For more than 100 years, the Red Cross in Minnesota has served millions of people through disaster relief, preparedness education, health and safety education, service to armed forces, and reconnection for families separated by conflict.
The Early Years Of The Minnesota Red Cross
SEPTEMBER 1862: During the American Civil War Battle of Antietam, Clara Barton comes upon the bloody battlefield hours after the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment passes over it. She cares for the wounded and assists surgeons. Barton goes on to found the American Red Cross in 1881.
APRIL 1898: A group calling itself the “German-American Red Cross Society of Minnesota” organizes in St. Paul. The group’s goal is to gather support, such as hospital supplies, entertainment, and other relief items, that the government does not provide for sick and wounded soldiers in the Spanish-American War, which the United States declares against Spain on April 25.
MAY 1898: The “Minnesota Red Cross Society” is established in Minneapolis. The group seeks approval from the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army to send nurses to care for soldiers in the Spanish-American War. The offer is declined multiple times as the Surgeon General does not see military field hospitals appropriate places for women nurses.
WORLD WAR I, 1914-18: National Red Cross issues most Minnesota Red Cross chapter charters during the Great War. Volunteers with these auxiliary chapters turn to relieving human suffering in war-torn Europe. Red Cross hospital aides serve overseas, near the frontlines. Locally, volunteers produce surgical dressings, socks, and other garments. Motor corps drivers mobilize. Junior Red Cross kids make comfort kits for servicemen. War fund drives raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, including $475,000 during the St. Paul chapter’s first pledge drive. In Minnesota, ultimately 150 auxiliary Red Cross chapters establish and 15,000 women volunteers join to serve.
1918: An influenza epidemic sweeps around the world, killing millions. In Minnesota, schools and public places close to prevent spread of the deadly disease. The Red Cross supports families through its Home Service program. Volunteers deliver cots and masks, and cook for families and furnish transportation.
OCTOBER 1918: A fire, driven by fuel and tornadic winds, becomes a firestorm, with flames four and half miles in the sky. People as far away as Iowa think the fire was close by. The flames engulf Cloquet and Moose Lake. Nearly 20,000 people lose their homes and more than 450 people die. This remains among the largest natural disasters in U.S. history. The majority of the displaced residents relocate in Superior, WI, with nothing other than the clothes on their backs. The Red Cross plays a vital role in the response and recovery. The St. Paul chapter sends 16 cars worth of furniture, clothes, and other relief supplies.
1920s: Red Cross women transcribed books into Braille for learning by men who lost eyesight during WWI. The translated texts were sent for use at Evergreen, the American Red Cross Institute for the Blind in Maryland. Other peace-time activities included responding to deadly tornadoes across the state, giving scholarships to public health nursing students, and providing milk and hot meals to undernourished children. Junior Red Cross youth made garments for war refugees from Europe.
APRIL, MAY, JUNE 1927: The Great Mississippi River flood of 1927 kills 250 people and displaces 300,000, who stay in camps. Affecting states mostly along the lower Mississippi, the Red Cross gathers relief items and raises funds to support people in the camps.
1930s: Drought and economic depression ravage the nation. Thousands of families in Minnesota seek Red Cross help. Volunteers raise money for drought relief, distribute flour made from government wheat, sew clothes from fabric from the national Red Cross, and provide ready-made clothing. They supply milk and hot food to needy children. They assist veterans of the Great War with getting benefits for their service. Swimming instruction and home hygiene classes are offered. In 1936, the Gray Lady hospital and recreation volunteer service begins work at Fort Snelling Hospital.
The Middle Years Of The Minnesota Red Cross
WORLD WAR II, 1939-45: During the early years of the Second World War, local Red Cross volunteers make surgical dressings and sweaters for the injured and wounded foreign countries, and raise funds for war-time services. Later, war relief efforts ramp-up with making of comfort kits and other knitted garments, fundraising for war drive, supporting families of POWs, providing hospital services at military installations, and running canteens and service men’s centers. Others join the Red Cross hospital aide and motor corps operations overseas.
