Monday March 27th 2023

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Tales from Pioneers & Soldiers Cemetery: 207th in a Series

 City Leaders at an Impasse, Garbage Piles Grow

In the cemetery’s early years, the city’s center was located near what is now the intersection of Hennepin and Washington Avenues. A visit to the cemetery was regarded as a day-long excursion. Over the next 50-75 years the city moved steadily southward and the land around the cemetery, and on occasion the cemetery itself, had been involved in disputes over land use near Lake Street. The most obvious dispute came to a head in the late 19-teens, early 19-twenties, when an effort was made to vacate parts of the cemetery and develop the land for commercial purposes. More recently, in the mid-1960s, one City Council Member, most likely unaware that there are 22,000 people buried there, floated the idea that the cemetery would make an ideal location for the new South High School. Both ideas failed.

Cemetery in the 1930s. Looking southeast toward Cedar Avenue and Lake Street.  Photo from Library of Congress Collection. John Vachon, photographer.

In 1938, one of the city’s biggest problems was garbage. Hundreds of stories, many of them on the front page, appeared in the local papers as local politicians struggled to find a solution to the problem. Few disagreed about the need to build a new incinerator but the debate about where to build it had been going on for ten years without the issue being resolved. One of the proposed sites was at 29th Street and 20th Avenue, adjacent to the cemetery’s northeast corner. It was the most popular choice but not one that was welcomed by those who lived and worked in the surrounding area. Members of the Minneapolis Cemetery Protective Association, a group organized to protect and to advocate for the cemetery, stood firm in their opposition to that location. They supported local residents who formed the South Side Protective Committee, a group organized to explore what legal options might be available to those who opposed having the incinerator (referred to rather ominously as the South Side Destructor) built in their community.

During the summer of 1938, garbage cans were overflowing. Composting and recycling were unheard of and many, if not most, of the city’s families preserved summer fruits and vegetables to tide them over during the winter. Corn cobs, melon rinds, vegetable peels and cores were piling up. The city’s lone incinerator was located on the North Side. It had the capacity to burn 200 tons of trash a day but the city’s population had swelled to 500,000 people and its citizens were generating 225-230 tons a day. J. C. Vincent, assistant City Engineer, tried to put a positive spin on it when he claimed that the increase in garbage was evidence that Minneapolis was not a “hick town.” 

A number of alternatives to the Layman’s site had been suggested but there was no consensus. Mayor George Leach suggested that each of the city’s 13 wards have its own small incinerator, an idea that didn’t attract many supporters. Another suggestion was to have the railroads carry the garbage out of town to be burnt or buried. Another proposal called for grinding the garbage and dumping it down sewers and letting the water treatment plant deal with it. Another was that surplus garbage be buried on a lot near Cedar Avenue and 60th Street. The most popular alternative site to the Layman’s location was at 20th Avenue and the Mississippi River, an idea that didn’t sit well with West Bank merchants and representatives from the University who claimed that it would undermine their vision for the West Bank as a “front door” to the campus and undercut the City’s claim to be “The City Beautiful.”

That left the site near the northeast corner of the cemetery. At the time, each of the city’s wards had two representatives on the City Council. John A. Nelson and Herbert G. Finseth, who represented the 11th Ward where the cemetery was located, strenuously objected to the site. There also was significant, vocal opposition from local residents, American Legion and VFW Posts, and S. O. Severson, principal of South High, who chaired the South Side Protective Committee.

There was also the question of how to pay for it. The Board of Estimates and Taxation voted unanimously to deny issuing bonds to build a new incinerator. The City Attorney ruled that the Council had the authority to use money from its operating funds for construction. The rest would come from federal funds.  The full Council voted to allot $125,000 of the estimated $170,000 cost.  The vote was 21-5. Both of the 11th Ward Council Members voted against it. But the fight was not quite over. Meanwhile, garbage cans overflowed and garbage that exceeded the North Side incinerator’s capacity piled up outside the incinerator’s gates. Read the rest of the story in next month’s Tales.

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