Who was Maude Armatage?

A school, a park and a neighborhood were all named after her, but few know her history

This month, Armatage Community School is celebrating its 50th Anniversary. To honor the 1953 opening, the school and parent association are hosting a community Sock Hop, which will include music by an all-parent band, dancing, a dinner in "Maude’s Diner," bowling, games and drawings every half-hour.

The wholesome community night in Armatage’s lower gym (enter at 56th Street and Russell Avenue) is the sort of thing that the school’s namesake, Maude Armatage, would have attended with glee.

Though she’s the namesake of the school, the park and the neighborhood, not many know about this woman who helped shape early life in the Lynnhurst neighborhood and in the Minneapolis parks.

Daughter of the pioneers

The Dunsmoors bought a house and 260 acres — from what is now 50th Street to 56th Street between Lyndale and Nicollet avenues –for $100. The Dunsmoor home was on Lyndale between 53rd and 54th streets. The house stood until 1940, when it was razed to build business property.

Maude Armatage wrote in a brief biography that her interest in public service must have come from the spirit of her grandparents. Grandfather Dunsmoor was the postmaster, town treasurer and the Justice of the Peace in Harmony (a village that later became part of Richfield, then Minneapolis). Grandmother Dunsmoor founded the area’s first circulating library in her sitting room while raising eight children.

Armatage’s father lived at his parent’s house on Lyndale until he married in 1867, moving to 3101 Colfax Ave. S. Maude was born in 1870; her father ran a general store on Lyndale Avenue until 1873, when he moved his family out to Los Angeles for several years. They moved back to Minneapolis early enough for Maude to attend the now-closed Madison Elementary School, at 501 5th Ave. S., and Central High.

She noted in her biography that there weren’t activities for girls at the schools and that she was called "’tomboyish’ and ‘un-ladylike’ for playing any games more raucous than croquet and tennis."

After marrying at 19 to Arthur Armatage, a Canadian clerk at her father’s insurance company, the couple moved into the "Lynnhurst Colony," a block of homes at 46th and Fremont — considered wilderness in 1889. Col. King owned the land and wanted to market the area to well-respected and wealthy families, and personally selected nine young and prestigious couples.

Maude Armatage wrote that she wanted to move into Lynnhurst because she remembered her times there as a teenager. "It was quite the thing for boys and girls to go camping or house-partying on the far east shore of Lake Harriet," she wrote.

In her biography, Maude Armatage fondly remembered her first years living in the Colony. The young families shared three cows (the milkman didn’t service that part of town) and one telephone (with eight buttons that rang to notify a call to the other homes). There wasn’t electricity or running water, but the families considered themselves pioneers and created their own community.

First elected woman In 1920, a year after women won the right to vote, 50-year-old Maude Armatage was encouraged by her peers to run for a Park Board seat. She was selected in part because of her volunteer work as the first leader of a Camp Fire Girls troop in Minneapolis.

Winning a position of Commissioner at Large in June 1921, she became the first woman elected to a Minneapolis municipal office.

There aren’t many surviving news articles mentioning Commissioner Armatage, but the few brief ones note that she led a campaign to amend the city charter to raise the levy for "park purposes." Armatage decried the safety of the parks because of inadequate policing and lighting. In 1922, she called for the 28-person grounds staff to be doubled because the 4,000 acres of parks and 50 miles of parkways were not in sufficiently good condition. However, she was unsuccessful because her colleagues thought the resolution overstated the need.

In 1924-26 she was unanimously elected the Vice President of the Board and two years later was delegated to study Detroit’s cooperation between its Department of Recreation and the Board of Education. From that visit, Armatage began a mission to create more links between the two departments. It was probably her influence that led to the creation of four joint community centers and public schools, including Armatage and Kenny.

She seemed to have an unlucky streak when in came to her health during election campaigns. She was on a bus that overturned and left her bruised during her first campaign in 1921. In 1933, she slipped and fell as she was trying to open her garage door. The fall crushed her vertebrae and left her encased in a heavy cast for months. With weeks left before she needed to file for candidacy, she got the city clerk to personally visit her home to take the affidavit and to accept the $10 filing fee. (Frances Reid — who just moved out of Maude Armatage’s old home two months ago — agrees that the sliding garage doors were treacherous. "I used to pour boiling water on the icy patches so I could open the door," Reid said.)

While her campaign to ban "dangerous" hockey sticks in park ice skating rinks was about as popular then as it would be now, she did also call for more rinks in general.

When Armatage School was dedicated to Armatage, the Park Board issued a statement lauding the former Commissioner’s keen intelligence and acute perception. But it turns out Armatage wasn’t only valuable to the Parks for her book smarts. To make the building of the Theodore Wirth Clubhouse fall within budget, Armatage chose the furnishings and personally sewed the curtains, cushions and linens that filled the public building.

After 28 years, she retired from the Board in 1950, and was honored four years later when a new joint school and park building opened and were named after her.

In the last 15 years of Armatage’s life, she remained in communication with the school. A stack of thank-you notes, written by Armatage each time she received flowers or presents from students, were archived by school officials. A portrait of her still hangs at Armatage Community School, though it is being moved from the main hall to the corridor between the school and the park building along with a new display detailing her importance to the school.

Those who remember Most of those who remember Maude Armatage when she lived on Fremont Avenue were children at the time. Fran Russell’s family moved in next door to the Armatage house in 1949. "My mother really enjoyed Mrs. Armatage. She would mention how welcoming Mrs. Armatage was to her, this young woman moving in next door with seven children. She was always so gracious to our family," said Russell.

Russell remembers Armatage as a graceful and classy woman driving down the street in a little black car. According to Russell, she always dressed formally, wearing hat and gloves.

"I remember she took us kids to her backyard… She told us what flowers we could pick and what we couldn’t. I remember we used to make bouquets with those flowers. She had a rock garden, and there was a pond that she had goldfish when we moved in. But with the outbreak of polio and she covered the pond. She did that because it was thought mosquitoes transmitted the disease," said Russell.

Manny Mitchell lived directly across the street from the Armatage house, but he and his two brothers didn’t have much contact with Mrs. Armatage. He does remember that the Armatage house was the only one to employ a man with a snowplow.

"This jeep would go in there and pile up these huge piles of snow 5 or 6 feet high. And we would play on the piles and make these elaborate tunnels and forts in the snow banks. And we would bring candles in there and make tunnels to rooms. Mrs. Armatage never had a problem with us being back there," said Mitchell.

There are varied accounts of Armatage’s son, Wellesley, who lived with her for several years before dying just a few years before his mother. He often was seen outside on the porch, and neighbor Manny Blanco thought he was an alcoholic because he was often seen with a drink in hand. He also thought Wellesley led the house to disrepair, but Russell, who visited Armatage in her late years, thought she was well cared for.

Wellesley’s reputation led the Reid family — who’ve lived in the house since just after Armatage moved out, to name their dog after him. A mural of the dog is painted on the roof of the front porch.

As she aged, children on the block were sent over to visit and bring cookies or flowers to Armatage. Though Russell remembered a large intimidating home, she said she and her siblings were happy visiting Armatage.

"It was exciting to go into the house. It was dark because they kept the heavy drapes closed because of the heat. I would walk up those big steps and into this huge bedroom. And there’s this dear little lady in a huge bed," said Russell.

"I think of her as a soft-looking woman. She was a gentle woman. You always greeted her, and she greeted you back. Growing up there, as a child was wonderful because you knew [the adults] cared about you. When you brought over candy or flowers, they talked to you because they thought you were important," said Russell.

Maude Armatage died at 94 in 1964. She outlived her three children Wellesley, Marion and Louise.