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The Day 10,000 Minneapolis Children Moved a House


The Stevens House, now 172 years old.

The mobilization of an army! But it was an army of peace. The youth of Minneapolis today paid a glorious tribute to the city's past. A tribute it was, not only to the past, but to the man, now grown old, who in the prime of his strong manhood made home upon the shores of the Mississippi and in the middle year of the [eighteenth] century built the first house in the water city.


- The Minneapolis Journal, May 28, 1896


In 1849, John Harrington Stevens (1820 - 1900) and his wife Frances Helen Miller (1822 - 1902) were the first European-Americans granted permission to build the first homestead and occupy the west bank of the Mississippi River near St. Anthony Falls. Stevens was a U.S. Army Colonel who was dispatched by Fort Snelling commander Franklin Steele to settle on the west bank of the Mississippi opposite of St. Anthony (a village on the east bank of the Mississippi that existed from 1838 through 1872 when Minneapolis annexed the village) to serve the purpose of operating a ferry service from the west bank to the east bank of the river.


John Harrington Stevens, 1858.

Under the roof of the Stevens House, many historical events occurred. The little home served as a hostel for up to 30 travelers at a time where Mrs. Stevens would entertain and serve salted pork with crackers. Native America Chiefs Little Crow, Good Road, Gray Eagle, and Shakopee all paid visits to the Stevens at their home. Among the events of more than ordinary interest that occurred in the Stevens House were the organization of Hennepin County and organization of the first school district. It was also in the Stevens House that the city of Minneapolis was named and founded.


The John Harrington Stevens House currently resides in Minnehaha Regional Park. The home has twice been relocated. When the banks of the powerful Mississippi river along St. Anthony Falls gave way to flour mills and sawmills, the home was moved to a more suitable neighborhood location in Cedar Riverside for roughly two decades. From there, it was decided that the home of the first pioneer of Minneapolis should be removed from the neighborhood near its beginnings by St, Anthony Falls which turned the wheels of industry to the quiet region of Minnehaha Regional Park; a park in southeastern Minneapolis created as a memorial for the legend Hiawatha, who wooed and won Minnehaha's heart. When the city of Minneapolis began to industrialize, the area surrounding Minnehaha Falls were set aside as parkland to be forever preserved for the sake of natural beauty and glamour.


Statue of Hiawatha carrying Minnehaha above Minnehaha Falls. Jacob Fjelde, 1911.

But how to move the home roughly six miles to the shores of Minnehaha Falls? Well, that is where the army of schoolchildren come into play... You read that correctly.


It's truly bizarre, but in 1896 as a Minneapolis Parks project in collaboration with Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Journal (who furnished the funds to purchase and move the historic home), recruited thousands of children to transport the Stevens House with the aid of rope and wheels hoisted beneath the house down Minnehaha Avenue. What unfolded that day is truly hard to believe, and was covered in several newspapers in the Twin Cities.


Even in 1896, the then 47 year old structure was considered ancient in the eyes of Minneapolis residents. The home was unadorned, weather beaten, and in a state of decay with rotting wood and boarded up windows. However, the home played a pivotal role in the early history of European-settled Minnesota and residents sought to its preservation.


On the morning of May 28, 1896, hundreds of curious onlookers began to gather round the battered house in anticipation of what the day would bring. The time-scarred home was set on four wheels with two 600-foot ropes fastened to braces on the house. The plan was a mix of one-part chaos, one-part ingenuity; school children dispatched from their respective schools would take turns pulling the home several blocks each, until they were relieved by teams of pupils from other area schools as they made the journey to Minnehaha Regional Park.


The path the home would take started from it's location at 16th Avenue and 3rd Street; down 16th Avenue to 8th Street; 8th Street eastward to Minnehaha Avenue; Minnehaha Avenue southeast to 25th Street; 25th Street east to 26th Avenue; then from 26th Avenue to Minnehaha Avenue and finally down to the park.


Recreation of the Stevens House path.

The first school to take the reigns was the Jackson School (many of the schools listed no longer exist or have been consolidated), who tasked 225 of their students to pull the home. The children rapidly approached the home from their school, which was only about a block away from the home. Marshalled by their school teachers and headmaster, the children lined up between 4th and 5th Streets on 16th Avenue in preparation to take their turn in pulling the home. The children were given the two long ropes, and slowly the students took their queue along the ropes until the ends were nearly a block and a half away from the home. Simultaneously, volunteers from several surrounding schools arrived from all directions by way of streetcar.


Four horses were hitched to the wheels under the home to assist the children whenever the children's strength or unanimity failed them. Another horse team was tied to the front of either rope to keep the lines stretched taut and to prevent children from crashing into each other.


