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Feb. 13, 1921: All Minneapolis men are vain

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History Updated: August 18, 2014 - 12:34 PM
In January of my sophomore year at the University of Minnesota, I stopped at Leigh’s barbershop in Richfield for a haircut. Back then, before the genes on Mom’s side of the family took their toll, I had an almost full head of light brown hair, thin and straight, parted in the middle and long at the back and sides. I needed just a trim, really, but above the big mirror behind the barber chairs hung a photograph of a male model sporting a full-bodied cut, an appealing masculine wave.

I asked the barber about it.

“It’s a permanent,” he said, “and I think it would look good on you.”

“Not a permanent,” I protested, imagining with horror the tight curls of Greg’s later-seasons look on “The Brady Bunch.”

The barber assured me the permanent would a modest one. I think he called it a “semi-permanent.”

“Let’s do it, then,” I said, wanting to look like the guy in the photo.

Of course I left the barbershop looking like Greg Brady. No amount of shampooing could relax the curls, and I was the subject of merciless teasing from the high school hockey team I coached that year. Luckily it was winter, allowing me to hide it under a stocking cap much of the time. The curls eventually grew out, and by summer I was sporting a kind of journalism school mullet, copy editor in front, party in the back.

I wish I had read the story below before agreeing to get that perm in 1979. Nearly 60 years earlier, a “Cub Reporter” at the Minneapolis Tribune was asked to investigate rumors of men getting “marcel” waves at beauty parlors around town. She turned in a  fine piece of writing, accompanied by a half-dozen delightful illustrations by Coyle Tincher.
Gimme a marcel quick.

All Minneapolis Men are Vain
and Women Can Be Made So

Where Do All the Boys Get Those Cute Waves in Hair?
Buy 'Em at the Beauty Parlors, Just as the Girls Do, Say Those Who Earn a Living by Making Two Marcels Grow Where None Grew Before.

Cub Reporter a Sacrifice on Altar of Duty

Hair May Get Straight Again But Will Never Look the Same.
“THIS fellow Blackie said he had to have his hair marcelled because he was going to a dance.”
Miss Elizabeth Erickson, lady barber with a shop at Nicollet and Lake, was telling the Cub Reporter how if it wasn’t one thing it was another in the means of livelihood she had chosen.
“Blackie, that was what we called him because we didn’t know his real name, was a handsome young man with long blue-black hair that was broken in tis glossy smoothness by a deep wave. The girls always enjoyed shaving him because he had such a pleasant way with him.
“We hadn’t seen him for a month or more. Then he came in in a tearing hurry, jammed himself into a chair, and demanded: ‘Gimme a marcel quick.’ His hair was as straight as yours.
“ ‘What do you think this is, a beauty parlor?’ I asked him.
“ ‘Aw, have a heart,’ he begged like a child. ‘The place where I usually get it done is closed, and my girl never saw me with it straight. For the love of Mike, how can I take her to a dance like this?’
“I didn’t see what I could do, but one of the girls got a curling iron, and in half an hour he looked like himself again.”
It Would Surprise Women.
“As Mrs. Mary Dahl says – she’s a lady barber in the Allen hotel – women would be surprised if they knew how much time and money men spend to make themselves look nice.”
Miss Ida Marie, assistant lady barber at Miss Erickson’s shop, couldn't keep out of the conversation here.
“They’re just awful the way they fuss over how they look,” she told the Cub Reporter. And her dimples deepened as she smiled.
 “They come in and get a massage before they call on their girls, before they go to the theater, and before they go to a dance. And then they have the nerve to say they do it because it helps them in their business.
“Me vain? Sure I’m vain, if you mean do I care how I look. But after all women kind of have a right to feel that way, haven’t they? You expect something different from a man.”
The Cub Reporter, who had been a violent suffragist in the days when that was necessary, quoted sardonically, “We don’t want ’em to be our equals or our superiors.”
They Purr Like Kitten.
Miss Marie dimpled again. “They’re supposed to have something bigger on their minds. But they try to laugh it off. ‘Better sling some mud in my face, today,’ they’ll say. And then they sit there purring like a kitten, they’re so comfortable.”
Miss Erickson had finished arguing with a youth who wanted pure olive oil rubbed into his fair mane. She thought Vaseline would create a luxuriance that would make him look like a free verse poet, but he said that nothing gave the luster like olive oil, the olive oil from Greece.
She dusted him off maternally, and he went out slowly, peeking at himself in every mirror he passed.
Miss Erickson caught up Miss Marie’s word “comfortable.” “That’s it with the older men, I think. They like having somebody fussing over them to make them comfortable. You’d like it yourself, and a good massage would take that tired look off your face.”
“But men are vain,” insisted Miss Marie, and the other girls assented vigorously.
“Men are vain,” the Cub Reporter told the editor when she got back to the office.
“Other men,” said the Boss, absentmindedly. “I’ll never let the tailor press these trousers again.”
“And they get their hair marcelled.”
“I don’t know. A lady barber told me.” And the Cub Reporter told the whole story.
Job  for Cub Reporter.
The Girl Reporter winked at the Editor.
“Why not send the Cub around to the beauty parlors with an expense account? She can get marcelled herself the while she’s finding out where you folks get your manly locks curled.”
The editor looked hopeful. The Cub clutched the little knob of straight red hair, which to say it in the kindest way, was innocent of artifice.
“It won’t hurt you to lose it,” the Girl Reporter said cruelly. "It always looked like a doughnut slipping off a shelf.”
“Slipping’s the word,” the Boss continued the attack. “Here’s a sheaf of hairpins you spilled on me yesterday when I was conferring with you about that story. You go to the beauty parlors, and start today.”
“But,” the Cub Reporter quavered, “my nice straight hair, it’s never had an iron on it.”
“And never kept a hairpin,” spat the Girl Reporter. 
“Have you no devotion to the paper?” the Boss roared. “Go out and do what I tell you. You can wash the marcel out if you don’t like it. Now go out.”
“She can wash it out,” chortled the Girl Reporter.
And to the music of office laughter, the Cub Reporter went her way.
She Gets a “Facial.”
Is something the matter with the mirrors?


