Flashback Friday: Minnesota Celebrated its Centennial 60 Years Ago

May 11, 2018 01:20 PM

In 1958, Minnesota observed 100 years of statehood.

And, it was truly a statewide celebration.


Planning actually began two years earlier, in January 1956. Led by the Minnesota Statehood Centennial Commission, whose members were appointed by the State House, Senate and then-Gov. Orville Freeman, efforts spread and grew.

"We had statewide committees for just about every kind of discipline," recalls Tom Swain, who served as the committee's executive director from early 1956 until it closed up shop in 1959."

He said, "Sports, the arts, you name it, and just about every county in the state had its own committee organizing events. We did a lot of wonderful things."

The centerpiece of it all, though, came on Sunday, May 11, 1958, 60 years ago this week.

That was the actual 100th anniversary of Minnesota entering the union. To mark the date, more than 20,000 people, including members of the royal families of Norway and Sweden and the prime ministers of Denmark and Finland, gathered at the University of Minnesota's Memorial Stadium.

There they saw a program featuring remarks from then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and a performance by Grand Rapids born Judy Garland with 32 handpicked members of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.

At the time, Garland may have been the most famous celebrity boasting Minnesota ties.

"It was terribly happy," said Garland of her time in Grand Rapids in a 1960 interview meant for a possible biography.

Her stay there was brief. Her family moved to California when she was 4.

"It was possibly the only kind of normal, carefree time in my life," she said.

Garland went on to great acclaim, most notably through her portrayal of Dorothy in the "Wizard of Oz." But John Kelsch, the executive director of the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, said she never forgot her Minnesota roots.

"She actually came back here with her mother 20 years before (in 1938)," said Kelsch, who notes another famous Minnesotan who grew up nearby, Hibbing's Bob Dylan, actually stopped by to check out the Garland Museum in the late-1970s, according to the guest register.

"The town gave her a royal welcome. She spoke to an assembled group at the high school. People were very proud of her," he said.

That connection made Garland a natural fit for the state's Centennial celebration.

"She was born in Minnesota and she had become a big star," Swain said, "so we were really pleased she accepted our invitation to come and participate."

Though, her performance was not without hiccups. At one point, according to the next day's Minneapolis Tribune, she stopped the orchestra midway through a song and asked to start again.

"Boy I really messed that up," Garland reportedly told the crowd. "But I really meant every word of it. This is a great honor and I'm really just terrified. This place is just so damn big."

At another point, the Tribune reported that Garland, who was said to have been battling laryngitis, asked for a glass of water. Congressman Walter Judd leaped from his seat to get her orange juice.

But overall, the performance seemed to go well, concluding with a rendition of her signature "Wizard of Oz" song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

Afterward Garland seemed insecure about how it went.

"I'm afraid I just wasn't any good," she told the Tribune offstage.

"I went to pick her up the next morning at The Leamington Hotel (in Minneapolis)," Swain recalls. "I was bringing her to the airport. And she was weepy. The Tribune had run a big picture of Judy belting out a tune. And behind her, John Foster Dulles was checking his notes for his speech."

Swain added, "She was upset that John Foster Dulles didn't pay attention to her."

Garland died tragically died of an overdose of barbiturates at age 47 in 1969

The Centennial celebration, however, was more than just one event. There was activity all over the state that year, and even a Centennial Train, which was a traveling museum of Minnesota history.

"I think that train went into every county with the exception of Cook County, which didn't have train tracks," Swain said.

In an introduction to the planning manual for the Centennial celebration published in 1957, Gov. Orville Freeman laid out a mission.

"It is fitting to commemorate this historic occasion of our Centennial by giving appropriate recognition to the great achievements of our first century as a state," Freeman wrote.

"But it is my sincere hope that in 1958, Minnesotans will do more than pay tribute to the past," he continued. "It is my hope that, to the inspiration from our glorious past will be added a clear and courageous vision of the possibilities for an even greater future that lies just ahead."

Swain believes that mission was accomplished.

"We wanted to show that Minnesota is a helluva state and it's a great place to live," he said. "We should be doing more of that now. We're still No. 1 on all these lists. But we spend so much time talking about the cold weather and stuff like that."

He added, "We need to do more celebrating of all the great things we have here." 


Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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