Historic Olcott Park
BACK TO TOP
BACK TO TOP
The booming iron ore production of the 1920s came to a crashing halt with the onset of the Great Depression. Ore production fell from 47 million tons in 1929 to less than 2 million in 1932, the year in which production across the three Minnesota ranges came to a virtual standstill. Mines closed, thousands were laid off, retail sales slumped, tax revenues declined, and government services were cut back. A “Hooverville” appeared on the outskirts of Virginia, and the city’s healthy tax revenues were curtailed.
In March 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt took office and quickly began the New Deal, a series of federal interventions intended to blunt the impact of the Depression and revitalize the economy. Among other things, the New Deal created a number of job-creation programs geared to the development of public works projects in cooperation with the states and local communities. All of these programs had an impact on the Iron Range.
The first to make a difference was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which put young unemployed men to work on reforestation, soil conservation, and park improvements. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) supplied direct grants to states which used the money to put thousands to work, mostly in construction and repair projects. In Minnesota, local government units sent their applications to the State Board of Control. The Public Works Administration (PWA) was also created during the “hundred days” in 1933, but it took longer to get its projects in motion. The PWA did not directly employ workers, but gave grants and loans to federal agencies and states and their subdivisions to fund major projects built by private contractors. Nation-wide, it funded 34,500 public works projects, including city halls, schools, sewage treatment plants, dams, bridges, and the like. In Minnesota, the PWA funded 666 federal and non-federal projects, including such major works as the Minneapolis Armory and Dam 5-A on the Mississippi near Winona.
Meanwhile, Roosevelt became impatient with the pace of hiring and created the Civil Works Administration (CWA) that employed 4.5 million workers in the winter of 1933-34. It generated fierce opposition and was terminated after five months. At that point, the FERA established a new work relief program, commonly known as the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA) to take CWA’s place. In 1935, Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), an agency designed to provide massive unemployment relief by directly hiring the unemployed to build public works or work in service projects in such fields as adult education, recreation, and public art. The WPA acted as general contractor of building projects and put a high priority on employing as many unemployed workers as possible. As a result, WPA projects tended to be smaller and less complex than PWA projects, which were completed by established construction firms. Like the PWA, the WPA required that a local governmental unit share the cost of the project. By the time it ended in 1943, the WPA had helped build 1,324 new public buildings in Minnesota, as well as many bridges, roads, culverts, sidewalks, swimming pools, stadiums, sewage and water treatment plants, and three new airports.
Iron ore mining in Minnesota would rebound strongly when World War II led to a massive increase in demand for steel. During the Depression, however, Iron Range towns were not able to fund public projects at the level to which they had grown accustomed. The various New Deal programs filled the void and allowed for the continued expansion of public infrastructure and services. Under the direction of park superintendent Arthur F. Thayer, the city of Virginia tapped these various federal agencies to continue the development of Olcott Park in three important areas.
The city acted quickly and obtained ERA and CWA assistance to build a large greenhouse addition which was intended not just for the nurturing but also the exhibiting of plants. Accordingly, the open house to showcase the new greenhouse in November 1933 coincided with the first chrysanthemum show. Under the supervision of park horticulturist Gunnar W. Peterson, the annual chrysanthemum show became one of the greenhouse’s signature events, eclipsed only by Peterson’s popular begonia shows each year in August. Peterson also gained fame with his floral exhibitions in raised beds in the center of the park north of the bandstand, drawing visitors from around the state and beyond. In 1934, for example, Peterson designed a massive display which spelled out “In honor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Leader of our Nation.” The display won national notice and an acknowledgment from the president.
The city also secured CWA and ERA assistance for two significant expansions of Olcott Park’s zoo. With CWA labor, the park built a mountain sheep enclosure with a rock shelter for them in 1932. Two years later, the park enlisted WPA workers to build a stone hill for the animals to climb within the enclosure. The other improvement was the construction of Monkey Island, a stone castle-like structure surrounded by a water-filled moat and a high circular retaining wall with a circumference of 310 feet. CWA labor did the preparatory excavation, and then the project was completed in 1934 with ERA assistance. Superintendent Thayer noted that the monkeys quickly had become the zoo’s big attraction, bringing a steady stream of visitors to the park.
