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Oct. 14, 1914: Dight Avenue's Hitler connection

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History, Government, City streets Updated: May 26, 2012 - 6:06 PM
 
What does it take to get Minneapolis to name a street after you? Serving on the City Council might put you in the running, especially if you work tirelessly to pass an ordinance to improve food safety. A distinguished teaching career at a local university can’t hurt. And living in a “tree-top house” near Minnehaha Falls might endear you to the public as a charming eccentric.
 
 
  Dr. Charles F. Dight
But you’re probably not going to win wide acclaim if you push for laws to prevent “mentally subnormal” and “obviously unfit” adults from reproducing. And writing a letter to the editor of the local paper in support of Adolf Hitler’s plan “to stamp out mental inferiority among the German people” will more likely get you run out of town than get your name on street signs.
 
So how did a nine-block stretch of road just east of Hiawatha come to be named Dight Avenue? Dr. Charles Fremont Dight, a Socialist, pasteurization advocate and treehouse dweller, was granted the honor by the Minneapolis City Council in 1918, at the end of his four-year stint as an alderman. But don't be too harsh on the City Council: This was some years before Dight advocated sterilization for the “feeble-minded” and praised Der Fuehrer in a letter to the Minneapolis Journal.  
 
Below are three snapshots of Dight. In the first piece, the Minneapolis Tribune introduced readers to the “avowed Socialist” on Oct. 14, 1914. 
 

12th Ward Aldermanic Candidate
Has Dwelling Among the Treetops


Dr. Charles F. Dight Tells Why He came to Build Home Where and How He Did.

Socialists Choose Former University Professor to Stand for City Hall Honors.

 
BY JOHN A. ARNOLD.
 
 “Truth Shall Triumph:
Justice Shall Be Law.”
 
This legend, neatly painted on a board, adorns what might be the cornice of the oddest residence in Minneapolis, or the state.
 
It adorns the unique home of Dr. Charles F. Dight, 4818 Thirty-ninth avenue south, and presumably it is his motto. Dr. Dight is a socialist, and he is the socialist candidate for alderman of the Twelfth ward. In a sense, he is a vicarious sacrifice. He says he never had any particular beat for aldermanic honors and work. He did not seek the office, or to become a candidate. Members of the socialist party in the Twelfth took a referendum vote on candidates for the office, and without consulting Dr. Dight, spotted him to make the race at the primary.
 
He modestly accepted the post, made the run, and was second highest candidate at the primaries. Alderman Barr was the only man in a field of a half dozen or so who go more votes than Dr. Dight. Hence the voters of the ward will have to choose between Alderman Barr, who was elected four years ago as an independent, and Dr. Dight, who is an avowed Socialist.
 
Home That Is Unique.
 
Dr. Dight’s home is hard to describe. It is the second story of a one story house. If that description falls short, here is another: It is a house on stilts. Again, it is a house in the trees; it is a house on the general lines of a crane.
Once Minnehaha parkway swerved off just before it reached the west bank of Minnehaha creek at Forty-eighth street, and traversed Thirty-ninth to Forty-ninth, and then skirted the brow of the bluff across the creek from what is now the Longfellow Zoo, and connected with the Minnehaha park drive near the Minnehaha station of the Milwaukee road. The park board bridged the creek, and the parkway was then continued east along Forty-eighth street. There was so little travel on Thirty-ninth avenue after that it became grassed over and is now little more than an abandoned woodland trail. In winter it is more popular, for one of the best coasting hills in that part of the city is down the slope from Forty-ninth to the parkway, and any good coasting sled can easily glide from one street to the other. On a winter afternoon or evening the hill is alive with youngsters and their shouts drown the howls of the coyotes across the creek.
 
Longs to be Physician.
 
Dr. Dight is a bachelor and a physician. He has lived in Minneapolis for 16 years and in the ward for six years. He is of Scotch German parentage. He was born in Pennsylvania, where he grew up and did all kinds of farm work.
 
When 13 years of age he decided to study medicine, and at the age of 22 he graduated in medicine, second in scholarship in his class at the University of Michigan.
 
During the years of his medical study he earned every cent that he expended. After two years of private practice he became one of the medical faculty of the University of Michigan, and two years later a professor in the American Medical school in [Beirut], Syria, Asia, and was in charge of the hospital there, where from 10,000 to 12,000 patients were treated yearly.
 
Many Years a Teacher.
 
