Last fall, I had the opportunity to explore a few remnants of the Twin Cities’ early nineteenth century history, survivors of more than a hundred years of urban renewal and change the dynamic region has experienced as it enters the 21st century.
A history buff with a master’s degree to show for it, I appreciate the changes that have led to a world where we might question the appropriateness of naming one of our most popular natural landmarks after one of the nineteenth century’s foremost proponents of white supremacy, restoring it to the name given it by the region’s original inhabitants, the Dakota. In the mid-nineteenth century Minneapolis and St. Paul were beginning to come to prominence as a major agricultural hub, feeding the world. At the same time, they relied heavily on investments obtained through the buying and selling of human lives and planned the wholesale destruction of the people who already lived here. Also the region became the destination for thousands of immigrants who would bring their own cultural and political ideas here, making it among the most heavily immigrant states in the country. As these tensions and contradictions became untenable and the continued presence of slavery in a nation founded on equality led to Civil War, Minnesota was fast to join the Union cause in spite of taking in so much slaveholding investment to found various state institutions, in particular the University of Minnesota. The relics of these times that still exist can provide a little time traveling to these fraught and interesting eras, and I do appreciate the chance to delve into the past.
One such survivor was recently brought back to life in the up and coming West 7th neighborhood of St. Paul. Waldmann Brewery and Wurstery is housed in the oldest commercial building in Minneapolis-St. Paul, originally built in 1857 as one of the city’s first German immigrant lager saloons. Established by Bavarian immigrant Anton Waldmann, the saloon operated until 1863, and survived the next hundred and fifty years as a rental property before being completely renovated as one of the St. Paul’s most interesting new breweries. The drinking culture of German immigrants was, at the time, a controversial and dangerous aspect of these foreigners, though people did take quickly to the new German innovation of lager beer as it was thought to be a less alcoholic alternative to the Yankees’ ubiquitous whisky. So Waldmann Brewery’s authentic
recreations of 19th century German beer styles is particularly intriguing as they are both “old fashioned” to our current brewing techniques while being a “cutting edge” technology to the period. A new innovation from this culture which was beginning to influence the current culture of the Twin Cities, and yet are also emblematic of the fears of immigration that always strike the country.
Visiting last fall, the little stone saloon was packed with people enjoying the painstakingly restored architecture and ambiance. With the wood burning stove, the flickering oil lamps, and the period decor, it really does feel like going back in time. It is quite a cozy place to enjoy some beer and comfort foods such as wurtz and smoked fish (if you are a meat eater), or pretzels and cheese, if not.
Just down West 7th Street is another nineteenth century survivor, the impressive home of Alexander Ramsey, first territorial and second state governor, completed in 1872. Ramsey was at the heart of the contradictions present at the founding of the state, being the first governor to pledge troops to the Civil War while also advocating the genocide of the Dakota people in response to the US Dakota War, started as a result of Ramsey’s and other white elites enforcing fraudulent and exploitative treaties against them.
Ramsey’s ornate home definitely reflects the Victorian splendor of the gilded age elite, with technologies that would be the top of the line at the time, including both hot and cold running water and steam heated radiators. Ramsey’s family willed the mansion to the state, along with ninety percent of its original furnishings, and it is maintained as a museum by the Minnesota Historical Society. Today, the MNHS hosts many educational and entertainment events in its lavish halls.
I had never visited the Ramsey House until last October, when my wife and I saw an MNHS “History Happy Hour” focusing on historical hoaxes, including nineteenth century “fake news.” Arriving after dark on a rainy evening, the old mansion definitely had a spooky ambience, an atmosphere not harmed by the oppressive Victorian opulence. It was definitely an interesting discussion, touching on historical falsehoods that, in the past as well as the present, reach fever pitch in the popular culture. The Happy Hours are held the last Thursday of every month, and are a good way to experience the house and learn some information about the Victorian period and other historical topics, along with a drink or two.
Of course, the most infamous and prominent historical building in the state is across the river at Fort Snelling, ground zero of these themes of oppression and site of many of the atrocities the state and federal governments were privy to; the genocide of native peoples as well as the enslavement of people throughout the United States. The site where Dred Scott was brought as a slave by an army surgeon who leased his work, leading him to assert his freedom only to be ruled against by the Supreme Court, and where hundreds of Dakota were imprisoned in squalid concentration camps before being driven from the state, it symbolizes much of the injustice of American history.
