Ghosts, the dearly departed, fallen veterans and a pining for my own family roots were all in the mix on Memorial Day weekend when I first fell down the rabbit hole that is the Star Tribune’s new digital archives. Past is prologue as Shakespeare said, and for a Minneapolis-born kid and avowed ink-stained wretch like me (who often finds the present too stupid and contagious to pay attention to) these archives are a godsend.
Dig it: Anyone who subscribes to the archives gets a highly searchable and readable time machine presented in real gone time, whose information dump was once the sole domain of microfiche-outfitted libraries and newsrooms. If I were to offer one absolute must-search for everybody reading this, especially readers with an affinity for local news and Minneapolis neighborhoods, I’d suggest dialing up your own home address and all the addresses that you and your family and friends have ever lived at in this toddlin’ town, or the addresses of meaningful bars, restaurants, hotels and office buildings. If your searches are as lucky as mine have been, you’ll find news snippets about old haunts that provide a vivid sense of people and place, not to mention a reminder that we’re all just passing through.
(Fair warning, though: After bingeing on centuries- and decades-old stories for a few hours, I took a break to walk the dog and found myself wandering south Minneapolis in a blasted-by-the past daze, with turn-of-the-century visions of sandlots and sunflower fields morphing with today’s storefronts, mansions and lakes to the point where I swear I could see trolley cars and cornstalks.)
With an eye toward anything that might help explain these mad times, I wandered the archives like a detective in an antique store. In addition to an overall snarky and entirely unimpressed Midwestern journalistic tone that persists today (“The Beatles are coming to town; YAWN”), I found fascinating news, sports and music stories that drew me in for the writing and reporting alone. I collected a book’s worth of stories about police, race relations and the white majority, including what must be this burg’s first editorial on police brutality — in 1898. I spent a couple of hours sussing out attitudes toward ’70s “women’s libbers” (talk about snarky), stalked old friends and new, and, more than anything, dove into my own family’s history.
It was a bender, for sure. Memorial Day weekend found me alone and going through a tough personal life transition and as such, I had all sorts of time and feelings on my hands about family ties and my hometown. I cuddled up with those old newspapers like they were love letters from old friends, and ultimately found the search itself to be edifying on a soul level, and oddly comforting.
My parents are both in their 80s and still alive and reading, and my brothers and sisters are all within e-mail earshot, so I wanted to connect. I found birth announcements, obituaries, honeymoon plans, tales of plane crashes, murder, and high and low society. I found a 1928 front-page story about a fire that killed two in the future home of my family on Colfax Avenue S., and an announcement about my aunt on the “Women’s Page” (launched in the ’30s and ended in the ’50s) that came with the breaking-news headline, “Miss Walsh Becomes Bride.”
I dialed up my paternal grandmother and unearthed a 1920 photo of her with a traditional Irish step-dancing group (she’s the one in the leprechaun hat) under the banner headline, “Will Do Irish Dances In Racial Contest.” Super sweetly, I found a 1956 story in which columnist George Grim crushed on my maternal grandmother when she retired from the long-gone Nicollet Hotel as kitchen and banquet manager:
“No point in keeping my secret any longer,” wrote Grim alongside his column mug and a photo of my grandma that shared newsprint space on the same page as an early Barbara Flanagan column. “It’s about that tiny little room, hidden in back of the Nicollet Hotel’s garden ballroom. I’ll wager none of the diners over the years ever saw that cubicle. Only the backstage entertainers, the fast-exit speakers, and the banquet workers know about it.
“It has just room enough for a desk and chair, a small chair for a visitor, some flowers, and a couple of coat hangers behind the door. Oh yes — and a small, vivacious, Scottish-brogued woman named Rose Hanna. Twenty-eight years ago, Rose came to the Nicollet as a waitress.
“ ‘I had five youngsters who were going to get an education,’ said Rose. ‘I came over from Scotland — born in Edinburgh — when I was 16. And how many times I kept saying if only I had an education. So I determined my youngsters should have what I missed.’ ”
Love you, Grandma Hanna!
To be sure, like so much nostalgia, the Star Tribune rabbit hole is a selective lens and wholly incomplete crash course in Minneapolis history, class, industry and culture. The archives come from a simpler media time, when the smallest neighborhood gossip would share space with world headlines. Today’s newspapers aren’t the same, and neither are we, but by all means do yourself a favor and clip and save and share — and blow your family’s mind, like I did mine.
Jim Walsh is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer, author, columnist and songwriter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.