Two naval artifacts — a wheel from the USS Minnesota and the bell from USS Minneapolis — are set to return to their home at Bde Maka Ska after a contentious custody battle with Minnetonka Public Schools.
The bell and wheel, which the American Legion gifted to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) in 1928 and 1932, respectively, were displayed at the Navy Memorial on the northeast corner of Bde Maka Ska for decades.
But then they went missing. Police reported the wheel stolen in 1975 and the 600-pound bell was taken around 2014.
Southwest Journal reporters Karen Cooper and Zac Farber tracked down the bell and wheel at Minnetonka High School, home of the Skippers, last spring.
The wheel was refurbished and mounted in the school's atrium, while the bell was brought out to the football field and rung when the Skippers scored. It was stored in the wrestling room and more recently in the student commons area.
The MPRB had been seeking the return of the items for years, but the Southwest Journal story kicked off a heated battle over the artifacts.
MPRB Superintendent Al Bangoura sent Superintendent Dennis Peterson letters detailing the artifacts' histories and requesting they be returned immediately. But Peterson maintained the artifacts were given to the school by the American Legion and they rightfully belonged to the Skippers.
In March, the Star Tribune reported state lawmakers had gotten involved, reaching out to Peterson and the School Board asking them to communicate with the MPRB.
In an interview with the paper, Peterson said he'd asked the Navy to determine custody of the bell and wheel (the Navy later said it wasn't getting involved) and stated the MPRB was difficult to communicate with, but the MPRB claimed it was the other way around. Here's a tweet from Park Board President Jono Cowgill:
The debate also inspired a 2019 Minnetonka graduate to launch a Change.org petition asking the district to return the bell.
A year after the bell and wheel were discovered at Minnetonka High School, the MPRB will get the artifacts back.
The park board on Wednesday approved a reconciliatory resolution approving the agreement between the MPRB and the American Legion Minneapolis Post 1, with a news release noting the Legion will work with the district to return the objects to the park system.
“I appreciate the care the American Legion and Minnetonka Schools has taken in maintaining the Bell and Wheel that had for so long resided on the shores of Bde Maka Ska, and am excited for its return,” Cowgill said in a statement. “Thank you to the people of Minneapolis and the many students and parents who reached out on this issue. The board is committed to honoring these items for generations to come.”
The Minnetonka School District plans to give the bell and wheel back. In a statement to Bring Me The News, spokesperson JacQui Getty said, "As the ship’s bell and wheel were given into our care by the American Legion, it is appropriate that if the Legion has made a new determination of where they should be kept, that we respect that decision. It has been our honor to maintain and enhance the naval items during the years that the Legion asked us to provide supervision for the artifacts.”
Bangoura says the items will be back with the park system by Sept. 1.
The bell will return to the Navy Memorial at Bde Maka Ska, with the MPRB working with a structural engineer to hopefully match the previous installation. A plaque about the bell will also be installed.
The tentative plan for the wheel involves it being mounted behind the customer service desk in the atrium along with a large graphic or image of the USS Minneapolis and a plaque with information about the artifact. The wheel will eventually be permanently displayed at Bde Maka Ska, most likely within the new refectory site that's being built in place of the previous one that burned down in 2019.
“The significant effort of Minnetonka Public Schools to preserve, secure, refurbish and hold these artifacts in a place of honor for the last 13 years cannot be overstated and I would like to especially thank Superintendent Dr. Dennis Peterson and the staff at Minnetonka,” Dick Ward, Past Commander with American Legion Minneapolis Post 1, said in the release. “The American Legion and the city of Minneapolis have a robust relationship dating back more than 100 years and we look forward to the next 100 years as partners in supporting our Veterans.”
Ward is the one who gifted the items to Minnetonka Public Schools. According to the Southwest Journal, Ward around 2014 hired a contractor to remove the bell, apparently saying he was getting it restored but then didn't return it.
When the MPRB asked him about it, Ward said it was in a better place where it would be appreciated but didn't give a location.
In May 2020, the Southwest Journal called Ward, who told them the bell was at Minnetonka High School. Farber learned via a data request that Ward's brother-in-law is Dave Nelson, the longtime former coach of Minnetonka's football team. A 2014 letter from Ward to Nelson entrusts the bell to Minnetonka High School.
The Southwest Journal noted Ward had presented the school with the wheel in 2007. It's not clear how Ward came into possession of that artifact.
As part of the MPRB's agreement with the American Legion, the MPRB agrees to accept the bell and wheel and to care for them on behalf of the American Legion, noting it will properly maintain, display and protect the artifacts, including maintaining electronic surveillance of both artifacts.
In the news release, the park board admitted the Navy Memorial Site where the wheel and bell were on display "did not receive the care and attention" the Legion deemed appropriate, but the memorial underwent improvements in 2017.
Bring Me The News has reached out to Minnetonka Public Schools for comment.