Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is looking better these days.
Granted, that’s a comparative assessment. For years, the weathered statue of the poet, cloaked in a classical toga, looked desolate as he sat on his tipsy plinth in a weedy field near what is known as the “lagoon area” of Minnehaha Park.
But now the field has been transformed into a billowing prairie restoration, complete with an interpretive trail. Old Longfellow, despite his missing hand and his eroded sandstone face, is part of an intriguing landscape — a discovery instead of a sad abandonment.
Minneapolis parks, in fact, are treasure troves of historical artifacts and curiosities. This is an introduction to some of them.
There was a time when virtually any organization willing to foot the bill could place a commemorative object in one of the city’s parks. So, for example, a stroller at Washburn Fair Oaks Park, directly across the street from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, can observe a plaque honoring May F. Jones Wisner and Marcia Enbody, both presidents of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Railway Mail Auxiliary — or W.A.R.M.A., for short. It was placed there in 1939.
Or in Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis you can find a plaque decorated with the image of a gavel that honors Mary Burr Lewis, who founded the Lewis Parliamentary Law Association, a debate society.
And it’s not just people. One Loring Park plaque commemorates the Battle of Fort Griswold, fought in Connecticut in 1781 and remembered mostly for the fact that the British forces — who prevailed in what was one of the latter battles of the American Revolution — were led by that turncoat, Benedict Arnold. The plaque was placed on a boulder by the Minneapolis chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
According to the inscription, a nearby tree was planted “in historic earth from the thirteen original colonies.” The tree may be gone — nobody’s quite sure, since it was probably planted when the plaque was installed back in 1856, two years before Minnesota became a state. But the DAR-authenticated dirt is probably still there, though tainted with Midwestern soil.
New rules and forgotten objects
These days, anybody who wants to put a commemorative item or work of art in one of the city’s parks has to meet a number of standards, including an ordinance that prescribes such things as maintenance requirements and safety elements.
“It’s a fairly strict process,” said Dawn Sommers, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. “But we’re proud of the fact that there’s a lot of art and history in our parks.”
Monumental additions are still being made. Several years ago, for example, the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society, a nonprofit group, raised funds to pay for a tableau of statues honoring Theodore Wirth, an early park superintendent. The tableau — in Wirth Park, appropriately — depicts a beatific Wirth with a group of children dressed like kids from the “Our Gang” era.
And, of course, there’s the big rabbit. “Cottontail on the Trail,” by sculptor Jeff Barber, was erected in 2002 along Minnehaha Parkway at Portland Avenue with funds raised by a neighborhood group. It’s hard not to smile when passing by that lounging bunny.
An inventory in the works
Not long ago I took a tour of some park monuments with Mary Lynn Pulscher, a park planner and unofficial park historian. She’s been trying to compile an inventory of park objects, though it’s admittedly incomplete.
“Things get moved or stolen, or forgotten,” Pulscher explained, adding that she dreams of an inventory that uses GPS technology to keep track of things.
Some things simply weather away. On Wirth Parkway, for example, Pulscher pulled her park truck over and pointed out the remains of the “Cascade,” a fake waterfall that Wirth constructed during the first decades of the 20th century. A plaque on a real boulder marks the spot on a dry hill, though it is surrounded by a crumbling escarpment of fake stones, the concrete falling away to reveal wire mesh and metal frames.
A Scandinavian presence
Some themes emerged during our tour of park statuary. For one, Scandinavians seem to have had a major role in the monument department.
The biggest monument in Loring Park, for example, is the huge bronze statue of Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, which was erected in his honor in 1897. An international superstar in the 19th century, spent a lot of time in the United States and even tried to establish a colony — New Norway — in Pennsylvania. His appearances in the Twin Cities started as far back as 1856, before statehood, which prompted proud Norwegians to commission sculptor Jacob Fjelde to create the statue.
On the day Pulscher and I stopped to look at it — it’s near the park’s new dog playground — she discovered that shrubs planted to ring the statue made it a convenient place for homeless people to stash their belongings. A suitcase was hidden at the base of the plinth.
At Minnehaha Park, the biggest statue depicts Gunnar Wennerberg, a Swedish poet and statesman, who was honored in 1915 when a bronze statue by Carl Eldh was dedicated in ceremonies that were attended by Swedish royalty and a crowd of 10,000 people. In a thoughtful gesture to the uncivilized, the Swedish inscription at the rear base of the statue was also translated into English.
Minnesota’s Finns waited until 1958 — Minnesota’s centennial year — before erecting a four-ton granite monument in Wirth Park to their pioneer ancestors, honoring “their ideals, industry and ‘sisu.’ ” That latter word, roughly translated, means “guts” — as in strength of will or determination.
Pulscher said she was unaware of anything honoring Danes in Minneapolis parks, but I found a photograph in the history of the Minneapolis park system written by Wirth in 1945 that showed Danish Crown Prince Frederik planting a tree on West River Road in 1939 to commemorate something unspecified. If the tree is still there, it’s the only Danish imprint known. If you know anything about a Danish monument — or an Icelandic one, for that matter — send a comment.
The Great War
Another theme is the Great War, known today as World War I. The two decades that passed between the two world wars coincided with a lot of park development, so it’s not surprising that the majority of military-related objects in the parks commemorate WWI instead of WWII.
The most ambitious is Victory Memorial Parkway, a 3.8-mile section of the park system’s Grand Rounds bordering the Camden neighborhood of North Minneapolis. In 1921, 568 bronze crosses, each inscribed with a name and rank, were installed along the parkway to commemorate Hennepin County residents who died in the Great War. The upright crosses were pulled out and placed flat in concrete in the 1960s to make mowing easier and discourage vandalism — a shame, since most people drive by without noticing them.
