When ‘The Yard’ was Minnesota’s most radical park

From the October 1950 issue of McCall's: "Jimmy Barry finds he's up to using a man-sized saw. He is one of more than 200 children who use the playground."

“The Yard” is the new showpiece of the Minneapolis park system. The dream of East Coast interests, it’s unlike any other city park, filled with temporary structures put up by private parties.

This is not a story from the Minneapolis of the near future. 

The year is 1949 and this “The Yard” is a very different park from the new downtown park also dubbed “The Yard” planned near the new Vikings stadium.

McCall’s, a national monthly magazine, chose a humble Northeast Minneapolis park next to Edith Cavell Elementary School (a building deemed “portable” and soon razed) as the site for the first American “adventure playground.”

The concept, a progressive idea imported from Europe in which kids take the lead — and the risks — in building their own play environments, is radical even by today’s standards. McCall’s sponsored construction of the “revolutionary playground” and summed up the project this way in a 1950 cover story:

The idea behind THE YARD is simple — to give children their own spot of earth and plenty of tools and materials for digging, building and creating as they see fit. Instead of ready-made playground equipment, THE YARD is stockpiled with tools, used lumber, bricks, tiling, paint, nails, secondhand materials of all kinds. There’s an old railroad boxcar too, a 1934 jalopy and a milk truck body the youngsters turn into anything they like.

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In 16 photos, the magazine article displayed dozens of Dicks and Janes carrying lumber and handling heavy tools, along with the claim that “after a year of operation, injuries consist of some banged thumbs and small cuts and bruises for the entire enrollment of over 200 children.”           

‘Give ’Em Hell’ Harry visits

On a Nov. 3, 1949 visit to the Twin Cities, President Harry Truman’s 31-car motorcade traveled far off any direct Minneapolis-to-St. Paul route so he could see a ramshackle, free-play playground in the city’s furthest northeast reaches.

How did this mess rate a peek by the leader of the Free World? A clue: “This is McCall’s contribution to American children in 1950, the year of the Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth.”

A photo from the Minneapolis Tribune of President Harry Truman visiting with children in the Yard.

The magazine described the local involvement and community planning that went into the Minneapolis model and invited other communities to follow suit.

But that can’t completely explain the unlikely scene the Minneapolis Tribune described at “Yardville”:

On the hilly playground, youngsters are using contributed materials to build about 30 strange shacks. Some were still working desperately to finish their projects before the President arrived on his inspection tour. His car pulled up amid the youngsters’ shrieks. Two of the Yardville kids ran forward to present a scroll to the President. It read:

“We the children of East Minneapolis, Minnesota, are deeply appreciative of all that you have done for us as the youth of America. We hereby name you first citizen of ‘Young Yardville.’ We hope that you will tell other citizens and children all over the United States about ‘Young Yardville’ through your mid-century conference on children and youth.

“The proud youngsters who presented the scroll … got a much-prized handshake in return. … When the parade cars pulled away their playmates crowded around to shake the hands that had shaken the President’s hand.”

Truman’s response to the recitation of the proclamation, according to the Minneapolis Star: “When I was your age, young man, I couldn’t have done as well.”

Bombed-out lots and the Baby Boom

McCall’s credited Denmark and Sweden as originators of what became known as adventure playgrounds, while a recent cover story in The Atlantic magazine emphasizes the movement’s British roots.

Several American examples survive today, including in Berkeley and Huntington Beach, Calif.

"Nancy Zierer puts finishing touches on chair made from nail keg."
From the October 1950 issue of McCall’s:
“Nancy Zierer puts finishing touches on chair
made from nail keg.”

But the dream that America, newly hooked on the progressive child-rearing ideas of Dr. Benjamin Spock, would turn its dwindling open spaces into the kind of free-form play areas that flourished in postwar Europe’s bombed and blighted lots, never really came true.

I haven’t seen evidence that “The Yard” lasted long after the closure of Cavell School in 1949 and the McCall’s article in 1950. Cavell Park, minus the school building, remains a little-known landmark, with plenty of rolling open space and an inviting, if typical for today, playground, with equipment designed by grownups for a more litigious and (dare we say) more conservative era.

But for a string of months at midcentury, a progressive vision of a creative, child-driven playground became real for a bunch of Northeast Minneapolis kids and the staff and readers of McCall’s magazine — and the president of the United States.

Cavell Park as it looks today.
MinnPost photo by Chris Steller
Cavell Park as it looks today.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by CJ Camp on 07/26/2014 - 01:21 pm.

    huh, who knew?

    Steller article.

  2. Submitted by Dale Carlton on 07/26/2014 - 02:59 pm.

    Atlantic Magazine article

    This story is very reminiscent of the article in the April, 2014 issue of the Atlantic magazine.
    It was entitled “The Overprotected Kid” by Hanna Rosin.
    Very interesting and worth looking up online.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/26/2014 - 03:44 pm.

    Fascinating glimpse of the kind of thing Minneapolis did for its “poor.” (NE Minneapolis was pretty much working class white in 1949, right? And the area up that far–35th Ave. NE–was fairly unbuilt at the time?) Thanks, Chris!

  4. Submitted by Joan Siegel on 07/26/2014 - 05:28 pm.

    Naming a Park by Default

    Love this story but can’t say the same about the media’s constant use of “The Yard” to describe the new downtown park planned near the Vikings stadium. R. T. Rybak, acting in no official capacity, started calling the park “The Yard” when he was mayor, and the name, like it or not, is going to stick if no other is proposed. No single person should have the right to name a Minneapolis park, by default or otherwise.

  5. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 07/28/2014 - 09:02 am.

    The sad demise of that narrow space called the Alley

    This is one fine piece of history worth its space here.

    Reminds me also that somewhere back in the 60’s architects, developers and city planners also decided to drop ‘Alley’ out of suburban design, thus eliminating that powerful and natural gravel space unplanned, non-structured play grounds where disorganized games did accomplish great playground space until the night curfew and back screen doors banged and parents called their children in etc.? Nostalgia reeks here but got to honor those young participating kids; ‘neighborhood recreation planners’ one could say, where open air and more than fingers-on-the-keys defined child, youth participation.

    The alley was more that a place for garbage cans…it was where creativity and viable sports did exist beyond the not always too wise planning of adults as this good writer does affirm. Thanks for one great story.

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