DECEMBER 1941: Frank T. Heffelfinger, manager of the Red Cross Northern Division during WWI, donates the Minneapolis chapter house at 325 Groveland in memory of his wife Lucia Peavey Heffelfinger. Staff and volunteers take occupancy the weekend before the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7. Phone lines were installed on December 8 to handle incoming calls for assistance.
1942: The Red Cross opens blood donation centers in St. Paul and Minneapolis. The centers are responsible for running operations and recruiting donors. In St. Paul, there are 400 volunteers and, even before the center opens, 3,500 people are registered to give blood. The collection quota for the first week is 250 pints, but 504 are donated. During the following spring, a mobile bus begins traveling around the state for blood collection.
1946 and 1952: Following the end of WWII, the Red Cross nurse aid corps planned to disband, but a 1946 polio outbreak causes the corps to assist patients in Minnesota hospitals. The polio epidemic of the late 1940s and early 1950s terrifies people in the state and across the nation. The disease strikes without warning, leaving those affected with paralysis, leg braces, or confined to an iron lung. In 1952, Minnesota has 4,131 cases and 220 deaths by the end of the year, which is more than any other state. The Red Cross provides supplemental nursing care for polio patients at local hospitals and actively recruits nursing aides through 1953. The same year, the St. Paul Blood Center increases collection to support gamma globulin shots, and in 1957, Minneapolis participates in a mass polio vaccination effort. Between 600 and 3,300 children are vaccinated every day.
DECEMBER 1948: St. Paul Regional Blood Center opens on 91 East Kellogg Blvd. following establishment of a national blood program that will supply blood for free to local hospitals. Mobile units go out to eight counties and quickly expand to blood collection in 19 additional counties.
KOREAN WAR, 1950-53: During the Korean War, the Red Cross again steps forward to support American military efforts. The Red Cross runs canteens and recreation huts at the front and stateside, coordinates gift packages, supports military families, and raises money for war funds. Red Cross begins blood donation for servicemen.
JANUARY 1963: Gray Lady Service expands to nursing homes in Rochester area. Local program chair, Mrs. Gary Bubeck, says the program has “all kinds” of Gray Ladies, “from older teens on up. We have young mothers who’d like to be out in the community a little, and older moms whose children are grown and want to do something for someone.”
1963: Blue Earth Red Cross has three first aid mobile units in the county. 12-year-old Bonnie Pietsch rescues a 16-year-old boy at Lake Elysian, thanks to her Blue Earth Red Cross swimming training.
APRIL 1965: Melting snow and spring rains force the Minnesota River to breach its banks, inundating Courtland, St. Peter, and North Mankato. More than 7,500 residents evacuate and 5,100 of them register for Red Cross assistance. Shelters open. Food, clothing, home repair, medical and nursing care provided. The Mississippi River and the St. Croix River reach record levels. In St. Paul, the Red Cross transports people’s furniture to storage, shelters evacuees at the West St. Paul Armory, and feeds dike workers.
MAY 1965: A tornado outbreak in Fridley, Spring Lake Park, and Mounds View calls Red Cross volunteers to action, supporting clean-up crews and displaced families. The tornadoes kill 13, injure 683. The University of Minnesota ranks the disaster as one of the top five in the state’s history.
NOVEMBER 1965: Blue Earth Red Cross offices burn down. Scrapbooks and other items are recovered with help from a veteran who wants to repay the Red Cross for services he received during his military service.
The Later Years and Today's View Of The Minnesota Red Cross
VIETNAM WAR, 1965-72: Red Cross services for armed forces go up by 25 percent in one 90-day period. Volunteers make layettes for Vietnamese refugees and care packages for American servicemen. During the war, the Red Cross strengthens its Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) program, that started in Korea in 1965, and sends women to Vietnam to operate recreation programs. Nicknamed “Donut Dollies,” the women, who are mostly young college graduates, provide recreation
1967: The first American Red Cross “Strike Force” or “Disaster Action Team” is created at Blue Earth Red Cross. The Disaster Action Teams provide basic, necessary services, such as damage surveys, food, shelter, clothing, medical and nursing, family services, transportation, and communication. The model quickly expands. Local chapters continue to support health and safety training, such as instruction in swimming, first aid, and baby-sitting. Others Red Cross services offered are eye and ear testing for preschoolers and support for runaway teenagers.
