The following is the text of a talk given to the Golden Valley Rotary Club in 2001 by John Yngve. It provides a comprehensive look at life during the 1930s in a part of St. Louis Park that was sparsely populated but full of adventure.
A TRIP BACK IN TIME
John starts by imagining a helicopter ride that takes us from west to east along Superior Boulevard. The name of the road was changed to Wayzata Blvd. in 1932, but apparently the name stuck for a while afterwards. John describes the Boulevard as one of the finest highways in Minnesota, running from Dunwoody in Minneapolis all the way to Wayzata. It was all concrete except for a portion that was brick from the top of Tyrol Hills East, down the hill past the intersection with the Parkway. It had three lanes – one for each direction and one in the middle for passing.
When we looked down from the helicopter we would see a road going north. There was no intersection, only a road called Mendelssohn, going north towards Medicine Lake.
Going east over Superior Boulevard, on our left we would first see the Keller farm where General Mills is now, and then Superior Golf Club, now called Brookview Golf Club. On the right side there is a swamp and beyond which we would barely see the Westwood Hills Golf Club. Then at Texas Ave. and the Boulevard was a small tavern, Ann and Andy’s. As we moved along we would see on the left Otis George’s Golf Driving Range, Peanut John’s farm (Peanut John – According to the stories he earned the name optimistically honestly having planted roasted peanuts), the Larson Potato and pig farm, where pigs were bed by garbage hauled from restaurants. That was the recycling of that time. On the other side we would see the WDGY radio station with its towers and a farm raising foxes, Falvey Ave. (now Louisiana), a few scattered homes, small grocery store, swamps, a small neighborhood, and a garage.
Going on we would see a gun club and a farm home, a gray stucco house with outbuildings, which was the home of my grandparents, John A. and Hannah Johnson. Then the railroad tracks. Continuing East we would see three beer joints, three gas stations, a few houses, vacant land, and the Evanoff and Held truck gardens, Tyrol Hills gates and finally the Glenwood Park and Glenwood Parkway, now known as Theodore Wirth Parkway, where our trip would end.
What a change since then! In the thirties the only changes were highway construction. Noting happened except for road construction. Mendelssohn Road was extended south to Minnetonka Blvd. and named Highway 18. A grade separation was built, taking superior Blvd. under the railroad tracks. The Belt Line/ Lilac Way /Highway 100 was started. All this was done mainly by hand labor and funded by the WPA. Other than the highway construction, nothing new was built in that entire distance. Since then everything has changed. Very little is left that is recognizable from those days. Of course, there are the railroad tracks, the golf course (now Brookview), the building that had been Ann and Andy’s Tavern, and a few homes.
Most of the people lived on the South of the Blvd. in St. Louis Park and the children went to Eliot School on Cedar Lake Road. A look at the number of children in school gives an idea of the population. All the children in grades one through sixth who lived North of the Great Northern Railroad track and South of Superior Blvd. attended Eliot School. In one room there was the first, second, and third grades, and then across the hall in the other room was the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. The number of students in all classes was less than 50.
So people were few and were scattered. There were a few neighborhoods. One was called Richmond and was at Falvey and Superior Blvd. Another was called Cedar Hurst and was located of where Highway 100 is now.
Then there was the neighborhood where I grew up at Colorado Ave. and Superior Blvd. It had no name and we used to designate it as the Boulevard and the railroad tracks. It was small, consisting of about 15 homes, all of which had been built by my grandfather. The homes were built of used material purchased from Rose Brothers Cleveland Wrecking Company, which was located on Glenwood Ave. near downtown Minneapolis. All were built in the 1920s at the lowest possible cost to make the homes available for ordinary people to buy. Not all were modern. At least five had only outdoor toilets, and some had a hand pump in the kitchen for water. As a consequence, wen Halloween arrived, the young men in the neighborhood fantasized about pushing over an outhouse with a favorite disliked person inside, which was never realized for we all knew who would be blamed and we feared the consequences.
Modern conveniences consisted of an inside toilet and running water, which fortunately we had in my home. The absence of those did lead to interesting construction. Wells were constructed by pounding a sand point down in the ground 15-20 feet to get water. The Blanchettes, who lived on the corner of Colorado and 14th Street, decided they had to have inside facilities and needed a cesspool. The construction became a gathering place for the young people to watch the two Blanchette men dig the cesspool. In order to get it deep enough they had constructed a tripod with a pulley so one person could be down in the hole loading up buckets of mud while the other lifted it up. And so after weeks of work they got a hole deep enough to safely stop and connect to the basement.
