Friday, May 29, 1896: Schoolchildren move a house

Posted on January 30th, 2006 – 7:35 PM
By Ben Welter

The Journal illustrated the front-page story with a cheery drawing.

How many children does it take to move an old, decrepit house six miles? The answer, Minneapolitans learned back in 1896, was about 10,000.

Two years earlier, a Minneapolis Journal reporter had tracked down the oldest wood-frame house west of the Mississippi and proposed to have the city’s schoolchildren team up to move the structure from its temporary address, 324 16th Av. S., to Minnehaha Park, where the Stevens House would be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

The newspaper solicited donations, added its own money and bought the house, then organized the move with the support of the Park Board, the school board, the mayor and the streetcar company. On May 28, 1896, about 10,000 first- through 12th-grade students got a day off from school to handle the big job. In seven relay teams, they latched onto ropes and helped 10 horses pull the house down Minnehaha Avenue to a spot outside the park.

You can imagine the mayhem: Thousands of largely unsupervised schoolchildren, armed with free trolley passes, loosed on the city. This story, from the competing daily, the Minneapolis Tribune, was buried on Page 5. It captures the spectacle beautifully — without once mentioning the Journal. Thanks to my colleague Dick Parker, who unearthed this bit of Minneapolis lore for his Retro feature.

ALL TOOK A HAND

SCHOOL CHILDREN MOVE THE OLD
STEVENS HOUSE.

The First Residence Built in Old Minneapolis Given a Final Site at Minnehaha Park – Enthusiastic Thousands of Grade and High School Pupils Join Hands in the Event – Rivalry Between the Central and South Side Schools Breaks Out in a New Place – Seven Relays Change About at the Task – Addresses Delivered at the Park.

Color-coded badges like this identified members of each relay team and allowed the children to ride the trolleys for free all day.

Eight thousand school children from the grades and nearly 2,000 high school students took a long pull, a strong pull and a pull altogether, and after several hours of pulling landed the historical old Stevens house within the sound of the Laughing Waters of Minnehaha yesterday.

It was a gala day in the public schools and every student who was old enough and strong enough was given an opportunity to assist in the event, before the first house ever built in Minneapolis had finished its long journey of some six miles, and had reached its last resting place, there to remain until its timbers have rotted with time. Its final home is peculiarly fitting, as there are blended together in one story two histories, that of the first Indian and the first white man within the lines which now comprise the limits of Minneapolis.

The program passed off smoothly and successfully, and the thousands of people who crowded along the line of march cheered in enthusiasm as the homely, decrepit old house was pulled along the historical Minnehaha road.

The 10,000 pupils did not all pull at once. They were divided into seven relays, each successive division being taken to their respective station in trolly cars, and arriving just in time to take up the long ropes as they were dropped by the preceding relay. Two or three of the relays were somewhat late, owing to the crowded condition of the street, and the delay made the house arrive at the falls somewhat behind schedule time.

Yet for an affair of such magnitude, there were few unpleasant incidents and no accidents. Sergt. Martinson and eight officers from the South Side police detail looked after the children with painstaking care, and prevented any serious mishap.

House-mover Pratt had already hauled the historical old building to the place of starting, at Sixteenth avenue south near Fourth street, and was in waiting at 9 o’clock for the first relay of children. With him were several linemen and electricians, who traversed the route to guard against accidents from wires.

Working in relay teams, thousands of schoolchildren — with help from 10 horses — pulled the Stevens House nearly six miles.

At 9 o’clock the corner named was surrounded by a great throng of shouting eager school children, all anxious to take hold of the big ropes which stretched out for 400 feet in front of the house. Every one was promptly on hand, and Supt. Jordan, of the public schools, and city officials looked anxiously for Col. John H. Stevens, whose hands fashioned the old building nearly a half century ago. But the sad intelligence was soon received that the venerable citizen, and the pioneer of the city, had been stricken with paralysis as the result of the excitement, and would be unable to attend. A committee was sent to offer condolence to the stricken man.

But the children knew nothing of the sad occurrence and were impatient to start on the novel journey. Contractor Pratt appeared in time with 10 strong horses and hitched the teams to the trucks. At a given signal a bugler from the state troops, clad in full regimentals, stepped between the lines of happy children and blew a merry blast. It was the order for “forward march,” and there came a tremendous strain on the ropes. The old house shook for a moment, lurched a little, and then smoothly began its long journey. A lust cry went up, which was taken by the spectators and repeated for a half mile along the line of march.

