Lodged in the clock tower atop Minneapolis City Hall is a room, six tiers high, filled with more than 150 years of city history.
It’s a jumble of records and files, from the city’s earliest attempts to regulate “bawdy houses” and control the sale of liquor, to the causes of specific fires 100 years ago (often “boys with matches”) and petitions to oust the mayor and police chief in 1934.
The Minneapolis city archives are an historian’s dream, overseen by a small city staff committed to record preservation that relies on volunteer help in an effort to sort through the materials.
“There has never been a dedicated archivist,” said city records manager Josh Schaffer, who fills in the best he can fielding the inquiries and requests of college students and academics while working to preserve a bygone era.
Indeed, the large drafty room, without modern temperature and humidity controls, is not suited to preserve the increasingly brittle paper documents and volumes that chronicle the city’s past.
“They are sitting here and deteriorating, which is why we are working with partnerships to digitize all these materials,” Schaffer said. “It’s a massive undertaking to get these online, but when you see the condition, you see the need for urgency to do something now.”
Volunteers include students from St. Catherine University, which offers a library and information science degree. They help inventory materials and offer recommendations on how to preserve them.
“I think the material is fascinating,” says Molly Hazelton, adjunct instructor of archives at St. Catherine. “It’s really a time capsule of what has happened in Minneapolis.”
Others make appointments to come in and do research. Along the way, they’ve uncovered stunning and curious records.
Criminals to carriages
In the early 1900s, before fingerprint technology, Minneapolis police used the Bertillon System of Criminal Identification, developed by a French criminologist, to keep files on city criminals. The city has 10 police volumes containing thousands of names based on the system. Those arrested were classified by width and length of their heads, ear length, size of nose, color of their left eye, the shape of their chin and the tilt of their forehead.
Some of the police descriptions of criminals read like paragraphs out of the film noir period. Howard Schorer, 47, for example, is described as “one of the smoothest men that Minneapolis has ever had to deal with,” flooding Minneapolis and St. Paul with forged checks and swindling a Chicago clothing store out of $400 “by cheek and false pretenses.”
The volumes of the Minneapolis Workhouse where convicted criminals did shorter sentences, could make for an interesting study in how people’s physical size has changed from the 1800s to today. The record book lists the people who did time from 1886 onward, almost all men — and a quick scan showed almost all of the men of the 1880s weighed less than 160 pounds. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, today’s average man weights nearly 196 pounds.
On one shelf are the handwritten minutes of the City Council of St. Anthony — the precursor to Minneapolis — including the minutes from its first meeting in 1855, which describe how the first mayor, aldermen and city clerk, are sworn.
A petition at the meeting by Mr. E.H. Day and others “for the suppression of the sale of intoxicating liquors as a beverage on the sabbath” was received and tabled. Also on the agenda was a proposal for licensings for “gaming, bawdy and disorderly houses” and the “procurement of an apartment for the confinement of criminals.”
St. Anthony’s proposed first official seal was hand-drawn on the minutes.
An early handwritten ordinance from St. Anthony, sitting in an obscure little box with other ordinances, declares, “No person or persons shall ride or drive any horse, mare or mule, carriage of any kind, within the limits of the city of St. Anthony faster that the rate of eight miles per hour.” The fine is not to exceed $5 and cost of prosecution.
If you are looking for details on the dead, there is a card file containing the names of all the people buried in the Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery — the city’s oldest cemetery at Cedar Avenue and East Lake Street, containing the remains of some the city’s pioneer residents and soldiers going back to the War of 1812.
Schaffer hauls out a box containing aging petitions with what appears to be many thousands of names calling for the impeachment of Minneapolis Mayor A.G. Bainbridge and Police Chief Mike Johannes, following the police shooting of Teamster strikers in 1934, which killed two strikers and wounded 67.
The petitions refer to Bainbridge’s and Johannes’ “Hitlerized reign of terror in our city of Minneapolis” and blames them for the “bloody murders on Black Friday, July 20th, 1934.”
On another shelf are 17 large books listing all the fires that occurred in Minneapolis, starting in 1907 including the causes. Among them: “boys and matches,” “woman has fit,” and “careless with cigar stub.”
There are the records of every firefighter who did not turn up for work between 1915 to 1921. Among reasons listed, “kicked by horse” and “injured cranking dept. auto in response to alarm.”
Minneapolis property assessment rolls date back as far as 1860 with a lot by lot description for residential housing, and estimated values — mostly $20-$30 each.
City health records include a report on efforts by the city to stem an 1888 cholera outbreak and a rodent control campaign in 1942 to drive rats out of Minneapolis. Starve them, advised a city pamphlet, and kill them.