Finding history in Elliot Park's dirt

Share this:
April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Archeologist Kent Bakken races against developers to discover a fast-growing neighborhood's past

Kent Bakken sees something in the gravel in Elliot Park's vacant lots.

Most people gaze up at the skyscrapers when standing Downtown, forgetting about the stories buried underneath them.

Bakken, a University of Minnesota doctoral student in archaeology, has his nose to the ground, investigating shards of old porcelain bowls, glass bottles and other remains left from old homes that once lined the neighborhood's streets.

The archaeology student has spent the past year studying the sites of former homes for traces of the city's past. He admits he still has much to learn but hopes his research will unlock some secrets of Elliot Park's earliest residents.

Bakken, a board member of Elliot Park Neighborhood, Inc., plans to lead a community dig this summer -- a first-of-its-kind project Downtown. He's still working on the details but hopes to start the project by August.

Most other urban archaeology studies conducted Downtown have been done by professional archaeologists and closed to the public. Those digs have examined artifacts beneath the new Federal Courthouse at South 4th Street and 4th Avenue, and the Federal Reserve Bank site at Hennepin and North 1st Street. Archaeologists found scattered household items in buried basements, including cutlery, a bowling ball, buttons, soda bottles, teaware and a harmonica.

"What I would really want people most to get out of this is a sense of a common, shared history," Bakken said. "A lot of people who live in this neighborhood come and go. ... But I think having a sense of shared history is really useful for providing a sense of common identity."

He wants to get digging before developers pave over more Elliot Park lots for high-rises. Besides the Grant Park condo tower at 11th Street and Portland Avenue, a Chicago developer, Tandem, is moving through the city approval process to build a 26-story tower at 10th and Portland.

Bakken plans to approach Tandem about investigating the site before construction crews start building the condo tower.

In an outline of his project, Bakken wrote, "The archaeology of Elliot Park, the history of early Minneapolis, lies under the surface of the parking lots and vacant lots that dot our neighborhood. That history will be erased in the coming years, bit by bit, as the neighborhood is redeveloped."

Outlines of the past

The first vacant lot to pique Bakken's curiosity sits just south of the Hinkle-Murphy Mansion, 619 10th Ave. S. On a recent afternoon, he outlined the traces of an old farmhouse in an alleyway on 11th Street, between Park and Portland avenues.

He pointed out the house's perimeter -- a subtle outline marked by worn foundation stones. Then he kneeled down, picking up some gravel to examine it for artifacts. The objects, typically fragments of old dishes or broken window glass, might seem mundane to most of us, but to Bakken they are more important than that.

He prefers to give them the label he heard on television -- "silent witnesses of history."

The objects provide clues about the neighborhood's earliest residents, shedding light on how they lived, what they ate and what they did for entertainment, among other things.

"They tell us a lot about practical, day-to-day things," he said.

Bakken relies on historical records and photos from the Minneapolis Public Library and Minnesota Historical Society to flush out his analysis of the gravel lots. He also uses old fire insurance company maps to identify neighborhood structures in the late 1800s.

The Minnesota Historical Society plans to partner with Bakken on the community dig this summer.

Archaeologist Larry Zimmerman, head of the Historical Society's archaeology department, called Bakken's project a useful model for other communities. Unearthing what lies beneath one's feet, or home, can illustrate the importance of historic preservation, he said.

"I think it is really important that people understand the local place that they live.

People get really attached to places, and they often don't understand that the place that they are now sitting on usually has a pretty deep history. And that helps give them a feeling of

connectedness. ... It gives them a feeling of common roots," Zimmerman said.

While the objects found don't inspire the same kind of awe as dinosaur bones, the artifacts help paint a picture of neighborhood trends. Finding impressive objects is rare, he said.

"You'll find everything from coins that fell out of their pockets to bottles that contained the medicines they were taking," Zimmerman said.

Sifting through the debris can be revealing. Archaeologists in Baltimore, Md., working on neighborhood digs, have uncovered some interesting trends.

"They find out something that most know intuitively -- neighborhoods change characteristics over a period of decades. There are

different groups moving in and out. Different socioeconomic groups. Different ethnic groups. Those kinds of things are reflected in the material culture that people use," Zimmerman said.

Elliot Park's history

Bakken expects to find some clues about the changes in Elliot Park over the years. The neighborhood is one of the city's oldest, with settlements dating back 140 years.

According to an EPNI historical piece, houses, stores and churches, sprung up as early as 1856 on the neighborhood's section of 8th Street -- four years after Minneapolis was founded.

In the 1890s, large mansions went up along Park Avenue such as Hinkle-Murphy, one of the last from that era still standing. Others were razed to make way for new buildings or converted into multifamily dwellings. By the 1930s, the once largely upper-class neighborhood became home to working-class and low-income renters. Post-World War II, after suburbs grew and I-94 and I-35W cut off the neighborhood, Elliot Park became one of the city's poorest neighborhoods by the 1970s, according to the EPNI historical piece.

Now the neighborhood is undergoing another transformation with an influx of new high-rise condos. All told, the projects are expected to add more than 1,000 new and largely upscale residents to Elliot Park.

Sigrid Arnott, a trained archaeologist who attended graduate school with Bakken, said urban archaeology has potential to shed light on the challenges immigrants faced when they first settled in Minneapolis.

For instance, the sites show how early residents collected drinking water -- a much more difficult task in the late 1800s.

"It helps us connect to our past and not just to an idealized view of the past -- a past where we understand some of the struggles across cultures," she said. "Once it's gone, it's irreplaceable."