Monday Mystery: The First Minneapolis Auto Show?

Car enthusiasts are currently descending upon Minneapolis to attend the Twin Cities Auto Show which opened over the weekend. The latest and greatest in chrome and horsepower will delight automobile enthusiasts through March 16.

After seeing several advertisements on local television for the show, I wondered when the first “automobile show” was held in the Twin Cities. My interest was not inspired out of plain curiosity. The culprit of any and all of my recent curiosities is usually an image from the negatives in the Bell Museum of Natural History records:


View from the balcony of the Minneapolis Auto Show, 1907

Now I know that you are thinking, “What does a Minneapolis Auto Show have to do with natural history?” This image is related to natural history in that it is from a negative that was originally part of the personal collection of Thomas Sadler Roberts, associate curator and director of the Bell Museum from 1915-1946. The negative was found in a drawer of other negatives that contain images seemingly unrelated to nature studies. Roberts owned an automobile at the turn of the 20th century and employed a driver, John Nordquist, who drove Roberts to the many house calls he made in his first occupation as a pediatrician. It is likely Roberts attended the show to see the latest model of Oldsmobile or Cadillac.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) formed in Chicago in 1902. According to a history of the AAA in Minneapolis, the Automobile Club of Minneapolis was formed in the fall of that same year, and later combined with other local organizations to form the Minnesota State Automobile Association in 1907. A history of the Minneapolis AAA can be found at the AAA Minneapolis website.

Given the date of the above image, is it possible that it was taken at one of the first automobile shows ever held in Minneapolis?

In a search for similar images and/or references, I came across a photograph of “The Second Minneapolis Auto Show in Kenwood Armory,” dated 1909 from the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) collection. If the title of this image is accurate, that would put the “first” show as taking place prior to 1909. However, the MHS collection also includes a photograph titled “Autocars and Fords awaiting parade preceeding the opening of the Minneapolis Auto Show,” dated 1905.

In taking a clue from the second part of the MHS photo title, I took a closer look into the Kenwood Armory. The armory, built to house members of the National Guard, was constructed in 1906 on the present site of the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis. According to an account in the book Lost Minnesota, the Armory was dedicated with an opening ceremony on January 8, 1907: “The militia, though, did not move into the building until the initial temporary occupants–gawkers attending the city’s first automobile show–vacated the premises.” If accurate, this places the first automobile show in Minneapolis as occurring prior to January 8, 1907.

Surely the construction and public opening of a major military facility would be covered in local newspapers. I turned to the digital edition of The Minneapolis Journal which thankfully is digitized through 1906. I found articles in September and October 1906 editions that reported upon the progress of the construction of the armory building. The Sunday, September 2, 1906 edition of the Minneapolis Journal announced “Spacious Armory Nearing Completion” and contained a photograph of the interior.

The Saturday, October 6, 1906 edition of the Journal reported “Guard to Occupy Armory Monday,” and indicated that the national guardsmen would vacate the former armory and move in to the new one on Monday, October 8th, 1906 despite the fact that construction was not finished, “Tho not complete, the new building is in such shape that it can be used for drill and other necessary work… Work will be rushed on the company quarters and as fast as possible the guard will take over each completed portion of the building.”

The Journal contains no mention of an auto show being held at the Armory prior to when the guardsmen moved in to the facility in October. The Minneapolis Automobile Club, the likely sponsor of such an event, does appear regularly within the pages of the newspaper however. In the September 9, 1906 edition, it was announced that the club was to host a series of automobile matinees (car races) on alternating Saturdays at the fairground race track in St. Paul. “Snap Shots at the Auto Club Races At Hamline” was published on September 30, 1906.

As the digitized edition of the Minneapolis Journal does not extend past December 31, 1906 –and this post is already getting rather long– the answer to when the true first automobile show was held in Minneapolis remains a mystery.

Added thought:
Remember a question previously stated, “What does a Minneapolis Auto Show have to do with natural history?” While researching auto shows and the Armory, I found an article in the Minneapolis Journal that reminded me of the impact that we have on nature.

During the construction of the Kenwood Armory, the suspected site of early city automobile shows, a group of English Sparrows made their nests in the drill hall of the building. Unbeknownst to the Sparrows, walls were literally going up that confined them to the indoors. The incident is described in an article titled “Sparrows Perish in New Armory” from the October 15, 1906 Minneapolis Journal:

“A majority of the birds imprisoned in the armory were born inside the building and have never experienced a flight in out-of-doors. Their parents built their nests under the eaves and among the rafters of the new building before a roof and windows shut off exit. When the birds were hatched the armory was really a prison.”

Despite the efforts of building workmen and a caretaker who left out crumbs and water for the captive birds to eat and drink, the birds began to die off at a rapid rate.

Through the story of the automobile show, a symbol of the rapid development of technology in the early 20th century, and the construction of the Armory, an example of expanding infrastructure and land development, we learn of the often underscored actions that we take that result in critical consequences to our natural environment.