Posts Tagged ‘St. Paul’

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!


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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.

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Winter in Minnesota. For some it’s a time to embrace Mother Nature and enjoy the pleasures of snowshoeing and skiing. Others take to their snowmobiles and ice fishing houses. And still others see it as a time to hunker down and catch up on their reading until they can make a break for someplace blessed with sun and heat. But we all have one thing in common – the challenge of getting from here to there when snow and ice blanket the roads. And the plow comes by after you shoveled!

Snow wall left by the plow

One resident tries to clear the street - and wall of snow from the plow - with his snowblower.

A few weeks ago – last year, actually – we had the fifth biggest single snowfall ever in the metro area. I discovered a few things about life in Minnesota and modern Minnesotans over the course of the following week. I stood for 45 minutes in the checkout line at the grocery store the night before the storm. For me it was a trip to pick up something I had forgotten in my earlier trip to the store that day, but for many it was clearly a trip to stock up on supplies (especially movies, chips, and beverages!) before the storm.

Afterwards there was the predictable conversation among strangers about the weather, shoveling, and poor plowing (this seems to be standard, even though it must be pretty hard to plow 900 miles of streets lined with cars). There were stories of people pitching in to help strangers get unstuck (I myself tried to help a couple who must not have been through a Minnesota winter before, since they were woefully underdressed for the weather, didn’t seem to know how to shovel snow, and didn’t have a shovel in the first place). My housemate, a native Minnesotan, had managed to get stuck overnight in Stillwater in a room with a jacuzzi. Now that’s what I call planning!

Neighbors pitched in to help each other. Thank goodness I was closer to the corner!

In any case, I was finally introduced to the joys of digging my car out for a snow emergency. Now there’s a feature of life that I missed growing up in a small town in Wisconsin where you just couldn’t park on the streets from November through April. In all my previous Minnesota winters I’ve had either off-street parking or a garage. I will never take these for granted again!

First you have to figure out when the snow emergency starts in your city.  Then you have to figure out where you can park in your city. And then you have to figure out how you will actually move your car so you don’t have to make the dreaded trip to the impound lot. You have to wonder what Minnesotans a hundred years ago or even fifty years ago would have thought of these “problems.” The internet is a blessing for getting current information on the progress of the plows.

I dragged myself out of bed early on a Sunday morning, giving myself almost two hours before the 8 am deadline for moving my car off the day-plow street. Here I was, in the cold and dark, working away on the drifts of snow that surrounded my car up to my knees at least, sometimes higher.

My footprints in the snow went very deep.

My footprints at the"crosswalk" as I tried to get into the intersection. Are they really footprints when you sink up to your hips?

Luckily I had had the foresight to do some basic shoveling down the sidewalk and around the car the day before, but I had discovered that the fancy ergonomic shovel with the curved handle did not work very well when you actually have to lift and throw the snow. So that Sunday morning I was reduced to using the shovel I carry in my car for emergencies. It stands just waist high. And my waist isn’t very high.

Once I had freed my car from its immediate snow prison, I looked for the escape route. And that’s when I made another discovery: my car’s low clearance was going to require me to shovel a path from where it was parked clear up to the corner. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the snow plow had left a wall of snow across the intersection blocking my path.

My car's final escape route.

The final escape route for my car. After several runs at the remaining wall at the intersection, I managed to overcome the barrier and slide around the corner.

A helpful neighbor saw my plight and rammed through the wall with his pickup a couple of times, but he got stuck and, once he had dug himself out, had others to help. In spite of the depth of the snow and the height of my shovel and the absence of my housemate (enjoying the jacuzzi, no doubt!), I made it out of the street only a half hour after the deadline. And then I enjoyed a well-deserved soak in the tub with Epsom salts.

The car is finally moved to the "clear" street.

Happiness is getting your car moved in time! And yes, all that snow in the foreground? That's the street.

I needn’t have worried: The first plow didn’t come by until about 1 o’clock Monday morning with another pass around 2 that afternoon. Even then I got stuck three times driving around the block to move my car again.

A snowplow passes by below my window.

A snowplow passes by below my window mid-afternoon on Monday. Thank goodness for big plows! And their drivers!!

What does this all have to do with history? One thing that kept me going during my marathon shoveling session was photographs I have seen of men shoveling out roads and railroad crossings in the 1930s and 1940s. What was it like to go through the Armistice Day blizzard of 1940? Take a look at some photos in the Minnesota Historical Society’s online database. At least I didn’t have to shovel the whole road! And when I was done, I could relax in a warm house, take a hot bath without having to heat water (many Minnesotans still didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing in 1940), and I maintained contact with the outside world through TV, cell phone, and the internet. Being snowbound wasn’t much of a hardship!