At 8:45 sharp, a trumpet played a tune that signaled to the children that they were to embark upon their journey. A racket of cheers erupted from onlookers and students alike, school banners and flags were being waved, and songs began to be sung by the children. Children began to pull, the ropes tightened up, the home began to tremble for a moment and then it began to move with the assistance of the wheels beneath as smoothly as though it were on a railroad track. The Stevens Home creaked and groaned as it began its journey.


The Minneapolis Journal, May 28, 1896

Down 16th Avenue, the Stevens Home rolled along smoothly on it's oiled wheels. The girls and boys were doing most of the work, the horses didn't have much to do other than help guide the house.


The house on wheels made a brief stop at the Milwaukee railroad tracks to ensure a safe crossing. Several train conductors gladly conceded their right-of-way to watch the procession of children pull the house over the tracks. The house continued down 16th Avenue until the children were directed to turn eastbound on 8th Street. Considerable care was necessary to prevent the pullers from being injured when turning the home around the street corner. On 8th Street, the house once more crossed over the Milwaukee railroad tracks towards the second relay point as hundreds of onlookers cheered and applauded the spectacle. Once the first relay of students arrived at their finish line, they quickly made way for the streetcars to head south towards the park.


The Second Relay


The second relay point was at the intersection of Franklin and Minnehaha Avenues where 500 high schoolers from South High School, along with other students from the Monroe and Adams schools awaited to relieve the first set of pullers from their duties. The South Side Tigers waved their orange and black banners as the house crawled it's way down the street towards them.


It took only ten minutes for the second relay to relieve the first of their duties, and by 9:45, the house again was on its way as nearly 1,000 students from South High School, Monroe School, and Adams School eagerly tugged the Stevens House southeast down Minnehaha Avenue. Simultaneously, the streetcar system worked like a well-oiled machine to bring the next set of school children to the third relay rendezvous.


The Third Relay


The third relay consisted of another 1,000 students from Central High School (no-longer existing, located at 4th Avenue South and 11th Street near the present day Hilton Garden Inn in Downtown), the Emerson School, and the Seward School.


As you could expect, there was competition between the boisterous South Siders and their Central High rivals. The South Siders placed their orange-and-black banner in the upper window of the home during their pulling session, vowing that the banner would stay in the window all the way to Minnehaha Park. The Central High students sought to dislodge the South Siders banners with Central's red-and-blue banners. After a scuffle between South and Central students, the South Siders and their banners were ejected from the home and the Centralites were given their moment to proudly wave their flag from the second-story window.


After the row between South and Central, the third relay fell into place and the blue-and-red flags waved as Central, Emerson, and Seward schools began their part of pulling the house to Minnehaha. Without any fuss, the army of pullers crossed the railroad tracks at 26th Avenue (where the present-day Midtown Greenway crosses Minnehaha Avenue, this area used to be a railyard) to the meeting point with the fourth relay squad.


The Fourth Relay


Relieving Central, Emerson, and Seward schools; the fourth relay team consisted of a plethora of schools. Longfellow, Rosedale, Calhoun, Clinton, Whittier, Bryant, Sumner, and Lincoln schools dispatched 1,200 combined students for their section of house-pulling responsibilities.


The first three relays finished their duties ahead of schedule, but this time was lost during the fourth relay. The fourth relay was started late, owing to the fact that the Stevens Home needed to gingerly be moved to one side of Minnehaha Avenue where they shared the road with streetcars zipping by.


Once the precession was organized and the ropes were taut pointed southeast down Minnehaha Avenue, the fourth relay quickly made up any lost time aside from a few occasional stops to allow streetcars to safely pass.


The Fifth Relay


Consisting of Schiller, Humboldt, Everett, Holland, Webster, Prescott, Van Cleve, Tuttle, Marcy, Holmes, and Winthrop Schools, the fifth relay was readily prepared to execute their section of relay proudly wearing lilac badges given to them by the their teachers.


The fifth collection of pupils duties consisted of tugging the Stevens Home from 34th to 40th street down 'Haha Ave.


The Sixth Relay


This division of yellow badge wearing students consisted of several North-side schools: Lowell, North High, Bremer, Grant, Lyndale, Douglas, and Kenwood Schools awaited their responsibility to continue the parade of home from 40th to 44th Street along Minnehaha Avenue.


The Final Relay


Wearing "the red badge of courage", the seventh and final group of relays had a tough road to traverse ahead of them, but they completed their task dutifully. The final relay consisted of Minnehaha, Horace, Mann, Garfield, Hamilton, Hawthorn, Franklin, Blaine, Harrison, and Jefferson Schools. These schools had the rewarding duty of brining the Stevens Home to Minnehaha Regional Park. The final relay arrived at the entrance of the park on schedule at 2:15 in the afternoon.


