Perhaps you have noticed a garden on Glenwood Avenue in Theodore Wirth Park. The sign alongside says J. D. Rivers Garden Project; a colorful giant chair stands aside it. During this past summer you may have seen Henry High School youth, Astrid Miller, Ger Thao, and Sienna Thao, working in the garden or selling veggies near the street. How did this farming begin here? Whose garden is it? This is the story.
North Minneapolis resident James Rivers had observed crops cultivated in a small area as one approaches the beach house. After some investigation he found that they had been planted by an organization called the Minneapolis Grain Exchange (MGE) who were celebrating their 100th anniversary. As part of the 1981 festivities, MGE had selected a site in Theodore Wirth Park to plant a few acres of wheat and sunflowers, which were the two crops historically traded at the MGE. Children from recreation centers across the city were invited to observe the process of plowing a field, planting it and harvesting the mature plants with farm implements. There were also creative art classes using the grains.
Local Northside residents, James D. and Ada Collier Rivers, were inspired when they saw the activities of the 100th anniversary event in their local park. They had met at a local soda shop on what is now Olson Highway and married when James was a chief petty officer stationed at what was the Wold-Chamberlain Navy base. This couple was forever looking for ways to serve their community. They thought that this Northside piece of land could be used for a permanent garden for the youth of their community. The Rivers approached the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board (MPRB), the owners of the site, who agreed it was a good idea. In the following growing season, 1982, a children’s garden was born.
The plan was to create a space for gardening for the youth of the Northside neighborhoods. Money was secured from Dayton’s for garden supplies. Children had to be six years of age or older to participate. J.D. had grown up in a small town in South Carolina where he learned farming skills from family and friends. Ada joined him as they worked “hands on” creating this Northside garden with community volunteers and children. They made sure that senior citizens got veggies from the children’s garden. James has since passed on, yet his legacy lives on. Ada celebrated her 97 birthday this past August.
Each summer, a variety of youth programs are offered at the garden including weekly programs throughout the growing season and week-long camps in the late summer. Garden staff from the U of M or the Minneapolis Park Board work with local youth programs and agencies focusing on gardening skills, harvesting produce, and healthy eating. Three to five older youth, such as those from Henry High in the summer of 2021, are employed teaching gardening and cooking to children.
Thank you to Ada Collier Rivers for her contributions to this story. She retired at age 85 after serving as a volunteer and employee at a Northside food shelf for many years.