Holding onto history

The aging volunteers of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum are trying to recruit young members to take their place

Carl Anderson is a full-time resident of Chippewa Falls, Wisc., but he’s a familiar face in Linden Hills. Once a month, the 83-year-old travels 100 miles west to drive a trolley on the one-mile Como-Harriet line between Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun, where he chats up passengers and relives a little bit of the old days.

“It’s a living exhibit, which is much more effective than looking at pictures in an old history book,” Anderson said during his recertification run April 17 in streetcar 1300. “People come as a rule not to ride the streetcar; they come to the park. Then they see the streetcar and they take a ride.”

Anderson’s trolley experience dates back to 1947, when he was 21 and took a job flagging traffic and collecting fares for streetcars in
St. Paul. Now he’s a rarity, one of only a couple active members of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum who actually worked on the streetcar lines before they were shut down in 1954.

Maintaining the museum, which also operates streetcars in downtown Excelsior, is a volunteer effort, one that has an increasingly uncertain future. As members age, the friendly banter around the car barn is interrupted by questions: Who will care for the streetcars when the generation that knew and loved them is gone? Who will drive them? Who will run the museum?

So far, the answer isn’t clear, but it’s a problem the organization is trying to solve. Of the museum’s 300 members, about 100 are active volunteers, meaning they drive or maintain the streetcars and facilities or perform administrative duties. The vast majority of them are retirees who were around during the streetcar era or born just on the edge of it. Recruiting younger members who can carry on the history of the Twin Cities streetcar is the museum’s goal.  

“We’re looking at a demographic of people who never rode streetcars,” said longtime museum volunteer Tom Fairbairn, 72, who works on the maintenance crew and as an operator, or motorman. “A lot of them don’t even know what a streetcar is until you show it to them, and these are the people that are going to have to pick up the slack when old timers like me are no longer able to do the work.”

The issue is not unique to Minnesota. Streetcar museums across the country are dealing with it, said Aaron Isaacs, a board member and editor for the Minnesota Streetcar Museum and co-author of the book “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar era in Minneapolis and St. Paul.”  

“There’s no question that our membership and the membership of museums around the country have simply been aging,” said Isaacs, who at 60 is younger than many members.

The Minnesota Streetcar Museum spun off of the Minnesota Transportation Museum in 2004, but the parent entity had been running since the 1960s and had a strong following of streetcar enthusiasts. The Como-Harriet line has been operating since 1971.

Baby boomers continue to fill the ranks, Isaacs said, but there is a clear drop off beyond that generation. Word-of-mouth has long been the main recruiting tool, along with the streetcars themselves. Isaacs said the museum is now looking into using social networking websites Facebook and Twitter to tap into a younger population that might never otherwise see or hear about the trolleys.  

Isaacs suspects the Internet so far has worked against the streetcars, providing an outlet for quick information, photos and a virtual experience of history. But there’s no substitute for actually riding the streetcar as it was at a time when it carried millions of passengers throughout the Twin Cities each year, shaping the metro area in the process, he said. Without the museum, the streetcar could end up as a static object in a showcase.  

Community leaders, such as Linden Hills Business Association president Mark Dwyer, hope that day never comes.

“The trolley is a great attraction to this neighborhood, it’s part of the logo of just about every association we have in the neighborhood, and the people and volunteers that make it work are part of the fabric of the neighborhood as much as the trolley itself is,” Dwyer said.

Sparking an interest in the trolleys among youth is important not only for recruiting volunteers, but for keeping attendance up at the museum. During the past couple decades, ridership on the Como-Harriet line has fallen from roughly 40,000 a year to 30,000. The museum started hosting special events including pajama rides and a Halloween ride to make up for the decrease in fares, which comprise the bulk of the organization’s income.

But there is hope for a rebound. Scott Becker, director of the Pennsylvania Streetcar Museum, said partnerships with community organizations have helped his organization recruit young members. The Pennsylvania museum is partnering with the local Boy Scouts this spring to offer a streetcar-related merit badge day.   

“We’re hoping some of the scouts take an interest in streetcars and say, ‘hey, I want to volunteer here,’” Becker said.

He said the museum’s volunteers are mostly retirees, but the organization has managed to draw a fair amount of young people, including teenagers, largely through being active in the community.  

In Minnesota, one of the newest museum volunteers is Matt Leibel, of St. Paul, who at 30 is an anomaly among the roughly 20-person maintenance crew. He started as a motorman and later decided to help out in the shop.

“My interest has always been around railroads,” he said. “I always grew up as a kid with that. My parents rode these streetcars around the cities. I saw the opportunity when I was with friends rollerblading around the lake on a Saturday. I saw the car and thought, ‘you know, I’m going to check this out a little bit more.’”

He dedicates time every Saturday morning to the museum, learning how to replace brakes and perform other routine maintenance. Much more goes into the maintenance and restoration of the cars, including scouring the country for rare parts and often fabricating pieces from scratch. Finding anyone interested in old-school mechanics and manual labor isn’t easy nowadays, but Leibel came from a family of construction workers and was interested in getting his hands dirty outside his office job in sales for 3M.

“Keep in mind that there’s kind of a change in the interests of youth today,” said longtime maintenance volunteer Dennis Stephens, 64. “What you’re looking for — someone who could step right in — would be a toolmaker or a machinist, someone who grew up on a farm.”

Maintenance information has traditionally been passed on first-hand from member to member, but because of the lack of new volunteers in that area, shop foreman and 31-year volunteer John Prestholdt, 67, and 30-year volunteer Neil Howes, 70, have started putting together a written repair manual. Prestholdt said anyone with an interest in streetcars could learn how to maintain them if they’re willing to commit some time to it.

Museum volunteer Fairbairn said the organization offers young people a chance to gain experience in electrical work, machining, welding, and steel and wood construction.

“And beyond the practical end of it, a lot of it is just plain fun and we’ve met a lot of wonderful people on our trips back and forth on this little one-mile shot,” he said.

Earl Anderson, who grew up in a family that used streetcars as its main mode of transportation, said a crowded trolley on the Como-Harriet line brings back memories, but he volunteers for more than nostalgia.

“It’s that and the enjoyment and wanting to have some vocation where I could do some good as a volunteer and give other people enjoyment,” he said.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.