On the way down in the office elevator, she took a look in the mirror that was to have been a farewell to that nice straight hair. But she was puzzled to see on her lips a fatuous smile. Could it be?
“H’m, we’re all funny people,” mediated the Cub Reporter, picking up a hairpin.
Because of that smile, she didn’t dare have her hair done first; she stepped into a little shop on Nicollet, thoughtfully named the “Sanitary,” and demanded a massage.
“You mean a ‘facial’?” the girl asked a little contemptuously.
“Whatever you call it, I’m not up on modern slang.”
She was gently lowered into the chair, protected with dry towels and swathed in hot wet ones. She wondered wherein men found the comfort which the lady barbers had mentioned.
While she lay and steam-burned, the girl was sitting in a low rocker, embroidering on something that looked dainty and feminine. All around were screens with figures of happy children prancing and playing.  It was an exceedingly domestic shop in which to lie and suffer.
Men Barred – Keeps Place Nice.
“I have heard,” the Cub Reporter ventured, “that men come in to get their hair done.”
“We don’t take gentlemen,” the girl answered, rubbing great gobs of pink cold cream into the Cub Reporter’s skin. “Gentlemen muss up a place so, and we like to keep it nice here.”
She didn’t appear shocked at the idea of a man’s having his hair done. Only it mustn’t be in her shop. The Cub Reporter kept quiet for awhile during which the girl wiped off all the cream she had rubbed on, and with it perhaps a speck of dirt.
“Dear me,” she thought, “was that what my friends meant when they said I should powder to cover my deficiencies? I must find out if they knew that I was as dirty as I am. And I must continue the search for the marceller of males. Ouch.”
The vibrator was brought into play, and the Cub Reporter felt just like going to the dentist. But she got a peek at herself in the glass, and through the depths of grease she could still see that silly anticipatory smile on her face which she had first noticed in the elevator.
“Good Lord, am I that much of a fool or is there something the matter with the mirrors? Funny idea that about men getting themselves fixed up, isn’t it,” she asked the operator.
She felt very naked.


