Stories of Resilience from Disasters Past

Minneapolis’s I-35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River on August 1, 2007 (photo via MPR News)

Thirteen years ago, I took my daughter to see the collapsed I-35W bridge.

My eleven-year-old daughter, Grace, wanted to see the fallen bridge. When I asked her why, she told me that the calamity just “didn’t seem real.” The pictures on television and in the newspaper were unfathomable, insufficient. I understood. We drove down to Minneapolis together. I knew exactly where I wanted to take her.

We parked on South Second Street and walked toward the river, skirting the Guthrie, and onto the timber footpath of West River Parkway. A half block down, we veered onto a scrubby patch of grass and came to a stop. In front of us the Stone Arch Bridge swept across the Mississippi. To our right, in the distance, the crumpled, greenish remains of the 35W bridge slouched into the river’s north bank. It was a soggy afternoon. We stood wordless, under umbrellas, looking. After a minute or so, I broke the silence. “Come over here,” I said. “I want to show you something.”

We walked across the parkway to the arched rear entrance of the Mill City Museum. I pointed to an old marble slab, embedded in the stone wall above our heads. It was engraved with words, some nearly obliterated by time and the elements. It told the story of another disaster—the explosion and fire that destroyed the great flourmill known as Washburn “A” on May 2, 1878. “Not one stone was left upon another,” it explained, “and every person engaged in the mill instantly lost his life.” It ended with a list of the fourteen “A” Mill employees who died that day:

            E.W. Burbank.

            Cyrus W. Ewing.

            E.H. Grundman.

            Henry Hicks.

            Charles Henning.

            Patrick Judd.

            Charles Kimball.

            William Leslie.

            Fred A. Merrill.

            Edward E. Merrill.

            Walter Savage.

            Ole Shie.

            August Smith.

            Clark Wilber.

This was why, among all the places I could have brought my daughter, I brought her to this place. I knew that the fading, marble memorial was here, and I found it comforting. Eighteen people, including the fourteen “A” Mill employees, had died in what was then the worst disaster in Minneapolis’ short history. Several other buildings had been destroyed. The city had lost about a third of its milling capacity. Today, nearly 130 years later, most of the victims’ names can still be remembered and honored within sight of the collapsed 35W bridge. The names are hard to read, but they manage to stave off the troubling tendency to forget.

They also serve as a reminder of the city’s resilience. Within hours of the “A” Mill’s destruction, its owner, Cadwallader C. Washburn, declared that he would rebuild “without delay” and that his new mill would be bigger and better than the old one. Two months later, all the rubble was removed and reconstruction was set to begin. The new “A” Mill opened the following year. “The great explosion, although a terrible catastrophe, in no way disheartened or discouraged the capitalists and business men of the city,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported, “and they have shown an abiding faith in the future greatness of the metropolis and manufacturing center of the Northwest.”

I’m not sure I properly conveyed to Grace the connections I saw between the calamities of 1878 and 2007. She was most taken with the rough coincidence of the numbers: fourteen people killed in the “A” Mill; thirteen killed in the bridge collapse. But at least now she has a better understanding of how the people of Minneapolis—like most people in most places—can rebound from disaster. Perhaps years from now she’ll be able to take a child or grandchild down to this same place by the river and read the names of the people who died when the bridge fell down—along with the fourteen names on that old slab of marble.

The Lesson of St. Paul’s “N-Word” Lake

Loeb Lake, Marydale Park, St. Paul

Of course we have to rename things sometimes. We always have.

At the southeast corner Dale Street and Maryland Avenue in St. Paul, a lovely little body of water called Loeb Lake is the centerpiece of a lovely little public space known as Marydale Park. You can take a leisurely stroll around the lake. You can fish in it. It and its surrounding park constitute a true urban oasis. But Loeb Lake hasn’t always been so lovely.

And it used to have a far uglier name.

During the late 1800s, the lake at Dale and Maryland was bigger than it is now. It extended as far as Farrington Street on the east and across Maryland to the north. It was one of three lakes—the others being McCarron and Sandy—that fed Trout Brook, which joined with Phalen Creek on its way to the Mississippi River. Young people gathered there for skating parties during the winter. The Northwest Ice Company and, later, People’s Coal & Ice Company ran big ice harvesting and storage operations there. But over time, the lake succumbed to misuse and neglect. Industrial development siphoned off much of its water and polluted what was left. By mid-century it was known mainly as a runoff pond. It has since been restored.