Since he returned to this country he has been occupied chiefly in teaching medicine, in Hamline Medical school for nine years, and for several years in the University of Minnesota.
 
He is author of “The Human Body, a Co-operative Commonwealth,” “Sanitary Progress” and other pamphlets found in the university library. He severed his connection with the university about a year ago, when the rule was adopted requiring professors to devote all their time to the university. He had been medical director of an insurance company as well as a teacher, so when he had to make the choice between his two jobs he took the insurance work. Now he devotes all his time to that.
 
He has traveled extensively in the orient and in Egypt, as well as in Europe. He has always been a close observer and a student, and has a store of practical knowledge on municipal affairs.
 
 
Dight's "tree-top" house in about 1930. (Image courtesy of mnhs.org)

 

 About One House.

 
But about Mr. Dight’s House: A man’s house is his castle: moreover, it is his own private business. If a man chooses to live in the treetops, who should worry as long as the man himself does not? And apparently Dr. Dight is well satisfied. There may be an impression that he obtained the idea of his house from foreign countries, but he dispels that.
 
Dr. Dight planned the house himself. This is said in justice to him and to the members of the architectural society of Minneapolis. No architect had a hand in it. This is the way Dr. Dight explains it:
 
Reasoning it Out.
 
He was a bachelor and alone. He owned the lot facing Minnehaha creek on Thirty-ninth avenue and had owned it for several years. He generally went away somewhere to spend the summers, and was getting tired of it. He thought he would put [up] a house of some sort, good enough for a summer cottage. But his lot was in the woods, with higher ground around it. The autumn and winter winds would wantonly pile all the leaves from all the trees around his summer house, and since it would stand unoccupied for nine months of the year, there would be great danger from fire. Moreover, the lot was rather low, and a house built on or near the ground would be liable to dampness.
 
Up in the Air.
 
Then Dr. Dight advanced a peg in domestic architecture. He figured that since he could occupy a summer house only a few weeks, he might as well build an all the year house, and live in it all the time if he cared to. And in order to get drainage, and air, and a better view of Minnehaha creek which flows just across the road, and prevent the leaves from piling around him, he decided to build on stilts.
 
The house is supported on iron pillars imbedded in concrete. The walls are of hollow tile, and floors and ceilings are made with air space. There are two small rooms, and a sort of cupola room, really a kitchenet, still higher. A large hard coal stove supplies heat, and kerosene lamps give light. Rugs and draperies make the rooms cozy enough for any bachelor. Around the rooms are stray bits of laboratory apparatus, and on the walls are X-ray photographs of bits of the human anatomy. Books, pamphlets, and papers are scattered around promiscuously. One can not expect a scientific bachelor to be too prim.
 
Scenery Is Restful.
 
The house is reached from the ground by a spiral iron stair such as one sees in a large vault. This stair reaches to a very small porch at the side of the house. In front is a larger porch built around trees, where the resident and his friends may look into the tree tops, or down into the brimming creek where the ducks disport, or across at the Longfellow garden with its flaunting flags. There are a half dozen or so near neighbors, but their houses are not much larger than Dr. Dight’s and some of them are almost as high above the earth. In the trees around Dr. Dight’s home are many boxes for the birds, some of wood, others improvised from earthen pots, others, still, of tiles left from the house walls. Rabbits nibble the brush along the creek, and other wild creatures share the woodsy dingle with the human nature lovers.
 
One Big Advantage.
 
Strictly speaking, Dr. Dight’s house is not big enough for ward meetings. If a delegation should call on the alderman to discuss needed improvements, the meeting would have to be under the house, or among the trees, or over at Forty-fifth street in the town hall. The alderman might address his constituents from his front balcony, but he could not entertain many at a time in his residence. There might be valuable advantage in that.
 
Dr. Dight is a Socialist of the more conservative sort. He has no sympathy whatever with the violent type of Socialism. He accepts the theories of the Socialist party, but he is a believer in the step by step attainment of those theories. He believes in putting public ownership and other ideas into effect only as fast as the public is educated up to them, and in no case would he do violence to public opinion by too abrupt methods. He believes in educating the people up to the accepted ideas of his party.
 
Willing to Be Shown.
 
If he were elected alderman, he says he would be guided in his official acts on great and important matters, such as renewing franchises or taking over public utilities, by the consensus of opinion of his recognized party leaders, determined in conference. But he says these conferences are not executive nor are they confined to the Socialists. Anybody interested in bringing about better conditions for the common people is welcome to attend these councils and to participate in them. He would accept the suggestions of these councils on big matters, he says, on the broad theory that two or a half dozen heads are better than one. On matters of routine business, minor ward improvements, and business on which there could be no party question, he would act on his best judgment. But always, he says, he would put the interests of the common people first.
 
