Saturday, April 3, 2010

Save the Northfield Depot!

Soon after we moved to Northfield almost 12 years ago, I noticed the lonely, boarded-up train depot located about five blocks from our house.  Depots ooze nostalgia and romance; they once were the center of community activity.  I've always thought it was a shame that this one hadn't been renovated and put to a new use, as has happened in other towns. 

So I was excited to learn recently about a grassroots effort to preserve the Northfield Depot before it's too late.  The Save the Depot committee held a meeting at the end of February to gauge interest in the project and is now developing plans to relocate and restore the 122-year-old building.

According to a March 31 article in the Northfield News, members hope to raise $200,000 to $300,000 to restore the depot to its 1917 elegance.  The committee is looking at possible relocation sites and is seeking community input about possible uses.  Those mentioned so far include a visitors center, a bus-friendly transportation hub, a cafe, and a place to host arts-related events.  The group is looking for volunteers, and if you're on Facebook, you can become a fan of Save the Northfield Depot.

I'd be interested in the effort anyway, just because of my love of history and cool old buildings, but as it happens, I have a personal connection to this depot.  Anyone who knows me well and has followed my research project may find this particularly amusing, but yes, G. Oliver Riggs, my bandmaster great-grandfather, has been to the depot; he conducted a brief concert there in 1931, assisted by his younger son, Percy.

A photo of the 122-year-old depot as it looks now in April 2010

Here's a close-up photo of the boarded-up Depot, located behind the Country Inn and Suites.

I didn't know about this connection until a few years ago, when I was researching details about a big trip the St. Cloud Municipal Senior Boys' Band took to Des Moines in June 1931 for the National Junior Chamber of Commerce Convention.

I knew, from an article I'd read in the St. Cloud Daily Times, that the 70-piece senior boys' band had traveled to Des Moines by train.  On the way to Iowa, the band stopped in Minneapolis and in St. Paul and paraded through the streets, stopping to serenade people in front of the Minneapolis Journal and Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch buildings.  The band also broadcast a program over KSTP radio.  During the journey home, the band stopped to play "complimentary" 15-minute concerts at the train stations in Mason City, Albert Lea, Faribault and Northfield.

When I looked this up in the Northfield Public Library (now celebrating its centennial), I found one article in the Northfield Independent about the band's expected arrival.  I didn't find a post-concert story, or any coverage in the Northfield News.  If anyone reading this was living in Northfield at the time and has a photo of the band concert, let me know!

An article from the June 11, 1931, Northfield Independent.

I can't vouch for its appearance in Northfield, but I know that during the stop in Mason City, a bear cub was among the concert listeners.  The bear had come along on the Des Moines trip as the mascot of the St. Paul Junior Chamber of Commerce delegation.  

(It's not the first time a bear has come up in a G. Oliver story; see my earlier post).  

An article from the June 15, 1931 Mason City Globe-Gazette explains:  "A cub bear, mascot of the Junior Chamber of Commerce delegation in the special train on which the band traveled, sat solemnly on the platform to listen to the music."

Unfortunately, the article doesn't mention what songs the band played, or which one the bear preferred.  It does mention that the band stopped in Mason City to pay respects to that city's high school band, which had won high honors in a national school band contest.  The Mason City band was directed by Gerald Prescott, who later became the first director of bands at the University of Minnesota and was a friend of my grandfather, Ronald.

The bear made the paper in Des Moines, too – it's in a photo on the front page of The Des Moines Register (my former employer).  The photo is dark, but you can see the bear in the lower right of the bottom photo.

 The front page of The Des Moines Register on June 11, 1931.  Sixty years later, I joined the staff.

I'm sure there are many wonderful stories out there about the Northfield Depot and how it has intersected with people's lives over the years.  I hope the Save the Depot Committee's efforts stir the memories and open the pocketbooks of people who care about preserving this piece of our town's history.  Once the depot is moved and restored, I think it would be appropriate to have a band play as part of the festivities.  Maybe we can even rent a bear!


  1. I'm amazed at all of the connections you find to G. Oliver and where he played - and this one right in Northfield!

    I do hope we can save the Depot. It's a lovely building. So many towns figure out how to use their depots to enhance their communities. There is a depot turned quilt shop in Shakopee, the restaurant in Faribault and I've been to depot coffee shops as well. Another option is to turn it into a home - my friend lives in a restored depot in Canada.

  2. There are a lot of possibilities! I've never heard of anyone living in a restored depot, though. You should write about that! :)