Although the greenhouse, floral displays, and zoo animals brought thousands of visitors to Olcott Park, the park commissioners wanted to add one more major attraction. In 1934, they became interested in the idea of mounting an electric fountain within a rock garden, and according the superintendent’s report, several commissioners traveled to inspect rock gardens in different parts of the country. The superintendent’s report does not mention why they were interested in an electric fountain, but they may have been influenced by the Century of Progress Exposition held on Chicago’s lakefront during the summers of 1933 and 1934. Many Minnesotans visited the exposition which celebrated technological innovation as an antidote to the gloom of the Great Depression. Electricity was a major focus and companies like General Electric created popular displays in the Electrical Building as well as elaborate searchlight displays and dramatic lighting of buildings outside after dark. General Electric showcased its Novalux Electric Fountain technology in three coordinated fountains in the fair’s south lagoon. After dark, the crowds, which may have included visitors from the Iron Range, watched the 70 underwater colored floodlights illuminate water sprayed by 507 water jets (Figure #1). General Electric provided colorful booklets detailing the various models of Electric Fountains they offered for sale, ranging from a 35 projector model for a large public fountain to smaller three-projector “estate models” for private homes. The “standard” models, the advertising material suggested, were the seven and nine-projector versions.
The city obtained federal approval for the project in 1935 and with WPA labor completed the preliminary excavation and plumbing for the large rectangular, terraced rock garden and fountain located in the center of the northwest quadrangle of the park. The city hired Charles Hanford, Jr. a landscape architect from Independence, Missouri, to design the fountain, rock garden, and observation deck (Figure #2). His design for the observation deck followed the Rustic Style with which Morell and Nichols had designed the park gates along Ninth Street North. The design for the fountain structure used the same form or rusticated masonry. In the spring of 1936, the city sought bids for the concrete required for the pool and fountain. This work was completed by WPA labor during the summer (Figure #3, 4). At that time they also sought bids from electrical contractors to supply and install a General Electric Seven-Projector Novalux Electric Fountain. According to the specifications provided by GE, the projectors would have 1500 watt lamps, two with red filters, one with amber, two with green and two with blue. The mechanism would also include a jet ring with 65 jets as well as other nozzles to spray water. The control system would be completely automatic and capable of producing 60 water and light combinations over a 360 second period.
The Novalus fountain was installed and the masonry completed in the spring and summer of 1937 (Figure #5). The fountain, which put on its multi-color display daily every evening weather permitting from 8:30 to 10:00, debuted on August 16, 1937. The daughter of the park superintendent Carl Hawkinson wrote that the night before, she was with her father and a crew of WPA workers who tested the fountain. The effect, she wrote, “was lovelier than the annual Fourth of July fireworks.” The water gushed from the fountain, “sometimes high, sometimes low, sometimes wide, sometimes narrow,” and colored lights played on the streams of water, red, green, blue, yellow in complementary combinations.” Superintendent Hawkinson reported that police assistance was needed to control the crowds thronging to see the fountain the next day, and that interest in the fountain continued unabated until cold weather in the fall necessitated the draining of the pool. The landscaping, including the planting of coniferous trees around the border of the site, was completed in 1938 (Figure #6, 7).
With the completion of the electric fountain and rock garden, Olcott Park reached the peak of its popularity. Visitors were entertained by the zoo animals, the band concerts, the dramatic flower beds, the greenhouse displays, and now the fountain and its rock garden, especially at dusk when the color light display began (Figure #8). In 1938, the city purchased most of the park land from the steel company and negotiated a lease on a portion of the land on the southern boundary which the company sought to retain as a right of way to an adjacent property. To deal with increased traffic into the park, the city rebuilt the main entrance gate at the northeast corner of the park so that it had two openings, one for incoming traffic and one for traffic exiting the park. This new gate followed the Rustic Style of the original gate, and it is likely that the central stone gate was razed at this time and the stone used to expand the main gate.