JULY 1968: Emergency Social Service opens with two caseworkers and an after-hours call line. The caseworkers support suicide prevention, teenage runaways, domestic problems, emergency food and lodging, child protection, and emergency medical care. Within months, Red Cross caseworkers receive 10 to 15 calls each day.
1970-71: Blue Earth Red Cross handles 333 cases for Military Families Group. The group is comprised of service members’ wives and mothers who meet to share concerns about their military member.
1972: Minnesota Red Cross chapters help with “Project Find,” a nation-wide effort to find elderly people who qualify for food benefits. Social security recipients receive notices to contact local Red Cross if they believe they’re eligible for food stamps. More than 1,600 elderly make queries. Local Red Cross caseworkers determine that 50 percent are eligible for food assistance they’re not receiving.
1973: The St. Paul Regional Blood Center gets a special machine tests for hepatitis. The machine’s arrival coincides with a federal government announcement of an all-voluntary, national blood donation program.
MARCH 1973: Minneapolis Red Cross is first in nation to begin “Disaster Recovery Program.” Volunteers offer periodic checks that show people how to restore fire and smoke damaged items.
1980s: The Red Cross continues responding to changing public health needs. The HIV and AIDS crisis requires an update of blood services with an increase in testing and tracking of blood. In addition, the Red Cross begins offering health and safety education about HIV and AIDS, and organizing walks and other efforts that raise awareness about the disease. The Red Cross responds to multiple local disasters, including a tornado outbreak in 1981, a blizzard in 1984, and a superstorm in 1987.
1990s: The Minnesota Red Cross continues to offer its core services of blood and platelet donation, health and safety training, emergency communications for American military members, reconnection messages for international families separated by war or disaster, and emergency disaster preparedness, relief and recovery. The local Red Cross supports the national relief operation for Red River flooding in 1997 and the St. Peter Tornado outbreak in 1998.
2000s: The Red Cross responds to multiple tornado, flooding and blizzard disasters, as well as the 2007 I-35W Mississippi River Bridge Collapse. The local Red Cross also helps host victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and sends volunteers to support relief efforts for Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Local fundraising efforts support relief operations following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 2010 Haiti Earthquake and the 2011 Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami.
2010s: Minnesota Red Cross joins the national Red Cross Home Fire Campaign, a free smoke alarm installation and fire prevention education program. Established in 2014, the campaign aims to reduce annual home fire deaths and injuries by 25 percent. By 2017, the Red Cross volunteers and partners install more than 6,600 smoke alarms in 186 communities across Minnesota.
2015: Marking more than a century of Red Cross nursing service, Vonnie Thomas, Red Cross volunteer nurse for more than 65 years, receives the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest honor from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The medal recognizes exceptional courage and devotion to victims of armed conflict or natural disaster. It also recognizes exemplary service or a pioneering spirit in the areas of public health or nursing education.
JANUARY 2017: Minnesota Red Cross kicks-off “A Century of Service,” year-long celebration at regional headquarters in Minneapolis. Kick-off events include a historical dress-up booth and a St. Paul Winter Carnival parade walk.
Archival sources and site production credits include: American National Red Cross, American Red Cross archives in Duluth, Minneapolis, St. Cloud, Mankato and Rochester, Austin Daily Herald, Bluestem Heritage Group, Carlton County Historical Society, Carrie Carlson-Guest, Clara Barton, David Therkelsen, Echo Press, Faribault Daily News, Foster Rhea Dulles, Hennepin County Historical Society, Henry Davison, June Dahl, Leslea Teague, Library of Congress, Los Angeles Times, Lynette Nyman, Mankato Free Press, Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Historical Society, Minnesota Public Radio, National Park Service Clara Barton National Historic Site, Ramsey County Historical Society, St. Cloud Democrat, Star Tribune, University of Minnesota Social Welfare Archives, University of Minnesota Duluth Archives, Washington Post, and Wikimedia Commons.