Archive for the ‘Public history’ Category

It’s wonderful when the penny drops and your brain makes connections between several pieces of random information you’ve had bouncing around in your head. It happened to me this week as I took a long walk down Summit Avenue in St. Paul. My attention was caught first by the large garden in front of a church, House of Hope Presbyterian. It looked like a vegetable garden, but I wasn’t sure. Then I noticed the sign explaining their community garden project, which is new this year. (The produce is donated to the food shelf at Neighborhood House in St. Paul. What a wonderful addition to this neighborhood! Read more about the garden here.)

Then my eyes zeroed in on the historical marker close by and, as an inveterate reader of historical markers, I continued my reading.

Historical marker about Edward Duffield Neill in front of House of Hope Presbyterian Church, Summit Avenue, St. Paul. If I hadn't read this marker, who knows when I would have figured out who Neill was.

In the first line I saw a familiar name: Edward Duffield Neill. I recognized the name from several years of looking people up in Neill’s History of the Upper Mississippi Valley, a gold mine for information about early settlers in the counties of the Upper Mississippi in Minnesota and therefore a boon to the many family history researchers I have assisted. But I had never bothered to find out anything about the man himself. I was just thankful someone had taken the time to put all that information together – it made my life much easier!

The historical marker gives the bare bones of Neill’s accomplishments, but now my curiosity was truly aroused and I went home and looked him up. (The internet is a wonderful tool, but I still ended up in the Minnesota Historical Society library.) It turns out he arrived in St. Paul in 1849 when the city could hardly even be called a town and soon established the First Presbyterian Church on land donated by Henry Rice. Six years later he established a second congregation, House of Hope, on land donated by Alexander Ramsey. It’s interesting to think about the fact that these early prominent residents had to have known each other, given the small size of the community. In any case, Neill served as a minister until 1860. The two congregations he founded merged in 1914 when the current sanctuary and Weyerhauser Wing were constructed on Summit. House of Hope Presbyterian appears to be a thriving congregation still.

House of Hope Presbyterian Church, Summit Avenue, Saint Paul. Photo taken with my camera - technology can be useful when you're caught without your good camera!

But the churches were just the beginning of Neill’s accomplishments. He served as State Superintendent of Education and chancellor of the University of Minnesota from 1858 to 1861, and then as chaplain of the First Minnesota from June 1861 until July 1862, when he was appointed Hospital Chaplain in the Union army. In January 1864, Neill was appointed by President Lincoln as his private secretary, and he stayed on after Lincoln’s assassination to serve President Andrew Johnson. In 1869, President Grant appointed him as the US Consul to Ireland, and he served there into 1870, at which time he resigned from government service.

From 1873 until 1884, Neill served as president of Macalester College, and from 1884 until his death in 1893 he was a professor of history, literature, and political economy at Macalester. In addition, he was secretary of the Minnesota Historical Society from 1851 to 1863 and wrote numerous books including several on early Minnesota history.

How he managed to collect all the details about so many early residents and businesses in various Minnesota counties that appear in his books, I do not know. Perhaps the answer lies in his voluminous papers at the Minnesota Historical Society. Neill can be seen here in an 1855 photo by Whitney, quite appropriately with papers (although they don’t appear to be very realistic!), and here at home with his family in about 1860 (photos in the Minnesota Historical Society collection). His biography leaves me humbled. Clearly he was a very big fish with an impact well beyond his small pond, the young but growing Twin Cities.

As I continued my round-about investigation at the MHS library, I discovered yet another early Twin Cities resident that Neill had known well besides Rice and Ramsey and frankly of more interest to me: Charlotte Clark Van Cleve (mentioned in my previous post on Minnehaha Falls). Yet another puzzle piece snapped into place: discovering more about Neill helped me to discover a bit more about Charlotte, one of my favorite figures in 19th-century Minnesota history.

It seems that they knew each other well, which now makes sense since both were active Presbyterians and both were interested in recording the history of early Minnesota. In Neill’s 1881 book The History of Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis, he devoted considerable space to recounting Charlotte’s life and accomplishments in warm and appreciative language. Neill’s description of Charlotte tells us something about both the author and the subject.

