The “Hermits” of Minnehaha Park. Part 2.

During the later part of the 19th century, photography was in the midst of a major transition as an art form.  Since its invention, photographers had concentrated on likenesses and “fidelity to nature.”  But as the 19th century wound down, they began producing images in the style of paintings, moody and atmospheric works of art.

A group of women on the sore, staring out to the sea that is just out of frame on the left.
“Watching for the Return” by Alfred Steiglitz.

Evocative photographs like this one helped define photography as an art form. This image was exhibited by the Minneapolis Camera Club and the Fine Arts Society at their first joint photographic salon in February 1903. Steiglitz was a nationally prominent artistic photographer in the Photo Secession movement.

In 1892, the Minneapolis Camera Club was formed. The club produced photography exhibits, at first simply showing their members’ works at their club rooms. Around the turn of the century, the Camera Club affiliated with the Society of Fine Arts, today’s Minneapolis Institute of Arts.  The science of photography was clearly becoming a new art form.

These organizations collaborated on photography salons. They extended nation-wide invitations to artists working to redefine the photograph as art.  There was always room for the Camera Club members to exhibit in these salons.  And the club had more frequent local photograph showings, too.

One devoted club member was a man named Arus S. Williams. He served as club treasurer for a few years, and often had series of photographs in the various exhibits.  Williams had arrived in Minneapolis in the 1870s. He knocked around at a series of clerk jobs for book and stationery stores for years. He became a commercial photographer in 1898.  By 1900, he was employed at The Minneapolis Journal newspaper as a photographer. His were not the more painterly photographs then coming into vogue.  Perhaps his job in journalism was an influence here.

Also during this transitional time at the turn of the last century, and as the Park Board took control of Minnehaha Falls, the photographic record of the Falls begins to peter out. In part, that’s because amateur photography had become possible. Photography had become easier, portable, and less expensive. The job of professional souvenir-taking photographer at Minnehaha Falls did not last long into 1890s.

Given how thin the record becomes, it is always a pleasure to identify some new detail about an image in the archives, especially a rare one. While researching the “hermits” in Minnehaha Park, this image came to light:

a color postcard showing a small shack, labeled "The Hermit Below Minnehaha"
First published in this blog on 14 August 2016, with this caption: “This postcard may show the home of the ‘hermit’ who probably was named James McKnight. It was mailed in 1909, during the postcard craze of the early 20th century. It is not known when this picture was taken.” – archive

It turns out that a very, very similar picture was shown by Arus S. Williams in a Camera Club exhibit in May 1902.  The newspaper that employed him had a large and splashy article about his “Home Sweet Home” series in the exhibit.

a grainy half tone picture of a small shack along the river.
Screen captures of grainy half-tones scanned from 100-year-old newspapers are basically lousy images. This picture is not improved by being displayed any larger.
Here’s more reason to think that this is the home of James McKnight, “hermit.”. –taken by Arus S. Williams

Williams’ “Home Sweet Home” series also included a picture of a sod house.

A small lump of a house, covered with vines. Obviously so small that it is a single room.
Another grainy picture. This small sod house has a single window and a small chimney. The owner is standing in the doorway. –taken by Arus S. Williams

It is unknown why Arus Williams called this “A Sod House of the Western Prairie.”  Many of the viewers at the Camera Club exhibit or readers of The Journal would have known that this picture was not taken on the western prairies, but right in Minnehaha Park.  The Hermit William Herrick is standing in his doorway.

Samuel Atherton Hatch

Samuel Atherton Hatch was (after Longfellow) the most important story-teller in the history of Minnehaha Falls, and pretty much no one has heard of him. He died in 1904, just a few months after the publication of his obscure little tract.

Even in the years before antibiotics and vaccinations, when most people had been to funerals for small children, being “cut down in the prime of life” was a cause for shocked remorse and sadness. Death was more prevalent, but it did not matter less.

Possibly Samuel A. Hatch, who died at age 25, was just as great a guy as his obituaries suggested.

a young man with a full jawline and sort of goofy hair.
Pictured here in 1903, Samuel A. Hatch was a senior at the University of Minnesota. –from on-line yearbooks.

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WPA in 1935: from the soup line to “alphabet soup”

The Great Depression. Something like 25% of the work force had no jobs. Soup kitchens provided a hot meal, maybe the only one these people would get. Work relief programs were started by the presidents of the day, Hoover and then Roosevelt. These job-creation agencies worked on America’s infrastructure. And someone named Walter B. Dahlberg, possibly an employee of the parks, compiled some terrific reports on the works accomplished in the Minneapolis park system. These are available on-line for 1936-1942. (Perhaps any earlier reports were lost, or haven’t been put on-line yet.)

