WPA, Then and Now: Digital Humanities and Minnesota History, Pt. I

As my students work on their final Citizen-Historian Project (read more here), I feel like it’s only fair that I participate with them. So let’s hit the Internet, hit our bikes, and log some New Deal sites around Minneapolis for the Living New Deal project!

With archives and historical societies shuttered due to the COVID-19 outbreak, I’m fortunate in the Twin Cities to be able to turn not only to my newspapers.com subscription, but to a wealth of sources available from the Minnesota Reflections repository. (Books like a digitized copy of Works Progress Administration Accomplishments: Minnesota, 1935-1939 help some outstate students, as does the St. Cloud Times being available on my paid subscription.)

While I hope my students aren’t quite as choosy as I’m being, my criteria for the New Deal site I’m going to log are these:

  • Still extant and visible: While building city sewers are one of the major accomplishments of various New Deal projects (including in my suburb of Crystal and neighboring Robbinsdale), those aren’t as easy to photograph. For my students’ projects? Absolutely–log away! For me? I want something still standing that I can show off.
  • A good bike ride away: Part of this project is to get myself out of the house, prevent putting on what I’m told is called the “COVID 15” (have to avoid a repeat of freshman year), and see some new bike routes.
  • Refresh my digital abilities: This one is selfish, too. To keep fresh on technologies I learned at Marquette like MapWarper, Juxtapose (see below), Carto, etc., I’m trying to find sites that force me to incorporate one other small digital technology. Just to keep fresh.

Enough stalling.

Locating the New Deal in Minneapolis

I’m looking for a project, likely in Minneapolis but also in broader Hennepin County (then referred to in contemporary documents as “rural Hennepin County”, really amusing when you think about New Hope or Golden Valley or Brooklyn Park being called “rural”), built by a New Deal agency. I have Minnesota Reflections open.

Let’s search “WPA”. Start basic.


First hits? “The Story of W.P.A. and Other Federal Aid Projects in the Minneapolis Parks, Parkways and Playgrounds, for the Year 1936, Minneapolis, Minnesota,” commissioned by the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners. We scroll down, and there’s 1938. 1939. 1941. 1937.

No idea why that order; I’m not the archivist. No idea where 1940 is, either. Another question for another day. For now, we’ve got our sources.

Zooming in on the Parks

My methods for finding parks has been pretty simple: Using the text-search function in each of those park reports [note to students: see? this is why your transcribing is so important!], I search nearby parks and parkways. Just those closest to me, and we’ll work our way out.

Victory Memorial? A sprinkling system and tool shed in 1937, curbs and sewer improvements in 1938, more grading and seeding in 1939, drainage systems in 1941.

I’ll include more on Victory Memorial, Webber (then Camden) Park and Theodore Wirth Park in future posts (if I have time)–rest assured, though, there are some great WPA locations and pictures for each one.

Last week, my desire to take a longer bike ride and make a socially-distanced visit to a friend’s house in Northeast Minneapolis was going to lead me by Columbia Park and Columbia Golf Course, a park and sprawling 18-hole golf course nestled between St. Anthony Boulevard and Central Avenue on the north end of Northeast. Seemed like a good place to start.

Following the same process as Victory Memorial in the WPA books from Minnesota Reflections, I got a number of hits for Columbia Park and Golf Course. So many so that, when I submit the projects to the Living New Deal, I’ll be breaking them up into at least four projects: Columbia Golf Course improvements, Columbia Golf Club/Manor, Columbia Park, and Columbia Park projects no longer extant. Take, for example, the entry from 1936 for the Columbia Golf Course:

Columbia Golf Course was completely rebuilt under E.R.A. and W.P.A. Bent grass greens replaced the ones of sand, and the yardage was increased from 4,670 yards to 4,879 yards. Fairways were regraded, resurfaced with clay loan, and seeded. Bunkers and green approaches were sodded. A sprinkling system with sufficient capacity to provide ample water for fairways, tees and greens, was installed. Bunkers and traps were built at strategic points along the course, and a practice green constructed near the club house. Construction of a tool storage house for park and golf course use filled a long felt need.

Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners (Minneapolis, MN), “The Story of W.P.A. and Other Federal Aid Projects in the Minneapolis Parks, Parkways and Playgrounds, for the Year 1936, Minneapolis, Minnesota.” Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, 7. https://reflections.mndigital.org/catalog/p16022coll55:585.

That’s just 1936, and just for the golf course. Over the coming years more holes on the golf course will get a face lift, the clubhouse will get electrical and carpentry work along with other improvements (see below), the park will get tennis courts and picnic benches, and more. So there’s a lot here!

