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You can put it down as one of those rare top-down ideas that really worked.
It was a December day in 1919, with a blanket of snow glistening in the morning sun, as Theodore Wirth drove from Lake Harriet to Minnehaha Park. But the park superintendent saw something that disturbed him.
"I wished that every man, woman and child could see the beauties of Minnehaha Park as I was seeing them that morning," Wirth recalled in his history of Minneapolis parks. "Yet I did not meet a single soul the entire six miles of that drive."
From that observation, Wirth resolved to do more to lure people into the city's parks and parkways. He turned the matter over to an underling who within a month had organized a group hike of 3 1/2 miles along W. River Parkway on a January Saturday afternoon. Eighty-three people showed up, including the mayor, a judge and Wirth himself.
That was the birth of the Minneapolis Municipal Hiking Club, which turned 90 this year, which unfortunately is to be its last. The club is disbanding this month, a victim of an aging membership and changing exercise habits. But it once boasted a membership as high as 500, offering a busy roster of health-promoting hikes, canoe trips, skating outings, dances, dinners and fellowship that invigorated outdoor-minded Minneapolitans for decades. And some friendships struck up while hiking even led to marriages.
In 1928 alone, the club offered 88 hikes. Older photos show hikers sporting knee-length, lace-up leather boots, jodhpurs, and the odd beret at a jaunty angle, projecting an amiable robustness.
One weekend outing started with a Saturday hike from Stillwater, then at the limits of the streetcar line, to Somerset, Wis., 10 miles away. The next morning, the 78 stalwarts followed a gorge to the St. Croix, then hiked its bluffs back to Stillwater, notching another 18 miles.
On another Wisconsin hike along the gorge of the Kinnickinnic River, members hiked between perpendicular walls of rock, fording the stream 10 times in 12 miles. The club's yearbook doesn't mention the nettles and brambles that can choke the gorge.
Of course, it didn't take as long to get to good hiking country in the 1920s and 1930s, when the street grid ended well within the present city limits of Minneapolis. Loretta Shefland, the dean of the club at age 99, joined in 1934. Her first Sunday club hike was in the winter and began at W. 54th Street and Penn Avenue S., looping out into the countryside to the south before returning to Lake Calhoun.
"The snow was halfway up to my knees, and I didn't have the right equipment on," the Richfield resident recalled. She was so sore the next day that she almost didn't make it to work. But a more experienced hiker told her the cure was more hiking, so she took another hike three days later.
"That made me limber, and I've been hiking ever since," said Shefland. She hiked at nearby Wood and Round lakes until recently, when advancing age caught up to her. "I miss it so much," she said.
The aging of the club and its inability to attract younger members is finally catching up with the hiking club, too. The average age of its board is 84 years, and like many members, some participate more in the club's social events than its hikes. But not all.
Alice Aukes, for example, joined the club for one of its last hikes earlier this month at Lake Harriet. The 91-year-old Edina woman walks nearly every day at Centennial Lakes, and she likes Harriet for its absence of uphill and downhill terrain.
She joined the club in 1984 to have something to do after retirement. She figures it's been good for her. "I don't need a cane or crutch or anything yet," she noted.
Three to five miles is the norm now for the club's hikes. Although hikes in the last few months have drawn as many as two dozen walkers, a few have drawn as few as four. Trips by bus or excursion boat draw better. The club has focused in its last month of existence on hiking the park system that Wirth built.
On a crisp mid-October day, when the wind rearranged fallen leaves, Dateline joined Peggy Stevenson, 76, a club member for 37 years, and five other hikers who made a circuit of Lake Calhoun. The early pace was fast enough that Stevenson puffed a bit as she answered Dateline's questions.
She was looking for a cycling club for women when a friend suggested she try the hiking club instead. "I didn't know we had one," she said.
Stevenson recalls a full schedule of twice-weekly hikes and other outings, combined with singing and dances, and an annual dress-up banquet. She led hiking trips to Europe. Compared to its peak of 500 people, the club is down to perhaps a hundred members "and half of those can't hike anymore," she said.
Members used to have to campaign to get on the club's board. "Now you take the presidency and you can't get rid of it," she said.
Some Minneapolis club members may check out the St. Paul counterpart, also founded as a municipal club a year later than Minneapolis. Most of its members are over 50, and it staved off a near-death experience several years ago. "They hike a lot faster than we do," Stevenson said.
Technically, but not always, the leader sets the pace. The Minneapolis club used to have one hike leader who took offense if anyone got ahead of him, and was likely to change the route if someone did, leaving that heading off alone.
"We used to have 50 people, whether it was rain or snow," Stevenson said. She's not sure what she'll do now on Sunday afternoons without the club.
But times have changed. It's easier now to zip up to the North Shore and hike in a small group on the Superior Hiking Trail, or to Wisconsin for the Ice Age Trail. There are lots more opportunities for recreation that have become popular, from jogging to cross-country skiing to windsurfing. People interested in walking exercise often get it at city lakes, or along the river by themselves or with a friend.
The group dwindled to three by the end of Stevenson's hike, and the pace to more of a stroll.
The group was met by Dale Hartman, 83, husband of one of the hikers. The retired electrician from St. Louis Park sits on a bench today at Calhoun, but back in 1993, shortly after retirement, the onetime Honeywell electrician logged 460 of a possible 480 miles of club hikes. His closest competitor was an older woman. She lost out, he said, because "she took too long a vacation."
But now the club is pacing toward its disbanding. A farewell luncheon was held last week. The last Minneapolis hike is today at 2 p.m. at the Wirth Lake parking lot. It will circle the lake, follow cross-country ski trails and pass the bog.
There will be one more hike -- at Wood Lake in Richfield on Halloween, and then the Minneapolis Municipal Hiking Club will become a ghost of its past.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438