Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘public history’

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).

Advertisements

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 »

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 »