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.)
The WPA workers in Minnehaha Park accomplished lots of small tasks. They repaired playground equipment, trimmed trees and painted and repaired “stationary settees,” traffic signs, and fences. One of their efforts was to erect a ten-foot fence across the faces of the sand caves in the glen as a safety measure.
The existence of caves in the park might come as a surprise to today’s urban explorers. Stories exist of actually room-like caves, but no photographs have been found. This picture of a “cave” is no more than a shallow indent in the sandstone cliff.
Minneapolis and her Park Board, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had a complicated relationship with the word “pavilion.” The word means “an ornamental building, usually of light construction and designed for temporary shelter, refreshment, etc., esp. in a park […] used as a place of entertainment or recreation.”
WPA work in Minneapolis parks included engaging fun like puppet shows for children. But their enduring efforts were the mundane and necessary improvements in infrastructure. Here, the driveway leading into Minnehaha Park from Minnehaha Avenue has been given curbs and a sidewalk:
Minnehaha Park cannot be said to have an entrance today. Years ago, when the streetcars and the trains dropped people off at the Minnehaha Depot, or nearby it, the crowds moved towards the Falls from the west. Or, they drove their carriages or automobiles down this driveway to pause in between the Refectory and the Falls and see the waterfall.
From the earliest years of Park Board ownership of Minnehaha Falls, they worked to grow the grass. For most people, a park implies green grass lawn under mature trees. Certainly this was the accepted ideal in the infancy of landscape architecture, around the time the Minneapolis Parks system was created. Picturesque contemplation of the natural (though created) terrain was more important than playing ball, flying kites, or flower-picking.
The Park Board gained control of the Falls in 1889, the same year it created ordinances outlawing all these activities in the parks. They had a point, because back then, the falls were surrounded by barren dirt, and neither the landowners nor the businesses who rented from them cared much about growing grass.
Minnehaha had for decades been the most famous spot in Minnesota, always attracting large crowds. All those feet made growing grass unpredictably difficult for the Park Board, even with great expenses for seed and with placing “Keep Off The Grass” signs. This was a struggle every year.
The WPA (Works Progress Administration, which became the Works Projects Administration in 1939) provided the dignity of a job to the unemployed of America’s Great Depression, while supplying rural communities needed public infrastructure and giving art and amenities to the cities.
The WPA improvements in Minnehaha Park were invaluable, and many of those–staircases and such–still serve 80 years later.