Ignoring a Big Birthday

Fort Snelling, about 1855, artist unknown. Via the Minnesota Historical Society

Shhh. Fort Snelling turns 200 years old this week!

This week marks the 200th anniversary of the laying of the first cornerstone at Minnesota’s oldest and most famous military installation, Fort Snelling, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. The fact that barely anyone today is commemorating the bicentennial proves that celebratory history often loses its appeal as our understanding of the past—and all its complexities and difficulties—evolves over time.

A couple weeks ago, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune published an essay by Stephen E. Osman, Fort Snelling’s preeminent historian. In it, Osman bemoaned the bicentennial’s relative anonymity. He recalled skipping class in 1970 to help celebrate the fort’s 150th anniversary, made note of an earlier centennial celebration in 1920, and called out the politicians, historians, and others who willfully chose to “silently ignore this anniversary.” He recounted the fort’s crucial role in opening the land that became Minnesota to “a flood of immigrants.” And he wished that a more widespread recognition of “yesterday’s hard-won achievements” at Fort Snelling would “inspire us today to draw together and to dream of the next 200 years in this shared garden called Minnesota.”

I have drawn on Osman’s scholarship in my own work. He is among those rare and essential historians who devote much of their lives to pursuing their singular passions, and sharing what they learn with the rest of us. No one is worthier of advocating for Fort Snelling’s historical significance. But in his essay, Osman only alludes to the uncomfortable truths behind the ignoring of the fort’s bicentennial. He mentions the fort’s role in enforcing treaties between indigenous people and the U.S. government, but does not acknowledge the injustices subsequently perpetrated on the Dakota and Ojibwe through government coercion, lying, neglect, and violence. He does not refer to the hundreds of Dakota refugees who were forced to live and die in a concentration camp below the fort during the winter after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Fifty years ago, when Osman participated in Fort Snelling’s sesquicentennial celebration, those troubling facts were rarely acknowledged. Now they are. And that’s why we’re not celebrating this time around: It’s hard to throw a birthday party for a place that we have come to know as a site of a painful—not just a proud—past.

Osman knows all this. But I’m sure it must hurt to see people ignore a major anniversary of the place he’s spent so much time researching and writing about. The fact is, we seem to have moved past celebrating many of the people, places, and moments that we once were eager to remember. Twelve years ago, I figured I would be busy working on all sorts of projects to commemorate Minnesota’s 150th year of statehood. Instead, the anniversary passed with hardly a mention. There were many reasons for the lack of remembering, including state budget considerations, but our evolving understanding of history’s complexities figured prominently. Minnesota, like Fort Snelling, isn’t as easy to celebrate as it used to be.

Posing with Stooges

Minneapolis, 1949: (back) Larry Fine, Moe Howard, and Shemp Howard; (front) Bob Crosby and Penny Edwards (MINNEAPOLIS STAR/MNHS COLLECTIONS)

Every weird photo has a story behind it.

Originally published in the Summer 2015 edition of Minnesota History

I was never much of a fan of the Three Stooges and their eye-gouging brand of slapstick comedy. Growing up in the Twin Cities during the 1960s and 1970s, I much preferred the more controlled humor of the old Laurel and Hardy features I watched every Sunday morning on WCCO television. The Stooges were too unpredictable, too dangerous. I never understood them.

And now, as I consider this photograph, I realize I still don’t understand them.

The Three Stooges were past their prime by the time this publicity still was taken in late August 1949. The most popular Stooge, Curly Howard (the bald one), had suffered a debilitating stroke three years before and had been replaced by his brother, Shemp. Moe Howard, Shemp Howard, and Larry Fine were still making enjoyable two- reel shorts during the late 1940s, but they were no longer headliners. They had come to Minneapolis as part of an eclectic lineup of second-tier live performers playing the palatial Radio City Theatre.

Top billing on this weekend went to the seemingly oblivious gentleman in the photo’s foreground, the bandleader and radio personality Bob Crosby. Crosby, the youngest sibling of crooner Bing Crosby, served as the master of ceremonies of what the Radio City’s proprietors touted as a “Giant State Fair Week Stage- Screen Show!” During the stage portion of the two- hour extravaganza, Crosby and and fellow bandleader Ted Weems handled the music. Penny Edwards, the young starlet shown here nuzzling up to Crosby, danced. The Stooges provided comic relief. The screen offering—almost an afterthought—was Africa Screams, Abbott and Costello’s latest romp.

I wish I could tell you what kind of comic message Larry, Moe, and Shemp are trying to convey here. The scene probably came to be only after the photographer, sent to the Radio City by his bosses at the Minneapolis Star, asked the performers to strike a memorable pose. I like to think the Stooges are feigning homicidal intent because they’ve finally grown weary of playing second fiddle to “Der Bingle’s” little brother.

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.