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Lakewood and the Park Board: An Entwined History

If you’ve been following our blog throughout National Garden Month, you’ve learned about Lakewood’s greenhouse, garden, and horticultural history. Today we look at Lakewood’s connection to one of the nation’s most elaborate urban garden and recreation systems—the Minneapolis Park System.


Lakewood was founded in 1871, a full 12 years before the Minneapolis Park Board was incorporated. This means that Lakewood was, in essence, the first large-scale public greenspace in the city of Minneapolis. Lakewood’s early leadership was comprised of many early Minneapolis influencers with a bent toward landscape architecture and horticulture. In fact, many notable figures who went on to be instrumental in founding the park system got their start at Lakewood Cemetery. Among these mutual leaders are such names as Charles Loring, Thomas Lowry, Horace Cleveland, Harry Wild Jones, and more.


The first park?

Before we get to the shared leadership of Lakewood and the early Minneapolis Park Board, let’s address the issue of the “first park.” To say that Lakewood was the city’s first park isn’t completely accurate. In 1857, the same year that New York held a competition to design Central Park, early settler Edward Murphy donated a piece of land to the city to create Minneapolis's first city-owned park.  Born in 1828, this Irish-American pioneer moved to the frontier town of St. Anthony (now Northeast Minneapolis) in 1850. Shortly thereafter, he became one of the early settlers on the West Bank of the Mississippi. By 1873, the city had not developed his park, so Murphy took it upon himself to plant trees, create paths, and build fences. Today Murphy Square is the main square for Augsburg College.


 Murphy Park in 1905. Source: Minnesota Historical Society


Lakewood and the Park Board: Shared Leadership

On August 7, 1871, Minneapolis mayor Dorilus Morrison summoned a group of 14 Minneapolis businessmen to discuss the founding of a nonprofit, garden-style cemetery. The city of Minneapolis, which then had a population of 13,000, was growing rapidly, and these leaders wanted to be certain that residents had a peaceful space within which to honor their deceased loved ones. Together these leaders decided to develop the region's first park-like cemetery, with winding roads, undulating hills, and plenty of plants and trees. Later that year they purchased the land for the original, smaller Lakewood Cemetery (now the northwest quadrant of the grounds) from settler William S. King.


Among these original founding members of the Lakewood Cemetery Association were three businessmen who would go on to be instrumental in the founding of the Park Board: Charles Loring, George Brackett, and Thomas Lowry.


Charles Loring

Charles Loring’s grave at Lakewood Cemetery clearly spells out the well-earned title by which Minneapolitans knew him. “Charles M. Loring: Father of the Parks.”


 Charles M. Loring in 1900. Source: MNopedia


Loring served as the first president of the Park Board. He is largely credited with purchasing much of the city’s lakes and shorelines for parks. But before Loring became the Father of the Parks, he was instrumental in Lakewood’s founding. As a Lakewood founder and board member, Loring had a major influence on Lakewood’s early horticultural designs. With a deep passion for trees and flowers, he was heavily involved in the local floral industry, even hosting the city’s first flower show. Lakewood sent him (and other early cemetery leaders) to national American Association of Cemetery Superintendents conferences, where he learned and shared information about which trees and flowers performed well in Northern climates. (Note that this was before USDA hardiness zone maps, or the widespread existence of conservatories!)


The grave of Charles Loring at Lakewood, which reads "Father of the Parks"


There are multiple stories of how the idea for Lakewood first came to be. But one such story is that it was actually Loring who had the idea for the space. Unfortunately, somber circumstance led Loring to envision a place of memorial solace and beauty in the city. In 1863, Loring’s infant daughter died. At this time Minneapolis's only public graveyard was Layman's Cemetery on Lake Street, which was already overcrowded from 10 years of burials from a rapidly growing population. Years later, Loring wrote a letter to fellow Lakewood founder and Park Board member George Brackett. In this letter, he told Brackett that it was while burying his infant daughter in this overcrowded space that he made a promise to build a larger, park-like cemetery. (Learn more about Charles Loring and his wife Florence.)


George Brackett

When Charles Loring wrote that letter to George Brackett, he wrote to a trusted friend and colleague. Having established himself as a successful businessman and entrepreneur by the 1870s, Brackett was one of those businessmen summoned by Mayor Dorilus Morrison to establish Lakewood Cemetery. Loring and Brackett worked closely in the early days of Lakewood. They also worked closely after the Park Board was founded in 1883. Brackett was one of the early members of the Park Board, where Loring served as the first president.


 George Brackett in 1907. Source: Wikimedia


In addition to making a fortune in groceries, milling, lumber, railroads, and real estate, Brackett also served as the sixth mayor of Minneapolis. Born in Maine in 1836, he moved westward until he settled in Minneapolis at age 20. He is the namesake of Lake Minnetonka’s Brackett Point (where he lived) and Minneapolis’s Brackett Park. Brackett remained adventurous until his final years. Already in his 60s, he endeavored to Alaska with his son in the 1890s to help develop a proposed shipping road. He returned to Minneapolis in 1905, and passed away in 1921.


Thomas Lowry

Another one of Morrison’s picks for city-savvy cemetery founders was Thomas Lowry. Lowry had arrived in Minneapolis with a law degree just a few years earlier in 1867 (the same year Minneapolis became a city). But Lowry found that the small frontier city presented little opportunity to practice law. Instead, he focused his efforts and investments in real estate. Within a few years, he had made a small fortune in real estate—and this fortune would only continue to grow.


Thomas Lowry in 1902. Source: Wikimedia