She Felt Very Naked.
But the girl didn’t answer until after she had adjusted a powerful light which showed through even the wads of cotton she put on the Cub’s eyes. She was evidently peering though a magnifying glass in a determined search for imperfections.
“She needn’t have done that,” thought the Cub Reporter resentfully, “there are enough right out on the surface.” And she felt very naked.
“Oh, my, yes, gentlemen are very careful of themselves. One of my friends says that some day she is going to start a beauty parlor in the Elks’ club or some place like that where gentlemen can go without the embarrassment of finding their wives go to the same place as they do. You’ve got a lot of blackheads, miss.
“My friend says that gentlemen would never think of letting the wrinkles get the best of them, the way women do. You must laugh a lot, miss, there’s so many crow’s feet around your eyes. It’s all right to be jolly, but you’ve got to think about how you look. Will you have a bleach?”
The Cub Reporter thought she’d better have everything going. So she was put into a sort of icy plaster cast and left to sit while the girl embroidered placidly.
“That smile’s out of way, anyhow,” she congratulated herself as she viewed her plastered features and shivered.
All things end. Denuded of the cast, she emerged, looking somewhat skinned. She stopped the girl who was trying to pluck her eyebrows, refused to have them blackened, and blushed as she was powdered and rouged a trifle.
The girl’s eyes were glued on the “doughnut and shelf” arrangement of her hair.
“Wouldn’t you like to have your hair dressed?”
But she didn’t know enough about the vanity of men, so she didn’t get the Cub’s trade.
It was too late then to go to another place, so the Cub went back to the office. She walked around the block twice before she had the courage to go in, and was then a little hurt because no one noticed the change in her.
She had an appointment with the dentists. By way of being entertaining and postponing the evil moment, she told the youngest dentist, a youth just out of college, about her quest. He flattered her with deep interest, then he drew her aside.
Oh No, They’re Not Vain.
“Say, if you find out how to grow new hair, let me know, will you? My mop’s getting thin, and a fellow kinda hates to feel that he’s getting on. Don’t say anything about this to anybody. I’ve tried barbers, but maybe they don’t take the interest that a woman would.”
While she was having her teeth overhauled she heard some high school girls chattering outside.
“Girls, I’m perfectly positive. I knew him in grade school, and he had hair as straight as anything then. And he hasn’t had a typhoid fever, either. Him with a wave you could lose your finger in. Humph!”
“Well, I know how he got it. I caught my brother trying to put one in the other night. They let their hair grow long; then when they go to bed, they tie tape around their heads under their chins, wet their hair, pull it out a little, and there they are with a water wave. Wouldn’t it make you sick?”
“You know Philip? He’s the one that used to cut his hair so short that it stuck up straight and sharp like a scrubbing brush, just like his brother’s. His brother went away, so’s now he can do what he pleases, and it’s long enough for him to braid. I s’pose his is too stiff to try the tape treatment on. Then they talk about us being foolish.”
A Man at Last.
A little gossip she heard on the car the next morning sent the Cub Reporter to Madame de Guile's beauty shop, where she asked for a shampoo.
“Would you mind,” she suggested to the attendant in the office, “giving me the most talkative girl you have?”
The astonished attendant raised her eyebrows.
“I just love being talked to,” she tried to explain, “I’m such a poor conversationalist myself.”
There were some more hot towels, a new stunt to the Cub, who had always thriftily washed her own hair. Vibrator and violet ray followed, to the deep astonishment of the subject, who was so excited she could scarcely remember what she was there for. The girl didn’t talk at all.
The Cub Reporter was trying to think of some way to open the subject of men in beauty parlors when one stalked majestically through the aisle between the lines of booths.
“What, a man in a beauty parlor?” she inquired, properly shocked.
“Oh, yes. We have many gentlemen come in here.” The girl’s tone was indifferent.
“What for?”
“Just what the women come in for, manicures, marcels, massages, and all that. That gentleman you saw just now, he’s rather elderly but he wants to be married. All the girls in the place are talking about him.
Nose Wart, His Bane.
The Cub Reporter lay back comfortably, enjoying the skillful fingers manipulating the skin of her scalp and listening to the flood of talk she had started.
“He’s got a big wart on his nose that makes him look like a, a, oh some sort of animal with a horn on its face that you see in the circus. There’s a girl in his office he’s crazy about; she’d marry him too, he’s rich enough. Only she can’t go the wart on his nose.
“So the poor goof’s coming up here to have madame take it off. Some job, taking off a horn like that.
“It’s kinda pitiful to hear him talk. Funny the way folks just naturally have to have somebody to slop over on, ain’t it. ‘Mary and Emma never seemed to mind it,’ he whines, ‘they both married me, and Mary, specially, never had a cross word on her tongue all day long.
Doesn't seem's if Josephine could really love me.


