in because there was already a Roosevelt Street and a Franklin Avenue.  (Delano, by the way, is just North of Hennepin and in proper historic sequence.)

All this comes to mind as Northeasters prepare for the fifth annual We Love Our President’s Walk scheduled for Saturday, February 16.   It’s a tradition!

Participants, walkers, bikers, even pets will gather at 10:00 a.m. at Edison High School (between Washington and Monroe).  The Northeast Urban 4-H Club will lead walkers up Central;  along the way they will stop at designated points to share trivia about the presidents.

After a stop for hoc chocolate at the Eastside Food Coop walkers will head East on 29th for a hot lunch and program featuring a trivia contest, drawing, prizes and a brief presentation.

What’s new this year at the President’s Walk will be some intrepid bikers and a focus on presidential pets.  There will also be presentation of the coveted 2013 Northeast Presidential Seal to the group with the most participants.  A shuttle bus will transport talkers back to the start of the Walk.

For more information or to volunteer to help with the Walk, contact David Warnest with Minneapolis Public Schools Community Education.  Reach him at 612 668 1515 or David.warnest@mpls.k12.mn.us.

Judge Edward Foote Waite Remembered in Northeast Minneapolis

Children who play and swim in Waite Park, learn at Waite Park School, and live in the Waite Park neighborhood might be interested in know more about Judge Edward Foote Waite (whose name is honored throughout their quiet residential community.  They might wonder about the man whose name is everywhere – and why, when Judge Waite was a elderly man, children from Waite Park School would collect pennies to purchase flowers to take to him on his birthday.

The story of Edward Foote Waite is that of a distinguished Minneapolis leader whose involvement in public affairs covers most of the 20th Century.  Though he lived almost all of his long life in Minneapolis, his roots were distinctly New England.  An editorial in the Minneapolis Tribute described the Judge as “a Yankee intellectual in the great tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Oliver Wendell Holmes…stern and uncompromising with willful evil…compassionate with the weak and suffering…a man devoted to his duty and to his community…the very best type of the old New England tradition.”   (Jay Edgerton, Minneapolis Tribune, 1-15-50).

Born in 1860 in Norwich, NY Waite migrated to Minnesota in 1888 as a traveling examiner for the pension office, processing applications for pensions from Civil war veterans.  As an examiner Waite gained a reputation for his keen eye in spotting fraudulent claims, a characteristic that did not sit well with the miscreants.

After a brief tenure in private practice Waite was named assistant Hennepin county attorney.  Based on his background as a tenacious fraud-spotter he was appointed to serve as Minneapolis Chief of Police.    The short -term assignment to clean up the department ignited in him a lifetime interest in and commitment to juvenile justice.

Waite was appointed to the city bench in 1904; in 1911 he began his lengthy career as a member of the district court, responsible for juvenile court which remained his first love throughout his judicial career. A proponent of what would be known today as “tough love” he was a strict enforcer of the law who was credited with having helped hundreds of young people.  He once dismissed his detractors by observing that “the better the home surroundings of the boy, the greater the prospects of his being dealt with in a way he and his friends may consider severe.”

The Judge earned a reputation as The Children”s Friend.  A story was told of a boy who had been before him who was quoted as saying “he’s been a bully good friend to me, and there’s a lotta guys would say the same thing. He ain’t one of those stiffies that sets up there and looks at a kid like he was a worm; he comes right where we live.”  (Minneapolis Tribune, 4-28-58)

Judge Waite served on the juvenile bench for twenty years (1911-1921 and 1931-1941)  For over a half century after his 1941 retirement from the bench Judge Waite remained an active community leader.  Working long hours in his office on the 23rd Floor of the Rand Tower Judge Waite explored a range of legal issues in his voluminous publications and speeches. He served as special assistant to the U.S. attorney general to hear the cases of conscientious objects.  Later he was appointed by Governor Luther Youngdahl to the state commission on reform of the state’s divorce laws.  In a significant study of children of divorce he wrote “the child in every divorce case has…ipso facto a status of disadvantage which challenges the judge, and opens to him the duty to reduce it so far as possible.”

Juvenile justice was not Judge Waite’s only interest.  In an important legal treatise  published in 1949 in the Minnesota Law Review Waite wrote eloquently of “Jefferson’s ‘Wall of Separation’, What and Where”. In that article he raises the hypothetical question:  “In what sense, if at all, is this ‘a Christian nation’?  Is there ‘a wall of separation between church and state’ and if so, where is it, and what really does it separate?”  He poses and ponders the paradox without overtly answering his own question.