I wanted to choose something that was easily photographed (i.e., wouldn’t require me to potentially trespass on a golf course), had demonstrable and notable changes to it, and was part of my route.

Columbia Manor fit the bill. Here’s a rundown of the improvements:

[1936:] Painting, plumbing, electrical, and carpenter repairs on the Columbia Manor house and the renovation of steps and walks completed the improvements at the Columbia course.

“The Story of W.P.A. and Other Federal Aid Projects in the Minneapolis Parks, Parkways and Playgrounds, for the Year 1936, Minneapolis, Minnesota.” Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, 7. https://reflections.mndigital.org/catalog/p16022coll55:585.
[1937:] At The Manor two porches and a garage were constructed and concrete wing walls were installed at the boulevard bridge over the Soo Line tracks, and ten concrete picnic tables with benches were added to the picnic facilities… One porch was built on the northwest side of the Manor house and the other on the east end of the building. The two structures increased the building’s floor space by one thousand square feet. The garage at the west end of the Manor house is 20′ x 20′ and has a concrete floor and driveway.

Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners (Minneapolis, MN), “The Story of W.P.A. in the Minneapolis Parks, Parkways and Playgrounds, for the Year 1937, Minneapolis, Minnesota.” Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, 25, 28. https://reflections.mndigital.org/catalog/p16022coll55:663.
[1938:] …the replacement of the old limestone walk with a concrete walk in front of the Manor

Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners (Minneapolis, MN), “The Story of W.P.A. in the Minneapolis Parks, Parkways and Playgrounds, for 1938, Minneapolis, Minnesota.” Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, 42. https://reflections.mndigital.org/catalog/p16022coll55:759.
[1939:] The rebuilding of the fairways that cross the old Sandy Lake bottom, the erection of fence along Central Avenue, and painting repairs to Columbia Manor were the chief improvements made at this location…

Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners (Minneapolis, MN), “The Story of W.P.A. in the Minneapolis Parks, Parkways and Playgrounds, for 1939, Minneapolis, Minnesota.” Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, 19. https://reflections.mndigital.org/catalog/p16022coll55:834.
[1941:] Improvements made at this park were the refinishing of 135 pieces of furniture for the Manor, the painting of the interior of the Manor, the erection of 1,050 lineal feet of six-foot chain link fence along fairway No. 11…

Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners (Minneapolis, MN), “The Story of W.P.A. in the Minneapolis Parks, Parkways and Playgrounds, January 1, 1941, Minneapolis, Minnesota.” Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, 3. https://reflections.mndigital.org/catalog/p16022coll55:910.

So there was a lot to go on here. Improvements, refinishing of furniture (which invites, perhaps not to me but friends of mine much more skilled in material culture, questions of who was finishing this furniture and in what style–I’m thinking of the WPA sewing projects here as well), painting, plumbing…and some huge construction projects.

Visualizing the Parks

In comparing the pictures taken of the projects (Minneapolis was excellent about documenting its WPA projects), the visuals of the Columbia Manor in 1936 and 1937 were striking:

Applying Digital Humanities

Those images, though, side by side, might not give a viewer a means to compare them down to the more micro- or minute levels of change over the year 1937. This gap reminded me of a tool I’d explored a little in my Digital History class, JuxtaposeJS, a frame-to-frame comparison tool from Northwestern University’s KnightLab. Why not see the comparison between 1936 and 1937 in a way that allows you to notice the physical changes in their exact spot, rather than looking back and forth between the images?

Thankfully, though I’m a bit (OK, a lot) rusty, JuxtaposeJS is an easy way to upload Dropbox or online-hosted .jpg images. Like this!

There are new additions on both sides of the manor, in addition to the right-side porch overlooking the green! Awesome! One thing I didn’t notice in the side-by-side pictures, either (and Laura would tell you this is just me being unobservant), was the new set of windows and trim along the entire back of the manor. Very cool!

There remained the matter of the porches and garage constructed in 1937, though. The Parks Board report listed these as the “northwest” and “east” porches, which is a bit odd because the one on the left in the image above is facing northeast, and the one on the course-side is facing west, but we’ll skim past that for now. We can see what those looked like then, but it’s just as striking, to me, to consider how they look now.

I started with the garage on the west side of the building. Today it’s flanked by a number of HVAC units and adorned by a DirecTV satellite, but it looks relatively similar to 1937.

That was the first Juxtapose image I tried, actually, and it taught me a little about the need to rotate, crop, and overlay the two images before uploading them to the actual tool. (Microsoft Word’s rotate and transparency settings are your friend here. I used screengrabs to take rectangular photos of the rotated images.)

