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Column: The story of the Battle Axes dates back to around 1880

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Jan. 13, 2007.

WORTHINGTON — I have a photo of 13 Worthington girls, each one perhaps 11 years old, maybe up to 13 years old. The girls are wearing mortar boards, a version of those head covers graduates wear at commencement exercises. The girls also have identical outfits with decorated vests and with skirts that reach to within six inches of the ground. On their feet and over their ankles the girls wear tightly-laced, leather shoes.

In her left hand, each girl holds a battle ax — these look like hatchets; they are copies of weapons from centuries gone by.

The photo may be 125 years old. There is a caption that says the girls are standing in front of the “Residence of Thos. Veltum, St. James, Minn.”

“Why?” someone asked me. Why do I have this photo? No — why are 13 Worthington girls standing in front of a house at St. James? Well — there is something to be told about this, of course.

These girls are The Battle Axes. All (or, Isn’t that most) are daughters of something? Worthington Civil War veterans. These girls are Worthington’s darlings.

The Battle Axes began, perhaps as early as 1880, when they were known as Commander L.M. Lange’s Broom Brigade. In that era, the girls carried brooms. In close formation, on command, they put brooms to their shoulders, like soldiers with rifles, and they went into a drill routine that just delighted crowds. The girls performed often on main street but in the winter they also might do a show in a hall.

Somewhere along the way — this tickled people even more — the girls picked up the battle axes and swung them and waved them and went through their polished routine.

The Battle Axes greeted important visitors at the depot and performed in parades. They posed for a picture at St. James — it can only be guessed that the girls went on the road, representing Worthington at festivals and celebrations in other places.

There is a letter to the editor of the Daily Globe from the summer of 1942. The writer still recalls what perhaps is the Battle Axes’ most memorable performance, the GAR encampment of 1887.

It was Worthington’s honor to host Civil War veterans from the region that summer. There were at least 1,000 of them, now all united as brothers in the Grand Army of the Republic. The veterans stayed at an encampment at Chautauqua Park, which then was known as Lake Park.

Decorations centered on a grand arch 24 feet wide, reported as “a masterpiece of workmanship,” erected at the corner of 10th Street and Third Avenue. The center arch in this creation, “Like a beautiful rainbow, gay with every color,” was 25 feet high and “decorated with evergreen, flags, festoons, pictures and numerous devices.” At the top of the main arch was a Quaker gun, a wooden cannon in gilt. Below the Quaker gun, facing each way, was the word “Welcome.”

Hanging just under the curve of the arch were the letters “G.A.R.” in red, white and blue. On either side of the central arch were smaller arches with pictures of Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, Pres. James Garfield and Gen. John Logan, founder of the Grand Army.

There were speeches and memorial rites. Then, the record states. “… the events became more frolicsome and entertaining. Among the crowdpleasers was Commander L.M. Lange’s Broom Brigade …”

Things went so well in 1887 that the veterans voted to come back to Worthington in 1889. That year the girls were identified in programs as The Young Ladies’ Broom Brigade.

We have to guess it was an honor to be a Battle Ax, a Broomer.

It is interesting, and maybe it is a surprise, that girls were the stars of local shows. The focus of the prairie village when it was no more than 10 years old was on the girls’ drill team. This was a time long before there were football teams that moved boys into center focus.

Along with the Battle Axes, there was a boys’ fife and drum corps. The boys undoubtedly were also an object of community pride. But there are no photos of the boys and there are almost no references to them in news accounts. Worthington just could not take its eyes off its curly-haired Battle Axes.