Tbroughout Judge Waite’s long life one of his greatest concerns was the condition of minorities in Minneapolis.  Well into his 90’s he wrote an article for the Minnesota Law Review on racial segregation in the public schools.  He stressed that the “fundamental crying need is for people to put out of their minds prejudices growing out of such accidents as race, religion and creed.”

After Waite’s death the name of the Elliot Park House at 2215 Park Avenue was changed to the Edward Foote Waite House, a move the Judge had halted during his life, admitting to the Elliot Park Board that  “After I’m dead, of course, I’ll have no control over what you do.”  (Minneapolis Star 10-22-56)

Apparently Judge Waite did not protest, or his protests fell on deaf ears,  when, in 1949, the Park Board designated the land referred to as the “Cary-Cavell site as Waite Park.   Waite School opened in September 1950, a unique collaborative project between the Minneapolis School and Park Boards.

The years did not slow the activities of Judge Waite.  After the death of his wife in 1935 Waite lived alone until his last years when a niece came to help him.  For his entire adult life he lived at 2009 Queen Avenue in South Minneapolis., conveniently close to downtown for an energetic jurist who never owned a car.

At his 95th birthday party he mused that, if he had his life to live over again, he “should hope’” he would make some changes…. Apparently one thing he would do different was to keep up his membership in the American Bar Association – at age 96 re-upped his membership, becoming the oldest applicant in the history to the ABA

Judge Waite died in 1958 at age 98.  Judges from Minneapolis municipal and Hennepin county district courts were honorary pall-bearers at the memorial services held at Plymouth Congregational Church where the Judge was a lifetime member and leader.

Northeasters can be proud that , though Judge Edward Foote Waite did not live in Northeast, his name, his wisdom and his progressive ideas life on in the neighborhood that bears his name.

 

 

 

Logan Park Honors a National War Hero and Patriot

Logan Park residents enjoying the ten-acre open space where neighbors gather probably do not spend much time reflecting on the life and times of their community’s namesake; it’s unlikely that most even know the political drama that surrounded the selection of John A. Logan for the honor.  Still, Logan was a legend in his own time — racist turned anti-slavery advocate in defense of the Union, Major General in the Civil War, Republican nominee for vice president in 1884, and the man generally credited with the establishment of Memorial Day (originally Decoration Day), a day to honor those who died in the Civil War.

In 1883, when the park was first designated it was christened First Ward Park, later changed to Ninth Ward Park when the political wards were restructured.  At that point, in 1887, the Civil War veterans of the Dudley Chase Post of the Grand Army of the Republic proposed the park recognize the deeds of John A. Logan.   After some Park Board deliberations, the name selection went instead to one Cadwallader C. Washburn, founder of the Washburn Crosby Company (now General Mills) and one-time Governor of Wisconsin.

Next, the Park Board decided the honor should go to Cadwallader’s brother William who actually ran the Minneapolis business interests of Washburn Crosby.  William Washburn, a former Congressman and a friend of a couple of park commissioners, was subsequently sent to Washington DC when Minneapolis voters elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1889.

That’s when the Park Board had a change of heart – and John A. Logan’s name reappeared on the agenda of the Park Board Nomenclature Committee.  Later Dr. William Folwell, who served on t he Nomenclature Committee, explained the turn of events and the role of Northeast DFLer and Park Board member Patrick Ryan, in this way:  “Because Paddy Ryan wanted that name, it probably was named for Major-General John A. Logan, who was also a United States Senator for while Paddy was a good Democrat, he also was a good politician and that may be the reason for naming the park after a republican statesman and Major-General.”

Minneapolis park historian David C. Smith suggests that [Ryan] preferred naming the park for a man who had been elected from both political parties in Illinois instead of the brother of the incumbent Republican senator from Minnesota.”

No matter the politics, Logan’s name and reputation add to the rich history of the park and the neighborhood.

John Alexander Logan was born in 1836 in what is now Murphrysboro, a Southern Illinois town that began with a gift of 20 acres of land donated by Logan’s parents.  After three years of study at Shiloh College Logan served as a second lieutenant with the Illinois Infantry in the Mexican-American War, earned a degree in law from the University of Louisville, practiced law and dabbled in local politics.  His political career took him from county clerk to the State House of Representatives and in time to election as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives.