World War II brought an end to new development in the park, and during the war years, the animal population of the zoo shrank. The fountain also suffered from the war. In 1943, the bronze gears operating the mechanism that produced the constantly changing water jets and colored lights wore out. It took the park department nearly a year to obtain replacement parts because bronze was a critical war material. The parts were finally obtained at the end of August, 1944, and the evening color displays were renewed for the finally weeks of summer.
BACK TO TOP
After the war all the attractions in the park returned to normal. Visitors were entertained by the monkeys and enthralled by the electric fountain. The local and tropical plants in the greenhouse sustained many guests, especially during the long northern Minnesota winter. The park rebuilt the bandstand in 1947, and it continued to be the venue for popular summer band concerts. The families and groups used the parks for picnics and festivals. For example, the Federation of Finnish Civic Clubs held its summer festival at the park on a Sunday in July 1964, at which 11candidates for elected office made speeches and entertainment was provided by the Virginia City Band.
In the 1960s, however, the park commission found that maintaining a zoo was becoming increasingly difficult and costly, especially in light of the professionalization of zoo keeping and the increased expectations of how animals should be cared for and displayed. In the summer of 1964, the park superintendent decided to close Monkey Island after a number of monkeys had been killed by vandals.
The last superintendent to live in the park retired in 1993. The Virginia Area Historical Society opened its museum and archives in the former superintendent’s home in 1994. The society converted the garage into a main entrance and built a small parking lot along 9th Avenue. They moved an historic log cabin and one of the surviving tourist cabins from the tourist camp that the city had built across 9th Street in 1930 to a spot next to the house.
Until lack of funding led to staff cutbacks, the greenhouse continued to thrive and attract large crowds to its chrysanthemum and begonia shows. The city’s last full time horticulturist retired in 1998. At that time, citizens organized the Friends of the Greenhouse to raise funds for the greenhouse and furnish the volunteers who keep the Botanical Garden, as the tropical displays in the greenhouse’s main room are now called, open year round.
Since 1977, Olcott Park has been the home of the Land of the Loon Ethnic Arts and Crafts Festival, a large fair featuring over 300 vendors. The park is also the site of other annual events involving hundreds of people, such as the last-day-of-school picnics and the Labor Day picnic. The Virginia City Band continues to play summer concerts at the bandstand in the center of the park just as it has done since Olcott Park opened in 1910. Political rallies have been held at the park, including campaign rallies featuring Jesse Ventura and Mark Dayton. As always, people celebrate graduations, birthdays and weddings in the park.
The Electric Fountain operated until 2013 when the city had to shut it down because the pool’s waterproof lining had failed and replacement parts for the fountain could no longer be obtained. Since then an energetic Fountain Restoration Committee has been raising funds to restore the electric fountain to working order, repair the masonry and cement of the fountain, pool, and observation deck, and reestablish the original landscaping in the rock garden. The city used a Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grant to hire Kristin Cheronis, Inc, to prepare a conservation assessment and long range preservations plan for the electric fountain and rock garden. This assessment was completed in August 2016 and fundraising continues.
It is not known how many Novalux Electric Fountains were installed in Minnesota or the Midwest, but available evidence indicates that this was a unique New Deal project in Minnesota and very likely the only surviving Novalux fountain in the state. A few examples also survive in the greater Midwest. With WPA assistance, the city of Alliance, Nebraska installed a Novalux Seven-Projector Electric Fountain in its Central Park in 1935. By 1985, the fountain was no longer operable. A citizens’ campaign raised the funds to restore it to working order with a new electronic mechanism in 1988 and it was added to the National Register in 1990. The city of Davenport, Iowa installed a Novalux Seven-Projector Electric Fountain in Vander Veer Park in 1935. In 1985, the park was made part of the Vander Veer Park National Register Historic District which includes the neighboring historic homes. This fountain has also been restored with a new mechanism which replicates the water and colored light effects of the original.
BACK TO TOP
The Queen of the Range
 Arnold R. Alanen, “Years of Change on the Iron Range” in Clifford E. Clark, Ed. Minnesota in a Century of Change (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1989), 155-156.