After the Stevens Home arrived at it's final destination, the 10,000 children and several thousand more onlookers awaited a speech by Minneapolis Mayor Pratt and organizer Alderman Fred Snyder from the doorway of the house. Alderman Snyder presented to the public:


We have come here today to witness the transfer of the first house build in Minneapolis to its final resting place. The day has been set apart for these exercises. Public business has been suspended. The people have been invited to attend. The children of our public schools with tripping feet and merry voices have pulled the house a full six miles.


It is both fitting and proper to glorify this relic of bygone days. I remember the house as it stood amid lilac brushes beneath the foliage of overhanging trees on the green banks of the river just below the [Hennepin] suspension bridge. How smoothly the waters glided by! How suddenly they broke into the rapids which terminated in the Falls of St. Anthony, then in their natural state. The mists rose and were borne back on the winds. The roar of falling water was a sweet lullaby to my baby ears.


There was no cozier cottage in all the land, surely none had more sublime surroundings. Since then vast changes have taken place. Old landmarks have been swept away. This old building stood in the path of progress and it had to go. No one claims that it has any commercial value today. It is precious because of its associations. It is like a keepsake from the departed. It stands as a monument to the past which will never return. It has a history peculiar to itself. It stirs within us sentiments of loyalty for our city. There it stood, solitary and alone, surrounded by hazel brush and scattering oaks, where now is reared a mighty city. When we look upon it and lightly with you. May the elements beat gently on your hollow walls. May god save you from the relic-seeker's mutilating knife.


Alderman Snyder then conceded the stage to Mayor Pratt, who presented a brief speech about the history of the home and advancements in Minneapolis' society. When Mayor Pratt finished his address to the crowd, he formally gifted the Stevens House to the Minneapolis Park Board, presenting the Park Board president with the key to the Stevens House.


Colonel John Harrington Stevens was expected to have a speech during the relocation, but where was he? To the dismay of the public, Colonel Stevens was indisposed the day of the event due to being "temporarily overcome by excitement." Truthfully, Colonel Stevens had a stroke which kept him bedridden for the day until his physician attended to Colonel Stevens medical needs.


Statue of Colonel Stevens with the Stevens House in the Background, 2022.

When the speeches subsided, some tired children queued to the streetcar station to take them home from the falls. However, it was not easy to get them to leave the park after their hard work and students soon covered every blade of grass. They peered over the falls, played in Longfellow Glen, visited with seniors at the Veterans Home, and had picnics in every nook and cranny that the park offers. As children do, they were so enamored with all the wonders of the park that they no longer paid any attention to the Stevens House that they worked so hard to get to the park in the first place. It was nearly dusk when the last of the curiosity seekers turned their attention towards home, and marched out of the park in search of dinner and their beds.


Drawing from The Minneapolis Journal of children at Minnehaha Falls, May 28, 1896.

As darkness set, the festivities continued for a mostly-adult crowd. 1,000 Japanese lanterns strung from trees throughout the park served as the undercard as couples holding hands admired the spectacle. A fireworks display was the main event of the evening; the night was noted as being beautiful and quite romantic, as many spring nights are in the North Star State.


Schools Involved:


Adams, Blaine, Bremer, Bryant, Calhoun, Central High, Clinton, Corcoran, Douglas, Emerson, Everett, Franklin, Garfield, Hamilton, Grant, Greeley, Harrison, Hawthorn, Holland, Holmes, Horace, Humboldt, Jackson, Jefferson, Kenwood, Lincoln, Longfellow,

Lowell, Lyndale, Madison, Mann, Marcy, Minnehaha, Monroe, Motley, North High, Prescott, Rosedale, Schiller, Seward, South High, Sumner, Tuttle, Van Cleve, Washington, Webster, Whittier, Winthrop.


Sources:


"'Twas a Gala Day" The Minneapolis Journal, May 28, 1896. p. 1.


"All Took a Hand: School Children Move the Old Stevens House" The Minneapols Tribune, May 29, 1896. p. 5.


Burnett, Jason. "Moving the Steven's House" Hennepin History Museum, March 5, 2021. https://hennepinhistory.org/moving-the-stevens-house/


Welter, Ben. Minnesota Moxie: True Tales of Courage, Muscle & Grit in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes . Charleston, SC. The History Press, 2016. p. 19-30.


Special Thanks:


Two the two historians at the Minnehaha Depot on June 26th who provide me with further context of the story of Stevens Home. You helped provide me with great detail and context about the history of the home. I should have asked for your names. Thank you.



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