With the onset of the Civil War Logan, once pro-Southern and thus pro-slavery, determined that “the union must prevail.”   While still a member of Congress, Logan fought at Bull Run as a volunteer with a Michigan regiment.  He returned to Washington, resigned his Congressional seat, and entered the Union army as Colonel of the 31st Illinois Volunteers which he organized.  It was there that he acquired the nickname “Black Jack” because of his dark complexion and black eyes; the nickname stayed with him throughout his lifetime.  Nickname or no he went on to succeed as a military hero, ultimately named by Sherman to command the Union army during the May 1865 Grand Review in Washington.  Some historians have identified Logan as the most prominent volunteer general in the Civil War.

After the war Logan, now a Republican, returned to his seat in the House of Representatives and then to the Senate.  It was his involvement in veteran’s affairs that motivated him to lead efforts to create Memorial Day, then Decoration Day, as a tribute to those who lost their lives during the War Between the States.  He was elected to serve in the Senate in 1871 and again in 1877.

In 1884 Logan was nominated for Vice President on the presidential ticket with James G. Blaine, Republican from Maine.  He nomination was based to a great extent on his military record and on his personal following as a platform speaker and partisan spokesperson.  Though the Republican ticket was defeated in that election by Grover Cleveland Logan continued to serve in the Senate until his untimely death in 1886 at the age of sixty.

Today, Logan Park is not the only public tribute to John A. Logan.  Minneapolitans know Logan Avenue, of course.  Travelers may have had their pictures taken at the equestrian statue at Logan Circle in Northwest Washington DC or at Grant Park in Chicago. Visitors to Murphrysboro will know the Logan Museum in his hometown.

Over the years, Logan Park, the park itself, has thrived as the locus and gathering place for countless community events for every age.  Dancing, singing, theater, sports events, ice skating and scores of other lively activities have engaged and united the neighborhood.   Today, Logan Park, the neighborhood, blossoms as the epicenter of the flourishing arts area that is the pride of Northeast Minneapolis.

The story of its namesake, military hero and political leader James A. Logan, simply adds a brilliant splash of color to the rich tapestry that is the Logan Park neighborhood of today..

 

 

 

WPA’s Legacy Shapes the Landscape of Minnesota and of Northeast Minneapolis

There’s talk these days that what this nation/state/city needs is a 21st Century Work Progress Administration (WPA).  It’s short-hand for what is, in fact, an incredibly complex story of a Depression era program of immense import to the participants and their families, to the economy, and to every American today.

Instinctively, mention of WPA conjures images of bridges, roads, buildings and other concrete (literally) memorials to the work of thousands of men and women who improved the physical infrastructure of the nation.  In part this is because those physical structures remain and the “WPA” stamp is an enduring reminder of who did the work.

One remarkable aspect of the WPA initiative is the less visible but equally lasting impact on the lives of people who were struggling through treacherous economic times.  The goal was to provide one paid job for all families where the breadwinner suffered long-term unemployment.  As one recorder of WPA activities wrote in 1942, “The Work Projects Administration helped to solve the problems of the family and the city.”

The WPA was authorized in 1935 under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the inspiration and guidance of his adviser Harry Hopkins.  Framed as an outgrowth of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration WPA focused on economic recovery and on the absolute commitment to the value of a real job.  Though critics charged that WPA was a government handout, the truth is that WPA workers improved the health and welfare of millions of Americans who learned new skills, tried out ideas, and left a positive imprint of solid construction and implementation of essential community services.

During WPA’s  eight years Americans invested $13.4 billion dollars. In Minneapolis 70,000 men and women found gainful work, education and creative opportunities through WPA. When WPA was dissolved in 1943 it was not failure of the program but a more robust economy buoyed by the harsh reality that American men and women had found defense-related employment.

One hallmark of WPA was that it was largely operated by state and local governments.  Local agencies which provided 10-30% of costs worked closely with and nonprofits and community organization that played a major role in developing and delivering services.

Begun as an economic development/employment project WPA shifted with the tides of time.  As American workers found jobs in industry, labor unions worried less about their members losing jobs to WPA workers; this opened the way for WPA to venture into vocational training.  As visionaries worried about the loss of creative talent and feared that writers, artists, musicians were given unskilled labor jobs, programs in the arts emerged.  Later, as War overwhelmed the nation, existing programs were repositioned in terms of defense preparedness.