For example, on woman suffrage:

… Mrs. Van Cleve has ever been the champion of her sex. Too true a wife and mother ever to lose sight of woman’s best and dearest rights she has still been a warm advocate of her right to equality before the law, including the ballot.

And on social injustice:

But of all the forms of the injustice of society to women, none has so touched her heart and roused her indignation as the remorseless punishment visited upon the fallen woman.

Charlotte  was instrumental in founding Bethany Home, a home for “fallen women,” as Neill put it, where an unmarried pregnant woman could find a place to stay, have her baby, and learn how to get on her feet and make a living, either keeping her baby or giving the baby up for adoption. More on Charlotte in subsequent posts as I uncover more about her life.

If we allow ourselves the time, one brief memorial encountered as we go about our daily lives can lead us to discover a variety of interesting tidbits that start make connections between previously random pieces of information we’ve had floating around upstairs. Here I was able to make more sense out of a name I knew only vaguely, and in taking the time to find out more about him, I was able to circle back around and learn more about another fascinating early resident of the Twin Cities. No doubt I will become better acquainted with both of them as I continue my rambles, which I suspect will be taking me quite frequently to the Minnesota Historical Society library as the temperature drops!


Read Full Post »

Fall is here and once again the Twin Cities are being blessed with absolutely perfect weather for biking and exploring. I don’t believe there is a better time of year to be in Minnesota, now that the humid days of summer are past and the leaves are glowing with color – from bright yellows to oranges to deep reds to burnished browns. The trees change from one day to the next, first just the edges of the leaves near the crown licked by flame, then more and more as if the fire is slowly spreading downwards until the tree is finally ablaze. It lasts such a short time, but it makes up for winter. If we are lucky, the fall will stretch on…and on…and on! 

The east side of the Mississippi River from the Lake Street Bridge, late September 2011.

There is so much to see on days like this, things that are easy to miss if you are driving along at sixty miles an hour, but reach out and grab you when you’re on a bicycle. Take the Mississippi River, for example. The closest many people get to the river is to drive over it on one of the many bridges in the metro area, bridges from which it is almost impossible to see the water or the river banks. But the river is a treasure and was critical to the early residents of what became Minnesota. It is easy for us to become disconnected from our natural surroundings, even when we still rely on them to supply our needs, but two hundred and more years ago, the river was central to life in this area.

Looking down at the Mississippi River just below Fort Snelling from the overlook on the east side of the river, late September 2011.

For a superb view of the mighty Mississippi, visit the overlook over the old bridge abutment on the east side of the river just south of Highway 5 on the East River Road bike path.

The overlook on the East River Road bike trail just south of Highway 5 (West 7th Street).

Not only do you have a good view of the rivers and the fort, some very informative panels on area geology and history, and some surprisingly comfortable fake boulders to rest on, there is no question about where you are!

Part of one of the attractive and informative metal panels at the overlook. This bit shows the location of Dakota communities and other important places along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.

Yes, indeed. In case there is any doubt, you know where you are! Actually, this shows your position in relation to the rivers, which are shown in tan paving stones along the overlook.

And directly across the river from you sits Historic Fort Snelling on the west bank of the Mississippi. Built out of the very limestone bluff it sat on, the fort controlled the major communication routes of the time – the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers below.

View of Historic Fort Snelling from the east side of the Mississippi River. The fort is almost invisible with all the trees in the foreground.

But a modern photo can’t really convey the imposing presence of this limestone edifice in 1820s Minnesota. Today’s lush tree cover and the predominance of highways and bridges in the area disguise the fort’s dominance in what was then an oak savanna landscape with tall prairie grass and occasional trees, as seen in this Seth Eastman painting at the Minnesota Historical Society, The Prairie Back of Fort Snelling (1846-1848). Built between 1820 and 1825 under the command of Colonel Josiah Snelling, the fort was originally known as Fort St. Anthony. It was renamed Fort Snelling in honor of the colonel in 1825 on the recommendation of General Winfield Scott. (For a more complete survey of its rich history, visit the official website.

