In honor of Women’s History Month, we celebrate five women with lasting legacies in Minneapolis Parks. Among them is Mary Merrill, who is taking a hiatus from retirement to serve as Interim Superintendent in 2018.
“A school, a park and a neighborhood were all named after her, but few know her history,” begins a 2003 Southwest Journal story about Maude Armatage, who was the first woman elected to the Minneapolis Park Board of Commissioners, in 1921. Armatage was a self-described “tomboy” who loved “camping and house-partying” in the wild environs of Lake Harriet in her youth. She was a champion of the partnership between the parks and public schools, who thought hockey sticks were “dangerous” (and wanted more rinks), once sewed curtains and other sundries for a new park building to save on expenses, and was rarely seen in public without her hat and gloves. Armatage served 30 years consecutively, more terms than any other commissioner. She retired in 1951 at the age of 81.
Visit: Armatage Park, 2500 W 57th St.
It was at 81-years-old that Eloise Butler passed away, in 1933. Today, her name and legacy live on at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary in Theodore Wirth Park. We owe the very existence of the (mostly) wild and completely transporting garden to Butler, who began her career as a botany teacher in the early 1900s. She would take her students to the wetlands and uplands at what was then known as Glenwood Park, later tending – on a volunteer basis – to a small plot she and others petitioned the Park Board to set aside in 1907. In 1911, with the generous support of the Women’s Club of Minneapolis, Butler became the full-time curator of the garden that was named in her honor in 1929.
Visit: Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary, 1 Theodore Wirth Parkway
Mary Merill had a long and distinguished career with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. She began her 29-year tenure in 1972, as Recreation Director at Powderhorn Park. Over the years, she rose through the ranks until, in 1999, she was named Superintendent – the first woman and first person of color to hold that position. Merrill was Superintendent until she retired in 2003. In retirement, Merrill continued her parks service as an elected At-Large Commissioner, from 2006-2009. Following her tenure as commissioner, Merrill served in “many advisory capacities, ranging from chairing community advisory committees to helping bring in private donations for projects like the new playground at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park,” the Park Board noted in a release announcing her 2018 role as Interim Superintendent. In 2009, that she was named Superintendent Emeritus, an honor held by only two other people in the Park Board’s 134-year history.
Visit: Powderhorn Park, 3400 15th Ave S
Jayne Miller served from 2011 to 2018. During her tenure, she oversaw the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s historic agreement with the City of Minneapolis to reverse years of underfunding to neighborhood parks. Known as NPP20, the 20-Year Neighborhood Park Plan applies a groundbreaking lens of seven quantifiable criteria that focus on racial and economic equity to ensure that capital investments are targeted first in the parks and communities where they are needed the most.
Visit: Northeast Recreation Center, 1530 Johnson St. NE
Annie Young served seven consecutive terms representing the entire city as an At Large Commissioner, from January 1990 until December 2017, making her one of the two longest-serving commissioners in the Park Board’s 134-year history. Young passed away in January at the age of 75. She was a lifelong environmentalist who spearheaded solar energy use in parks, clean water initiatives and a 95% reduction in chemical pesticide application on Minneapolis park land. She was also a powerful Mississippi River advocate, instrumental in the creation, development and stewardship of riverfront park land, which includes Riverside Park, where the lower meadow was recently renamed in her honor.
Visit: Riverside Park, 2820 S Eighth St
You can learn more about several of these individuals, and many others who shaped our park system, in the excellent and definitive book, City of Parks: The Story of Minneapolis Parks, by David C. Smith. Available at University of Minnesota Press and Smile.Amazon.com (while you’re there – choose the Minneapolis Parks Foundation as your designated non-profit beneficiary!).
Photos courtesy of MN Historical Society and MPRB