I started hearing about the Armistice Day blizzard from the time I moved to Minnesota in 2003, although most of the people who talked about it hadn’t been around at the time. It’s a storm that has become part of the collective memory. There was no warning in 1940 – no TVs, no satellites, no Weather Channel, many people lacking even telephones, and the forecasts for the upper midwest came out of the Weather Bureau Office in Chicago. In 2010 we were warned for days ahead of time that major snow was on the way; it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone.

I remember the Halloween blizzard of 1991, although I don’t remember if there were extensive warnings. It was a surprise to me! But nothing dreadful happened to me during that blizzard except having to put off moving furniture into my new apartment and only being able to drive in the tracks of bigger vehicles for several days. I also remember Dave Dahl coming on the news and saying something like, “Folks, it’s snowing out there and it isn’t stopping anytime soon.” I would probably remember more if I had been truly snowbound…or had had to shovel my car out.

This time around the event made a big enough impression on me that I took the time to take pictures to record the event. They might not be as dramatic as the Metrodome roof caving in, but the do show that even today we are sometimes reminded that we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. But we are usually more comfortable in our suffering, if soaking in a jacuzzi can be considered suffering.

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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.

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An Engineering Gem

The Twin Cities has some amazing bike trails. Who would have thought that it would be safer to bike in the cities than out in the exurbs? Despite the open spaces, there are few trails or shoulders to ride in exurbia, so I jumped at the chance to get some exercise and explore my new home at the same time once I settled in St. Paul.

Besides enjoying our gorgeous fall weather (now sadly departed!), I discovered some real gems on my rides, both scenic and historical. Biking the Bruce Vento Regional Bike Trail from Lake Phalen to downtown St. Paul took me through the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, a peaceful spot below the bustle of East 7th Street and Payne Avenue. The sign post along the trail introduced me to the name Swede Hollow.

Signpost along the Bruce Vento Bike Trail

On my first ride along the trail I noticed the stone arch bridge. Actually, I thought of it as a tunnel since I was riding through it, not over it. The bridge stood out to me because of its interesting design: the stones in this bridge seemed to be set in a kind of swirl or spiral. I wondered if there was any structural significance to this or if it was just for aesthetic purposes.

The Stone Arch Bridge over the Bruce Vento bike trail, Swede Hollow.

I also became fascinated by the idea that people (among them Swedish immigrants, amazingly enough!) had lived down in this narrow valley, so I visited the Ramsey County Historical Society to see what I could find out.

While once there were trains chugging along the tracks (now the bike trail) down in Swede Hollow, today the sounds of the city are somewhat muffled. Instead you can enjoy a peaceful respite from the bustle above on the street and imagine what it would have been like to live down in this narrow valley with its steep walls. Were you snowed in during the winter? Where did you get your water from? What was it like living so close to the tracks? More on that in a later post

While browsing through the RCHS folder on Swede Hollow, I came across a newspaper clipping from the Pioneer Press dated 28 May 2001. There was a picture of the very bridge I had wondered about. It turns out that my non-engineering instincts were right on: this is a special bridge.

The bridge was built in 1883-1884 using a technically demanding technique described in the article as “skewed, heliocoidal, stone-arch design.” It turns out the stones are all the same size and shape, hand carved with great precision.

Detail of hand-cut stones in stone arch bridge.

Detail of hand-cut stones in stone arch bridge.

The civil engineer who designed the bridge, William Albert Truesdell, chose this type of construction because he had to address the problem that the railroad tracks (now the bike trail) crossed the road’s path at a 63-degree angle. He had read about the technique and knew that this method would use less building material and still safely distribute the load the arches had to carry. Since mathematics was his hobby, he was able to calculate the correct size and shape of the blocks, but then he also had to impress on the laborers how important it was for them to be accurate in their cutting.

The bridge was declared to be a national historic civil engineering landmark in 2001 by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Apparently this type of bridge is very rare with one or two known in Pennsylvania.

I was intrigued by the bridge before I learned anything about its history or construction, but knowing the skill and care that went into its construction 125 years ago increases my admiration for the people who built it. I wonder how many other riders have wondered about this bridge as they passed below it. And how many riders realize that this peaceful spot was once the home to many immigrant families.

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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.

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