The first relay consisted of 1,100 children from the Clay, Jackson, Peabody, Corcoran, Irving, Greeley, Washington, Madison and Motley schools. They pulled the house to Franklin and Minnehaha avenues, where the ropes were dropped and a rush made for waiting trolley cars.

With equal impetuosity the second relay jumped into line, and after a short pause the house was off again. This time the Longfellow, Rosedale, Clinton, Whittier, Bryant, Sumner and Lincoln schools were pulling and tugging at the rope. Everything went smoothly, and at Twenty-sixth street the relay gave way to another from other schools.

At this point there was something of unexpected interest. Waving their school flag in triumph from the gable window of the old building the lads from the South Side High School shouted their school yell and BAD DEFIANCE TO ALL COMERS.

At this point the Central High School scholars were billed to relieve the South Siders, and consequently surrounded the building.

The Minneapolis Journal devoted much of its front page to the big move, featuring a fanciful illustration of children pulling the house — and the sad news of a killer tornado in St. Louis. [Click on the image to see the full front page.]

The spirit of school rivalry broke out, strong and bitter. The South Siders refused to surrender the fortress and flaunted their banner from the window in spite of all entreaties and orders. Contractor Pratt could not oust them. Supt. Jordan could not oust them, and finally Sergeant Martinson called for a detail of police and made a rush for the house. But the South Side lads were still game, and did not give up until several had been made to feel the force of police authority. Then they made a break. As they dashed from one door the Centrals entered by the other, and their banner was soon flying from the gable amid vociferous cheers. The South Siders were chased up the street by a detachment of Centrals, and for a moment it looked as if the rush would result in some bruised heads. However, good nature was restored and again the house started on its way. There was no hitch in the proceedings, and at 1 o’clock the house had passed the Minnehaha Driving Park. As each relay finished its work it was carried to the park, there to await the formal ceremonies in the afternoon.

The site for the building had already been prepared and the house was hauled to it rather late in the afternoon. The entire distance covered by the different relays was about four miles.

AT ITS DESTINATION.

The house arrived at the park a little after 3 o’clock. Here the proceedings were delayed, owing to a shower of rain, and it was not until 3 o’clock that the house was brought to the spot that it will occupy in the years to come. An impromptu platform was erected in front of the old doorway, from which the speeches were delivered in the presence of the many that gathered around.

Ald. Frank B. Snyder, who was born in the house, presented it to the city.

“It is both fitting and proper,” said the speaker, “to glorify the relics of by-gone days. I remember the house as it stood amid the lilac bushes beneath the foliage of overhanging trees on the green banks of the Mississippi. Many changes have come since then, and the old landmark was swept away. The old house has no commercial value, but only stands as a monument of the past. Old Home! I greet you. You are endeared to me by memories of the past. For many years you have been an outcast, forsaken, neglected, almost forgotten, I rejoice that at this late day, there has come to you, as to an old man, a second childhood: that henceforth as of old, you will nestle on the green banks of a flowing stream, beneath the foliage of overhanging trees, and that you will again feel the mist and hear the roar of the falling waters. Mr. Mayor, in behalf of the children who have brought this old building here, I now transfer the first house build in minneapolis, to you, by delivering the key, to have and to hold, for the use of the public, from this time forth, forever.”

The Stevens House in 1894, before the big move.

Mayor Pratt accepted the house in the following words:

“Honorable President of the City Council — I have the honor and pleasure, on behalf of the city of Minneapolis, to receive from you, representing the press and the school children of this city, this historic house — historic, because it was the first house built upon the site of our great and beautiful city.

“It has been a silent witness to a transformation more marvelous than any conjuration of Aladdin’s lamp. Forty-six years ago it stood alone on the border of a trackless prairie, on the west bank of the Mississippi, on the very spot that is now the center of the industrial and commercial life, not only of a great city, but also of that vast tributary region of which we are the metropolis. Forty-six years ago, a solitary house, hundreds of miles from any railroad; today, a railroad center , whose gigantic arms reach from sea to sea.

