Age of the Letterhacks (full version)
Minneapolis Fantasy Society
I'm not sure that the history of fandom in Minnesota needs
to be written. Certainly fandom has never developed characteristic identities
circumscribed by state boundaries, and even regionalism has been largely
lacking, despite the formation of the Southern Fandom Group and early
attempts to organize the National Fantasy Fan Federation along regional
lines. It is convenient, however, to consider fandom in Minnesota as an
entity in itself. Such a segment is small enough to cover in relatively
brief space, and large enough to contain a great number of interesting people
whose achievements are worth chronicling.
While Minnesota has never been the home of teeming fan groups
such as those in California, for example, Minnesota fans have
played prominent, if not leading, roles in the Immortal Storm
since the mid-1930s, and some of the top fanzines have been published
here. Minnesota authors, many of them former fans, have
contributed more than their share to the body of science fiction
literature. Above all, the science fiction personalities in
Minnesota have usually been unusually fascinating people-
"altogether lovely, but slightly wacky," as Jack Speer expressed it
in the original Fancyclopedia-and it would be a shame if they
Most of them are gone now: gone from the state itself, and
gone from fandom. This article is an attempt to tell a little
about the fun they had long ago, when they were still fans,
in the state of Minnesota.
- Redd Boggs (1961)
(Note: the original version of the following section listed every letter by a Minnesotan
in early prozines that Boggs could find, including their addresses. I have edited this down
substantially. The full version can be found at the link above for those interested in that
level of coverage.)
Age of the Letterhacks
There was at least one science fiction fan in Minnesota even before the founding
of the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926. We can state this
with some assurance on the basis of black-and-white evidence, for in the June 1935
Wonder Stories, Edward R. Manthey of Minneapolis stated that he had been a science
fiction reader ever since the days of The Electrical Experimenter and Ralph 124C41+
(i.e., 1911 or thereabouts). Manthey is the first Minnesota fan your Gibbon knows
about, though Manthey's only fannish activity consisted of writing a couple letters
to Wonder. With his second letter, September 1935, Manthey was encouraged, in an
editorial note, to become a regular letterhack of the likes of Don A. Wollheim, but
apparently he never wrote again.
Not till the mid-1930s did real letterhacking develop among Minnesota fans, and nearly all
these letterhacks later became fans in a more modern sense, playing active roles in organized
fandom. First of the great Minnesota letterhacks to appear was
Oliver Saari, 1342 First Street
6.E., Rochester, whose letter in Amazing, November 1934, was probably his initial effort. He
soon followed it up with letters in Amazing, for February, April, May, and August 1935, and
February 1936. By the time he wrote the last-mentioned letter he was residing in Minneapolis
at 1712 East 34th Street.
Born in Finland, Saari came to the United States in 1927 at the age of nine, and first began
to read science fiction two years later, in the summer of 1929. One of Minnesota's first trufans,
he also became one of her first science fiction writers when in 1937 he sold three stories to the
Tremaine Astounding: "Stellar Exodus," "Two Sane Men," and "The Time Bender". Over the next few
years he sold stories to Captain Future, Super Science Stories, Future Fiction,
and other magazines. During the 1950s he made a comeback, and sold to Campbell and elsewhere, but
has disappeared again in recent years. A graduate in mechanical engineering from the University of
Minnesota, he lived at last report in Chicago.
The first fan letters of Douglas Blakely, another famous Minnesota trufan, began to appear late
in 1935. During those years he was still a junior high and high school student, and in the
December 1936 Amazing's Dr Sloane roguishly scolded
him for being a "naughty schoolboy" because he confessed that he read sf magazines at school behind
an open notebook. Most of Blakely's later fan activity was on a purely local scale, but he became
famous among Minneapolis fans as an impromptu entertainer and as an actor in the numerous skits
recorded by the fan group. He also played alto sax in various orchestras around the Twin Cities.
His only professional writing was with "The Time Bender," which was largely Blakely's work but
was given a rewrite and final script by Saari and published under the latter's byline.
The same Amazing (December 1936) in which Blakely was chided by Dr Sloane also contained a letter
from John Chapman, another of the famous Minnesota fans who were beginning to emerge. He had opened
his letterhack career in the June 1935 Astounding (an issue which also contained a Saari letter),
but at that time was living in Minot, North Dakota. By the time of his next letters (Astounding,
February and April 1936) he had moved to Minneapolis and was living at 500 15th Avenue S.E. In 1937
he was at 1521 Como Avenue S.E., which became a famous address to Minneapolis fans over the next
Born in North Dakota, Chapman became a fan of Nick Carter at an early age, and attempted to write
sequels to the stories in magazines, in which he put his hero through more and more dangerous
scrapes than his creator ever imagined. When Chapman discovered science fiction, he started writing
voluminously in that field, and finally sold quite a number of stories. Nine stories from his mill
appeared in the early 1940s, and he sold others during the boom of the '50s. Like Blakely, Chapman
was a musician of sorts, and played a "battered clarinet." He also collected a large record library
that was famous among Minneapolis fans.
