Southside Battletrain: Human-powered metal machines

The blue house on the corner // Photo by Harrison Barden

There’s a house in South Minneapolis that stands out from the rest. It could be the tangle of vines cascading down the facade. Or maybe it’s the tricycles, yellow canoe, and velociraptor planted in the front yard. On the porch, you’ll find a gorilla suit and the phrase “run 2 run” spelled out on the wall in oversized red letters. One of the most noteworthy attractions? A 400-pound triceratops head in the backyard. The look is eclectic to say the least—much like the people it attracts.

Congregating in the backyard workshop of the blue house on Portland Avenue each spring are artists, engineers, mechanics, neighbors, and curious gawkers. They’ve all come for one reason: to turn scrap metal into art.

“I’m a scavenger. You’ve got something you don’t need or want, I generally have a place to put it,” says Matt Carlyle, who piles I-beams and metal rods in the yard of his home—salvaged pieces that have taken years to collect. Every chunk of rusted metal is a piece of possibility—an opportunity to construct something outlandish. “I spend about half my time running around out back with a flashlight looking through my yard pavers to find the right piece.”

Matt Carlyle // Photo by Harrison Barden

He’s not alone. Not only do Matt and his wife, Gretchen Kieling Carlyle, own the most notable house on the block, but they’ve turned it into the headquarters for a group of builders who turn their wild ideas into an outrageous display of metal known as the Southside Battletrain.

The physical Battletrain is currently made up of eight badass, human-powered cars—among them a caged-in skate ramp on wheels, a ship with an 18-foot mast, and a human-powered Ferris wheel—and growing each year. It’s like something out of “Mad Max.” There are drums, there is fire, and there are tacos. Like a raucous cousin back from Burning Man, the Southside Battletrain rolls down the street loud and proud as the unofficial welcome to In the Heart of the Beast’s annual MayDay Parade.

The front driveway of Matt and Gretchen’s house as people work on, and add to, the Southside Battletrain // Photo by Harrison Barden

“[Matt and Gretchen] provide an environment and a space for people to do their art. There’s this need in the community to make shit,” says Zoe Sommers Haas, the head chef and safety coordinator for the group, who has lived on the same block as Matt for 32 years. “They make a space for people to come together, work on their skills, and create beautiful public art spectacles that are interactive. You need to be here in order to make it work. You need to interact with it in order to make it mean anything. That’s what is so beautiful about the Battletrain.”

A Decade of Metal

Ten years ago, the Southside Battletrain got its start thanks to pair of college kids and a hot dog. One day, two University of Minnesota students visited Pat Starr, the owner of The Wienery, a West Bank restaurant. They wanted advice on how to build a structure for the Art Shanty Projects, an annual event where people design icehouses as art. Pat knew just the person to call. He picked up the phone and dialed Matt.

Over the next month and a half, Matt helped the students bring their idea for a shanty to life. Like everything else, they built it out back behind his house. The icehouse had a wood stove in one corner, corrugated tin sides with windows salvaged from an old house, and a fishing hole drilled into the floor. Bike frames built into the floor allowed six people to pedal at a time, and when they did, the wheels of a 1976 Ford pickup truck fixed to the shanty’s base would turn and inch the icehouse forward.

Wyatt Werner welds two pieces together for this year’s parade // Photo by Harrison Barden

The following spring, Forecast Public Art commissioned Matt and Hans Early-Nelson to build a piece to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Jack Becker, the Minneapolis nonprofit’s director of consulting and creative services, had ridden in the shanty and wanted a similar piece—something absolutely out of the ordinary. A 10-seat bicycle dubbed the Pedal Cloud resulted, and a springtime tradition was born. The next year, nearly 40 people gathered in Matt and Gretchen’s backyard to build something new—this time a reconstructed 18-foot gear tower meant to resemble a flour mill that Matt originally built for an opera set.

“It was some serious barn raising shit that started to open my eyes to community involvement and what humans can do,” says Matt, who watched as the group hoisted four 500-pound timber beams onto a metal frame they built by hand. “How rad is human power? How rad is your community to put together something that is basically impossible to do? That has been our M.O. since.”

Clint Larson, Wyatt Werner, and John Grant hoist a post on one of the Southside Battletrain cars // Photo by Harrison Barden

Clint Larson, Wyatt Werner, and John Grant hoist a post on one of the Southside Battletrain cars // Photo by Harrison Barden

In 2009, the Southside Battletrain accidentally crashed the MayDay Parade mid-route with the shanty, the Pedal Cloud, and the cog tower all hitched together like a train. “I had no idea you were supposed to check in with somebody,” says Matt. Instead, they group busted through the barrier and started going down the road with the rest of the puppets and floats. After realizing the mistake, the Southside Battletrain signed up for the community voices section the following year, a join-in segment at the end of the parade. The train stayed there until it got too big and too loud. That’s when it moved to the front of the parade, opting to roll down the street a half an hour early to amp up the crowd before the official show began.