It’s hard to imagine how the fort would have appeared to both the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples and the European Americans who arrived here in what must have seemed to them an isolated and lonely place. The Round Tower was the first building completed and is now the oldest standing building in Minnesota, one of four original buildings still standing at the fort.

Restored prairie on the west side of the Round Tower give a better impression of what the 1820s landscape would have been like.

Finished in 1820, it must have been a very impressive sight as visitors approached from the prairie to the west of the fort. The fort has been modified constantly since its original construction, a fact the complicates our attempts to imagine life there in the 1820s. In 1860 the Round Tower retained some prominence in the landscape, at least in this carte-de-visite at the Minnesota Historical Society, but by 1900 the poor tower seems to have been reduced to a curiosity visited by sightseers.

And by 1938, the tower seems almost insignificant, lost in the hustle and bustle of the street running right past it (possibly West 7th Street), standing alone with no evidence of the original stone wall that surrounded the fort in this photo from the Minnesota Historical Society.

Today a visit to the fort can take you back to a rougher but seemingly less complicated time – the 1820s.  Although you have to be ready for the noise of the muskets and cannon firing, and I’m not sure that doing laundry in the 1820s was exactly uncomplicated!  In spite of this time travel quality to your visit, the fort is still located near numerous transportation routes – Highway 5, Highway 55, and of course the airport. The latter is particularly hard to ignore even within the walls of the fort as planes roar incongruously overhead with great frequency!

Traveling on two wheels is much more peaceful.

This plane seems to be flying directly over the commandant's house at Fort Snelling, the oldest house in Minnesota (1823).

Read Full Post »

From the Lake Phalen trail, I soon found my way to the the Bruce Vento Regional Trail. The trail is dedicated in memory of Bruce F. Vento, a DFLer (Democratic Farmer-Labor Party politician) who represented Minnesota’s 4th district In Congress from 1977 until his death in 2000. Vento was known for his efforts to clean up the environment, so a bike trail is a fitting memorial.

The boulder marking the entry to Joe Bergeron Pass on the Bruce Vento Regional Trail.

The first part of the trail that I discovered is now marked with a memorial to Maplewood police sergeant Joseph Bergeron, who was shot to death by a suspect on May 1, 2010. It’s a sad local reminder that tragedies large and small happen here as well as in places like Iraq or Haiti and that many (perhaps most) of them are caused by people, not Mother Nature. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, Inc., 222 police officers in Minnesota history have died on duty. My brief exploration of the list showed that it goes back to the nineteenth century. An early entry was Police Officer Daniel O’Connell of St. Paul, shot while investigating a burglary on Dayton Avenue on June 17, 1882. He had served one month on the force. Bergeron had served for 26 years.

The inscription on the memorial for Sgt. Joe Bergeron.

The Bergeron memorial boulder was dedicated on November 4, 2010, and marks the entrance to Joe Bergeron Pass, a portion of the Bruce Vento trail near where the officer was killed. From here you can enjoy the peace of the trail and head towards Maplewood, where the trail stops just north of I-694. You can also head south towards downtown St. Paul, a ride that I enjoyed several times last fall.

It’s interesting to get a new perspective on distances when you’re riding your bike instead of driving a car or even riding a bus. You can see why areas farther from downtown would have had to wait for streetcars before they could really be developed as part of the growing city. Of course the bike trails are much easier to travel on than the old roads used to be.

Heading towards downtown, the trail takes you through the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and Swede Hollow. It’s a beautiful, quiet spot – a real sanctuary near the bustle of East 7th Street. This ravine used to be the home of new immigrants – Swedes, then Italians, then Mexicans – attracted by the low $5 per month rental to be paid to the city. Here they were surrounded by others like themselves. Phalen Creek still ran above ground then and provided water for the inhabitants, but today just a pond is visible and the creek has been diverted underground. The Minnesota Historical Society has several photographs of the area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including this photo showing the houses (or shacks) in the Hollow in 1910. This photo clearly shows Phalen Creek in the 1910s before the creek was enclosed. It’s hard to recognize this as the same place I biked through last fall!

