In the late 1990s, Karen Cooper decided to replant her garden. Since she lived on Minnehaha Parkway at the time, she wondered if there were a record of the plants historically grown there. Other parks had "historical planting plans," which you can find in archives.
Cooper couldn't find one for Minnehaha Parkway. But she did find old photos of the creek and the falls. She started collecting these and has since amassed more than a thousand images. ("I am not a broad collector," she writes," but a deep one.") And in the photos, she began to notice changes over time and started wondering about the people in the background. Following these threads led to her wonderful new book, "When Minnehaha Flowed With Whiskey: A Spirited History of the Falls," published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
In her account, Cooper unearths a lost history of the falls, which was the site of drunken revelry for almost half a century. The book follows a general chronology, from the founding of Fort Snelling in the early 1800s to the influx of white settlers after that, to the "war for the soul of the park," in the late 1800s.
Before the city took it over in 1889, the land around Minnehaha Falls was privately owned. There were illegal saloons and dancehalls and hotels all around. There was revelry late into the night. Soldiers from Fort Snelling and young men and women from town "converged on Minnehaha as a place for rowdy, lawless indulgence."
One 1885 editorial complained that "the clink of beer bottles has smothered the 'laughing' of the falls. The frequenters turn their backs to the water as they lift aloft the foaming cup that contains anything but water."
After the city took over the park, these establishments decamped to a strip of land along Hiawatha Avenue, which became known as the "Minnehaha Midway." It had shooting galleries, "fakir's booths" (think fortunetellers) a Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, dancehalls and illegal saloons. These, along with the "noise, gambling, public drunkenness, lewd dancing, and prostitution," grated on local landowners, who pressured the city to crack down. It took time, but eventually the Minnehaha Midway was closed, and the forces of public virtue prevailed.
If not for Cooper, this history might have been lost. But her account is a lively and fun read, and the book is filled with rare images from her collection. It's a must-read for anyone who cares about the history of the city, of the state, and even of the country. Because in rescuing this messy, loud piece of our past, Cooper has helped make our story more complete, more real and more true than it has been for some time.
Frank Bures is the editor of "Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology" and producer of In the Footsteps of Prince: Downtown Minneapolis Walking Tour.
When Minnehaha Flowed With Whiskey: A Spirited History of the Falls
By: Karen E. Cooper.
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 232 pages, $18.95.