Larry Matthews' bike ride on a sunny day last week turned into an absorbing history lesson when he stopped to read the plaques in the newly renovated flagpole plaza along Victory Memorial Drive in north Minneapolis.
Matthews assumed it was a World War II memorial. He found out instead that the 568 names listed are those of Hennepin County's World War I dead, that the names reveal a surprising diversity in the ranks and that there were an awful lot of casualties.
"I'm impressed with it," said Matthews, a retired Army medical service corps official who lives in Robbinsdale. "I think they did a great job."
After three years of construction and restoration, Victory Memorial Drive will be rededicated Saturday, 90 years to the day after its original dedication as the county's shrine to those Hennepin soldiers, sailors and nurses who lost their lives in what was then called the "Great War." They trusted, of course, that there could never be a greater one.
The $6.7 million project, funded mostly by Hennepin County and the state, also included restoration of the nearby Grand Army of the Republic Circle and a statue of Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War memorial is lined with 10 bronze crosses for each of the county's 10 G.A.R. posts in the 1920s.
The 3.8-mile Victory Drive was planned by Minneapolis park pioneers Charles Loring and Theodore Wirth as a living memorial to the war dead. It included the flagpole plaza, a thousand new elms and individual crosses and stars of David for the fallen lining the boulevard.
Over the years, however, many of the elms fell victim to disease, markers were damaged and lights broken. Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein said the memorial had become nondescript and unrecognizable.
When the Legislature designated Victory Drive as a State Historic District in 2003, officials with the county, state, cities of Minneapolis and Robbinsdale, Minneapolis park board and veterans' groups worked together to restore it.
"It's very important to remember the 568 service people who died," Stenglein said. "These were people who were being forgotten. This will last another 100 years."
The red granite of the old plaza was replaced with new Lake Superior Green granite monuments, walls and benches. Plaques were refurbished to make them readable. A wide pavement stripe was positioned to mark the shadow the flagpole casts at the "11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month" -- Armistice Day, when World War I ended.
More than 40 new trees were planted, a mix of crabapples, spruces, maples, cedars and birches. Flower beds were expanded, lighting added and sidewalks built. Victory Drive itself was resurfaced with new asphalt. New gateway monuments mark each end of the parkway, featuring soldier silhouettes.
An exhibit on Victory Memorial Drive is on display at the Hennepin County Government Center through the end of the month. It includes a timeline about the boulevard and World War I artifacts.
Saturday's rededication will kick off with a 5K run and 2-mile walk sponsored by the Minnesotans' Military Appreciation Fund. A military plane flyover, live music and a scavenger hunt for kids will follow. The rededication ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. and include a 21-gun salute, a wreath-laying ceremony and speeches by dignitaries.
Duane Obright of St. Anthony, a former Marine and retired purchaser, also was impressed with the memorial after stopping there last week. Obright, who regularly circles Minneapolis on his bike, has watched the work progress for months.
"It's breathtaking really, just to see the flag up and the eagle" on top of the reconstructed flagpole, he said.
Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455