The political pot is already simmering in the Twelfth. Party leaders are announcing meetings, and literature is being distributed. The Barr forces are not asleep. Soon the engagement will become general along the whole front. If Dr. Dight is elected, he doubtless will be the only alderman in the United States who has his abode among the birds in the tree tops. In that respect he will be unique.
 
Dight won the 12th Ward seat and served for four years. He helped pass an ordinance whose aim was to ensure that all milk sold in Minneapolis was “a fresh, clean, lacteal product, free from a high bacterial count, objectionable odor, flavor and color, produced, pasteurized and bottled under the most sanitary conditions.” According to an Oct. 25, 1917, report in the Tribune, dairies were required to label every bottle with this information:
 
[The] kind of milk contained in the bottle, -- milk, cream, skimmed milk, buttermilk, etc.; it must show the class of milk, whether it be certified raw or pasteurized; it must show the amount of fat content; it must show the day of intended sale, which must be not later than 24 hours after bottling, and it must bear the name of the firm bottling it.”
 
Consumers also bore some responsibility under the ordinance: “The housewives must see to it that the milk bottles are washed thoroughly before returning them to the deliveryman.”
 
Dight’s dairy initiative was well-received, and the City Council voted to rename Railroad Avenue in his honor in 1918. He quit the council that year to focus on his job as medical officer at a Minneapolis  insurance company. By the early 1920s his interest in public health turned sharply from support for government rules on food safety to support for government rules on human breeding. Dight helped found the Minnesota Eugenics Society in 1923 and began to campaign at the Minnesota Legislature for a sterilization law. In this piece, published in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune on March 19, 1921, he argued for government involvement to “check the breeding of incorrigibles.”
 
Young men tended to livestock at the Faribault School for the Feeble-Minded in 1904. (Image courtesy of mnhs.org)

 

 
The Public Pulse

Remedy for Incorrigibility


To the Editor of The Tribune:
 
In The Minneapolis Tribune of March 13, under the heading “Juvenile Delinquency Through the State is Branded as Alarming,” it was said that the report of the members of the State Board of Visitors of Public Institutions states that “Some remedial measures must be taken which will diminish the number of incorrigibles.”
 
The measures urged by the board, as you state them, are superficial as remedial measures. They are confined to matters which have to do with poolrooms, dance places, and moving picture shows which young people attend, and with parental negligence in bringing up children.
 
These are all environmental conditions and do not at all touch a more important preventive measure, namely, that of checking the breeding of incorrigibles.
 
There are just two causes which produce incorrigibles, heredity and environment, and neither one should be overlooked in the study of prevention.
 
Every person who has anything to do with this big question brought up by your article should read Luther Burbank’s book called “The Training of the Human Plant.” In a striking way it brings out how children are great imitators of their elders and how example and environment have much to do with their behavior and with determining their future character. But Mr. Burbank and geologists generally with most careful students of heredity and eugenics are agreed that human character is determined less by environment than by inherited mentality. Such high authority as Prof. Karl Person believes that heredity as a determiner of character is five to ten times as great as is environment.
 
Of course, it is understood by studious and thoughtful people that most boys as they grow up naturally pass in their behavior though a period of savagery. But it is soon outgrown by the normal boy. It does not constitute incorrigibility, which means depravity beyond the power of reform. That is generally due to mental abnormality that is constitutional and inherited in most cases.
 
Is it any wonder that there should be so many incorrigibles as to excite alarm when we consider the poor human stock from which they come? It can no doubt be safely asserted that the parents of most incorrigibles are chiefly of the groups who, if not themselves actually abnormal mentally in some way, such as feeble-minded, insane, epileptic, criminally inclined, avaricious or physically diseased, are person who carry in the germ-plasm of their reproductive cells the determiners of one or another of these defects, and which by inheritance is the cause of defect in their offspring. Reproduction by such as these is the great cause of the rapid increase of incorrigible youths for which the visiting board seeks a remedy.
 
What must that remedy be? The correction of evils connected with poolrooms, dance places, moving picture shows and negligence in bringing up children is good and necessary, but it will never circumvent the laws of heredity and prevent constitutional defects in parents from being passed on to their progeny.
 
