More on the History of Way Park


In an earlier post, I sketched some of the broad details of Northfield's Way Park, as described to me by Northfield resident and historian David Sudermann, who has been behind the push to have the park designated a local historical heritage site.  Sudermann had plenty to tell me about the process of researching and the interesting local histories he uncovered in the process.  Here is part two of a series on Way Park:


Sudermann was the sole investigator of the history of Way Park, and also the sole writer of the application to designate it a historic landmark, although a local organization called Friends of Way Park supported his project.  Sudermann also worked with a local architect and member of the HPC to develop a form for the application.  

Sudermann read all of the city council minutes between approximately 1919 and 1941, and searched newspaper microfilms at Northfield's library. He also made several trips to the Rice County courthouse in Faribault to find property and birth records.  Sudermann estimates that he put approximately 250 hours of research and writing into the application, not counting his earlier research (2003-2008) on the legal issues of park dedications.  

Given the amount of time and effort the research took, Sudermann says he now has a greater understanding why so few local heritage sites apply for designation; most individuals don't have the necessary "historical interest, skills, and time" to prepare such a project.  The tremendous time and attention to detail involved in the process is another reason he says the City Council need not have worried that approving his request would open the door to a flood of similar applications.


Sudermann turned up a number of interesting facets of Northfield's early history in the process of researching the park.  Prior to 1851, the land on which the park is now situated was where a branch of the North American Indian Dakota tripe hunted and trapped.  The 1851 Mendota Treaty opened up the area to white settlement, after which settlers began to pour into what is now Rice County.  The West Side of Northfield became a largely working-class neighborhood of small wood-frame houses along Spring and Linden Streets.  A number of small industrial businesses were formed along Northfield's West Side, including a milk processing business, a foundry, grist mill, grain elevator, saw mill, and stockyard.  A number of individuals who would become important to Northfield history lived near or right across from the park, including Northfield's first African-American family, John and Missouri Pittmon Boone, who moved to Northfield in 1866.  Their children attended Northfield schools and one granddaughter, Marlys Boone, was the first student of color to graduate from St. Olaf College.   Much later in Northfield history, in the 1970s and 80s Senator Paul Wellstone and his family lived directly across from Way Park, on First Street West.  

Sudermann also became fascinated with the man who bought the land which later became way park, John S. Way.  Way was an early pioneer in the area who settled here after making his fortune in the 1849 California gold rush.  Sudermann was able to trace the descendants of John and his wife Sarah Way to Florida.  These descendants provided Sudermann with a number of photos, including one of the small leather bag which had held the gold dust that made Way's original fortune.  John S. Way played a pivotal role in early Northfield history, not only as one of its first settlers, but also later as a state legislator, county commissioner, and township supervisor, not to mention a successful horse breeder who may have brought the very first Morgan stallion to Minnesota.  Way purchased the land that would become the park in 1882, and the land was used informally for sledding, walking, kite-flying and other outdoor activities until 1933, when the land was offered to the city by two of Way's granddaughters, Lucile (1877-1966) and her sister Laura.  Lucile Way was also an active member of the early Northfield community, creating community dramas and pageants, and teaching at St. Olaf.  Sudermann also discovered that Morell and Nichols Landscape Architects, the firm which would design the park's original blueprint, also designed "about half" of the college campuses in Minnesota,  including Carleton, as well as various schools in North and South Dakota.