Since we don’t know exactly where William Herrick’s sod house was, we don’t know whose permission he secured to build it.
The City Directory placed him at 51st St. and Hiawatha Avenue. Roughly, that land was occupied by the several hotels and gardens that had populated the Falls 30 or more years earlier. All of that land was owned by the Park Board by 1889. Perhaps the Park Board permitted him to build his small house in the park. That seems unlikely, when considered against today’s modern sense of bureaucracy and public space. But back in the late 1890s, parks were a fairly new idea, and didn’t have the same well-established expectations for use that we take for granted today. The Park Board absolutely did assert control over the Falls area just as soon as they legally could, they tore down houses and threw business people out of the park. But they also allowed “hermit” James McKnight to live on the riverbank in his little shack for more than 10 years, until, in fact, the end of his life. It’s also possible, of course, that Herrick’s sod house was on some private land just outside the park boundaries.
Also just outside the park boundaries, in the 1890s, were any number of businesses catering to the Falls visitor, the soldiers from the Fort, the rowdies from town, and everybody looking for a good time. Adelbert Gardner, Herrick’s old friend from Detroit Lakes, had opened his Coney Island “resort” near 50th and Minnehaha, just a block from Herrick. And the Gardners (Adelbert Gardner’s adult son Irwin was also running their business) were great friends of Herrick.
So, Herrick had a community around him, just outside his hermitage. He visited back and forth with McKnight, he certainly had colleagues among the other old soldiers at the Home across the creek, and he was fond of the family who ran the largest dance hall in the neighborhood.
That Coney Island dance hall, like other places in the immediate area, hired bands to provide the music. And just maybe this is how Herrick met Samuel Atherton Hatch, his biographer and friend. Hatch was a coronet player: perhaps he picked up extra money for school by playing at the Falls in one band or another.
In 1903, Hatch was graduating and lining up his first job, but he–along with C. C. Patten, another of the raconteurs who populated the Falls–also had time to create The Hermit Of Minnehaha Falls. The publication gave Herrick a place to retain his stories, and the public access to them. But the great significance, the reason this is not just a little fund-raiser of a pamphlet for a colorful old man this: It provides several unique or exceedingly rare images of the activities in the area of the Falls in 1903. It describes goings-on that are otherwise unknown in the historic record. It illustrates buildings that high-trained researchers have not found. And all of this was recorded at the most volatile time in the history of Minnehaha Park. Everyone’s attention was on the war to control the soul of the park, the hired guards, fortifications, increasingly agitated neighbors, belligerent “confectioners.” And this year, 1903, was the second year of the everlasting trials of Minneapolis’ mayor A. A. Ames and his lieutenants and cronies for corruption. The most infamous of those lieutenants was Irwin Gardner, who ran the Coney Island resort with his father. There was a LOT going on.
So, Samuel Hatch and Chas. Patten put together this little Souvenir Booklet, probably as a tool to raise money for the hermit William Herrick. By November, Herrick had moved away. Not to the Minnesota Soldier’s Home across the creek, but to the Wisconsin Soldier’s Home in Milwaukee.