This blog covers everything except sports and gardening, unless we find a really good link about using dead professional bowlers for mulch. The author is a StarTribune columnist, has been passing off fiction and hyperbole as insight since 1997, has run his own website since the Jurassic era of AOL, and was online when today’s college sophomores were a year away from being born. So get off his lawn.

Posts about Minnesota History

The other Bonnie and Clyde

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: December 10, 2014 - 3:22 PM

A reader sent this along:

 In case you’re wondering if the church is still around, of course it is. Most are. Here it is:

It's an interesting place inside - almost a time capsule untroubled by modernization. It has a homeless shelter in the basement, with a kitchen that serves meals to anyone who shows up. More on its mission here, if you're interested. 

Anyway: the note said the ads were interesting, and that’s true. More so than the recipes. It’s the usual - Pig Aspic, Cream of Acorn Soup, the usual stuff from the era before food got interesting. I’ll be posting some ads now and then, for a few reasons: everything mentioned in the book is gone, but many of the addresses remain. The neutron bomb known as “Time” eliminated all the animate matter, and it was all so long ago that the grandchildren have probably thrown out the photos and receipts and scraps left behind by the business owners. The book has a date “1933” written on the inside cover, but the graphic style is still stuck in the 20s. And that’s the real 20s, not the Gatsby-Deco style some people believe was the look of the decade. This was typical:

The Electric Laundry! Your clothes will be shocked into cleanliness. The Transportation Brotherhoods National Bank opened in 1922 and printed money for nine years; they could do that back then. 

Also of note in the cookbook: some recipes cut out by the owner from a newspaper. It was the other side that got my attention:

SMALL TOWN GIRL WHO TURNED GUN MOLL.  Here's where Wikipedia comes in handy. Cue the banjos:

Bennie (Born Topeka, Kansas, died April 6, 1939) and (Estelle?) Stella Dickson (née Redenbaugh) (August 25 Topeka, Kansas, 1922 – 1995 in Missouri) were Depression-era outlaws and bank robbers in the United States. They successfully stole over US $50,000 in an eight-month period from August 1938 to April 1939.

A husband and wife team in the style of Bonnie and Clyde, Bennie Dickson and his newlywed wife "Sure Shot" Stella began their criminal career on Stella's 16th birthday by robbing a bank in Elkton, South Dakota of $2,174 on August 25, 1938. Two months later, they stole $47,233 in cash and bonds from a bank in Brookings, South Dakota on October 31. Although tracked by police to a tourist campground in Topeka, Kansas, the Dicksons were able to escape after a brief gunfight when officers attempted to arrest them on November 24.

Separated during the escape, Bennie drove his car to South Clinton, Iowa, and after stealing another car, doubled back to Topeka to meet Stella at a rendezvous on November 25. Traveling to Michigan, several attempts over the next few days were made by authorities to capture them, including one incident in which Stella shot the tires out on a pursuing patrol car (earning her the moniker "Sure Shot" Stella).

After taking three men hostage, Bennie and Stella were able to steal getaway cars in Michigan and Indiana, later eluding police on the countryside backroads. Shortly after arriving in St. Louis, Bennie was shot and killed by arresting FBI agents while at a hamburger stand on April 6, 1939, with Stella being arrested in Kansas City the following day.

Taken back to South Dakota to stand trial, Stella was convicted of two federal counts of bank robbery and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Stella Dickson remained behind bars until she was 26. She later lived in Raytown, Missouri., where she worked as a grocery store clerk and was married several times.

She died of emphysema at age 72, in 1995.

Much more here - seems Benny's family had a cabin Lake Benton. A 1939 Liberty Mag story here, with a picture of Stella. By the way, the first link has this assertion: " Descendants of Benny, who died at the age of 27, contend he was railroaded into crime. The couple were victims of the FBI public relations machine in the 1930s that ignored organized crime, instead focusing on small-time crooks the federal agents knew they could capture, a biographer of the Dicksons said."

It would seem difficult to railroad someone into robbing banks at gunpoint.

Happy Birthday, Peg Lynch

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: November 25, 2014 - 3:30 PM

A train compartment out east, many years ago. Two Minnesotans sitting across from each other, one behind a newspaper. She thinks: is it him?

It’s possible he’d caught a glimpse of her and wondered: is that her? After all, she’d been in the papers. She had a sitcom on TV for three years.