The diversity, complexity and shifting direction of WPA programs is hard to categorize. Though they are variously grouped, the WPA programs fall generally into the categories of Construction and Community Service.

Construction

Minneapolitans live in a city built with the labor of WPA workers, working for no more than $8/hour and grateful to have a job to go to in the Depression era.  A shining example of their work is the Minneapolis Armory, built in 1935, probably the most important building constructed in the Twin Cities during the Depression.

The Armory is known as the nation’s shining example of Moderne style.  Its very existence depends to some extent on the fact that it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Armory construction brought $300,000 into the local market while it employed over 400 tradesmen.  All of the materials for the building were produced locally, in keeping with principles of WPA projects – steelwork by Minneapolis Moline and Gillette-Herzog, brick from Twin City Brick, granite from St Cloud and limestone from Mankato.

The Armory is just one stunning example of the physical impact of WPA . Some basic statistics describe the scope:  WPA workers built eleven new city garages and reconditioned five new parks, 68 playgrounds and eight high school athletic fields enlarged and improved 14 branch and main libraries, built or repaired sewers, alleys, curbs and gutters repaired, repaved thirty miles of street and built ten new bridges.  They also installed nearly 65,000 street and traffic signs.  You get the idea.

Other construction highlights include these:

  • Columbia Golf Course, which dates from the early 1900’s,  is one WPA project with which most Northeasters are familiar.  Golfers enjoy the upgraded grass greens created by WPA workers.  The improved greens actually helped Columbia to continue to operate, though at a loss, during hard times.
  • Another local hallmark of WPA is John P. Murzyn Hall in Columbia Heights which began as a WPA project at a cost of $649,407.  Originally known as Columbia Heights Field House, the hall served da community center for the people of Columbia Heights.  The first official event at Murzyn was the January 28 Birthday Ball to celebrate Washington’s Birthday in 1939. Murzyn Hall continues to serve the community as the site of countless dances and other activities and a popular locus for weddings and other important family and community celebrations.
  • Wold-Chamberlain, then one of the largest in the country, enjoyed a major rehab subsidized with $2 million federal funds and the labors of hundreds of WPA workers.  The construction include 30,000 feet of new runway, new hangers, grading for a new naval base and more.
  • Liberal grants of federal funds and WPA labor benefitted the Minneapolis Municipal River Terminal
  • The Minnesota Soldiers Home got a new power plant along with extensive landscaping and sidewalk construction.
  • The Longfellow House was rehabbed and converted into a public library, now a charming museum and reminder of an earlier Minneapolis
  • The “belt line highway” remains a major thoroughfare that still bears the mark of the WPA workers who provided a sixty-foot main highway 66 miles long, “flanked on each side by walks and service drives.”  The goal was to “enable motorists from the west to enter the heart of Minneapolis at the most advantageous point, with minimum confusion and maximum safety.”
  • The city’s proud heritage of beautiful parks owes a debt to WPA workers who established five new parks and reconditioned thirteen others. They built five new parks and added bath houses and landscaping to Lake Calhoun and Lake Hiawatha.  The beauty of Theodore Wirth and Minnehaha Park tells the WPA story writ large.
  • They remodeled the interior of the Minneapolis auditorium and rehabbed numerous court houses offices.
  • Workers reconditioned 22 municipal buildings including seven fire and four police stations.
  • General Hospital and the University hospital received assistance for a total of 155 WPA construction workers.
  • WPA workers worked in a quieter environment to conduct a geodetic survey of Minneapolis “to determine the precise locations of boundaries and geographic points so that the city’s future may be planned intelligently and precisely.”  The report of the survey is that the “geodetic maps are accurate within an inch and less. The project is closely allied to the U.S. coastal and geodetic survey.
  • Of particular interest to Northeasters are the five greens that WPA workers constructed at the Columbia Heights Golf Course.
  • The Minnesota State Fairgrounds are not exactly Minneapolis but as the home of the Great Minnesota Get Together the Fairgrounds belong to all of us – and to WPA we all owe a debt of gratitude to the WPA workers who built the swine and horse barns, the poultry building, the cattle barn ramp, the 4_H building, with improvements to the grandstand, parking areas and the grounds – all at a cost of $2 million federal funds.