In 1930, a statue of Abraham Lincoln was installed at the intersection of the parkway and 44th Street by the surviving members of Minnesota’s Grand Army of the Republic. By then they were running out of living memory of the Civil War.
Now World War I is almost gone in living memory; there’s only one veteran still alive, according to news reports. For me, driving down Victory Memorial Parkway brings back memories of my Uncle Dick, a member of the “expeditionary force” who was shot during the interminable Battle of the Meuse-Argonne and recovered enough from his wounds to be sent back into battle, only to be shot again. He survived the war, but never got over it — and we were sternly warned never to ask him about it. I obeyed that rule, even though I was 30 when he died.
At the northeast corner of Lake Calhoun near Lake Street, you can find three memorials in the vicinity of the mast from the USS Minneapolis (1894-1921) that was installed by American Legion Post 472 in 1930. The mast honors Sailors and Marines, and the site once included a ship’s wheel that was later stolen.
Nearby is a plaque on the boulder that honors “The Boys of Our Navy” that was donated by the Women’s Naval Service in 1922. And within a short walk is a bronze tablet inscribed with three columns of names of Marines killed during the Great War, installed in 1936.
More unusual things:
The variety of monumental subjects is almost astonishing:
• Inside the Ard Godfrey House near St. Anthony Falls is a plaque honoring Harriet Razada Godfrey, the “first white girl of American lineage born in St. Anthony.” Born on May 30, 1849, Ms. Godfrey, a spinster, died in 1951 at the age of 102.
• On Lake Calhoun Parkway near St. Mary’s Orthodox Church a bronze plaque on a boulder commemorates the cabin built for Samuel and Gideon Pond, missionaries who came to convert the Indians in 1834. It was donated by the Native Sons of Minnesota in 1908. Not far away near 36th Street another plaque on a boulder was donated in 1930 by the DAR “to perpetuate the memory of the Sioux or Dakota” who owned the area prior to losing it in the Treaty of 1851.
• On Lake of the Isles Parkway, a fountain donated in 1891 by Frank H. Peavey was originally intended as a place to water horses. After World War I, however, the fountain was rededicated in memory of the horses in the 151st Field Artillery of the Minnesota National Guard that were killed in battle. Equestrian carvings decorate the fountain.
• At Minnehaha Park, a bronze statue depicts the likeness of Col. John H. Stevens, reputedly the first permanent white settler in Minneapolis. His daughter presented the statue to the parks department in 1912 and it was later moved to a site south of Minnehaha Falls near 51st Street, where it stands in front of Stevens’ original white clapboard house.
• In Northeast Minneapolis, a massive, 500-ton granite statue depicting three generations of pioneers currently sits on a tiny corner of parkland at Marshall Avenue and Main Street, where it has occasionally been hit by cars (the cars always lose in the encounter). It’s one of the few monuments commissioned directly by the Minneapolis Park Board. Dedicated in 1936 during an era of heroic statuary, it was moved there from an original downtown park site near the Post Office that was lost to redevelopment in the 1960s. It’s scheduled to be moved soon across the street to a new “quiet recreation” park being developed from land that was cleared a number of years ago for a highway project that never happened.
• One of the park system’s single biggest statuary installations is a monument to Thomas Lowry, the philanthropist who established the Walker Art Center and, by default, a trendy neighborhood. Erected in 1915, the bronze statue of Lowry and the massive stone monument behind it was moved from its original site during freeway construction in 1968 and now sits, generally overlooked, in the small park across from Temple Israel.
• Geography is honored on a boulder on Theodore Wirth Parkway and N. 19th Avenue. It notes that the boulder marks the 45th parallel (“45 00’00 North, 93 19’10 West”) between the equator and the North Pole. Park records indicate it was installed in 1917 — the original bronze tablet was later stolen — but by whom or for what reason is unknown.
Finally, there are stories to be told about poor old Longfellow in Minnehaha Park. He predates the better-known — and, much finer — bronze statue of Minnehaha being carried by Hiawatha that was placed on an island in Minnehaha Creek just above Minnehaha Falls in 1912.
That statue by Jacob Fjelde was paid for by a penny drive collected from Minnesota schoolchildren after a Mankato woman was inspired by accounts of a plaster model of the statue being exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair.
Once a zoo and circus
By contrast, Longfellow — in its current location — is all that is left of Longfellow Gardens, a combination zoo and circus once operated by Robert “Fish” Jones at the intersection of present-day Minnehaha Parkway and Hiawatha Boulevard.
Jones erected the statue in 1908 as part of a garden area, ringing it with small stone busts of Native Americans that have since disappeared. The statue by sculptor A.A. Gewoni is acknowledged as fairly terrible art — a hold-over from America’s late 19th century romantic binge. And it’s likely that the soft sandstone statue was mass produced.
In the 1920s, however, Fish was forced to give up his menagerie. Eventually, all that remained was the statue in a bare meadow that was used mainly as a canine outhouse.
Today it is a landmark — a minor one, but a landmark nonetheless. The Minneapolis Park System celebrated its 125th anniversary this year, which makes it an old element of a young city. In that capacity it continues to collect the autographs of our history.
David Hawley, the author of a half-dozen plays and two nonfiction books, writes about the arts and other subjects.
Readers: Do you have a favorite statue or know of an interesting/unusual object in the Minneapolis Park System? If so, please let us know in the Comment area below.