The cast of characters who created Minneapolis’ parks could be their own mutton-chopped version of “Parks and Recreation”
There’s a lot of green in Minneapolis—6,800 acres of parks, to be exact. Fifteen percent of the city is parkland and 96 percent of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. Minneapolis’ 180 park properties have 55 miles of parkways, 102 miles of Grand Rounds biking and walking paths, 22 lakes, 12 formal gardens, 7 golf courses, and 49 recreation centers. It’s no surprise that Minneapolis has been ranked as one of the country’s top park systems on the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore index every year since the index began in 2013.
But all this green stuff around us didn’t just happen. A group of rebels, cranks, populists, and oddballs saw something beautiful and did a lot of work to make sure no one built a lumberyard or a flour mill there instead. The personalities behind our city’s parks could fill a book (and it did—“City of Parks: The story of Minneapolis Parks,” by David C. Smith).
When trees were great—for cutting down
In 1872, Minneapolis and St. Anthony merged and the population—and business—boomed. Flour mills clustered around St. Anthony Falls in a self-styled hydropower district, and railroads shipped their products across the country. For many industrialists, the greatest thing about trees was how much money you could make by cutting them down. By 1890, Minneapolis sawmills cut a half-billion feet of lumber annually. The peak year of white pine logging was in 1900 when 2.3 billion board feet of lumber was harvested from the state’s forests. From the 1890s through 1910, the city was the top lumber producer in the world.
Even as business boomed, there were those who realized that green space served an important function, especially for city dwellers. It was the Progressive Era, and people everywhere were seeing the value in filling one’s lungs with fresh air, looking up at a blue sky, and having a chance to remember that you were a human being, not just a cog in a grimy sawmill, lumberyard, or railroad line. Minneapolis’ leaders heard the reformers’ message loud and clear. They led a charge to ensure that the city protected nature during a period of intense industrial growth.
Charles Loring: Talent scout
Charles Morgridge Loring is often called the “father of the Minneapolis park system.” He was born in Portland, Maine, in 1833, the son of a sea captain. After commanding a ship that sailed to Cuba when he was in his early 20s, Loring headed inland and stayed in the Midwest for the rest of his life. He worked in Chicago as a trader in the wholesale grain business, then moved to Minneapolis with his wife, Emily, and son, Albert, in 1860. He made his first pile of money running a general store on Nicollet Avenue.
Loring invested in real estate and soon found himself a rich, respected civic leader. Accounts from that time describe him as an astute businessman who still managed to be well-liked, and he was described by contemporaries as “a gentle and genial soul” with a “sunny disposition.”
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board was created by an act of the Minnesota State Legislature and a vote of Minneapolis residents in 1883. Loring was elected the first president of the board. In a move equivalent to booking Lady Gaga for Jingle Ball back in 2008, Loring hired landscape architect Horace William Shaler Cleveland to move here and create a plan for the city’s park system. Cleveland’s impact on the lovely, serene spaces we still enjoy today was epic, even if the man himself was often described with words like “irascible” and “cantankerous.”
Horace William Shaler Cleveland: Pissed off at everybody
Cleveland grew up in Massachusetts in a time when first-gen tree huggers like Hawthorne and Emerson were telling anyone who would listen about the transformative power of nature. “Sea captain” must have been the early-1800s equivalent of “digital marketing manager,” because it turns out that’s what Cleveland’s dad had done for a living, too. Cleveland got a job for the rock star of landscape architects, Frederick Law Olmstead. But when he set out on his own, he never attained Olmstead’s level of star power. David C. Smith describes him as a loner and says, “For most of his life he was near greatness but never great himself, except perhaps to a few peers and colleagues.”
Shannon Murray, who wrote her Ph.D. thesis on Minneapolis urban design, has a theory about why Cleveland was such a phenomenal sourpuss: “He had a huge grudge against Chicago because they didn’t hire him when he was younger. I think that chip on his shoulder made him fit right in with Minneapolis’ elite, who didn’t really care for the Second City either,” she says.
