The last thing that Joyce Wisdom had in mind when she traveled to Connecticut in 2009 to wed her partner, Helen Pound, was a new promotional scheme for Lake Street.
But Connecticut has two things Minnesota lacks: a same-sex marriage law and the town of Ridgefield. That's where the couple wed, and where Wisdom discovered that residents literally put their history on the streets. For its 300th anniversary, Ridgefield installed 32 historical panels that guide walkers through the town's revolutionary and industrial-era history and heroes.
That exposure prompted Wisdom to advocate for the past year and a half for a greater sense of heritage on Lake Street, where she's the executive director of the Lake Street Council. By late this year or early 2012, she's planning that the council will unveil the first in a series of 60 plaques modeled after what she saw in Ridgefield.
The plaques will be clustered in three sections of the thoroughfare that extends east-west through south Minneapolis from the Mississippi River to the city's western border.
Visitors will be able to pick up a brochure from participating businesses and take a walking tour of a street that once was the city's agricultural fringe, then a thriving commercial strip, later the city's prime new-car emporium, and now is home to a newer generation of immigrant businesses.
Perhaps no business illustrates the street's evolution better than Schatzlein Saddle Shop, at 413 W. Lake.
Joan West is one of six Schatzlein grandchildren at a store that's been in the family since 1907. She's heard stories handed down about how her German-born grandfather Emil would repair a harness on a plow horse from then-nearby farms as it stood hitched to a post on Lake.
As development displaced farms, the business adapted to serve a clientele of serious riders and non-riders who hankered after such accessories as boots, buckles and bolo ties.
A bevy of historians and volunteers is selecting places worth remembering and researching them. They've split into three clusters: one focused on Lake west of Interstate 35W, another on the Midtown zone, and a third focused eastward from the Lake and Hiawatha Avenue intersection. The plaques will show historical photos of people, even if the focus is on a building.
Some places being considered are of recent vintage. For example, Ingebretsen's, which opened as a meat market in 1921 and later branched into other foods and gifts, still operates as an homage to things Scandinavian. The Swede-serving Gustavus Adolphus Hall, built across the street three years after Ingebretsen's opened, was sold in 1995, gutted by fire in 2004 and demolished two years ago.
Together they offer a chance to interpret an earlier wave of immigration along Lake.
Some history to be featured is long gone. There's Nicollet Park, home to the Minneapolis Millers, and briefly, such stars as Willie Mays and Ted Williams. It closed in 1955 at Lake and Nicollet Avenue S. It anchored a business district of brick storefronts that would be prized today, but were swept away in the 1970s when much of the area was razed for big-box, suburban-style development.
Another missing sports-related venue is the 1924 Minneapolis Arena, home of the hockey Millers and other teams, as well as public skating. Until it was razed in 1966, it sat where the Rainbow store now occupies Lake Street frontage.
Near the history-packed Hiawatha-Lake area, the short-lived Wonderland amusement park opened in 1905 at the corner of 31st Avenue S. It featured a roller coaster, carousel, train, dance pavilion and attractions including premature infants displayed in incubators.
The Hi-Lake area also was home to Minneapolis Moline, a manufacturer of tractors and farm machinery, with several wartime detours into armaments. It occupies a prominent place in Twin Cities labor history, with long-running worker-management disputes that didn't quit even after White Motor Co. shuttered the plant in 1972 and the site was rebuilt as Minnehaha Mall, with Target as the anchor tenant. White's slashing of pensions to about 1,100 workers was litigated for years, and helped give rise to new federal pension protection.
Other plaque candidates nearby include theaters, sites of a former library and school, an 1894 firehouse, and a longtime department store.
From talking to people involved in the $87,000 project, the main difficulty will be narrowing the candidate list to 60. Availability of photos from back in the day will play a role.
"We want people with photos of Lake Street things hidden away in their homes, or from when their grandmother lived around the corner, to dust those things off," said Cara Letofsky, who is working on Longfellow area sites.
With fundraising left to do, the project is more than half-funded. The cost will be $4,500 less if the council isn't forced to pay a $75 variance permit fee to the city for each plaque.
Wisdom is itching to get started. "It's more than past time to get this geared up for actual installation," she said. The way she sees it, the plaque project is a boost for Lake Street business: "I think school groups will use it. When they talk about it, their parents will want to come."
Another view of Lake Street
A Cliffs Notes version of Wing Young Huie's six-mile public showing in 2000 of 675 photos taken along Lake Street is set for public display.
A 60-photo permanent display of selected images make up a city-sponsored exhibit at its Public Service Center, 250 S. 4th St., on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. They were donated to the city by the Harrington Co. of St. Louis Park. The photographer will discuss his work on May 2 at a noon brown-bag lunch at the exhibit site.
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"Few public offices are burdened with such high public expectations and clothed with such minimal real authority as the office of Mayor of Minneapolis." -- Attorney Floyd B. Olson, Report on Government Restructuring, 1996.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438