In April 1937 Arden E. Benson, 4011 Emerson Avenue North, Minneapolis, had a letter in Astounding
and at the same time joined the Science Fiction League; another famous Minnesota fan had made his
bow. Benson, whose nickname was Buns, spelled that way but pronounced Bunce, had begun to read
science fiction in 1934, and like most fans of the day carefully built up a comprehensive collection
of the magazines published before he became acquainted with the field. He was once called "the
tallest man in science fiction" and "perhaps the most amiable during his amiable moments." Like other
local fans he became an engineering student at the University and owned a record collection-his
consisted largely of old-time records-in the days before this was a common possession.
An interesting letter appeared in Astounding, June 1938. Signed jointly by Oliver Saari and Arden
Benson, it begins, "Being the only science fiction fans in the city of Minneapolis (far as we know)..."
and ends, "we should like to get in touch with other science fiction fans living in the Twin Cities.
We hate to think that we may be the only two of that select society in these parts. So let's hear
from you, fans!" This was a year after a disastrous attempt to form a SFL chapter in Minneapolis-an
episode described later in this history-but it is not clear where the other local fans had
disappeared to. Apparently some of them were still on the scene, for in the very next Astounding,
letters from both John Chapman and David L. Dobbs of Minneapolis appeared. August 1938 was the month
I moved to Minneapolis from Fargo, North Dakota.
[In] the December 1939 Astounding were two other letters of interest to this
history. The first was written by Charles W. Jarvis, 2097 Inglehart Avenue, St. Paul, who had become
one of the most prolific and talked about letterhacks in "Brass Tacks" since his first letter,
April 1939. Jarvis dabbled briefly in fandom-he mentioned receiving news about "Grey Lensman" from
the fan magazines in a letter published October 1939-and he attended a number of meetings of the
Minneapolis Fantasy Society before entering the service during the war. Now a doctor in St Paul and
one of the few old-time fans residing in this area, Jarvis told me in March 1961 that he gave up
reading sf years ago-largely because of Campbell's espousal of Dianetics, apparently-though he
bought Galaxy during its early days. Professional reading consumed most of his time at present, he
said, but he mentioned some of the old sf "classics" such as "Triplanetary" and various stories by
Clifford D. Simak with great nostalgia.
The other letter of interest in the December 1939 Astounding was written by Bill N. Campbell,
1015 West 32d Street, Minneapolis, who mentioned reading science fiction "for several years as a
silent fan." Like Jarvis, Campbell attended some fan meetings, but never stayed around to play a
very active role in fan affairs.
Despite the increasing activity on the part of Minneapolis fans as the 1930s drew to a close, it
remained for a fan on the eastern side of the Twin Cities, in the suburb of North St Paul, to publish
the first fanzine in Minnesota and thus become well known to leading fans around the country. He was
Morris Scott Dollens, who had begun
letterhacking with the February 1936 Astounding , revealing in
his letter that he liked to colour the interior illustrations of science fiction prozines using a
10 cent box of water colours. His artistic talents were given a more public display when he published,
that same year, a halfsize hektographed fanzine titled SCIENCE FICTION COLLECTOR, the first issue
dated May 1936. (Sam Moskowitz's Immortal Storm, pp 71-2 of the hardcover edition, describes the
history of this fanzine. See also the checklist of Minnesota fanzines to be published as the final
part of the present article.) After publishing 13 monthly issues of the Collector, Dollens turned the
magazine over to John V. Baltadonis of Philadelphia and disappeared from the fan scene till early in
Anyone who reads back-issue Wonders of middling age - the last few years
of the Gernsback magazine and the first few years of Thrilling Wonder
Stories - will find several pages in each issue given over to an organization
called the science Fiction League. In The Immortal Storm, Sam Moskowitz gives
an excellent account of the SFL, which he calls "more beneficial and important
to fandom than any organization which preceded or followed it."
In introducing the club, Gernsback described the SFL as "a non-commercial
membership organization for the furtherance and betterment of the art of science
fiction," and among its functions to that end was the chartering of local chapters
to be affiliated with the parent' organization. Many such chapters were formed,
since only three members were required to start a local chapter, and the SFL
column in Wonder was soon filled with news about groups that were being formed
or proposed. Various charters, such as those in Chicago, Philadelphia, Los
Angeles, and Leeds (England), were soon established on a firm footing, but many
others were either proposed and forgotten or else organized, only to fall into
inactivity almost immediately.
The Science Fiction League was announced in the May, 1934 Wonder (with a
preliminary announcement the previous issue), but it was not until more than a
year later that the organization of a Minnesota group was reported. The June,
1935 Wonder listed a proposed Minneapolis SFL chapter headed by Alden E.
Stafford, whose address was 200-288 Civic Arts Building, 305 South Street. By
some coincidence, this building now houses part of Farnham's school and office
supply store, which contributes to local fan activity these days by functioning
as the Minneapolis Gestetner agency and seller of mimeo supplies to Gafia Press
and other fan publishers in this area. Though this SFL chapter was mentioned for
the next seven issues-for as long as the Gernsback Wonder survived-this early
and abortive attempt to organize a Minneapolis fan club constitutes a "forgotten
chapter" in the history of Minnesota fandom. Later fans seem never to have heard
of this proposed SFL chapter and never, to my knowledge, even referred to it
when describing fan activity in this area.