“ ‘Doesn’t seem’s if Josephine could really love me. But I guess girls are more finicky than they used to be when I was a young fellow. Mary and Emma were both good women, but they couldn’t hold a candle to Josephine.
“ ‘ Josie,’ and then the poor boob gets red, ‘Gotta stop sayin’ that,’ he says. ‘Josephine don’t like it. Ouch, damn.’ The electric needle does hurt a good deal, you know. ‘Josephine’s worth it.” Poor old goof.
Same Silly Smile.
“Your hair’s all dried now. Do you want me to dress it? Better have it marcelled, don’t you think? You’ve got beautiful hair; it’d be nice for a change. You’ve done it so simple.”
The heart of the Cub Reporter grew warm in her breast. “Shelf and doughnut” indeed. Here was somebody who appreciated her. As she nodded assent to the marcelling she caught sight of the same silly smile on her face.
“There can’t be three mirrors built wrong in the same way,” she reasoned. “It must be there. Well everybody said I’d be ruined for life if I started working on a newspaper and maybe it’s true.”
“Lots of old men come in to have their bald spots rubbed for hair. And they’re not so old, either. Funny what a lot of young fellows think they’re gettin’ bald. They don’t trust their barbers; barbers have bald heads themselves.
“Talkin’ about hair, did you know that men come in here by the dozen to get waves put into it?”
The Cub Reporter jumped so that the iron burned her ear.
“Not really?”
“I’ll tell the world they do. Say, you are an innocent if you think all the curls you see your men friends wearing are made by old Mother Nature.”
“What kind of men come in for curls?”
Even Newspaper Men Do It.
“About all the kind there are. Not so many old men, of course, because they haven’t enough to curl. That old goof with the wart I told you about was trying to make us think he’d heard of some new way of planting hair on a bald pate. Said a doctor told him about it. I’ll say the guy that invents a thing like that is going to have a good chance of dying too rich to get to Heaven. They’d come to us with bags of money.
“I was tellin’ you about fellows that come in for marcels. There’s a newspaper man, works on the (naming a prominent daily), writes poetry or something for it, he’s a regular customer. And men from the Symphony orchestra, lots of them. There’s one comes in that looks like a big black bear; his hair’s kinda curly already, so he gets a water wave.
“I never get surprised at anything that musicians or newspaper people do, though. You expect them geniuses to be sorta foolish, don’t you? But business men come, too. They wouldn’t be ashamed if they met their own wives.
“When I was a kid a boy that had curly hair was ashamed of it. Well, the world changes. Your hair’s hard to curl, miss, it’s so fine. I’ll have to try that wave again. I hope you’ve got lots of time, but you know after you’ve neglected your hair a long time, it’s bound to act this way.
There’s Much to Be Had.
“Your eyebrows ought to be plucked, they’re so thick. They ought to be blackened a little, too. Bein’ so light the way they are, you can’t see them ’less you look close. Your lashes are kinda long, ’s a pity they are so pale.
“I always say a woman owes it to herself to do the best she can for herself, and beauty counts more’n you’d think if you haven’t been out in the world.
“Where’d you say you work? Oh, in an office. Well, I bet you ain’t got any women friends in there that’d tell you what to do for yourself. You keep on getting’ your hair curled, and take my word for it something’s sure to happen.
“Want your hair inside or out? Well, maybe you’re right. It would be kind of hard for you to do yourself with it in.
“Do men come in here to get their eyebrows plucked? You tell ’em, funnybone, you made the hit. As far as I know there’s just one thing they don’t come for, and that’s the rejuveniler treatment that takes away wrinkles permanently. And they say that they get that in Chicago.
Men Are Vainest.
Ain't it awful how vain women are.


