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How a battle over daylight saving time once made Minnesota the laughingstock of the nation

Minneapolis and St. Paul created separate start dates for daylight saving time in 1965. 

Minneapolis City Hall clock
Minneapolis parted company with its eastside twin when Mayor Art Naftalin vowed to keep his city in compliance with the legislature’s mandate.

Daylight saving time, that fall-back/spring-forward  annual ritual, is back in the spotlight now that the U.S. Senate has adopted the brightly named Sunshine Protection Act. The measure would eliminate those twice-yearly timepiece changes by making daylight saving time year-around and permanent. The bill now goes to an uncertain future in the House.

This new congressional interest in sunshine recalls a furious battle over DST that roiled Minnesota politics for months at time in the mid-1960s — a fight that made Minnesota the laughingstock of the nation thanks to its two major cities, Minneapolis and  St. Paul, who could not agree on a common start date for changing the clocks.

Long a bone of contention between urban and rural Minnesota, DST pitted neighboring communities against each other in 1965 when 20 states, including Wisconsin, opted to move their clocks ahead on April 25. But Minnesota was not one of the 20. At the time, state law mandated that DST could not start before May 23 — or extend beyond Labor Day. Along the state’s eastern border, cities from Duluth to Winona ignored the state mandate and chose to align their DST start time with Wisconsin’s.

In St. Paul,  Mayor George Vavoulis came up with his own plan. Vavoulis proposed that St. Paul begin DST on May 9 and maintain it through October 31. Despite an opinion from the St. Paul city attorney that individual council members could be subject to a $1,000 fine and a  year in jail for willfully violating state law, the Council agreed to adopt the Vavoulis plan.

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Across the river, Minneapolis parted company with its eastside twin when Mayor Art Naftalin vowed to keep his city in compliance with the legislature’s mandate. Taking the legal high road, Naftalin lashed out at St. Paul officials, saying their action represented “blatant disregard” for state law. “Obedience to state law is an elementary lesson in civics that we all should have learned in sixth grade,” he declared. 

Minnesota Governor Karl Rolvaag echoed Naftalin’s comments, calling St. Paul’s action, “rash, shortsighted, extreme and unwarranted.” But Vavoulis brushed off Rolvaag’s criticism, responding “there are state laws on the books that have been violated for many years and no action has been taken.”

The result: That May, Minnesota residents were entangled in a confusing array of inconsistent schedules. Some organizations remained on standard time while others, often in the same communities, opted to move to daylight saving time. 

An unidentified Minneapolis Tribune reporter observed “if a fellow in Duluth won’t give you the time of day, don’t feel slighted.  He probably doesn’t know. A person can lose an entire hour by walking 100 feet from the Duluth City Hall to the St. Louis County Courthouse but can get back to standard time by walking another 100 feet to the federal building.”

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, bus riders traveling between the two central cities found that the time change occurred at the city limits. 

This scheduling complication led the Minneapolis Star’s Don Morrison to suggest that the “fall back spring forward” maxim will need to be rewritten to state that “we Twin Cities people will need to spring forward when east of the Lake Street starting on May 9 but not when west of the bridge…. Even assuming that I can dragoon my clocks into some kind of conformity, things are going to be very weird for the next few weeks.”

In an editorial entitled “How to End DST Confusion,” the Minneapolis Star maintained  “there seems only one logical solution to this chaos in time — let the Minnesota Legislature immediately vote an extension of DST from the present narrow limits to the six-month pattern enjoyed by most states.” 

Despite the best efforts of the Star and the state’s business community, which lobbied for DST statewide uniformity, the state legislature refused to act. Then, in 1966, action on the DST front moved to the federal level when legislation championed by two Twin Cities area congressmen, Don Fraser and Joe Kath, set uniform nation-wide start and stop dates for daylight saving time. That measure cleared both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on April 14. The framework established by the 1966 act, which put an end to the DST squabbling in Minnesota, is still in place today.

Now, in 2022, that twice yearly clock changing ritual will be a thing of the past if the Senate’s Sunshine Protection Act gets a thumbs up from the House and a presidential signature.