“I thought, well, that’s him,” she said, recounting the meeting last year. “That’s Lindbergh. So when I got up to go I just had to say something, you know, and he looked at me and smiled, and I said, ‘How was your flight?’”

She rolls her eyes and laughs, but it’s just the thing one of her characters would have said - flustered, a bit forward, then knocking herself afterwards for such an obvious remark.

You know Lindbergh. The woman? Well, let’s back up a bit.

Her radio career started in Albert Lea, writing ads. She started to frame the pitches as a conversation between a husband and wife. Ordinary folk, chatting like a million other couples who knew each other inside and out. If the voice on the air sounded like someone you knew, that was her gift as an actress; if the copy made you want to buy something, that was her skill as a writer. Somewhere along the line, between doing ads in Albert Lea and writing comedy for radio, she invented the sitcom.

It’s time we give a hand to Peg Lynch, a pioneer of the airwaves who deserves to be considered as one of the most marvelous talents who got her start in this state.

She doesn’t live here now, but we can make the case to claim her as one of us. U of M grad. Her mother was a Mayo nurse - personal nurse to Dr. Charles Mayo, as it happened. If the name isn’t immediately familiar, you can blame the historians of TV and radio’s golden age; they’re all about Lucy and Jack Benny, neither of whom wrote their own stuff like Peg. Or you could blame a WCCO programmer who passed on her show in 1958.

I’m not saying that still rankles, but when you introduce yourself as a Minnesotan and she brings up ‘CCO’s decision 56 years after the fact, you suspect it rankled. As it should have.

When I first discovered her work last year I did something you can’t do with most of the giants of old radio: I called her up. I expected a frail voice - she was 97, after all - but I got a robust Hello? I apologized for the intrusion.

“Oh, I’m just watching that movie where Olivia DeHavilland goes crazy," she said. "How can I help you?”

If I wasn’t the first fan who’d called her out of the blue, I felt like it. I got the Full Peg, a flood of anecdotes and recollections. At the end of the conversation she invited me to come out to the Berkshires and stay a while. (“Bring your family!” she said. “We have a whole upstairs. We never use it, we’re old.”) Come the summer I flew out, rented a car, and drove the narrow roads into the woods, and sat down for a few interviews, some of which can be found in the video above.

It hasn’t been Peg’s best year; she landed in the hospital for a spell, and lost her husband of many decades, a former Norwegian WW2 commando later named one of New York City’s most handsome businessmen. But her tireless daughter, Astrid, has not only put up a website celebrating her mother’s work (peglynch.com, of course) she struck a deal with a distributor of old radio shows, and Peg’s brilliant comedy serial has appeared SiriusXM radio. She’s on the air again.

Lindberg, by the way, smiled when Peg asked how his flight had been.

“I made it!” he said.

And so did Peg.

(Here's the site: enjoy.)

The last Downtown East building goes down

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: October 9, 2014 - 12:25 PM

Pause for a moment to say farewell to one of those unremarkable buildings you never notice until the machines show up and claw it to rubble.

It had a name:

All those bricks, hand-laid; that sign, hand-carved. The view from the front door on Wednesday afternoon looked clean through to the building on the other side of the street:

A few remnants of its past hung on for decades - here's the old alarm bell, with a board that probably had instructions on who to call it the thing was screaming FIRE or BURGLARS.

It's not an ornate building, but they did what they could with a tight budget:

Even the most modest buildings needed a few classical touches.

An ancient ghost ad on one side, punctured by windows - which were replaced by smaller ones, lest all that light distract people working inside:

In the end, scraps and rubble.

More tomorrow, or rather less; it'll be gone by the end of today. A parking ramp and hotel will rise on the side, making three full blocks under construction downtown. There was nothing about this one that made the preservationists take to the barricades, but it is regrettable to lose another old modest building, even if the replacement is more useful and throws off more tax revenue.

But try telling that to the litttle boy who was watching the demolition with his father yesterday, goggling at the great claw pulling the structure apart. It was the best thing he'd ever seen. Only a T-Rex kicking it down would have been better.

There was another Weatherball

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: October 7, 2014 - 12:15 PM

Another what, you ask? Well. If you google Midland Bank nowadays the Hotel Minneapolis pops up. The hostel is housed in the Midland’s former building, which was originally the Security Bank, which is . . . nice to know, I guess; impresses visitors. Yes, that structure was once called something else. Some folks ‘round these parts still remember the old Security Bank. They had these tan-colored passbooks with a nubby finish. “Course, most banks at the time had black, but Security, they went for the tan -

SHUT UP! TELL IT TO THIS HISTORICAL SOCIETY!

