A New Twist in the Beam Story


Pillsbury Hall, the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, where the beam lay in state for its last decade at the U of M. Between 1881 and the completion of Pillsbury Hall in 1907, the beam was collected among the University’s geological and natural history specimens, in a campus location not yet identified.  

The story of the beam said to have been part of the scaffold that executed 38 Dakota men at Mankato, Minnesota, in 1862, took a new twist thanks to a newspaper clipping in a file Alan Woolworth loaned me.

Alan, as you know if you know him or have ever consulted the portion of his papers housed at the Minnesota Historical Society, spent the second half of his career as a historian, following the rules of his first profession, archaeologist: no shovel full of dirt is too mundane to skip sifting for shards.

This newspaper shard is classic Woolworth: something he saved because, as he says, “You never know when fragments that seem unimportant will add up to something.” In this case, the pieces are beginning to come together to understand why some people in the late 19th and early 20th century, recalled that John F. Meagher had donated the beam to the State Historical Society when it actually came to rest in the Geology Museum at the University of Minnesota.

Don’t know the story of the beam? Click on “Blue Earth County Beam” in the Categories list in the right sidebar for the previous installments in this story.

On Sunday, September 10, 1911, p. 39 of The Minneapolis Journal featured a long article by Minneapolis journalist Edward A. Bromley bannered, “Minnesota’s Worst Indian Massacre Began Forty-nine Years Ago.” The article opened with this story:

Lying on the floor at one end of the geological museum in Pillsbury Hall at the state university is a weather-beaten beam, eighteen feet long and a foot and a half in diameter, hewn out of white oak timber. There are mortises about two feet apart in two of its sides, and in another place there are several deep bored peg holes.

For over twenty-five years that beam has occupied a place in the museum, but, because it has during most of that time, been concealed behind some cases, has neither excited comment, nor often caught the gaze of visitors. It is not labeled and hence might naturally be supposed to be of little value. Nevertheless, it has more historical interest than all the other timbers in the building. It played a part in the grim tragedy which took place forty-nine years ago; and although the long struggle of the civil war was just beginning, excited universal interest throughout the United States.

The tragedy in which the beam had a place was the hanging of thirty-eight Sioux Indians at Mankato, Dec. 26, 1862. It comprised part of the scaffold and soon after the direful event, was sold with the other gallows timbers to John F. Meagher, a hardware merchant at Mankato, who used most of them in erecting a building on Front Street in the block west of the present Salpaugh House. Later, Mr. Meagher donated this beam to the Minnesota Historical Society. At the time, the society was in very small quarters and had no place to store it. J. Fletcher Williams, then secretary, suggested to professor N. H. Winchell, then state geologist, that the university receive and store it. This was done, and the beam, as it has already been said, has rested on the floor of the museum ever since.

Besides being State Geographer, Newton H. Winchell would join the Executive Council of the Minnesota Historical Society. Meagher’s 1881 donation letter was not addressed to Winchell, but to Professor Christopher P. Hall, who worked under Winchell, teaching geography at the State University –the University of Minnesota.

Bromley’s reference to the Historical Society being “in very small quarters” with “no place to store” the beam rings true to 1881, the year Meagher donated it. On March 1, 1881, the State Capitol, where MHS had its rooms, burned down. For the next two years, the Society occupied even less suitable space in the basement of the Market House, a St. Paul hotel.

Is there evidence supporting this story among the records Williams left at MHS? So far, not that I have found. But I have a lot of spade work left to do.

In the meantime, MNHS is probably grinning in relief that in 1881, it had no place to store the proffered beam. The question of what to do with it today might have been their problem.

Photo credit: Google Images.

May 18, 2013 updated information in the photo caption.

This entry was posted in Alan Woolworth, Blue Earth County Beam. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A New Twist in the Beam Story

  1. Leave it to Alan to tuck away that little tidbit and to you to find it! Great sleuthing!

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