The WPA Works in Minnehaha Park, 1936. Part 6: Sand

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.

Three people from the late 19th or early 20th century, standing in a shallow cave.
“Sugar Cave Minnehaha Glen,” in an undated photograph (a Real Photo Postcard)  from the early 20th century. This cave  does not seem deep enough to keep the rain off.

St. Peter sandstone is one layer in the geologic strata of Minnehaha Park and its area.  This sandstone crumbles easily into very, very, fine sand.  The tiny and uniform particles are why people called it “sugar sand” and in the above picture the little indentation is called “Sugar Cave.”

Various scratchings into the soft sandstone are visible in this picture, especially on the right side.  These are attempts at graffiti, and there are records of people leaving their marks in this way as far back as 1865.  But something else was going on with this soft, fine, easily obtained sand, something that cannot be seen in a black and white photograph.

The story begins in McGregor, Iowa.  In the 1870s, and continuing until his death in 1894, a talented young man named Andrew Clemens put sand into bottles to sell. These bottles were extraordinary: intricate pictures with tiny details, all done in as many as 40 colors of sand. His hand-made hickory stick tools and examples of his work can be seen at the McGregor Historical Museum. It is worth the trip: Clemens’ sand art is that astounding.

Clemens collected all those 40 colors of sand at Pictured Rocks, now a county park in Iowa.   He sifted and ground the sand to create a supply of each color where all the particles of sand were the same size.  This allowed him to pack the sand very tightly, which was essential to prevent the grains from moving and distorting or destroying the picture if the bottle were tilted.

His work was acclaimed and sought-after in his lifetime and long after.  Today, Clemens’ sand bottles sell for thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.  This acclaim was not unnoticed by the people who made their livings catering to the tourists at Minnehaha Falls, up the Mississippi river in Minnesota.  And they all knew what a black and white photo cannot show.  Minnehaha has colored sand, too.

modern Sugar Cave. A child stands in the colorful sand "cave"
Sand in Minnehaha Park comes in a variety of colors, mostly white to rich golden yellow. But one can also find grey, red, green, blue, and black sand. Photo of C.M.P. taken on August 26, 2015; possibly this is “Sugar Cave” a hundred years later. The graffiti tradition continues.

During the period when the Falls were privately owned and also after the Park Board took over, entrepreneurs sold bottles of sand as souvenirs.  In the autumn of 1888, the New York Sun reprinted a Pioneer Press story about it: “During the past year, fakirs at the falls put up many bottles, with as many as 60 layers of sand these cost as much as $5.”  Minnehaha sand bottles had become a known and notable souvenir all the way back East.

In 1889, that first season when the Park Board was in charge, collecting sand souvenirs was very popular at Minnehaha.  In October, on a streetcar leaving the park, “an old gentleman had pieces of red and white sandstone, but unfortunately had sat on and crushed the white. After wandering up and down the car with pieces of red sandstone looking for trade, he secured a piece of the white, and an almost audible smile went round the car.”

It wasn’t the general population who were held responsible for collecting sand and thereby damaging the park.  It was the entrepreneurs, lately removed outside the park boundaries but still hovering on the edges of the park. In that same October week of 1889, the Park Board instructed their superintendent William Berry “to prevent the removal of sand from banks of creek. Bottling has become quite a business with a certain class of vendors and they have made great holes in the bluffs below the falls.”

Berry was unable to stop people collecting sand.  Five years later, in 1894, a curio stand at the Falls was selling sand bottles.  Berry was also unable to keep people from living in Minnehaha Park.  Living in the park were two “hermits”–a common euphemism for homeless men. One was Samuel McNott or James McKnight who had a “little tumbledown shack” in the park on the riverbank across from the Soldiers’ Home.  He made a small living selling colored sand in bottles until he died in 1900.  In 1904, children considered it common to take a little box to the falls to collect some sand.  As late as 1915, the 25-year-old daughter of Park Board Commissioner Robert E. Fischer wanted to continue her father’s former business of making and selling Minnehaha sand souvenirs.  The privileges committee gave a split vote on the question, 2 for and 2 against.  The full Park Board then voted it down, 7 to 5. “It would establish a very bad precedent,” to be sure, but such was not clear to almost half the board members, including Fischer, who sided with his daughter Edith.

In the decades when Minnehaha sand art bottles were a favorite souvenir, no one could produce sand art was well as Andrew Clemens.  Few examples of Minnehaha sand bottles exist today, but the urbancreek.com collection holds two samples.

about 5 inches tall, a bottle of sand with a picture of the falls glued inside the clear glass.
Minnehaha sand bottle. Here the picture of Minnehaha Falls is not constructed from sand, but is an image attached to the inside of the glass bottle.
About 4.5 inches tall, and losing its pattern. A Minnehaha sand bottle.
Unfortuntely, this bottle was not tightly filled and packed to the top. The grains have shifted and the pattern is lost.

This is clearly an inexpensive sort of sand-art bottle, done in a hurry, and meant to sell cheaply.

The second Minnehaha sand bottle is quite short, just under 3 inches.

A bottle of sand from Minnehaha, in a even pattern.
Layers of sand in even patterns.

There are at least 11 colors of sand, intricately arranged, in this tiny work of art.

Shows an eagle standing on a shield showing stars and stripes, with a banner saying "Minnehaha Sand."
Constructed from the bottom up, a bit of the picture at a time, this might have been one of those ultra-fancy $5 souvenirs.

The bird image is a knock-out.  Not up to Clemens quality, but fairly detailed, and clearly from Minnehaha Falls.

Over the last century, the fashion for bottled sand moved from being a extraordinary art to a commemorative, highly local souvenir to becoming a skill to demonstrate today on YouTube. The colors used by modern sand artists are more garish that the gentle natural hues of Minnehaha or Pictured Rocks sand, but the most complicated images are still the stuff to amaze us.

And, those WPA safety fences–as far as is known–lasted no longer than William Berry’s efforts to keep people from carving out the sandstone and carrying it away 47 years earlier. There are no barriers to Sugar Cave today.

The fences were more probably put up across the larger, deeper caves that are said to have existed on the north side of the creek on the riverbank.  Those caves have been destroyed today.


post edited on 22 Sep 2016 to reflect information in comments at Minneapolis Park History. Slowly, information gathers….

6 thoughts on “The WPA Works in Minnehaha Park, 1936. Part 6: Sand”

  1. Ha. Not really. I have layered different colors of sand in a glass container, but not tried to create a picture. Who has time?

      1. From watching modern sand artists, I find that there are techniques to add intricacy and details without placing the sand almost grain-by-grain. Clemens must have had a lot of his own techniques. He was a genius, no question.

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