Storyteller or liar? William Herrick–the Hermit of Minnehaha Park–was some of each. And Herrick told such convincing, engaging tales that it’s hard to believe that his stories are not true, even 100 years after his death.
His artful storytelling included details that both impressed his audience and added verisimilitude. When he told the story of his Civil War career, he left out the part about never seeing combat. He was stationed in Kansas, there to build bridges and protect the mail trains. Instead he said (truthfully) that he was stationed “near the Blue Cut country where the famous Younger and James brothers held forth.” Except that he’d been mustered out and sent home before the first James gang robbery. Surely that detail is unimportant in the higher calling of telling a good story.
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.
The Park Board was slow to remove some of the people who lived in Minnehaha Park. Once the land was officially in their control, some people were evicted, but for unclear reasons, not everyone was forced to leave.
In fact, the Park Board had a house in the park for the caretaker (the park policeman) to live in. It was located close to the west end of today’s bridge to the Soldiers’ Home. In the early years, having a policeman live in the park made some sense, as the board had a particular concern about rowdy behavior at the dance halls and saloons in the area, and they had a zoo that needed daily management. But two “hermits” are known to have lived in the park. The St. Paul Globe newspaper claimed, at his death, that one of these men was named Samuel McNott. That’s probably incorrect.
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.