“Vain? Say, the vainest woman that ever lived couldn’t hold a candle to a man when he’s really got woke up to how he looks. The other day I was putting a marcel in an artist gentleman’s hair, and didn’t he go and say to me, right while I was working on him, ‘Ain’t it awful, dearie, how vain women are? I caught you lookin’ in the glass three times.’
 “Things like that kinda get a girl’s goat, and I said to him, right sharp, ‘If you hadn’t been lookin’ in the glass all the time yourself I guess you wouldn’t a seen me there,’ I says.
“But that don’t mean anything to him. You can’t phase a man with gall enough to have things done to him in a beauty parlor. Mostly I shut up when they kid me about women’s vanity, but sometimes it gets too much for me.
“There. Now, you do look nice. It won’t matter about the ear that’s burned because that’s under the hair anyway. Do come in again, you’re such a pleasant kind of conversationalist.”
The Cub Reporter looked at herself in a mirror. She was a mass of frizzes and bore some resemblance to a type of flapper she had never cared much about. Her sense of humor struggled with that new silly smile and won.
She Finds Whole Crew.
She went back to the office and walked the length of it defiantly.
But the hoots drove her into the street again.
She went back to the shop she had just left and had a manicure.
A number of men were having them at the same time, and she listened in on the conversations.
“Nobody cares about me at home; I’m only the guy that brings home the bacon, that’s all.”
Nobody cares about me at home.


“How you do go on. There, your wife will enjoy seeing you look so nice.”
And at another table.
“Just keep on talking, girlie, I don’t care what you say, but I like the sound of your voice. I’m tired, and if I go to sleep just wake me up when it’s closing time.”
“Funny thing,” the girl who was doing the Cub’s nails said, “but the guys that come in to have their hands gone over, do it ’cause they’re lonesome more’n because they’re vain. They want somebody to make a fuss over them, as the old song said. That’s our experience here. No, not exactly flirtatious, though I guess maybe they would be if we’d encourage ’em a little.”
And the Cub Reporter was so excited and so anxious to get back to the office with the news that she forgot to look at her back hair, and so betrayed to the hairdresser that she was not quite what she seemed to be.
“All men are vain,” she announced to the Boss.
“Other men,” said the Boss, looking at the crease in his trousers. “I must get another tailor.”
“And women can be made so,” said the Cub Reporter, burying her fingers in the crest of her marcel.

Aug. 7, 1914: First years of life are never pleasant

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History Updated: August 6, 2014 - 9:26 AM
From the Minneapolis Tribune:

Childhood Called Tragedy

Osteopath Says First Ten Years of Life Are Never Pleasant.
Philadelphia, Aug. 6. – (Special.) – Modern childhood is one continual tragedy, according to Dr. R.W. Ford of Seattle, speaking before the eighteenth annual convention of the American Osteopathic association. He said the first 10 years of life were far from happy for any child, who is subject to the whim, command and convenience of parents, grandparents, relatives and teachers.
He spoke particularly of the girl of 12 and her many problems and hardships. He said as a result she generally grew into a neurasthenic woman, unfit to be a wife or mother. He thought childhood should be endowed with more leisure.
Registration of all cases of so-called social disease and their strict supervision by boards of health was advocated in resolutions which the convention adopted.
The tango and debutante slouch, hobble skirts, tight clothes and high heels daily are incapacitating thousands of young women, according to Dr. Marian E. Clark. She told how the spine was affected by much tangoing.

July 16, 1914: Lake Harriet queen candidate aims for 3rd place

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History, Minnesota newsmakers Updated: July 21, 2014 - 10:27 PM
In 1914, the Lake Harriet Commercial Club – “an organization that does things” – held a midsummer jubilee to celebrate the club’s success and raise money to pay down debt on its new building at 2718 W. 43rd St., Minneapolis. A “vote contest” was held to select a jubilee queen. Three prizes were offered: a diamond ring for the winner, a trip to Niagara Falls for second place and a fully equipped canoe for third. Fifteen-year-old Mercedes Isabelle Nolan, who lived a few blocks from the club, coveted only the canoe. She entered the contest and campaigned vigorously … for third place. Her father, William I. Nolan, a state legislator and future congressman, must have been mystified by her political instincts.