Minneapolitans who walk, drive, fly, learn, play sports or just enjoy the beauty of a city park or other public space have a WPA worker and a progressive administration to thank for the vision that merged the economic vitality of the community with the needs of a family for a steady, if minimum, income and a worker who is proud of day’s work well done.

Community Services 

One chronicler of WPA notes that, “everyone can watch the construction of a new school or a bridge in his community, see the men at work, and recognize the value of this work to himself and his fellow man.  The value of this [community service] work aimed at the educational, recreational, and cultural needs of the people as well as at their physical health and well being, is more difficult to determine.”  Still, the reporter observes, it is essential to record “what this work means in time of peace and its increased possibilities in time of national emergency.”

A quick survey of the community service programs of WPA offers a superficial hint at the truth of this observation:

1) Education.   High on the list of programs is adult education, broadly defined.  Americanization classes were a key “defense activity.” Governor Stassen observed that “such classes are a distinct aid to national unity – they help to extend the friendly hand of a free people to those who desire to become one with us.”

Other adult education programs focused on literacy assistance geared to “making Minnesota the most literate state in the union.”  Assistance went to local school boards to establish “Junior Extension colleges.”

Vocational courses such as shorthand and typing, navigation and life boat practices, first aid and safety, dressmaking and dramatics also got WPA support.  Vocational courses included foreign languages, radio code, diesel engineering and just about anything related to national defense.

There were courses in practical skills such as public speaking and parliamentary law as well as special programs in handicrafts for “shut-ins” who learned skills to create products to sell.  Homebound teachers reached children with disabilities who had never been to school

Numerous other programs came under the broadly-defined education activities:

  • Nursery schools were another priority.  By 1941 over 1000 “under-privileged children ages 2-5 were enrolled in 29 nursery schools in 22 communities including several Indian reservations.
  • Children’s health was a major concern as WPA provided yearly examinations and other health measures including smallpox vaccinations, diphtheria inoculations and Mantoux tests for thousands of children.
  • The women’s WPA sewing project employed nearly 500 women in Minneapolis.  The efficient manufacturing organization was a model of efficiency, so efficient that it was threatened because the women had produced enough clothing to serve the relief department’s distribution needs for up to seven years.  At one point it was rumored that the clothing might go to England as part of the lease-lend program.
  • WPA played a significant role in the extension of public library service to a million unserved Minnesotans.  WPA opened 167 new book stations, served nearly 3000,000 Minnesotans without nearby libraries and registered 37, 117 new borrowers.
  • Under the supervision of Gratia Countryman and working at Trudeau School 183 WPA workers indexed the Minneapolis Star Journal from its beginning and microfilmed the Minneapolis Journal for the years 1878-1939.  The project also provided braille textbooks and texts in large print.
  • WPA workers were visible in school libraries.  Though many were placed as librarians in the schools, others restored thousands of damaged books and magazines – everything from repairing book bindings to erasing finger smudges from the margins.
  • Over 900 WPA workers served recreation projects serving 200 communities in 76 Minnesota counties throughout the state.  Again, emphasis was on long-term recreation programming couched in terms of national defense.

2) Arts.  The most lasting of the WPA community service are programs in the arts – visual arts, music, writing and museums.  The impact of these programs is evident and powerful sixty years later.  The Federal Writers Project and the WPA Artists Project clearly have lives of their own.

Federal arts Project:  In Minneapolis the imprint of the Federal Arts Project is pronounced.  WPA-supported visual artists created paintings, sculpture and murals in public buildings as well as easel paintings and graphic arts for public agencies.  Artists worked in realistic styles and chose familiar subjects such as cityscapes, farm scenes, people at work and play to create a portrait of Minnesota life in the era.  The murals at the Minneapolis Armory are perhaps the most evident. The Armory houses two of the few remaining examples of Federal Arts Project murals, large frescoed murals by local artists Elsa Jemne and Lucia Wiley. In recent years both the Minnesota History Center and the Weismann Museum have mounted exhibits of Federal Art Project works.

The program also included free classes for all age groups and rotating exhibits of national and local art works.  At the Walker Art Center scores of workers conducted art classes and activities for hundreds of children and adults.