I’ve pinpointed the lake on many old maps of St. Paul, but I have yet to find it identified by name. When it appears—which is not always—it’s just a small, blue blob. But the little lake did have a name, even if cartographers didn’t like to make note of it. And although I know what it was, I can’t use it here. It was called “N-Word” Lake.

I haven’t been able to find any explanation for why the body of water at Dale and Maryland was known by that name. All I know is that St. Paulites continued to refer to it that way until at least the second decade of the 20th century—and probably much later. The fact that a geographic feature of Minnesota’s capital city was known for so long by such a repellent name might rate as a mere curiosity if we were all willing to acknowledge today that names periodically need to change. But as we reckon anew with other names and monuments that offend evolving sensibilities, it’s clear that some people need reminding. We rename things all the time for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes we just get tired of the old monikers. (Think of all the Mud Lakes that have been renamed over the years.) But sometimes we replace them because they’re ugly, embarrassing, and hurtful.

The lake in Marydale Park is not the only Minnesota body of water that, at one point in its history, was known by the “N-Word.” Burns Lake in Anoka County, for example, didn’t shed its old, offensive name until 1977. And other places with odious names—especially those referred to by derogatory terms used to describe indigenous people—have taken even longer to remove. Earlier generations of white Minnesotans saw nothing wrong with using such names. We know better. And people who, today, demand that we leave well enough alone are simply ignorant of the history they claim to be protecting.

While We’re On the Subject of Racist Images…

Painting by Edward Brewer, 1921

It’s probably time to consider the mysterious longevity of this Minnesota-born corporate symbol.

Quaker Oats’ recent decision to abandon its Aunt Jemima brand and acknowledge its origin as a racial stereotype got me thinking about another well-known corporate mascot—and the concept of complicity.

For more than a century, the breakfast cereal Cream of Wheat (manufactured for many years in Minneapolis) has featured a fictional African American chef named Rastus on its packaging and in its advertisements. Like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, Rastus has, since his birth in Minnesota, reflected and reinforced white stereotypes, rooted in slavery, of happy and docile black servitude. Confronted periodically by critics, Cream of Wheat’s corporate overseers have defended Rastus’s marketing endurance by touting his high recognition among generations of consumers. The product’s current owner, B&G Foods, has yet to encounter any intense pressure to retire Rastus, but that could easily change now that Aunt Jemima is leaving. But even if B&G ultimately accepts responsibility for perpetuating such a long-running racial stereotype, we shouldn’t forget that Cream of Wheat’s various owners are not the only ones who have made it possible for such a problematic brand to persist.

What about the ad agencies that, over the years, accepted and developed Cream of Wheat founder Emery Mapes’s vision of an African American chef mascot? Two firms—the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Company of New York and the Mac Martin Advertising Agency of Minneapolis—were most responsible for turning Rastus into a marketing phenomenon during the early 1900s. They eschewed what were called “reason-why” campaigns (those touting health benefits, for example) in favor the kind of pure emotion that they felt Rastus conveyed. And their unconventional marketing approach was widely admired within the advertising industry. A 1917 article in the trade publication Printers’ Ink—written in jarringly racist language— described the Rastus ads as, “delightfully tender and human reflections of real life.” Today we recognize them instead as gauzy representations of a servile black man doing the bidding of white children and adults.

What about the artists who used a photograph of a real person—an African American lunch counter attendant from Chicago—as the inspiration for dozens of Cream of Wheat paintings? Several famous American illustrators, including James Montgomery Flagg, created versions of Rastus, but none was as prolific as Minneapolis artist Edward Brewer, who painted his first one in 1911. Whatever misgivings Brewer and his fellow illustrators had about using a real-life black subject to sell breakfast cereal were apparently easily outweighed by the $500 commission each painting generated. The character they created still smiles out from boxes of Cream of Wheat today.

What about the journalists and historians who, in the past, wrote glowingly about the endurance of the Cream of Wheat brand without acknowledging the damaging stereotype it propagated? An admiring 1980 profile of Edward Brewer in the Minnesota Historical Society’s journal, Minnesota History, featured multiple reproductions of Brewer’s Rastus paintings without once mentioning their racial component. Such an omission would probably never make it past an editor today, but anyone who writes about history—myself included—knows how easily unexamined prejudices can make their way into copy. We need to acknowledge that our choices as writers and historians sometimes add to the problem.