From the Minneapolis Tribune:

She Wants That Canoe

Miss Mercedes Nolan After Third Prize in Harriet Club’s Queen Contest.
  Mercedes Nolan in 1914
Miss Mercedes Nolan, one of the eight daughters of W.I. Nolan, the Forty-third district legislator, is out for the third prize in the “queen” contest of the Lake Harriet Commercial club’s midsummer jubilee. Miss Nolan doesn’t care for the first prize or the second; she is going to campaign for the third, which is a canoe with all the equipments that a well-appointed canoe should have.
The diamond ring and the trip to Niagara Falls, the first two prizes, tempt her not at all. If she should run strong in the race so as to be uncomfortably close to the top she will have to strive to get her vote down to keep in the neighborhood of that canoe. Miss Nolan is an expert canoeist, and she is going to paddle hard between now and Aug. 3, when the jubilee week opens.
There are now four entrants in the “queen” contest. Mrs. A.C. Wakefield of 4308 Alden drive has entered and threatens to make all the unmarried contestants do some speeding. The other two entrants are not to be announced yet, as they have not turned in any votes, but they are understood to be ready to break in with a large number to their credit.
In early returns – the voting method is unclear, but it appears that a penny had to accompany each vote submitted to the club – Miss Nolan was in third place. But as more women jumped into the fray, she fell behind and in the end finished seventh. Esther Mackey won the diamond ring, Artha Anderson won the trip and Anna Giroux paddled off with the canoe.

But the “vote contest” story was neither the first nor the last time that Mercedes Nolan’s name appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune. The previous summer, she played the role of a “feminine negro servant character” in a well-received church production of “A Virginia Heroine,” a three-act comedy drama, at the Lake Harriet Commercial Club. In November 1914, she displayed quick thinking and bravery when a fire raced through the family home, 2014 W. 40th St. “Groping through the smoke,” the Tribune reported in a page one story, Nolan carried her 3-year-old sister Patty to safety, then returned and alerted another sister to the fire.

After graduating from West High, newspaper records show, Nolan worked at two banks and served on the State Bonus Board in St. Paul. In January 1920, she landed a job as booking agent for the Midland Lyceum bureau in Des Moines. Later that year, I’m sorry to report, she and two friends were killed in a car accident near Excelsior. The driver of the small roadster was unable to negotiate a tight turn on a Minneapolis & St. Louis railroad trestle. The vehicle plunged through a railing and fell bottom-side up on the road below. “Besides her father,” the Tribune’s account of the accident concluded, “Miss Nolan is survived by her mother and seven sisters, of which she was second oldest. The sisters are Genevieve, Agnes, Edwina, Wilhelmina, Theodora, Germaine and Patty.”  

July 14, 1890: Lake Pepin steamer capsizes

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History, Disasters Updated: July 17, 2014 - 6:44 PM
Powerful thunderstorms moved through Minnesota on a steamy Sunday afternoon in July 1890. A huge tornado, later immortalized in a Julius Holm painting, churned across Kohlman Lake, “a little summering place” in what is now Maplewood. At least seven people were killed and dozens injured.

That evening, about 70 miles to the southeast, on Lake Pepin, a much larger tragedy unfolded. A “cyclone” blew in from the west, capsizing a steamer carrying more than 100 passengers and crew up the Mississippi River. All told, 98 passengers died. A Minneapolis Tribune correspondent who happened to be on the scene told the tale in gripping — if maddeningly chronological — fashion.

(Originally posted in July 2008; reposted to clean up design, update links, add this image of the Tribune's front page and allow fresh comments.)


An Awful Disaster At Lake Pepin, Minn.

A Steamer Capsizes With 150 People Aboard.

The Wind and Waves Have no Mercy on Them.

Only Twenty Succeed in Saving Their Lives.