The pond in Swede Hollow.

By the 1950s, the population of Swede Hollow had fallen significantly and the city was no longer willing to have people living without electricity and running water. But once all the remaining structures in Swede Hollow were condemned in 1956, the inhabitants were moved out, and the remaining houses demolished and burned, as illustrated in this Minnesota Historical Society photo. The hollow then became a dumping ground for garbage and a refuge for the homeless. It was finally cleaned up in the 1970s and was designated as a nature center in 1976.

Today as you ride through the sanctuary you can almost forget that up above the ravine is a all the activity of a modern city. Instead, you see the remains of an earlier time in the abandoned Hamm Brewery buildings. Stop at East Side Regional Park and you can read panels recounting the settlement and industrial history of the East Side, including Swede Hollow.


The Bruce Vento trail and the old Hamm's Brewery buildings in Swede Hollow are just visible through the trees from Dayton's Bluff above the hollow.

Part of the old Hamm Brewery complex seen from the Bruce Vento trail.

From down in Swede Hollow, you have a lot of choices for where to head next. I chose Indian Mounds Regional Park, only 2.1 miles farther. But what a couple of miles they were! Stay tuned…

Where to go next? Just follow the sign.

Read Full Post »

You know those brave intrepid souls you see riding their bicycles in all weather here in the Twin Cities, blizzards included? I saw a guy riding his bike down 66th Street the other night (yes, after dark) carrying his cross country skis on his bike. Hmm, perhaps they’re crazy as well as intrepid. Whatever the case, I am not one of them.

But give me a beautiful spring, summer, or fall day and I’ll jump on my bike to explore the wealth of bike trails in and around the Twin Cities. After taking my life in my hands to ride on country roads in a formerly-rural county just outside the metro area over the last several years, roads built for much less traffic (not to mention much slower traffic), the bike trails in the Twin Cities were a joy last fall. You just never know what you’re going to find.

Lake Phalen in the fall.

My first explorations took me around Lake Phalen. What struck me first was the number of people walking, running, or biking along the path, boating on the lake, and even fishing. Everyone was getting out to enjoy this neighborhood jewel that was acquired by the City of St. Paul back in 1899. But while the east side used to be dominated by Germans and Scandinavians, it didn’t take long to see that a rich diversity of ethnic groups now calls the east side home. I was especially struck by the number of Hmong families, from grandparents to toddlers, who were out taking an evening stroll together around the lake. A much better idea than planting oneself on the couch in front of the TV.

Biking or walking around the lake slows you down so you can appreciate the birds and the butterflies and the bees that are drawing sustenance from the native vegetation. Feel the breeze on your face, listen to the sounds of life around the lake – these are things that you miss if you never step out of your car to really see where you live.

Goldfinch surveying Lake Phalen in the fall.

Bees loved the asters in the fall.

A butterfly alights on a purple coneflower one summer evening at Lake Phalen.

Along one of my walks I stopped to investigate a monument along the lake path that turned out to commemorate young men who died during their service in the Civilian Conservation Corps. The monument was erected back in 1937 and includes stones from every state as well as the White House.

This CCC monument can only be reached from the lake path.

I wonder how many people actually stop to see what the monument is for and realize how much the CCC did in protecting and developing our natural resources during the Depression years of the 1930s while at the same time providing needed employment for young men from families needing relief. The young men in the CCC earned $30 a month and of that, $25 went to their parents. These young men planted billions of trees, constructed buildings on public lands as well as thousands of miles of roads, and updated fire fighting methods. They worked on erosion and flood control projects and built public camps and picnic grounds.

The inscription on the CCC monument.

We can build monuments to people or events, but there is no guarantee that those monuments will keep the stories from fading from most people’s consciousness. It’s good to take a minute now and then to refresh our memories and remind ourselves (or learn for the first time) why a person or event was thought important enough to commemorate in metal and stone.