The real remedy lies in securing marriage matings between those who are free as possible from inheritable defects. With this will come better environment also. When this is done incorrigibles and the mentally defective will rarely be born. Good human stock will then breed true to its kind when unmixed with bad. This is a law of nature.
 
The testimony of all careful students of this subject is that a mentally inferior human stock – inferior in many ways – is being bred and is increasing at an alarming rate in all the states. Statistics gathered by experts inform us that in the year 1910 there were more insane people in our 366 institutions for the care of the insane than there were students in all the colleges and universities in the United States. This insane group is far outnumbered by the feeble-minded population who have to be cared for, while if to these the large number of less mentally defective ones known as “morons” be added, and these increased by the epileptics, by those who are criminally inclined and the avaricious, the number will no doubt run into the millions. A high authority believes that one person in thirty in this country carries in the germ-plasm of his or her reproductive cells the determiners of inheritable defects. These defectives are largely permitted to reproduce their kind. This is the chief source of incorrigibles.
 
In the breeding of stock – cattle, sheep, hogs – certain simple and well understood laws in selection are applied which produce the good and exclude the bad through heredity. But in human reproduction in which these laws apply with the same certainty as in breeding stock they are neglected with results that are appalling when investigated.
 
This country for many years has been the dumping ground for inferior people from Europe. This accounts in part for our excess of incorrigibles. It is estimated that from 6 to 7 per cent of the immigrants who have recently been arriving are feeble-minded. From 1900 to 1910, 8,500,000 immigrants came here. A United States health authority says that probably only 5 per cent of the mentally deficient were detected and kept out. In 1910 at one of our ports where 1,483 immigrants certified by the inspecting surgeons as unfit to land because of serious mental or physical defects 1,370 were landed anyway.
 
In view of the grave situation it is almost criminal to continue to absorb European undesirables. To get rid of the over-load of mentally sub-normal people which we already have is the big problem. To do this requires three things:
 
First, that state and national pedigrees of families who are free from, and those not free from serious inheritable defects be assembled and made available as an aid to better marriage matings. This work is now being done by the Carnegie Institute, aided by institutions in various states.
 
Second, that adults who are mentally sub-normal and obviously unfit shall be prevented from reproducing, either by segregating them, of course under good conditions, during their reproductive period, or by performing on them the operation of vasectomy. This operation is now legalized in 12 states. It is simple and safe, and when it and its effects are explained to persons on whom it is proposed many of them welcome it.
 
Third, that young people be instructed on the great facts of heredity that have been discovered in recent years, and on the vital importance to themselves and their children of shunning marriage with one who is socially unfit.
 
By these means the incorrigibles will disappear. Industrial democracy will be established by good human stock that will appreciate and maintain it. A better era for mankind will be ushered in. – Dr. C.F. Dight.
 
The State Asylum for the Insane in St. Peter, Minn., in 1931. (Image courtesy of mnhs.org)

 

Two years after Dight organized the state eugenics council, his lobbying efforts at the State Capitol found traction. The Legislature passed a law that allowed the sterilization of residents of state institutions for the “feeble-minded” and “insane.” Sterilization was voluntary in that it required the consent of the resident’s legal representative. By the time the law was taken off the books in the mid-1960s, nearly 2,500 Minnesotans – 78 percent of them women – had been sterilized.
 
In 1933, Dight sent this letter to German Chancellor Adolf Hitler:
 
August 1, 1933.
 
Chancellor Adolf Hitler.
Berlin, Germany.
 
Honorable Chancellor:
 
I inclose a clipping from the Minneapolis Journal of Minnesota, United States of America, relating to and praising your plan to stamp out mental inferiority among the German people.

I trust you will accept my sincere wish that your effort along that line will be a great success and will advance the eugenics movement in other nations as well as Germany.

Sincerely,

C.F. Dight, M.D.
President Minnesota Eugenics Society.
 
The Minnesota Eugenics Society faded from the public scene soon after, and Dight died in 1938. He left his $200,000 estate to the University of Minnesota, where he had taught before his election to the Minneapolis City Council.  The money was used to found the Dight Institute for the Promotion of Human Genetics. According to the terms of his will, the institute had a mandate to work for "race betterment" through research, instruction and counseling. It was associated with the university until the 1960s and quietly closed up shop in the early 1990s.
 
Cargill grain elevators at 3500-3600 Dight Av. in July 1931. (Image courtesy of mnhs.org)

 

 

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