Among the many artifact and archival donations made this year to the Morrison County Historical Society was a collection of Minnesota Highway Patrol items that were donated by Joan DiMatteo of Little Falls. Joan’s husband, Leonard, had the distinction of being one of the three men who were selected to establish a station in Little Falls in 1952.
When Patrolman DiMatteo came to Little Falls, the Minnesota Highway Patrol had already been in existence for over two decades. In 1929, the Minnesota Legislature had passed a bill creating a Highway Patrol. The Patrol was to be placed within the Minnesota Highway Department and was to be composed of no more than thirty-five men. Charles M. Babcock, Commissioner of Highways, appointed Earle Brown, Sheriff of Hennepin County, as the first Chief. Chief Brown in turn appointed eight officers. By 1931, the state had been divided into three districts and the number of patrolmen had increased to seventy officers and five supervisors. By 1952, when Leonard DiMatteo became a member of the Patrol, there were 198 patrolmen and eighteen officers.
The first training school was held in 1930 at the Earle Brown farm in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. The course included two weeks of hard labor, pistol practice, and training in first aid, motorcycle riding and courtesy. Leonard DiMatteo attended training school in 1951 at the Gopher Ordinance Plant in Rosemount, Minnesota. A striking feature of this school was the absence of motorcycle training. Prior to this, the patrol had as many as eighty motorcycles in its fleet. One of the two standard vehicles used during the first years of the Patrol was a 1930 Harley Davidson motorcycle, which could reach the then stunning speed of 90 mph. The other standard vehicle was a 1930 Model A Ford.
Throughout DiMatteo’s years of service, the color, make and model of patrol cars was continually changing. When DiMatteo started work in Little Falls he shared a black two-door Ford with fellow officers, Bill McKusky and Leo Smith. This car was stored at Massy Motors in Little Falls when not in use. By the time DiMatteo retired in 1978, the standard patrol vehicle was a “Class A” Plymouth Grand Fury. One of the unmarked cars was light blue in color and was known as the “Spook”. The brilliant maroon of former Highway Patrol cars was a special shade that was exclusive to the patrol. This color is no longer in use because of its cost.
Besides a patrol vehicle, DiMatteo was issued a whistle and a service revolver. DiMatteo’s uniform consisted of a long-sleeve shirt, tie, wool pants and wool jacket, none of which could have been very comfortable on a hot Minnesota summer day. While the uniform remained basically the same, the hat style seems to have changed almost as frequently as the color and make of the patrol cars. When DiMatteo first became a patrolman, the hat had eight points on the crown. Next came the military or garrison style hat. When DiMatteo retired in 1978, the style of hat was known jokingly as “Smokey the Bear”. According to his wife, Joan, this was not one of his favorite hats to wear!
When the Highway Patrol first established a station in Little Falls there was no radio for departmental communications. The Little Falls City Police had a signal system on Bank Square at the corner of First Street and Broadway in Little Falls. This system consisted of a red light that was mounted on the corner of the roof of the First National Bank building (now the U.S. Bank). This light would turn on when the phone rang at the police station. Officers who were on duty and saw the light would go to the stairwell in the bank to answer the call. Also interesting is the fact that there were no ambulances in Little Falls during those first years. If a patrolman needed to call for transportation, he contacted one of the local funeral homes. The funeral home would then send out a hearse to provide transportation for the injured as well as the dead.
By the time Trooper DiMatteo retired in August of 1978, the patrol had changed its name to the Minnesota State Patrol and was under the Department of Public Safety. Today, the Minnesota State Patrol is authorized to operate with a complement of up to 535 State Patrol Troopers. While much has changed, the duties of a Minnesota State Patrol Trooper have remained basically the same, to enforce the law and protect the public.
By Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 2005, Morrison County Historical Society