 David A. Walker, Iron Frontier: the Discovery and Early Development of Minnesota’s Three Ranges (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1979), 69-70; Andrew Schmidt et al., “Railroads in Minnesota, 1862-1956,” National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form,2007, 80 (Available at the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office).
 Walter Van Brunt, Duluth and St Louis County, Minnesota: Their Story and People, 3 Vols. (Chicago: American Historical Society, 1921), 586.
 Warren Upham, Minnesota Place Names, 3rd Ed.(St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001), 538.
 Van Brunt, 602. Although Virginia’s growth was exceptional, it reflected the general population growth on the Iron Range. Although some early settlements did not survive, eventually about fifteen established towns grew to a combined population of 23,490 by 1900 and 100,385 in 1920. Alanen, 159.
 Van Brunt, 594.
 Walker, 96; Alanen, 173.
 Lass, 188, 256; Alanen, 165; Pamela Brunfelt, “Political Culture in Microcosm: Minnesota’s Iron Range,” in Steven M Hoffman, Angela High-Pippert, and Kay Wolsborn, Perspectives on Minnesota Government and Politics, 6th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2007), 26-27; Paul Landis, Three Iron Mining Towns (Ann Arbor, Edwards Brothers, 1938), 72-78.
The Birth of Olcott Park
 Marvin Lamppa, Minnesota’s Iron Country (Duluth: Lake Superior Port Cities, Inc., 2004), 145.
 W. J. Olcott started out as a mining superintendent in Ironwood, Michigan. In 1894, he became the director of Rockefeller’s Lake Superior Consolidated Iron Mines. After the United States Steel consolidation, he became vice president of the Oliver Iron Mining Company, and eventually its president. Walker, 203; Van Brunt, 414-415.
 Marvin Skaurud, A History of Virginia, MN (University of Minnesota Master’s Thesis, 1941), 21-22.
 Albert E. Bickford, Financial History of Virginia, Minnesota, May 1, 1911 (City of Virginia, 1911), 17-20. Available at the Virginia Area Historical Society archives. “Hawkinson Tells Rotary Club of Park’s History,” Virginia Daily Enterprise (VDE), June 11, 1936, 10. The lease was renewed in 1920 and again in 1930.
 “Named the ‘Olcott’ Park—Band Concert will be given free Sunday afternoon,” The Virginian, August 19, 1910. Linda Tyssen, “City Band Plays On,” Mesabi Daily New (MDN), July 8, 2007.
 “Death Ends Colorful Career of Arthur A. Beischjold, Architect of Virginia Parks and Son of a Dutch Baron,” MDN, January 5, 1953, 3.
 Bickford, 20.
 “Opening of Olcott Park a Great Success,” Virginia Enterprise (VE), June 2, 1911, 6.
 “Schools Enjoy a Big Picnic,” VE, June 9, 1911, 1.
 “Governor A. O. Eberhart will speak at Olcott Park,” The Virginian, June 23, 1911, p 3; “An Enormous Crowd in Prospect: The Finnish Midsummer Celebration will draw people from every point of Range,” VE, June 23, 1911, p. 1; “Thousands Attend Midsummer Picnic,” VE, June 30, 1911, 1
Annual Report for the year ending March 31, 1917.
 Annual Report for the year ending March 31, 1934.
Annual Report for the year ending March 31, 1935.
 An historic photo marked “Olcott Park, 1916” at the Virginia Area Historical Society archives gives a good view of this building.
 “Band Stand at Olcott Park to be used Sunday,” VE, June 18, 1915, 1
 Bickford, 20.
 Gregory Kopischke, “Anthony Morell and Arthur Nichols,” pp 253-257 in Charles Birnbaum and Robin Karson, eds, Pioneers of American Landscape Design (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000); Frank Edgerton Martin, Valued Places: Landscape Architecture in Minnesota (Minneapolis: Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Landscape Architects, 2001), unpaginated.
Annual Report for the year ending March 31, 1917.
Annual Report for the year ending March 31, 1917.