So now let’s take what I think is the “east” porch, for example, built in 1937 and now overlooking the 18th fairway, a putting green, and Central Avenue:

Applying DH to the WPA

This image, for me, sums up one of the coolest things about the New Deal projects and our chance to log them for the Living New Deal: There are people in this image.

Who are they? Where are they from? Were there others?

Those are individual–micro, down to the person!–stories that I will likely never know.

Yet in the classroom, we try to relate. In my survey class, students read Frederick K. Johnson’s recollections of his time in the Civilian Conservation Corps down near Winona, published in Minnesota History in 1983. While it’s important that we don’t extrapolate Johnson’s experiences out to any and every Minnesotan working in a New Deal agency (think of the 1939 WPA strikes, artistic aspects of the WPA, or gender roles implicit in the photo versus prominent artists like Elsa Laubach Jemne), it’s a start.

Because when I look at Columbia Golf Club today, I won’t just see a porch in need of another coat of paint. I’ll see those four men and wonder who they were. I’ll remember that both my maternal great-grandfathers, living in St. Paul, went to work for New Deal projects. History, at least in this one landmark, comes a little more alive for me.

Reflections and the Surroundings

This is already too long a post. My apologies if you slogged this far. Remember: I wrote a 650-page dissertation. Three people had to read the entire thing.

Count yourself lucky.

But I want to reflect on and celebrate a couple things, because in this odd context in which I write, a new PhD under shelter-in-place in April 2020, teaching a course in St. Cloud while living in the Twin Cities, biking past businesses but unable to patronize most, perhaps context helps.

As a complete aside: Imagine this project extended outwards as an Applied History course at one of the Twin Cities-area universities.
[Right? I’m on the job market! Call me!]

JuxtaposeJS and Digital Skills

While I didn’t do as well in the garage example as the others (the garage was the first one I tried, actually), it’s a good lesson for me on cropping, rotation, and, well, juxtaposition of historic images. I have a new computer and haven’t dusted off my image edited in a while, so this was helpful.

JuxtaposeJS, applied to a classroom project, can be a fantastic tool for local histories to really make an impact on the public. Picture a campus protest in 1968 juxtaposed with a student bake sale at the same spot in 2020. A row of dilapidated housing [there’s a value judgment!] from the 1940s versus a glittering campus building in 1970; goodness knows we could apply this at Marquette! In an applied history class, this is an accessible and useful tool for helping students communicate the significance of place through a visual, rather than written medium.

It’s opened up, too, a few technical questions for me that I hope to explore in further posts–for example, if there’s a way, like in MapWarper, to choose points to match and rectify images for comparison.

Biking the New Deal and Northeast Minneapolis

This project has been an instructive example of living history in my midst. After I’d posted one picture near Columbia Manor to my Snapchat, a friend responded saying she had considered having her wedding reception there. Another asked if golf courses were open during the COVID shutdowns. Another asked if I was going to keep spamming him with “you biking to weird historic sites.”

Yep! Because standing next to the porches at Columbia Manor, I appreciated both their (visible) age and their craftsmanship. And, in a time when unemployment claims are in the millions, it’s helpful to marvel at the last time America–with the help of the federal government–rolled up its sleeves en masse and went back to work.

At the same time, most of my travel posts (consider this a micro-travelogue, and read my macro-travelogues here!) have given a little local color and flavor, too. So here’s my bike ride:

You might notice there’s a little curlicue at the bottom of the map on my return. Well, in addition to visiting my friend Joey at his house just a couple blocks east of Columbia Manor, of course I made a stop along the way…

Sweater Weather Pale Ale, 56 Brewing

…at 56 Brewing!

One of the out-of-the-way breweries in Northeast (in addition to Broken Clock Brewing Cooperative around the corner), 56 does some amazing stuff. I grabbed a crowler of this hazy pale ale, Sweater Weather, and a double dry-hopped honey IPA called Solarama Crush DDH. Laura and I occasionally play trivia at 56 on Wednesday nights, and favorites of ours include ‘Ssippi Squeeze IPA and a Raspberry Berliner Weisse that’s one of my summer go-tos.

Anyway, again, way too many words. Thanks for reading, leave comments or questions if there’s something I could be doing differently in JuxtaposeJS or anything else you’d like to see, and stay safe out there!

3 Replies to “WPA, Then and Now: Digital Humanities and Minnesota History, Pt. I”

  1. Very cool read! Something off yours that I could follow and understand. I love your take on this project that you assigned to your class! And of course, your open plea for a job;)

    So, so proud of you! Your perseverance to go after your doctorate in what truly motivates and inspires you🤗

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