The “Hermits” of Minnehaha Park, part 4

a man rides away from hot pursuit, looking over his shoulder at the two men chasing him on horseback
This dime-novel-esque illustration of William Herrick fleeing hot pursuit perfectly conveys the breathless excitement of Herrick’s stories. And it was drawn by Art. M. Johnson, who was a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, and who went on to become a distinguished illustrator and botanist. –from the Library of Congress collection, preserved by the Internet Archive on

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.

The curly-haired Sam Hatch.
Samuel Hatch was so fond of the Hermit that he created the booklet that provided for Herrick.

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.


4 thoughts on “The “Hermits” of Minnehaha Park, part 4”

  1. Is the text of the booklet available electronically? Interesting cover illustration, BTW (and terrible typography…). Any clue as to why Herrick would leave Minnesota entirely for Wisconsin?

  2. I made a link to the actual booklet in the caption of the cover picture.

    (Let’s test: Can I put a link to it in a comment?)

    As for his re-location to Wisconsin, Herrick was a member of the 48th Wisconsin Infantry. The soldiers were not bound to the various Soldier’s Homes in the states connected to their enlistments, however. The autobiographical booklet says he moved out of the Minnesota Soldier’s Home because he craved solitude after his long years on the frontier, and that in his old age he “must go to some retreat for old soldiers and there end my days.” (He was 55 years old at the time, and lived to be 70 in Milwaukee.) But newspaper stories of the time usually offered different details from the booklet, and one of these implied that he moved out due to conflict at the Minnesota Soldier’s Home. With incompatible histories available, there’s no way to be sure.

    Perhaps someday, someone will comb through the contemporary records at the Soldier’s Home (if such exists) and try to find the answer to why Herrick moved out to the Home.

      1. I’ll be interested in your take on it. I think that Herrick’s unrepentant prejudice and distinct sense of superiority makes it hard to enjoy after a while. I know that in those times his attitudes were common and acceptable, but they seem so meager to me now.

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