Whether I was moving on foot or by bike, I couldn’t miss the changes in the scenery around Lake Phalen as summer passed into that amazing and extended fall. The lakeshore has been restored with native species to reduce the erosion problem caused by a century of dredging and other manipulation of the shoreline so that today (well, not exactly today, when the snow is falling again) you can enjoy a multitude of colorful grasses and forbs like milkweed, butterfly weed, purple coneflower, yellow coneflower, black-eyed Susans, and asters throughout the non-snow seasons. The tapestry of colors was ever changing.

Monarda, also known as bee balm, seen in midsummer.

The mixture of black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers was wonderful.

Imagine what fields of these native plants must have looked like before European settlement took hold! Formal gardens can be gorgeous, but a mass of native wildflowers is an amazing sight. I can’t wait to see what spring will bring to the lakeshore.

Another beautiful view from the lake path.

Coming up: The Bruce Vento Trail.

Plenty of milkweed fluff floated into the breeze from the shores of the lake.

Fall brings with it some wonderfully intense colors.

One golden tree stood out on the lakeshore after the first snow in mid-November.

The colors of a mid-November sunset at Lake Phalen.

Read Full Post »

Since moving to St. Paul I’ve been exploring a lot on my bike, but a couple weeks ago (before the snow blew in) I got a history lesson in my own yard. And it was putrid. Rancid, even. But enlightening.

I love fall. I love the colors, the crispness in the air, the sound of leaves blowing around on the ground and crunching underfoot, their distinctive smell. It was a brisk fall day and I though it would be a good idea to rake all the leaves that had dropped. Not only would I be doing a good deed, I would get fresh air and exercise. It would only take an hour or so.

The house sits on the corner of the block and there isn’t much lawn. I quickly worked my way across the backyard, where the leaves were thickest, along the boulevard to the front, and then got to work on the front yard and boulevard. I had left them till the end because they are small and a cursory glance indicated that they didn’t have many leaves. Two small apricot trees stand on the front lawn, a maple stands close to the corner on the side boulevard, and a medium-sized tree graces the front boulevard. It would be a snap.

Ginkgo tree that has lost its leaves in the fall.

Mysterious tree on the front boulevard.

Once I got within ten feet of that tree on the front boulevard, my idyllic autumn interlude came to an unpleasant, malodorous end. I don’t have the greatest sense of smell in the world, but it took no time for me to discern the scent of vomit and dog poo. I remembered what my friend had said:

Beware of the stink fruit!

There were so many questions:

  • Why does this tree produce noxious but innocent-looking fruit and the one in front of the neighbor’s house with the same kind of leaves doesn’t?

    A single ginkgo fruit lying in the grass.

    Who would expect such a harmless-looking fruit to emit such a rancid odor?

  • Why would anyone choose to plant a tree that produces stink bombs in the fall that fall to the sidewalk and street and get smashed by feet and tires, thus releasing the disgusting fumes into the air and contaminating shoes with toxic waste?

    Ginkgo 'fruit' smashed on the pavement.

    And yet if you value your shoes, don't step here!

  • While we’re at it, why is this street lined with just ginkgo trees while the cross street is lined with some kind of maple?

You may already have guessed that the unassuming tree on the front boulevard is no ordinary tree; it is a ginkgo tree. A female ginkgo. And here is where the history comes in, not to mention a little biology. It turns out that ginkgo trees are dioecious, which means that the male and female flowers appear on separate plants. The females fruit while the males do not. Ash, boxelder, juniper, cedar, and holly are all dioecious, but it is only the female ginkgo that produces such an objectionable but benign-looking fruit.

Ginkgo 'fruit' left on the tree after all the leaves had fallen.

Ginkgo 'fruit' left on the tree after all the leaves had fallen.

Given this substantial drawback, why did the city plant this female ginkgo tree (and several others along the same street)? It turns out that ginkgoes have several things going for them. They do well in urban environments with disturbed soils, they tolerate air pollution, and they aren’t prone to problems with pests or disease. Furthermore, the ginkgo will eventually develop into an attractive shade tree, although ours hasn’t made it to that height yet. Ginkgo leaves are a unique fan shape and turn a brilliant golden color in the fall. These were all probably important considerations.