And finally, what about those of us who actually like Cream of Wheat, who have happily purchased and eaten it without ever really thinking about the face on the box and what it represents. Perhaps we can forgive ourselves for not knowing the truth about Rastus’s origins, for not knowing that his creator, Emery Mapes, joked he could sell sawdust if his “n____s”—meaning dark-skinned mascots like Rastus—led the marketing campaign. But we could easily have figured it out if we had chosen to. The question is: If we had known, would it have mattered? Would it have convinced us to stop buying Cream of Wheat or demand Rastus’s removal? Consider me skeptical.

It’s easy to dismiss such questions as a distractions. (Does anybody even eat Cream of Wheat anymore?) But Rastus and Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are, for all their marketing stamina, cultural relics. Whatever fondness we might have for them, whatever value they might have as brands, they’re not worth the trouble anymore. It’s time for Minnesota-born Rastus to take off his chef’s hat and retire.

Police and the Weapons of War: A Love Story

The original AR-15

Police militarization goes back at least to the 1960s.

The militarization of police departments may have accelerated over the past two decades thanks to the federal government’s “1033 Program”—through which law enforcements agencies can obtain “demilitarized” fighting vehicles, aircraft, and other accoutrements of war from the U.S. Defense Department—but the process has been going on much longer than that. In early 1968, the police departments in Minneapolis and St. Paul both decided to arm themselves with AR-15 semi-automatic rifles. The AR-15 was, at the time, considered the twin of the M16, a military weapon used heavily by U.S. troops in Vietnam. The police said they needed such weapons to maintain law and order during certain circumstances, including “civil disturbances.” These were times of unprecedented civil unrest in America (the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination and its immediate aftermath occurred as this issue was coming to the fore) and for many African Americans in the Twin Cities, the decision to arm police with weapons typically used during war smacked of deliberate intimidation. Minneapolis NAACP President Sam Richardson said the acquisition of AR-15s showed that the city was interested only in putting down unrest—not in eliminating its causes.

Maybe the most interesting thing about all this is how the two cities resolved the controversy.

In Minneapolis, Mayor Art Naftalin, a liberal DFLer, quickly sided with the Black community and ordered the police department to return the rifles. The head of the police union, future mayor Charles Stenvig, huffed that officers might have to buy their own.

In St. Paul, Mayor Thomas Byrne, a DFLer up for reelection, chose to back the police. Even a sit-in by protesters that shut down his office could not make him budge. Byrne pushed the controversy to the city’s civil rights commission, which held a few hearings before letting the issue die.

The controversy over the AR-15 purchases seems almost quaint today, given that AR-15-style rifles have since become nearly ubiquitous among gun-loving civilians. But it’s a reminder that our police have a long history of trying to arm themselves with the most powerful weapons they can find.

50 Years Ago: David Crosby at the Minneapolis Radisson

David Crosby, Minneapolis, 1970 (by Henry Diltz)

From the Minnesota trivia files

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young supposedly split up for good after playing a final concert at the Met Sports Center in Bloomington on July 9, 1970. (The divorce actually lasted only four years.) While the concert at the Met will always be remembered as CSN&Y’s temporary swan song, it was also a subject of controversy.  Some of the band’s Twin Cities fans were outraged at the concert’s $10 top ticket price (Egad!) and they expressed their displeasure by organizing a boycott. The promoters responded by dropping the price for the best seats to $7.50. Photographer Henry Diltz snapped this classic portrait of David Crosby during after-show partying at the Minneapolis Radisson.

Photo via Morrison Hotel Gallery

The Power of Pressure Campaigns

Pillsbury thought these Funny Face flavors were a good idea—until activists spoke up.

As pro teams in DC and Cleveland consider dumping names offensive to indigenous people, here’s a reminder to keep up the pressure.

Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune, during a previous, unsuccessful attempt to force the “Redskins” into retirement

Sometimes it seems the long struggle to force the NFL’s Washington Redskins franchise to change its name is destined to fail. Many Minnesotans remember the scene in 1992, when the American Indian Movement and its supporters organized symposiums and protests to coincide with the Washington team’s Super Bowl appearance at the Metrodome. Nothing much changed then. The Redskins remained the Redskins. Today, the team and its fans continue to embrace a name and logo that many others consider blatantly offensive. It would be easy to conclude that protest against corporate misappropriation of American Indian culture is futile.

But it’s not. It’s worked before. And a few of the most memorable success stories played out here in Minnesota.