People Watch the Awful Struggle From the Shore.

But no One Could Lend Any Assistance.

The Storm Drowned the Cries of the Unfortunates.

A Disaster Never Before Equaled in the Northwest.

LAKE CITY, Minn., July 13. – [Special.] – What may prove the most disastrous storm in many years passed over this place this evening killing probably 100 people and damaging property to an extent that at this writing cannot be estimated. Your correspondent was visiting friends in Lake City and was sitting in the yard when what appeared to be an ordinary electric storm was noticed coming up from the West. In half an hour the whole heavens were converted into a complete canopy of lightning which was watched with interest by the brave citizens of the little village and with fear by the timid women and children. A little before dark a terrific wind struck the community and your reporter sought the shelter of the house just in time to escape being caught under a huge tree that came crashing down against the house. Windows were closed instantly and none too soon, for the cyclone was upon us and trees and houses were fast being demolished in its path.

The steamer Sea Wing about a year before the tragedy. (Photo courtesy

While my wife, in fear and trembling, sought the seclusion and protection of the cellar in company with the ladies, I assisted in closing shutters and making preparations for the worst that could be expected while trees were heard to be crashing down and missiles were striking against the house. The building proved strong enough to weather the blast, and in half an hour the worst of the hurricane had passed. As soon as the trees had been cleared away from the front of the house your correspondent started out and soon learned


Had befallen the place, that had not been equaled since the St. Cloud cyclone several years ago. People began to gather on the streets, and in a few moments the news was scattered abroad that an excursion boat with over 200 people on it was capsized in the middle of Lake Pepin. The boat proved to be the steamer Sea Wing, which came down the lake from Diamond Bluff, a small place about 17 miles north of here, on an excursion to the encampment of the First regiment, N. G. S. M., which is being held a mile below this city. The steamer started back on the homeward trip about 8 o’clock, and although there were signs of an approaching storm, it was not considered in any way serious, and no danger was anticipated. The boat was crowded to its fullest capacity, about


from Red Wing and Diamond Bluff being on board, and about 50 people on a barge which was attached to the side of the steamer. When about opposite Lake City the boat began to feel the effects of the storm; but the officers kept on the way. The storm increased as the boat continued up the lake. In 15 minutes it was at its height. Nearing Central Point, about two miles above Lake City, the steamer was at the mercy of the waves, which were now washing over the boat, and all was confusion. The boat momentarily ran onto a bar and the barge was cut loose, and the steamer again set adrift in the lake. A number of those on the barge jumped and swam ashore. As the barge also floated again into the deep water those on the barge saw the steamer as it was carried helplessly out into the middle of the lake, and as they were being tossed about on the raging waters, they were horrified a moment later to see the steamer and its cargo of 150 people


Those on the barge remained there until they were drifted nearer the shore and they were all rescued or swam ashore. Among them were two ladies who were brought to the beach by strong and ready swimmers. There were about 50 in all that were on the barge.

The events that transpired on the steamer after it separated from the barge are probably most clearly stated by those who were rescued from it about half an hour ago. It is now 12 o’clock midnight. As soon as the [storm] had begun to affect the progress of the boat, Capt. Weathern [Wethern, actually] gave instructions to run the boat into the Wisconsin shore but it was a too terrible force of wind and wave. In five minutes more the waves began to wash into the boat and fill its lower decks, and while hailstones as large as hen’s eggs came down on the heads of the poor helpless creatures which were huddled together on the top, a huge wave struck the craft on the side at the same moment that a terrific blast of wind, more horribly forcible than the others, came up and carried the boat over, all of the people on board; 150 or more were thrown into the water, some being caught underneath and others thrown into the waves.