 Susan Granger, et al. “Federal Relief Construction in Minnesota 1933-1941,” National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form, amended2002,F40. (Available at the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office).
 Vernon N. Kisling, Jr. Zoo and Aquarium History: Ancient Animal Collections to Zoological Gardens (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2000), 152-154.
 “Epoch of Progress in Northern Minnesota” Illustrated Supplement to the Daily Virginian, 1915.
 Because 9th Avenue North, which today forms the eastern boundary of the park, did not exist until the 1940s, the superintendent’s house and the greenhouse faced west into the park.
The Development of Olcott Park during the New Dea
l Marvin Lamppa, Minnesota’s Iron Country (Duluth: Lake Superior Port Cities, 2004), 220.
 Rolf T. Anderson, “Federal Relief Construction in Minnesota, 1933-1941,” National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form, 1991, E1 (Available at the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office).
 Anderson, E29.
 Anderson, E10.
 Anderson, E38.
 Anderson, E59; Linus Glotzbach, WPA Accomplishments: Minnesota 1935-1939 (St. Paul, Minn.: Minnesota Works progress Administration, 1939). This work is unpaginated.
 Arthur F. Thayer (1870-1943) served as Virginia’s park superintendent from around 1920 until his retirement at in 1936. Prior to that, he was the fire chief, having been appointed in 1908 when Virginia created a salaried fire department. Van Brunt, 601. Carl Hawkinson took over as park superintendent in 1936 and served until his death in 1943. His daughter Ardys Hawkinson Nelson wrote about growing up in the house in Growing Up in Olcott Park (Walnut Creek, Ca: Cal Creek Publishing, 1998).
 Annual Report for the year ending March 31, 1934, 4.
 “Virginia Park Begonia Beds Lure Tourists,” Duluth News-Tribune, August 11, 1940.
 “President Roosevelt Acknowledges Photographs Received of Flower Bed at the Olcott Park,” VE, November 24, 1934, 5.
 Annual Report for the year ending March 31, 1934, 5.
 Annual Report for the year ending March 31, 1936, 3.
 Annual Report for the year ending March 31, 1935, 3
 Annual Report for the year ending March 31, 1937, 4.
 Lisa D. Schrenk, Building a Century of Progress: The Architecture of Chicago's 1933-34 World's Fair (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 109-110.
 The files of the Virginia Park Department contain a General Electric advertising booklet describing the various Novalux Electric Fountain models.
 Annual Report for the year ending March 31, 1936, 9.
 General Electric Company, “Specifications” (in the files of the Virginia Park Commission). In 1935, a similar fountain was built in Alliance, Nebraska with WPA labor.
 Nelson, 47.
 Annual Report for the year ending March 31, 1938, 4.
 Annual Report for the year ending March 31, 1939, P-5.
 “A New Gate,” Queen City Sun, July 18, 1941; Annual Report for the year ending March 31, 1942.
 “Park Fountain Operating Again,” September 1, 1944.
Olcott Park since the War
 “11 Candidates Speak at Civic Fete Sunday,” MDN, July 14, 1964, 11.
 Kisling, 170-176. For example, veterinary science had become much more sophisticated with respect to animal diseases and proper nutrition.
 “Park Officials Plead for Parents’ Help as 5th Monkey is Killed at Park,” MDN, June 22, 1964, 1.
 Margaret Haapoja’s, “A Paradise Close at Hand: Olcott Park Greenhouse in Virginia, Minnesota is a well-kept secret that deserves more attention,” Minnesota Horticulturist, March 1994.
 Linda Tyssen, “City Band Plays On,” MDN, July 8, 2007. “Virginia City Band Concerts in the Park,” Hometown Focus, July 15, 2015.
 Kristin Cheronis, Inc. “Olcott Park Fountain Condition Assessment and Long-Range Plan.” August 2, 2016.
 Debra Hopheide and Carol Ahlgren, “City of Alliance Central Park Fountain,” National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1990. The fountain was listed under Criterion C in the area of Engineering.
 John Williard, “Vander Veer Fountain’s Colorful History,” Quad City Times, July 22, 2003.
BACK TO TOP