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Multiple images

In taking the first images of Minnehaha Falls, Alexander Hesler and Joel E. Whitney made 25 or 30 daguerrotypes in a single session on August 15, 1852.  It was an unusual beginning to the photographic record. Mostly, professional photographers took one-off tourist pictures or scenic shots of the Falls. And some of these were, in fact, reprinted endlessly. But it actually was quite rare, in those early years, for a photographer to go down to Minnehaha and take several pictures in a sequence.

Here’s an exception to that.

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The WPA, 1936. Part 7 & The Tourist Camp, Part 3: Cabins

One of the handiest and most visible results of the W.P.A. works in the park was the construction of more cabins for the tourists to camp in.

Campers paid a modest amount to rent the cabin, and could possibly include bedding if they needed it.

Continue reading “The WPA, 1936. Part 7 & The Tourist Camp, Part 3: Cabins”

Oddities Part 1

Some pictures of Minnehaha Falls and the area around it add more mystery than they solve.

This picture shows the 1880s fence on the north side of the falls. It shows that the ground was trampled bare on the south side, which was a problem the Park Board worked to solve as soon as they took ownership.

There are nearly no other pictures of Minnehaha taken from this spot. This is a unique image.

Two young women had their picture taken with their horse and buggy at Minnehaha Falls. Samuel P. Cox had the photography concession at the Falls before during and after the change of ownership in 1889. He was there from at least 1887 to 1891.
Two young women had their picture taken with their horse and buggy at Minnehaha Falls. Samuel P. Cox had the photography concession at the Falls before, during, and after the change of ownership in 1889. He was there from at least 1887 to 1891. From the urban archives.

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Historical Markers, Pt. 1: The George Washington Bicentennial Tree

In 1752, it was decided that George Washington was born on January 22, 1732. Before that, he was born on January 11, 1731. It is not known how he felt about the change.

Two hundred years later, much was made of the bicentenary anniversary of Washington’s birth. A national commission was formed in late 1924, chaired by President Coolidge. The group needed seven years to plan sufficient honors for the occasion. And, indeed, states formed their own commissions, histories were written or rewritten, music was composed, and a seemingly vast amount of celebration occurred. And one of these celebrations was orchestrated by the (now defunct) American Tree Association.

The Washington Bicentennial Tree is located near the north end of the pergola on the south bank of the creek.
The Washington Bicentennial Tree is located near the north end of the pergola on the south bank of the creek. Picture from the archive.

Their idea was to plant trees, of course. The American Tree Association put out a booklet describing the idea, and yes: It’s about as sappy as possible.

Continue reading “Historical Markers, Pt. 1: The George Washington Bicentennial Tree”

Joel Whitney and the First Bridge

Throughout the 19th century, and largely different from today, people approached the Falls from the south side.  Upstream on the road–now Minnehaha Avenue–there was indeed a bridge over the creek, but the roadhouses and hotels and such were south of the creek, and the railroad depot (when the railroads came in) was put where the people were, on the south side.  It was closer to the Fort, after all, and the Fort was the only legal settlement in the earliest years.  Minnehaha Falls were within the military reservation at the beginning of European settlement in Minnesota.

Someone, some time in those early years, built a bridge to allow people to cross the creek below the Falls.

An early pic of Minnehaha, showing the first bridge
Early spring, the snow is melting, the creek is thawed and the falls are falling. An undated picture by Joel E. Whitney, possibly from the 1850s. From the archive.

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Famous visitors, part 1. The Governor-General of Canada.

The American papers Back East began twittering about it.  The Governor-General of Canada, a landed aristocrat no less, was coming west from Ottawa to visit Her Majesty’s dominion.  It would be the first time any Governor-General ever visited Manitoba.  And in 1877, the easiest way to get to Manitoba was via America’s trains and steamboats.

The famous one was Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava.  An English and Irish peer, he was a rising star in Queen Victoria’s diplomatic service.  Notably, he achieved the ultimate honor and became the Viceroy of India.  In 1877, he had been the Governor-General of Canada for five years.

studio portrait of Lord Dufferin, sitting in a chair
An undated photograph of Lord Dufferin, taken in London.  From the urbancreek archive.

Continue reading “Famous visitors, part 1. The Governor-General of Canada.”

The Tourist Camp, part 2.

From a slow and steady start, Minnehaha’s tourist camp blossomed into a popular destination.  After only a few years, more than 4,000 cars a season came through the camp.  In the 1850s through 1880s, Minnesota had been proud of her ability to draw in southern tourists escaping the sultry heat of summer.  In the automobile age, tourists came from much closer.  Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin provided 43% of all Auto Tourist Camp tourists in 1925.  Add in Minnesota herself and the Dakotas to find that 63% of the Tourist Camp users were regional folks.

a log cabin in the Auto Tourist Camp
The postcard craze of the early 20th century preserved some images that might otherwise be lost.  This image of a log cabin in Minnehaha Park’s Auto Tourist Camp may have given people the idea that this cabin was available for rental in the camp.

Continue reading “The Tourist Camp, part 2.”