The Lindberghs of Little Falls

About a year ago, we drove an hour northwest of the Twin Cities to take my wife to a workshop in St. Cloud, Minnesota. To kill some time that afternoon, I took our then-six year old twins another half-hour north, to the Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site. While young Lindbergh also spent time in Washington, DC (where his father was a U.S. Congressman for a decade) and Detroit, Michigan (where his mother’s family lived), his primary childhood home was Little Falls, Minnesota.

Now that I’m writing a biography of Lindbergh, my wife wanted to see that site. So back to Little Falls we went this past Saturday.

Lindbergh Drive street sign in Little Falls, MN

Little Falls doubled in size at the end of the 19th century, thanks primarily to the influx of Scandinavian immigrants seeking farmland and jobs in timber mills. In 1884 a young Swedish-American lawyer named Charles August Lindbergh put out his shingle. He soon became a prominent businessman and landholder, and was elected to Congress as a Progressive Republican in 1906. C.A.’s first wife, Mary La Fond, died of complications from surgery in 1898, leaving behind three daughters. Five years later C.A. met the town’s new high school science teacher, Evangeline Lodge Land (like her husband, a University of Michigan graduate), and married her in 1901. Charles was born the next year.

C.A. built a three-story mansion for his family, on a farm overlooking the Mississippi River two miles south of town. That house burned down in 1905, and a new home was rebuilt over the next two years. It was much smaller — and C.A. never lived there, as he and Evangeline had grown estranged from each other. (“Their relationship was a tragic situation,” admitted their son years later.) It’s this smaller house — initially used only in the summers — that was restored in the 1970s and is now the centerpiece of the site administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Before we reached the house itself, Katie and the kids were kind enough to let me drive around town a bit, looking at the history downtown. But also, a couple of older churches. After all, I’m writing a spiritual biography of Lindbergh.

Even this early in my research, I know enough to know that church played little role in his upbringing. According to C.A.’s biographer, Bruce L. Larson, the ambitious legislator “was not inclined to follow the regular patterns of organized religion.” In his autobiographical writings, Lindbergh alludes only briefly to attending worship services — and then in connection with father campaigning for office. Lindbergh biographer Joyce Milton says the family occasionally went to a Lutheran church, but I’ll need to confirm that. I wouldn’t be surprised if a first-generation immigrant as culturally assimilated and socially mobile as C.A. Lindbergh actually opted for the Episcopal church closer to the center of town, rather than Swedish-speaking Bethel Lutheran on the west side of the river.

In any event, Larson adds that C.A. “did believe in God” and his son concluded that, “[o]n the whole,” his occasional churchgoing was “natural rather than political.” (C.A. later attended the Unitarian society in Minneapolis.) Carl Bolander, C.A.’s closest business associate (who also designed the new house), recalled driving with him north of town. Stopped at the top of a hill to look at a lake and forest, the congressman burst out:

Some men tell there is no God!—or that God is a puny creature shut up in churches and creeds…. I need no scientific analysis or theological arguments to show me the reality or the bigness of my God when I look at this! (emphasis original; quoted in Larson, Lindbergh of Minnesota, p. 34)

The tour of the Lindbergh house makes no mention of religion, but there are hints of C.A.’s metaphysical interests. On the bookshelves in the drawing room, you’ll find works by Hegel, Schiller, and Darwin (and the latter’s American popularizer, John Fiske). But I noticed at least five Bibles — one in Swedish, four in English (including a copy of Cyrus Scofield’s dispensationalist reference version!) — plus books by Christian authors as diverse as the 17th century Puritan John Flavel, Adventist leader Ellen White, and John Ireland, the first Catholic archbishop of St. Paul. (The tour guide told me that the books in that library are either original to the house, or were preserved from C.A.’s law office.)

It’s not clear how much influence, if any, such books had on young Charles. (His “boyhood reminiscence” for the state historical society says far more about hunting and driving than reading.) But at the small museum in the historic site’s visitor center, one reads of the latter stage of his life, when he questioned modern faith in science and technology.

For example… Most of the family’s farmland had become a state park in 1931. When Charles came back in 1973 (a year before his death) to dedicate a new interpretive center, he concluded his remarks by making a typically spiritual case for the value of environmental conservation:

I might end by saying that on this riverbank one can look upward in late evening and watch a satellite penetrate through stars, thereby spanning human progress from the primitive hunter with his canoe to the latest advance of our civilization. But in saying so, I would be stopping short of our latest advance. I believe our civilization’s latest advance is symbolized by the park rather than by satellites and space travel. In establishing parks and nature reserves, man reaches beyond the material values of science and technology. He recognizes the essential value of life itself, of life’s natural inheritance irreplaceably evolved through earthly epochs, of the miraculous spiritual awareness that only nature in balance can maintain.

By the way, if you don’t regularly read my stuff at The Anxious Bench… A few weeks back I wrote a two-part post on Christian responses to Lindbergh’s historic 1927 flight across the Atlantic (part 1, part 2).