Federal Writers Project.  In Minnesota as in other states the emphasis in the Writers Project was to communicate the state’s history, folklore, stories, culture and more to the written page.  Writers collected manuscripts and plumbed the memories of pioneers.  They recorded and organized thousands of stories that live today in books, libraries and particularly in the American Memory Project sponsored by the Library of Congress.

Of particular interest to Northeasters is one of these books, The Bohemian Flats, first published through WPA in 1941.  It’s the story of a small, isolated community that lay on the west bank of the Mississippi, tucked underneath the Washington Avenue bridge  From the 1779’s to the 1940’s the village was a home to generations of immigrants  – Swedish, Norwegian, Czech, Irish, Polish and especially Slovaks.  The book continues to be published, expanded and read.

Another visible WPA project is publication of Minnesota: A State Guide, part of the American Guide Series and still in print.  A fascinating story about the Guidebook is the controversy it caused when right wingers charged that it and similar guidebooks from other states were actually community propaganda.

Hundreds of photographs taken by WPA workers are now digitized and online through the Minneapolis Central Library. Photographs of neighborhood churches, monuments, landscapes and more are an essential visual record of the city as it was in the late 1930’s.

Music project. Emphasis of the Minnesota Music Project was to bring the educational, cultural and entertainment values of living music to communities who could not otherwise had had these advantages.  The project included summer band concerts and music for community singing, band clinics for young musicians, and radio concerts broadcast over the University of Minnesota radio station.

250 musicians were employed oin twelve units throughout the state – one symphony orchestra, two concert bands, one “negro” chorus, a teacher’s project, a copyist project and six small bands.  In addition WPA supported an experimental project in music therapy at the University of Minnesota Hospital

3) Research and records.  Though the work sounds tedious, the impact of the research and records programs of WPA are used every day by Minnesotans.  The project included several elements focused on arranging, indexing or improving essential records;  neglected in boom times the records are of long-time importance for administrative and research purposes as well as to Minneapolis-born residents who want to find their own birth records or those of their forbearers.

One major records project was the Historical Records Survey designed for the use it gets today by public officials, attorneys, students of political scientists and researchers.  WPA workers surveyed public archives, the records and history of organizations, from churches and cemeteries to social organizations, objects and places, including monuments, historic sites, trails and Indian burials and mounds., manuscripts and more.  Today the Survey is a research staple.

Some 800 workers were employed at the state and county levels to refurbish, list, revise, extend, index and otherwise improve private records.  Workers also created a variety of maps for every incorporated village and city in the state, including maps of real property.  Today Minneapolitans can research their house history by referring to the WPA survey of Minneapolis homes and residents including the condition of the building and yard, the type of heating, whether the house had running water, sewer connections, mechanical refrigerator or ice box, the number of residents in the home, their ethnicity, nationality and occupation.

Minnesota’s Historical Records Survey identified and organized local public records such as the names of local officials, the function of each office and the records of historic buildings and sites.  WPA workers assisted in the development of research studies including surveys of the safest routes for school children, real estate activity surveys, income studies and the Minneapolis fire hazard survey which revealed and led to the correction of thousands of fire hazards.

Research was also a priority at public higher education institutions.  WPA supported technical undertakings, many related to national defense. The main and “farm” campuses of the University of Minnesota were at the forefront of WPA implementation.  Some 460 WPA workers worked on over one hundred project in the fields of science, history, medicine, technology and others.  Workers assisted in research several projects tied to national defense, including studies of sulfa’s use in treating wounds, burns and infections, elements of high explosives, the strength of aircraft materials.

Conclusion

Whether or not a WPA-type project is appropriate to meeting the economic and social challenges of today, the history of the initiative is a rich sources of ideas proposed, projects planned and implemented, concrete results that can be measured in terms of the degree to which they have met the test of time.

Note:  This article was written for and published in The Northeaster, the community newspaper of Northeast Minneapolis.  Much of the material in this article is based on reports by and to WPA officials.  Of particular value was the 1041 report to the Federal Works Agency, Works Projects Administration, published by the Work Projects Administraton of Minnesota.    Also important was a 1939 report by the State Administrator, Linus C. Glotzbach, prepared for Colonel F.C. Harrington, director of WPA.  A 1942 guide prepared for Social Studies Teachers, prepared with the assistance of the WPA, was also very useful 

These reports and countless others are available at Minneapolis Central Library Special Collections.