Commemorating WWI in Minnesota: Victory Memorial Drive

In the first part of this series on how the First World War has been commemorated in my home state, I suggested that a “celebratory, self-righteous, unproblematically patriotic mood” inspired the commission and design of Duluth’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument. But you don’t think that Minnesota’s largest city would let its northern neighbor corner the market on patriotic self-righteousness, do you? From the June 12, 1921 edition of the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, a description of the dedication of Minneapolis’ most significant WWI memorial:

1921 Dedication of Victory Memorial Drive
The dedication of Victory Memorial Drive, June 1921 – victoryneighborhood.org

Victory Memorial Drive, the new Minneapolis thoroughfare which is the first to become a memorial to men and women who lost their lives in the World War, was dedicated yesterday to Hennepin county’s 555 [actually 568] hero dead.

…Never since the stirring days of the war has there been a more impressive appeal for Americanism than the services at the planting and dedication of the trees which line half the Drive and bear the names of soldiers, sailors and nurses. Every patriotic organization was represented in two columns of a great parade, in which thousands marched.

The southern entrance to Victory Memorial Drive
The southern entrance to Victory Memorial Drive, after a 2011 renovation

American Legion Tablet at Victory DriveRunning for 3.8 miles in the northwest corner of Minnesota’s largest city, Victory Memorial Drive (or Parkway) was first envisioned in 1910, during the development of Minneapolis’ fifty-mile Grand Rounds Scenic Byway. Construction halted with the beginning of the war in April 1917, but in 1918 it was proposed that that section of the byway be dedicated to the memory of fallen citizens of Hennepin County. Two years after the 1921 dedication, the Great War veterans who composed the American Legion (whose founding convention was held in Minneapolis in 1919) installed a bronze flagpole at the turn in the Drive. While that site was redesigned in 2011 (click here to see older photos of the original flagpole and memorial), the 1923 plaque pictured to the right remains (along with the names of “our comrades who ‘went west'”).

Like the monument in Duluth, Victory Drive in Minneapolis fits with military historian Barry Schwartz’s observation that war commemoration in the 1920s was closely linked with late 19th/early 20th century efforts to use art and architecture both to beautify industrial cities and to promote civic virtue and pride. At the 1921 dedication ceremony, a local judge gazed out over the Drive and proclaimed that “Minneapolis may well take a solemn pride in the fact that she has reached the summit of civic honor through the sacrifice of her noble and heroic dead.”

However, while the Duluth monument is in the governmental/legal center of that city (in front of the county courthouse and near the city hall and federal building), Victory Drive is far from downtown Minneapolis, surrounded by green space rather than concrete. It passes through nearly 200 acres of park grounds, befitting the fact that two of its chief proponents, Theodore Wirth and Charles Loring, are best known as designer and chief benefactor, respectively, of Minneapolis’ famed city parks system.

Memorial plaque along Victory DriveIndeed, while the Drive (in its original version and then as renovated in recent years) includes more typical memorial features like flagpoles, plaques, and marble structures, the central commemorative element was always intended to be the hundreds of trees shading the parkway, each planted (by a veteran and schoolchild) and about half designated in memory of an individual soldier. (The original trees were killed off by Dutch elm disease, but as you walk beneath their replacements, you pass markers embedded in the ground with the names of the dead.) As Lt. Colonel Hanford MacNeider, one of the speakers at the dedication ceremony, put it:

Loving hands will care for this living memorial to the dead, the hands of Minnesotans for generations to come. Children will visit this driveway and in these trees and the sentiment connected with them find typified the spirit of America, and as these trees grow, so will memories of these men and women who died in the cause of liberty grow through all generations.

Today, however, I wonder how often the Minneapolites who routinely jog or walk dogs past those trees and memorial plaques find their thoughts turning to “the spirit of America.” Indeed, while such patriotic sentiments can be found (the renovated central flagpole bears the inscription “In honor of 568 residents of Hennepin County who gave their lives in defense of liberty – The Great War, 1914-1918”), they sound like whispers compared to Lt. Col. MacNeider’s oratory:

The flagpole at the turn in Victory Memorial Drive
The renovated flagpole at the turn in Victory Memorial Drive

“There are men who see nothing in service to their country. There are men who look at the sunrise and see nothing but the profit which might be made in the coming day. There will be men who will look at this driveway and see nothing of the beautiful sentiments which caused these trees to be planted, the love of country which paid this honor to Hennepin county’s hero dead.

“But to all true Americans these trees will be a symbol for all forthcoming generations of the bravery and devotion with which these men laid down their lives that we might live. I wish I knew how to tell you how wonderful the American soldier was, what he did for you and how unselfishly he did it.

“I can say to you that those of us who came back had a new realization of the patriotism which carried them through battles and for which they gave their lives.

“The men of the American Legion came back with the spirit of hot fire within us, and if it is but a spark of that fire which carried these men on we will live to the standards they set for us.”

Next week: how the war is dimly remembered on the other side of the Mississippi River, in Minneapolis’ twin city of St. Paul.

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