Cleveland wrote “Suggestions for a System of Parks and Parkways for the City of Minneapolis,” which was read at a meeting of the Park Board in 1883. It included this populist plea: “Look forward for a century, to the time when the city has a population of a million, and think what will be their wants. They will have wealth enough to purchase all that money can buy, but all their wealth cannot purchase a lost opportunity, or restore a natural feature of grandeur or beauty.” He said he wanted to “make of the city itself such a work of art as may be the fitting abode of a race of men and women whose lives are devoted to a nobler end than money getting.” He got what he wanted. The plan he presented for a series of interconnected parkways and parks, preserving existing natural features, was embraced by park leaders, resulting in urban wonders like the Chain of Lakes and the Grand Rounds.
It was all about keeping nature, well, natural, for Cleveland. In 1890, he got wind that the park commissioners wanted to build a structure next to Minnehaha Falls, where people could have their photo taken near the 53-foot waterfall. “If erected, it will be simply pandering to the tasteless army of boobies who think to boost themselves into notoriety by connecting their own stupid features with the representation of one of the most beautiful of God’s works,” he wrote in one of his many surly letters. Whew, it didn’t happen, and no one since then has ever taken a picture of themselves next to the falls, so he can rest easy.
Theodore Wirth: Parks are for the people
In 1906, Loring lured Theodore Wirth away from a job as superintendent of parks in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was known for creating the first municipal rose garden in the country (spoiler alert: the second one would be built here by Wirth four years later).
Wirth, a short man with a bushy mustache, had arrived in the United States from Switzerland in 1888 at the age of 25. He loved horticulture, and his first job was working for a private gardener and rose grower in New Jersey. He eventually worked in the New York park system, and his big break was getting that Hartford job. When Loring hired him away to come way out west, he’d been in Hartford for 10 years. It was the last move of his career, and he remained at the center of the Minneapolis park system for the next 30 years.
Wirth’s greatest accomplishment was his ability to develop the lands that the Board of Parks had acquired. In short, Smith says, “He dredged the lakes, shaped the lakeshores, built the parkways, and planted the gardens. And he was very good at it.”
Now known as “dean of the local parks movement in America,” it’s said that Wirth coined the phrase “parks are for the people.” At Loring’s direction, he removed “Keep off the grass” signs in all parks, replacing them with signs that read, “Please walk on the grass.”
To put Wirth’s contributions into perspective, walk in just about any direction in Minneapolis for eight or so blocks. You’ll probably run into a park. That was Wirth’s idea. He thought there should be a playground within a quarter-mile of every child and a complete recreation center within a half-mile of every family.
Learn more at minneapolisparkhistory.com
Park fun facts
1887: Park Board sells the right to rent boats and sell refreshments at Lake Harriet for $1,250.
1890s: Pony rides start at the Lake Harriet pavilion.
1893: First fireworks display over Lake Harriet, charging 25 cents for a seat on the pavilion roof.
1903: Speed limit for motor cars on the Parkway is established at 15 miles per hour.
1905: Theodore Wirth removes “keep off the grass” signs in Minneapolis parks.
1906: Longfellow Zoological Gardens sets up in Minnehaha Park. When it closes in 1934, there are rumors that several seals escape over Minnehaha Falls.
1908: Planting of the second-oldest public rose garden in the United States, designed by Park Superintendent Theodore Wirth.
1921: Maude Armatage becomes the first woman elected to the Park Board, serving until 1951, the longest consecutive service in the board’s history
1922: Wirth puts a flock of sheep in Glenwood (now Theodore Wirth) Park, hoping they’ll provide mowing services and fertilizer. The project is abandoned a few months later when they start grazing on expensive landscaping instead of grass and weeds.
1929: The wildflower garden and bird sanctuary is named for Eloise Butler, a Minneapolis high school botany teacher who took her students there to study plant life. She tended the garden as a volunteer until she died in 1933 at age 81.