The shores of the lake we now know as Calhoun have always been the site of play.
In August, 1834, a missionary named Samuel Pond wrote his first letter to his mother from his new home on the banks of this lake in the northern interior. He had just completed a rough cabin, intending to take up residence in the thriving Dakota village that had been established near Fort Snelling as an agricultural experiment. He may have expected more solitude. But his new neighbors were busy at work around him. “One Indian has been here to borrow my axe, another to have me help him split a stick; another now interrupts me to borrow my hatchet; another has been here after a trap which he left with me; another is now before my window at work with his axe, while the women and children are screaming to drive the blackbirds from their corn,” he reported. “Again I am interrupted by one who tells me that the Indians are going to play ball near our house to-day. Hundreds assemble on such occasions.”
Pond hoped to use this gathering as the opportunity to deliver the gospel for the first time. I am imagining the reaction of the players pictured here, as a young and earnest missionary tried to interrupt this intense competition with his important message. This painting by George Catlin depicts the type of ball game Pond would have seen. The match shown here was played by women in nearby Prairie du Chien in 1835.
The contemporary photo is from the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. The historic painting is from the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
Like many of you, I’ve been watching footage from the Olympic sliding center in Sochi, where bobsled, luge and skeleton athletes rocket down the icy track at 80 miles per hour. Before World War I, it seems that Minneapolis had its own sliding centers that delivered thrills and danger. Huge toboggan slides were constructed at Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun, Riverside Park, Glenwood Park and Fairview Park.
In the late nineteenth century, wealthy residents formed toboggan clubs to support the construction and maintenance of slides in different parts of the city. The Makwa Club–a private group limited to 200 of the most prominent men in the young city–built its first slide in 1885 on Lowry Hill. Three years later, this group built what sounds like a sliding palace on Lake Calhoun. The centerpiece was the slide, which started on a bluff on the east side of the lake. It ran over the streetcar track and Calhoun Parkway before dropping 55 feet on to the lake. Sliders were propelled on an icy track that extended 1/3 of a mile on to the lake, before shuddering to a stop on a patch of rough lake ice. The facility was only open to Makwa members.
Illuminated with electric lights, the track was the place for smart young men with money to spend their winter nights. At the top of the slide was a warming house with a glass wall that offered views of the lake. A specially scheduled trolley dropped club members (who had gray wool uniforms) off every night at 7:40, returning to retrieve them at 9:57 pm. The fun stopped, it seems, when it became clear that these thrill-seekers were not willing to pay the money necessary to support this private winter amusement park. According to David C. Smith, the matter ended up in court in 1891, after the man who built the track sued club members to recover the costs of slide construction and maintenance.
A few years later, the Park Board decided to build its own toboggan tracks, democratizing access to the harrowing wintertime pursuit. This image is from the enormous installation the park board built on the west side of Lake Harriet. This slide started well above the lake on Queen Avenue and extended out on to the surface of the frozen lake. First constructed in 1912, the wooden track had been the scene of several injuries by 1914. The Park Board, according to Superintendent Theodore Wirth, was facing multiple lawsuits. I’m guessing that was the end of the Lake Harriet Toboggan slide.
These images–and this information–come courtesy of park historian David C. Smith and the Minneapolis Park Board. Check out David’s blog at Minneapolisparkhistory.com.
On January 10, 1926, these skaters on Lake of the Isles posed, smiling, with hockey sticks. Two of the players were women. This photo–along with many others from the decade–show that young women across the state were picking up sticks and enjoying recreational hockey match-ups. They were never allowed to shed their skirts for hockey pads or warm trousers. Yet the University of Minnesota recognized women’s interest in hockey during the Jazz Age, starting a club hockey team for women students.
World War II interrupted most recreational activities, including hockey. Demobilization brought what Betty Friedan later dubbed the “Feminine Mystique,” an increasingly rigid set of gender roles that emphasized domesticity and femininity for women. As the nation worked to move beyond the crises of war and economic collapse, women were expected to devote themselves to ever-more ambitious homemaking and were forced to give up the autonomy and financial independence they had gained by working in war industries. They were also expected to eschew competitive sports–especially those like ice hockey, which involved physical confrontation. Girls may have skated with their brothers and hit pucks around the city lakes. But their opportunity to compete on ice disappeared, unless they were willing to don figure skates and spangly costumes.
In 1972, Title IX was passed, requiring schools to provide equal athletic opportunities for girls. But it took more than a new law to create equal athletic opportunities for girls and women. Minnesota lagged in this regard, especially with hockey. No college hockey team existed for women in Minnesota until 1995, when Augsburg College put female Auggies on the ice. The University of Minnesota started its women’s hockey team in 1997.
Photo is from the newspaper morgue at the Minneapolis Collection, Hennepin County Central Library. Thanks to Rita Yeada for unearthing this image. And thanks as well to Annika Shiffer-Delegard, who helped me do the research necessary for this post.