In 1964, Minneapolis-based Pillsbury introduced a new line of powdered soft drink mixes to compete with Kool-Aid. Pillsbury called its new, sugar-free product Funny Face. (Its artificial sweetener, sodium cyclamate, was later linked to cancer and banned by the FDA, but that’s a different story.) Each Funny Face flavor was named for a silly character: Goofy Grape, Loud-Mouth Lime, Freckle-Face Strawberry, Rootin’-Tootin’ Raspberry, and two others that soon created major public relations headaches at Pillsbury—Chinese Cherry and Injun Orange.

The Chinese Cherry character was a slant-eyed red cherry with buckteeth and a pigtail. Injun Orange, with his crossed eyes, skewed war paint, and limp feathers, smiled insipidly in a nearly perfect distillation of negative Native American stereotypes. Both characters, along with their less offensive product line-mates, were big hits with kids and parents alike.

But this was the height of the modern Civil Rights era. Minority groups were finding their voice, and they were not inclined to let corporate America get away with insensitive and insulting marketing campaigns. In early 1966, the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA) called on Pillsbury to dump both Injun Orange and Chinese Cherry. The group claimed that the two characters’ “derogatory nature” was “highly objectionable.”

It was only after the AAIA went public with its anti-Funny Face campaign that Pillsbury announced it was already phasing out the two characters. It turned out that several other groups, including Chinese-American grocers in Sacramento, had filed similar complaints. “We admit guilt all over the lot,” a Pillsbury spokesman said. “It was in poor taste. We quickly saw our fault and as early as last July we decided to change the names.” Chinese Cherry became Choo Choo Cherry. Injun Orange turned into Jolly Olly Orange.

If the campaign to dispatch Injun Orange had constituted the only successful protest against corporate-perpetuated Native American stereotypes, then perhaps it would make sense to write off as unwinnable the current campaign against the Washington Redskins name. But Pillsbury was just one in a string of companies that were convinced to change their stereotyping ways in the 1960s and beyond. In 1965, Calvert Distillers, under pressure from the AAIA and other American Indian groups, dropped a “soft whisky” ad that read in part: “The Indians didn’t call whisky firewater for nothing. Why do you think they were yelping all the time?” A year later, the AAIA scored a similar victory against the Marx Toys Company, manufacturer of a vulgar children’s doll called “Nutty Mad Indian.” And in 1967, Roger Jourdain, chairman of Minnesota’s Red Lake Band of Chippewa, helped convince General Electric to pull an ad featuring rambunctious white youngsters dressed in Indian costume. The copy for the ad read, “When you decide to shoot wild Indians, you can’t afford to miss.”

Of course Pillsbury, Calvert, Marx, and General Electric were not football franchises. They did not have rabid fans, steeped in the “traditions” that a team name and logo can come to represent. But those companies—and many others over the years—have succumbed to pressure after realizing they failed to consider the damage their marketing might do. It’s not hard to imagine that the NFL team from Washington will eventually do the same.

Indigenous Rejection of Mount Rushmore Goes Way Back

AIM’s Dennis Banks at Mount Rushmore, 1970

Backlash against Trump’s Black Hills stunt brings back memories of an early American Indian Movement protest.

Excerpted from Minnesota in the ’70s, which I co-authored with Thomas Saylor

In the late summer of 1970, a contingent of AIM activists including Dennis Banks and new member of the leadership group, Russell Means, headed to South Dakota to join a protest at Mount Rushmore. The protest, originally started by a determined group of Lakota women, had begun small with a simple goal: to demand that the U.S. government honor its commitments under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty…and acknowledge that the Black Hills belonged to the Lakota people. But the Mount Rushmore demonstration began attracting sympathizers from far beyond South Dakota, including the young activists from AIM. At first, the newcomers were content to support the local protesters by holding signs and making speeches. But soon they began itching to do more.

On the evening of August 24, Russell Means and a few other protesters broke away from the main group and headed up the mountain, determined to make a statement that no one could ignore. Chased by forest rangers, they made it to the summit and set up camp behind Teddy Roosevelt’s head. They painted a homemade banner declaring “Sioux Indian Power” and unfurled it over George Washington’s face. Means, standing on a ledge high above the monument’s amphitheater, delivered voice-of-God lectures on U.S. government perfidy to confused tourists below.

The government…opted to wait out the militants rather than risk a violent confrontation. The protesters, for their part, were in no rush to leave. They remained on the monument for several months until cold weather forced them to abandon camp. The occupation of Mount Rushmore failed to gain any concessions from the government, but it did generate a good bit of national publicity. It also built a foundation of camaraderie that would nurture the movement in the months to come. “Some folks fell in love up there, and a few babies were made on that mountain,” Means later wrote. “Occupying Mount Rushmore was fun.”