Even more curiously, a Mr. Alden E. Stanford still resides in Minneapolis, but
when confronted in March 1961 with the evidence of his part in the incident he
could not remember having attempted to form a fan club. He confessed to having
read science fiction at one time, and finally recalled having been acquainted
with a Mr. M. R. Keith, who once had an office in the Civic Arts building
sometime during the 1930s. He suggested that Mr Keith may have had something to
do with the matter. Mr. Keith, an attorney, did indeed remember this long-ago
incident, though he had forgotten the details. He believed that he and Mr.
Stafford had discussed the formation of a SFL chapter and that Mr. Stafford had
written the letter to Wonder, using his (Keith's) business address. However, the
chapter "never got off the ground," Mr. Keith recalled, and no meetings were held.
This proposed SFL chapter was premature, but only by the narrow space of a few
months or a year at the most. Oliver Saari moved to Minneapolis late in 1935 or
early in 1936, as did John Chapman, and Doug Blakely announced his existence to
the fan world, about the same time. The presence of these young fans would have
given the SFL chapter a nucleus from which to build, and the history of Twin
Cities fandom might have been quite different. As it was, two years passed before
another attempt to organize a Minneapolis group was made. On page 124 of Thrilling
Wonder Stories, June, 1937, this report appeared:
At the preliminary meetings of the Minneapolis Chapter of the Science Fiction League
held recently, members present were: Oliver E. Saari, who was elected temporary
director; Douglas Blakely, assistant director, John Chapman, secretary; Vern Dinkelman;
and Jack Burgess.
Honorary guests present at this meeting were Mr. Donald Wandrei and Mr. Carl Jacobi,
well known science fiction authors, who gave interesting talks on various sidelights
of fantasy fiction.
SFL members in the Twin Cities who are interested in joining this chapter please get
in touch with Oliver Saari, 1427 Logan Avenue North, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The "preliminary meeting" reported here was also the only one ever held by the
Minneapolis SFL chapter, but local fan activity nevertheless received a stimulus
which had many long-term effect. Messrs. McKinnon, Dinkelman, and Burgess are
obscure fans whose fate is unknown to your historian; presumably they were never
seen again in active fan circles. But the others-Saari, Blakely, Chapman, Madsen,
and Benson-became fast friends and during the next three years and more, except
for some brief lapses, met frequently and "carried on almost all the activities of
a club except the two that distinguish a club from a casual gathering- viz,
organization and publicity." (So reported Samuel D. Russell in "The Minneapolis
Fantasy Society," an article appearing in THE FANTASITE #2, February, 1941) Bob
Madsen is perhaps the least familiar name of the five because he played little part
in later fannish developments in Minneapolis. About the time a formal fan group was
organized at last, he was appointed to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.
He was listed as an honorary member of the fan club for several years, however.
Although Oliver Saari was elected temporary director of the SFL chapter, Doug Blakely
provided much of the impetus behind the venture.
Blakely, it seems, deserves credit for stirring up fan interest in Minneapolis, having
lured Saari away from his recluse with the aid of several disintegrators, flame throwers,
bombs, and a brief, somewhat inaccurate letter which touched Saari deeply. From all this
sprang the Minneapolis SFL, and so to Doug goes a bouquet for his well meaning.
-Squanchfoot, "MFS Members," FANTASITE #4, July,
During the interregnum period of 1937-1940, "the chief literary activities of the
Unholy Five," as Sam Russell wrote in the article already mentioned, "Hero the
composition of innumerable Silly Stories - brief nonsensical satires or, current
asininities in science fiction." Thus was founded a great tradition in Minnesota
fandom: henceforth, as long as two fans met in the Twin Cities, the MFS Silly Story
formed an important element in their transactions. Jack Speer described the Silly
Story in Fancyclopedia I:
They are said to have been composed back in the days of the First Transition, when the
MFS had virtually no contact with fandom, but when read at meetings, they set the morons
rolling on the floor with laughter. They are the source of such exciting words as fout,
nark, and Twonk's disease.
In 1939 Clifford D. Simak arrived in the Twin Cities. Born in Millville, Wisconsin, Simak
had followed a newspaper career from Iron River, Michigan, to Brainerd, Minnesota, before
landing in Minneapolis, where he still resides, employed as news editor of the Minneapolis
Star. His first science fiction story, "The World of the Red Sun," had appeared in
Wonder, December, 1931, and after a hiatus of several years, he returned to the
field in 1938, selling such stories as "Rule 18," "Reunion on Ganymede," and "Hunger Death."
He was already a famous science fiction writer when, he arrived here, and when the local
fans "became acquainted with him and began visiting him regularly, their interest in
science fiction was intensified," as Sam Russell reports. "It was inevitable that the
thought of starting another organization should seductively rise and tantalize."
- NEOLITHIC #19 (October 1961, ed. Ruth Berman)