The boat turned bottom upwards and only about 25 people were observed to be floating on the surface. These caught hold of the boat and climbed upon the upturned bottom, those first securing a position assisting the others. In 10 minutes more than 25 or so who had obtained momentary safety on the boat could observe no others of the boat crew or passengers floating on the surface of the continuing high sea of waves. Afterwards, however, as a flash of lightning lighted up the surface of the lake, the sight of an occasional white dress of a drowning woman or child was observable, but it was impossible for those who witnessed the horrible sight


Those remaining began calling for help from the shore as soon as the storm began to abate and in half an hour lights were observed flitting about on the pier at Lake City, opposite which point the upturned steamer had now been driven. Before help could reach them, however, the creatures who remained to tell the horrors of the night were again submitted to another battle with the elements, with no word of warning; and as they were just beginning to hope that they would be taken off by the citizens of Lake City, the boat again turned over, this on its side and again all of the 25 remaining souls were hurtled into the water. Of these several were drowned before they could be brought to the boat by those who succeeded in remaining afloat and again securing hold of the boat’s side. As the men hung on to the railing, in danger each moment of being washed away by the waves, one man observed the forms of two women wedged in between a stationary seat and the boat’s side, both pale in death, as the lightning gleams lit up their upturned faces. Another man saw two little girls floating past him as he hung with desperate efforts to the steamer’s side.

National Guard members survey the wreckage of the Sea Wing. (Photo courtesy

Half an hour after the passage of the storm your reporter went with others to the dock where the steamer Ethel Howard was anchored safe from the storm. It was presumed that the steamer would at once proceed to the rescue of the drowning, but when I asked the captain, Mr. Howard, if he was going out to the rescue, he replied that he was not going to run his boat away from the shore until the indication of another approaching storm had disappeared. He said also that he did not propose to run the risk of losing his boat in order to look for dead people out on the lake. Citizens of Lake City, who heard Captain Howard’s remarks, were most severe in their denunciation of this position he assumed in the face of the statements made to him that every minute might mean the saving of a half dozen lives. Many talked of taking the boat away from him by force, but there were not enough to put the threat into execution, and other means of rescue were resorted to. In a few minutes a dozen or more rowboats were manned and put out from the shore. The upturned boat was at last discovered;


Clinging to the boat were rescued and brought to the shore, most of them being men who could swim.

Among those who are known to have been on board the steamer and who are undoubtedly drowned are: Two children of C.H. Reberick, Peter Goken, his wife, five children and hired girl, Fred Sebes, wife and daughter, Mrs. Capt. Wethern and her two children, F. Christ, Wm. Blaker and family of three, Mrs. Hempting and daughter, Gus Beckmark; a Miss Flyn, Bose Adams and Ira Fulton. A full list of the 150 passengers, which are pretty certain to have been drowned, is not obtainable at this writing. A large majority of them were women and children. Those being saved being nearly all strong men, who were able to swim, and cling to the boat, after it had capsized. On the return from the capsized boat with three or four people who had been rescued, one of the row boats encountered two floating bodies, each with a life preserver attached.

In Lake City the damage to property by the cyclone is great, although no fatalities have been reported. Collins Bros.’ saw and planning mill is totally demolished. The roof of the opera house, owned by Mr. Hanisch, was carried away and the stores underneath more or less damaged by the rain and hail.

Up to this time, 1:30 a.m., 62 bodies have been found and laid out.

Julius Holm’s 1893 oil painting shows the Kohlman Lake tornado as it skirted the edge of St. Paul.

July 11, 1921: Wooden legs save 2 from drowning

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History Updated: July 10, 2014 - 10:21 AM
Hildy! Get me rewrite! This front-page story from the Minneapolis Tribune is a mess. But the headline is sublime.

Legless Man Swims
to Safety; Wooden
Limbs Save 2 Others

Gilbert, Minn., July 10. – While Harry Woodard, a good swimmer, was drowning, Roy Rhodda, minus his two wooden legs which became loosened when a boat occupied by five men overturned, swam 300 yards to shore. The three others in the boat also swam to safety.

The drowning took place in Ely lake near here this afternoon during a log rolling contest. The five men rowed out in the boat to gain a point of vantage. When they dropped a heavy anchor overboard the boat began filling with water. All of the men jumped into the lake and started for the shore. Woodard swam 50 yards and sank while 2,500 persons looked on. His body was recovered three hours later.

William Brown, Eveleth; Leslie Star, New London, Wis., and W.J. Ulrich, Duluth, were the three others in the boat. Rhodda told witnesses that two of his companions utilized the floating wooden legs as life preservers.


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