A neighbor told my friend several years ago that this street used to be lined with large elm trees that formed a leafy cathedral ceiling above the street. When they were decimated by disease in the 1970s, apparently the city decided to replant the boulevards using a different species for each street. That way if one species were hit with a new disease, only one street would be affected, not all the streets in the neighborhood. This street hit the jackpot with its ginkgoes!

Today most ginkgo trees are grown from cuttings from a male tree grafted onto a seedling rootstock so that the resulting tree will be male and will not produce offensive stink bombs in the fall. If grown from seed, the sex of the tree might not be distinguishable for ten to twenty years, when the tree is finally capable of flowering. So either the City of St. Paul wasn’t concerned about the sex of the trees or this tree was too young for its sex to be determined when it was planted.

Much as I hate to admit it after an afternoon cleaning up ginkgo fallout, the ginkgo is a fascinating species. It is often called a living fossil (although I believe this is a misnomer, since as far as I’m concerned fossils should be unscented) and has been around for over 270 million years. It lived through the age of the dinosaurs and survived down to the present day in a small area of central China where Buddhist monks apparently kept ginkgoes alive near their monasteries for more than a thousand years.

The ginkgo has no living relatives. What we think of as the fruit of the female ginkgo is really a seed surrounded a hard shell and then by soft and fleshy section. The nasty stench comes from butyric acid in the ‘fruit.’ The fan-shaped leaves are unique as well. If you look closely, you can see fused needles in the leaf. Ginkgoes represent a link between needled evergreens and broadleaf deciduous trees.

Golden ginkgo leaf

Ginkgo leaves turn a beautiful golden color in the fall.

As I looked into the history of the ginkgo, I also discovered that its survival capabilities are downright impressive. Forget standard American urban air pollution: several trees survived the 1945 atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima when all other life was destroyed. These trees are still alive today. No wonder the Japanese call them the “bearers of hope.”

I vaguely remembered learning about the gingko in a college biology class, but this was my first close encounter with one. I appreciate the chance to learn something new about my community and the outdoors, but I’m hoping the next lesson won’t be quite so … um … fragrant.

Read Full Post »

History is fun. History helps us understand how things came to be the way they are and links us to the joys and sorrows, successes and failures, of those who came before us. It gives us perspective on the past and informs our choices about the future.

And yet many people seem to have been traumatized by their high school American history class where they were required to memorize names and dates and places without anyone pointing out why that knowledge might be useful to them. Classroom history often strips history of the basic human element that makes it interesting and relevant.

People might not like “history,” but ten years of working in museums has shown me that people do like stories. Much of history is just that – stories – but put into context so they become meaningful and relevant to the individual. Those stories can enlighten us, or make us laugh, or shock us and make us thankful we live today. (Or perhaps wish that we had lived in another time, without cars and electricity and computers.) But history done properly should touch us, inspire us, elicit some kind of response.

We live in a mobile society and spend much of our time whizzing past places in cars or buses or trains, unable to stop and really look at the places around us. Many of us spend more time commuting or sleeping than exploring our own communities. It doesn’t take long for communities (especially fast-growing ones) to lose their individuality as the stories and landmarks that made them unique are forgotten or lost.

So much of history isn’t visible on the surface; you have to look for it. Get out for a walk or take your bicycle out for a spin, add a measure of observation and a dollop of curiosity, and you’ll be surprised at the stories that lurk beneath the surface of your neighborhood that link you to the people who came before. Chat with friends and neighbors and listen to their stories. You never know what you’ll find out.

I’ll be exploring the Twin Cities area as a newcomer, trying to discover the stories of the people who built my adopted hometown and made it what it is today. What better way to connect with my new home than learning the stories of the places I see regularly as I go about my business?

Some of my ‘discoveries’ may be old hat to longtime residents even if they’re new to me. You never know, I might stumble across something new to you, too. So come along on my rambles. And let me know if you know some good stories about this place we call home.

Read Full Post »