Thursday, March 3, 2011

Betsy-Tacy and the Music Man of Crookston

I spent most of the day yesterday in Mankato, doing research for a travel story I’m writing for the Star Tribune.  The highlight was touring the Betsy and Tacy Houses, made famous in the Betsy-Tacy book series by Mankato native Maud Hart Lovelace.
Me in front of the childhood home of Mankato author Maud Hart Lovelace.
For those of you not familiar with the semi-biographical, fictional books, they are based on Maud’s (Betsy’s) growing up in Mankato (Deep Valley) at the turn of the last century.  My mom introduced me to them when I was a kid, and I’ve loved them ever since, although I haven’t read the entire series for years. 

Maud (Betsy) was one of my inspirations for becoming a writer.  She wrote 24 books in all, and she inspired a children’s choice book award, the Maud Hart Lovelace Award, which is celebrating its 30th year.
A plaque on the site explains Maud’s life.  She died in 1980 and is buried in Mankato.
Maud was born in Mankato in 1892, and she lived there until 1910, when she graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of Minnesota.  The years depicted in her first eight books (1898-1910) coincide with the years my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, directed the city band in another Minnesota river town, Crookston.

One of the neat things about looking through the books now is that it helps me visualize what life was like for G. Oliver and his family in those years.  My grandfather, Ronald, was born in 1901 and was closer in age to Maud’s younger sister, Helen, born in 1898.  Through Maud’s stories, we learn the everyday details of life, like how children played, how women called on each other and left their cards, how exciting it was to see the first horseless carriage, and to visit the new Carnegie library.
The Carnegie Library in Mankato opened in 1904 and is now an arts center.
It was interesting to compare Mankato to Crookston, which I visited with my parents last June (I wrote about Crookston for the Star Tribune, too: Step Back in Time in Crookston).  Both are college towns with architecturally significant buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.  Both have former Carnegie libraries (yes, I am a little obsessed with Carnegie libraries; see my previous post here). Both towns also have lost some historic structures over the years.

I was thrilled to visit the Betsy House, which was under threat of demolition when the Betsy-Tacy Society rescued it in 2001.  Renovations took several years, and it’s been open for tours since 2009.  Across the street, visitors can tour the Tacy House, the childhood home of Maud’s lifelong friend, Frances Kenney.  This home also was purchased and restored by the Betsy-Tacy Society; it houses an interpretive center and gift shop.
The childhood home of Maud’s friend, Frances (Tacy).
Sadly, some of the places mentioned in the Betsy-Tacy books are long gone, like the Saulpaugh Hotel, called the Melborn Hotel in the books.  It was torn down in 1974 and replaced with a Holiday Inn, which is now the Mankato City Center Hotel.  The loss of the majestic hotel reminds me of how the Palace Hotel in Crookston recently was lost to the wrecking ball.

Another building mentioned in the books that no longer exists is the Opera House.  Built in 1893, the Mankato Opera House was the center of culture and entertainment for many years.  John Philip Sousa’s band performed there on Nov. 11, 1898.  The rising popularity of movies doomed the building, and it was torn down in 1931.  Again, I was reminded of Crookston and its Grand Opera House, where Sousa’s band performed in 1899 and 1902.  That building was destroyed by fire the 1980s. 

When my parents and I visited Crookston, we found the house where G. Oliver and his family lived during their second stay in Crookston, from 1914-1919.  My grandfather, Ronald, was living in this house when he graduated from Crookston High School; the family then moved to Bemidji, and my grandfather enrolled at the University of Minnesota (just like Maud!).

The house is located on Washington Avenue in a neighborhood prone to flooding, and it appeared to be vacant.  I’m not sure it will survive.  If I had an unlimited supply of money, I would consider moving it to a safer site, renovating it and giving it new life as the G. Oliver Riggs Music Museum.
Dad and G. Oliver in front of the former Crookston home.
My grandfather, my dad and my uncle Bob visit the former Crookston home in the early 1950s.
But I don’t have an unlimited supply of money.  If I did, it would probably make more sense to establish a G. Oliver Riggs scholarship fund for youth who want to learn to play instruments, but can’t afford to rent or buy them.  That would be a fitting tribute to a man who contributed so much to the culture of a little Minnesota river town at the turn of the last century.

1 comment:

  1. I never read the Lovelace books (I'm guessing it's a gender thing), but I'm certainly aware of their influence on children across the country in the 20th century. The before and after photos of G. Oliver's house are remarkable. I hope the house does survive.