In any case, I don’t care about the Security Bank, the Midland Bank, or anything else to do with the structure. It is a pedestrian building of little interest, except for the restored interior. Here’s some pictures from Norwest’s archives of the lobby, premodernization; take a look at this Full-Service Robot Teller of the Future shot from the early 70s. But all this is irrelevant to the revelation I had the other day when looking at some old matchbooks, and yes, I know that the words “revelation” and “matchbooks” are rarely found in the same sentence, for good reason.

Anyway. From the Hennepin County Library, which has a plenitude of sundered links these days:

That’s not the old Midland bank building. It’s the LaSalle building, demolished for the IDS. Emporis says: “The La Salle Building received a new Art Moderne facade, designed by Larson & McLaren, in 1948 to replace the original facade of terra-cotta.”

The matchbook:

It had a weather ball. There was another Weatherball.

Sit right down and you'll hear a tale

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: September 24, 2014 - 12:13 PM

A tale of a fateful . . . menu. Yes, I will get as many blog entries out of that NYC Library menu site as possible. Today it’s the North West, a steamship from the Northwest Company line. (It operated in the North Central region.) It’s an example of a forgotten part of Minnesota history: the passenger steamships that plied the Great Lakes, brought to you by a consortium that included - of course - James J. Hill. Details from the front of the menu:

The menu begins thus:

Seems like a lot of money for celery.

As for the ship, it had a grim end. Lots of passenger ships had sad endings; makes you wonder what will become of the enormous liners that sail the seas today, providing they don’t have a skipper who runs them into a rock. The North West had a fire, which the crew of any liner will always tell you is the worst-case scenario. I suppose so, but it always seems a bit counterintuitive, since the ships are surrounded by fire’s greatest enemy. It’s not as if you can run out of water to extinguish it. (Yes, yes, I know that’s stupid. But still.)

From a page about the ship and the Northern Steamship Company:

An explosion of oils in the paint room of the Northern Steamship liner, "North West," lying in her winter quarters in the Blackwell Canal,n orth of Tifft Street, early this morning started a fire that completely destroyed the upper works and interior of the big steel steamer.

Her sister ship, the "North Land," moored alongside the "North West," received a bad scorching but was dragged out of the path of the flames by the Fireboats Potter and Grattan.

Officials of the company who were early summoned to the fire estimated the total loss approximately at about $600,000. Ample insurance, they say, covers it.

Both the 'North West" and the "North Land" were scheduled to be placed in commission on June 21st, and outside the commissary departments both ships were fully stocked and ready for the coming season's business.

The fire started shortly before 4 o'clock. Four watchmen were employed on the ships and each of them made hourly rounds. One of the watchmen passing along the upper decks heard a muffled report below and peering over the rail he saw a pointed jet of flame dart from one of the port holes of the paint room. He called to the other watchmen and then jumped down to the runway alongside the ship and made all haste to the big flour house of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, a full 100 feet to the north. There he said an alarm was sent to Fire Headquarters through the railroad company's private box.

After that? Here’s another page on the ship:

Burned to a shell 1911. Cut in two to transit to the St. Lawrence in 1918; forward half lost in transit. Aft end united with new bow and renamed Maplecourt. Returned to the Lakes after WWI but taken out again and during WWII torpedoed with all hands February 6, 1941.

It looked quite different by then, as this page shows, along with the details of its death:

At 17.52 hours on 6 Feb 1941 the unescorted Maplecourt (), a straggler from station #84 in convoy SC-20, was hit just aft of the engine room by one stern torpedo from U-107 and sank rapidly by the stern about 120 miles west of Rockall. The U-boat had chased the ship for about eight hours and missed with one torpedo during a first submerged attack at 

13.53 hours. The Germans observed how the survivors managed to abandon ship in two lifeboats, but they were never seen again: the master, 35 crew members and three gunner were lost.

Here’s the man who sank it: Captain Gunter Hessler. He sunk 19 ships. He survived the war, and ended up working for the Royal Navy, writing the definitive account of U-boat warfare. More on him here.

None of which anyone could possibly predict when they sat down, opened up the menu, and thought “That’s a lot of money for just some celery,” and settled in for a nice, uneventful cruise.

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