The fort was built in 1819 at a prominent and sacred location for the Dakota, near the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers by United States forces to consolidate their power over the indigenous population of this formerly French territory, sold recently to them by Napoleon in order to fund his wars of conquest. It is an interesting example of how the confluence of global history can converge on a single location, and emblematic of the Euro-American quest for domination of the continent. Interestingly, and perhaps in part because of this conflicted history, by the 1950s only a few vestiges of the old fort survived, notably the Round Tower and the South Battery. By 1960, the MNHS performed extensive archaeological and reconstructing work, restoring the old fort’s appearance to that of the 1820s, making it one of their flagship historic sites. The site of many school trips and events, traditionally emphasizing it’s military history.
The MNHS is, however, currently working on a major revitalization project at the Fort, hoping to better serve the “many voices, many stories” that exist there, but there is still a dark, ominous feeling at the place. Not that I believe in ghosts or anything!
This feeling was heightened when Lindsay and I visited the site one late autumn evening after the sun had already disappeared, the moon was hidden behind dark clouds, and the winter cold had just begun to set in. I had not been since I was a kid, but we visited to experience one of the MNHS’ “CSI: Fort Snelling” events for the Halloween season, an interactive mystery based on a historical crime that actually took place in the fort. A crime unrelated, of course, to the matters of slavery and genocide that are centered there.
As someone who has been known to engage in a roleplaying game or two, and drawn to the idea of time travel, the idea of this event appealed to me. Time travel is, of course, a much more appealing thought for someone who needs not worry about their safety in the past. In spite of my knowledge of the horrors that took place here, it did not occur to me, in my privileged place, how inappropriate such an event in so fraught a place might be. As I discovered later, there was some controversy regarding the CSI: Fort Snelling event as people called out its insensitive nature and, in response, the MNHS will no longer organized the event in the future as they strive to serve a more inclusive mission with their revilization. Even when one is primed for such awareness, it is all too easy to forget, which is why it is so important to increase the acknowledgement of these aspects of our history. As it was, we set out to the fort curious about what this story might entail.
In this scenario, “The Musician’s Secret,” set in 1827, we would be portraying members a crowd of Scottish and Swiss refugees from the ill fated attempt at at settlement in the Assissinobine territory, near where Winnipeg exists today. It proved to be an atmospheric but crowded event. We arrived with a large group of tourists, bundled up for the cold, and were handed info sheets to get us caught up with who we were and the various personages we would encounter. Entering the walls of the fort, we found quite a few people milling around bonfires drinking beer and cider while listening to period fiddlers. Most were dressed in in street clothes, though a few came dressed as time traveling vampires.
Organized by the Scottish Lord Selkirk, the colony was plagued by disasters, flooding and locusts, and many prospective squatters, including “us,” who had plodded down the Red River ox cart road in an attempt to return to Europe. Stopping at the fort, hoping to board a steamship at St. Paul to return to the coast, we were supposed to have become entangled in the story of a musician and fellow former Selkirker who, it was said, stashed some gold nearby only to have been murdered by person or persons unknown. Given the information we were presented as we were guided around the fort, we were tasked with unraveling the conspiracy, identifying the culprit, and assisting with the trial.
The actors, costumed in their historically accurate garb and portraying various soldiers, servants, travelers, and professionals, were exuberant and earnest in that community theater sort of way, through the large group of people being led around did not really lend to too much interactivity, or much investigation or questioning as it was difficult to make sure everyone heard everything. While I did figure it out in the end, it was more my knowledge of the tropes of the genre than any clues I managed to garner over the course of the investigation. As an RPG aficionado, it also would have been better to have had more of a motivation in our “roles” as well.
However, none of this even acknowledges the stories of pain and injustice that took place at the fort, centered with its function as an outpost of the will of the invading colonial forces. As the MNHS struggles to make this surviving bit of our past reflect all of the viewpoints and tragedies that it’s existence created, taking stock of such uses of its history is important. In the end, I am not sad to see the end of CSI: Fort Snelling, though it remains to be seen how the stories of the cruelty of the state and it’s government will be told.
Look forward to more time travel adventures in the future as I write about some places in the Twin Cities that will bring you back to the 1920s and ‘30s and the 1950s and ‘60s, two interesting periods of 20th century history here.
This will be my last update of my adventures in 2017, and I’ll shortly be recounting some of the adventures of the first few months of 2018, including why updates have been so sparse around here of late!