“Then it stood in a region inhabited only by savages. Now, in their place, are churches, schools and thousands of Christian homes. …”

[His honor waxed on for several more minutes, quoting a passage from Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" and praising the city's "wonderful progress" before, at last, introducing the parks commissioner, Prof. W.W. Folwell, who waxed on for several minutes himself, finishing with a call to greet the old home "with a mighty hurrah."]

The hurrahs were given with a will, after which the South Side High School brought out yells for the different personages who had each taken party in the exercises.

Minnehaha Falls in about 1895. (mnhs.org photo)

As each relay was released, the children took the next car and rode to the falls. They had all been given souvenirs that insured them a free ride, and soon the part was one mass of children. They were everywhere. There was not a spot in the large park that they did not visit; the falls, looking down at the water as it struck the waters below; down through Longfellow Glen they thronged like so many “Brownies.” At the Soldiers’ Home they made themselves perfectly at home, and here they received a cordial welcome, and were shown everything that could be of interest. They had all taken lunch baskets, and by noon the who park was a large picnic ground. Many of them became so absorbed in the different things that were to be seen that they paid no more attention to the old house after they were once at the park. Many, however, became so interested in the old landmark that they followed every move it made, lustily cheering it as, creaking, it slowly moved towards its last resting place. Many of the children began to leave as soon as the exercises were over, but it was nearly dark before the last little curiosity seekers, tired, turned their footsteps homewards to seek their beds and dream of how the little fairies had drawn the old Stevens house out to Minnehaha Park.

Here’s what the Stevens House looked like in 1900, nestled in its new surroundings near Minnehaha Falls.

At 8 o’clock last evening the railway gave an exhibition of fire works at the Falls, which in effect has never been equaled in this part of the country. The falls itself, was the object worked upon, and the result was more than human mind can comprehend without seeing it. Colored lights were placed on the rocks immediately behind the falling water, at the sides and at the bottom. Calcium lights were thrown on the water, giving the falls the appearance of a sheet of fire, and increasing the volume about six times. Fully 1,000 Japanese lanterns were strung through Longfellow glen, thereby adding to the romantic beauty of the whole.

HANDLED THE CROWD WELL.

The Twin City Rapid Transit Company deserves considerable credit for the manner in which it handled the school children yesterday. The scholars were all given badges which entitled them to free rides in the cars and the youngsters improved their opportunity all day long. Not content with riding to Minnehaha Falls and back, they put in extra time riding about the city, some traveling on as many as five different lines.

Altogether the company carried about 10,000 children. Nearly all went to the Falls after they were through pulling the Stevens house, and the majority remained there until late in the afternoon. The time limit was supposed to be eight o’clock, but there were many children who did not leave the Falls until after that hour. The rain in the afternoon helped out wonderfully, as it started the crowds toward the city, and there was not such a crush later on as there would have been but for the rain. The company had no trouble in handling the children and there were no accidents.

CRITICISM FROM VARIOUS SOURCES.

John H. Stevens, shown here in his twilight years, built the house in 1849 near what is now the Federal Reserve Bank building in downtown Minneapolis.

Yesterday’s event did not pass off without certain criticisms from various sources, and for various reasons. There were many parents who objected to sending their children out on such an excursion through anxiety lest something should happen through the day, and yet they felt as if they were called upon to do so on account of the way in which the matter had been put before the public. There were mothers who have no children, but who are interested in educational matters, and who think that there are enough holidays for the children, without an extra day being given them. If such an event was to take place it was their opinion that it should take place on some regular holiday instead of breaking in on the regular school routine. Then the park commissioners and the park policemen objected to the way in which the children took possession of the park and everything in it. There was no such thing as controlling them, and they ran over everything in sight. It would have taken a small regiment of policemen to have kept that throng in check.

STRICKEN WITH PARALYSIS.Col. J.H. Stevens Temporarily Overcome by Excitement.

Col. John H. Stevens, whose continued good health, although he has arrived at a very advanced age, has been a pleasing commentary on the salubrity of Minnesota’s climate, suffered a slight stroke of paralysis yesterday. He passed a restless night, being in a somewhat excited state of mind presumably on account of the popular demonstration in connection with the moving of his first Minneapolis home. Early in the morning, shortly after arising, he was afflicted with a paralytic stroke which for a time prostrated him completely, rendering him powerless to move a muscle in the entire right side of his body. His physician was called and rendered prompt assistance, and within a short time his condition was considerably relieved.

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