Southside Battletrain takes to the streets of the 2017 MayDay Parade // Photo by Nate Larson

Southside Battletrain takes to the streets of the 2017 MayDay Parade // Photo by Nate Larson

“There are a ton of jobs we have to assign,” says Gretchen, who’s in charge of organizing the nearly 200 people who turn out to work on the train each year, and the almost 100 people it takes to run it safely through the parade. “Almost anyone can find a place to squeeze in. Everybody has got their little piece.”

Passing down tradition

The sloped driveway leading out from the shop in Matt and Gretchen’s backyard is like a performance stage for traffic going by. A bright light shoots out from the torch as Wyatt Werner welds two joints together for a new piece that will run in this year’s parade. “It draws people in,” Matt says. “Like a moth to a flame.” Onlookers honk, wave, and holler as they walk or drive by. Matt even welcomes interested bystanders into the shop and encourages them to pick up an angle grinder to join in on the fun.

“We’ve got every kind of trade—anybody who’s curious,” says Gretchen. “We have crane welders, stone masons, cement workers, carpenters, plumbers, and robotics people. They come from all different walks and are able to add something.”

From left to right: Matt Carlyle, Nathan Huckeba, Alex Mars, Clint Larson, Chuck Dollar, Gretchen Carlyle Wyatt Werner, John Grant // Photo by Harrison Barden

From left to right: Matt Carlyle, Nathan Huckeba, Alex Mars, Clint Larson, Chuck Dollar, Gretchen Carlyle, Wyatt Werner, John Grant // Photo by Harrison Barden

Matt’s parents moved to the neighborhood in 1982. They bought the big blue house on the corner, and had Matt a few years later. Matt’s dad, Jack Carlyle, was a welder, carpenter, and jack-of-all-trades; someone who believed in saying hello to others, opening his home to those who didn’t have one, and taking care of strangers like they were family. By the time Matt hit three years old, he was already out in the shop working with his dad.

“[I’m] just carrying on my old man’s tradition. My father was a community builder. He knew everybody. He’d be out there working on things and invite people in,” says Matt, whose dad even sat out in the shop at 93 years old to pass on advice to the artists working on the Southside Battletrain. “He did everything different from most other people. He wouldn’t just go buy something; he’d go try to reuse something, engineer something, or salvage something.”

Now Matt is passing those years of knowledge onto others. Each spring, the team pulls the various pieces of the train out of storage. There’s the Southside Schooner: a metal ship with a mast that functions as an aerialist platform and took three years to build. There’s a three-carriage Ferris wheel that will take you 20 feet in the air. There’s even a kitchen trailer with running water where Zoe will roast a goat, lamb, and dozens of chickens and turn them into tacos to hand out at the park after the parade.

Southside Battletrain's metal machines, seen here in the 2017 parade, are like something out of "Mad Max: Fury Road" // Photos by Nate Larson

Southside Battletrain’s metal machines, seen here in the 2017 parade, are like something out of “Mad Max: Fury Road” // Photos by Nate Larson

Each spring the list of updates, repairs, and new projects mount. Matt and a core group of designers and engineers teach people how to use angle grinders, plasma cutters, and welding torches to make each piece of the train parade-ready. For the shanty, the crew smashed out the windows, moved the steering stick to the roof, and added a second deck with a rail so drummers could perform on top. They’ve replaced the roof six separate times when it would collapse after hours of excited stomping on the top deck.

“It provides endless opportunities for people who have always wanted to work with metal to do it,” says Wyatt, who joined the team eight years ago when he moved to the Twin Cities. “Everything we did, I was just hooked. This is where I fell in love with welding.”

It’s where Nathan Huckeba found his next step in life, too. After spending two years prepping projects and grinding metal for Southside Battletrain, Nathan decided to pursue a degree in fabrication and welding at Dunwoody College of Technology. Like the people who came before him, he’s carrying on a legacy; he’s continuing the tradition of a neighborhood art project that started small, but believes in the power of community to create something grand.

“I love this show. There are mechanical wonders that have yet to be invented,” says Matt. “I don’t know what we’re capable of, because every year we step up another notch. There’s absolutely nothing we can’t do.”