With a sprawling campus for more than 2,000 students, Centennial High School in Circle Pines looks like just another big, nondescript suburban school. Even the name is a tad dull — picked in 1958 to honor the state’s 100th birthday and not slight anyone from a student pool that draws from Lexington, Blaine, Centerville, Lino Lakes and Circle Pines.
But dig into the history of the Anoka County school’s location about 20 miles north of the Twin Cities, and you’ll find the stories of both an indefatigable former slave named Greenberry Chambers and a Danish-born bankrupt banker Valdemar Petersen. He founded Circle Pines in 1950 as a short-lived utopian settlement where everything would be shared communally.
Both men are reminders that the chain stores and homogenous housing in the suburbs often mask fascinating back stories.
Chambers, a former Kentucky slave, “is largely recognized as the first permanent settler of Blaine Township,” according to a Blaine Historical Society biographical sketch (see: tinyurl.com/earlyblaine).
Early Blaine extended farther east than the current suburb and was considered “almost unacceptable for either men or beast” with “third-rate,” sandy soil “on the barrens,” according to an 1847 surveyor.
Chambers was born around 1824. He and his wife, Charlotte (Lottie), had five children, but they were separated among various slave owners. After escaping his owner and hiding in the woods, Chambers enlisted in Company H of the so-called U.S. Colored Infantry toward the end of the Civil War.
Shortly after signing up, Chambers was injured away from the battlefield. While building a stockade, he suffered a wound when a rolling log slipped and forced a hand spike he was carrying to dig into his side. It would bother him until his death in 1898.
After the Civil War and slavery ended, Greenberry and Lottie Chambers gathered their children and headed north — traveling to Minnesota by steamboat in the fall of 1865.
The family settled near the location of what is now Centennial High School. According to the 1870 census, Chambers owned 160 acres of farmland — 30 cultivated — plus two horses, seven cows and a dozen pigs. He raised wheat, corn and oats. Despite his injury, his farm produced $616 a year, which ranked third among nearly 70 neighbors listed.
Within a decade, though, the sheriff foreclosed on the Chambers farm, which was nearly $700 in debt. The family moved to 18 acres a few miles southwest, near the current-day suburb of Lexington. By the early 1880s, they moved to St. Paul, where Lottie did cleaning, washing and ironing to augment her husband’s $48 annual Civil War pension. She died first, of pneumonia, and was buried in the “African Section” of St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery in 1884. For part of his last 14 years, Greenberry worked as a railroad porter. He also is buried at Oakland Cemetery.
Jump ahead 30 years to the Great Depression, when Valdemar Petersen had lost his bank and grew “obsessed with the idea that something was wrong with a system in which people had little power over their economic fate,” according to Stephen Lee’s book, “Circle Pines & Lexington, Minnesota: History of the 1800s to 2000.”
Golden Lake, a couple of miles south of Centennial High School, became a favorite picnic spot for Petersen and his wife, Fylla. They’d discovered the area — which by 1940 included a beach, refreshment stand and cabins — while scouting for venues for gatherings of the credit unions he was organizing in the 1930s.
In 1945, Petersen launched his utopian vision of a cooperative community, forging a partnership with architect Thomas Ellerbe and builder Paul Steenburg.
The community would be modeled after the Brook Farm in 1840s Massachusetts — the era of progressive thinkers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
The Brook Farm lasted only about six years, and Petersen’s dream didn’t fare much better. In 1946, his group embraced the national symbol for cooperatives — two pine trees in a circle. The Circle Pines Cooperative Association wrote a constitution and elected leaders like their New England predecessors.
The cost of public water, electricity and sewage systems would be split equally among residents of “Circle Pines,” who would live in cheap-to-build, prefabricated housing.
“Petersen thought that savings could be achieved through mass production of houses,” Lee wrote, “and with the dollar-saving benefits of cooperative living.”
Profits would be shared and residents would communally own the town’s cafe, grocery, butcher shop and tavern. Petersen and his partners projected 500 homes by 1948, but only 84 went up by 1949.
The whole dream crashed when Petersen balked at a request from some University of Minnesota sociology professors to invite families of color into their utopia. The professors argued that minorities needed the financial benefits of communal living the most. But Petersen and his partners said “no” — fearing banks wouldn’t extend credit to people of color. Black families could join in, Petersen said, but only with cash down payments. That irked the sociologists, who pulled out.
On April 7, 1950, the citizens of Circle Pines voted 89-5 to incorporate as a village — nixing the communal living. Just as the polls opened, Petersen died at 54 from a cerebral hemorrhage. Voters were stunned and figured the grand plan likely wouldn’t succeed without its primary dreamer.
His vision endures, though, on Google maps among other places. Put “Centennial High School Circle Pines MN” into your mapping search and you’ll see Inner Park in Circle Pines just south of the high school.
Looping streets with few cul-de-sacs surround Inner Park at the heart of Circle Pines — just as Petersen and Ellerbe dreamed up so residents could easily walk to a park.
From the aerial view, you can see those ringed streets interrupted by — you guessed it — Centennial High School.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.