Men who were employed in the neighborhood had a variety of occupations. Only one woman was employed: Mrs. Gatten had two small girls and was widowed when her husband, a gas station operator, died of strep throat. My father worked for the State in the Department of Lands and Minerals. Other occupations included red cap at the Great Northern Depot, baggage handler at the Depot, handyman/ gardener who owned a horse and would plow gardens for a small fee, a well driller, a book binder, janitor at Eliot School, dog catcher for the Animal Rescue League, and a motion picture projectionist. Being the Depression, a number were unemployed and on relief or receiving some sort of help, taking odd jobs from time to time.
Today we would think we were very isolated even though we were so close to Minneapolis, for not everyone had a car and certainly no one had two cars. The cars were seldom used for recreation, as they were used to drive to work. A car was expensive. It had to be greased every thousand miles; got less than 15 miles to the gallon; tires wore out in less than 20,000 miles if you had new ones; gas was five galls for a buck and 50 cents an hour was a living wage. Once in a while we went downtown to Minneapolis by taking the Mound Greyhound bus that had a regularly scheduled route on Superior Blvd. The closest grocery store was Jerry Craemer’s in Bryn Mawr at the intersection of Superior Blvd. and Cedar Lake Road.
But we were not totally isolated, because of deliveries. When the mailman came it was important. People actually wrote letters, and it was not unusual for young people to have pen pals – similar to E-mail today. In addition, the mail brought the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues – the dream books which we all pawed over and looked over and dreamed about, particularly when the Christmas catalogue arrived. So the mail was important because it brought new clothing, parts for equipment, tools, etc. Everything could be ordered from the catalogues.
The contact with the outside world also was the delivery trucks. There was the milkman. Our milkman was Mr. O’Connor who had a cow and sold unpasteurized milk. The Bamby man brought bread and bakery goods to the door. The Watkins man brought nectars, spices, and household items that were brought into the home on a carrier tray from which selections could be made. Every other day in the summer the iceman would make his rounds – on those days a card had to be placed in the window showing whether 25 or 50 pounds were needed. If ice was ordered, he would walk into the house carrying the ice over his shoulder resting the ice on a rubber backed apron with a picket at the bottom to catch water. He then would deposit the ice in the icebox, collect his fee and leave. The children would gather ’round the truck while the iceman split the huge chunks of ice into proper size and we always received pieces covered with sawdust that was wiped off and we could then deliciously lick the chunk of ice.
A laundry man would come to our house to pick up laundry which would be returned the next day as a wet wash which meant it must be hung on a line to dry – in the summer outdoors and in the winter in the basement. Once in a while a junk man would show up with his horse and wagon looking for old metal and we all would scurry around to locate what we could to receive a few pennies in exchange. The winter brought the coal man who would open a window in a basement, insert a metal slide and shovel a ton of coal into the coal bin creating considerable noise, dust and dirt. Once in a while a hobo from the tracks would knock on our house back door to ask if there was something he could do to earn a meal. My mother would fix him a sandwich, but never asked for work in return.
There wasn’t as much need for shopping because of the canning and preparing for the winter. Food was so simple. Fresh vegetables were available only in season from personal gardens or bought at Held’s or Evanoff’s. As the late summer arrived there would be the canning season. Jellies and jams would be prepared and 100 quarts of tomatoes would be put up. Strawberry, raspberry, peach, apricot, and applesauce would be canned, 100 pounds of potatoes, and pickles – sweet and dill – prepared and laid up for the winter. Later in the fall, when the frost had arrived, a half a pig would be purchased, sliced, packaged, ham made, and all put in the rafters of the garage to freeze.
The spring was wonderful for eating. By that time we would be tired of the old potatoes and the eyes, the soggy carrots, the lack of fresh vegetables. Then the sudden rush to eat all the remaining frozen pork, chickens, ducks, and pheasants, as spring was coming and so was the thaw. We waited for the first fresh vegetables. The wonderful flavor of the first little new potatoes is unforgettable. Then came the onions, carrots, radishes, peas, and beans – and summer had arrived.
RADIO AND NEWS AND CONVERSATION
People were very much involved in the day-to-day activities in the world about us. Perhaps more than people now would think. Communication was by radio, newspaper, and conversation. There was no such thing as constant news such as we have now on cable or Internet. Exchanging news was a part of the conversation. Day to day activities in the world made up much of the conversation of the adults. When something newsworthy occurred it was savored and talked about with information, ideas, speculation and theory exchanged. So when the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped and the Hauptmann trial took place, one could always get the latest news from a neighbor, together with all the theories and speculations and could exchange opinions very similar to what happened when the O.J. Simpson trial took place.
It seemed that everyone listened to the radio news at 7:00 am for national news and 6:00 pm and 10:00 pm. Years later airline pilots would state that when Cedric Adams’s new program ended at 10:15 pm, they would see lights go off all across Minnesota.
We were interested in sports and it was a big topic of conversation. In the fall every Saturday afternoon everyone listened to Halsey Hall broadcast the Gopher football games. In the summer it was baseball at Nicollet Park where the Minneapolis Millers played. Mr. Aller, a neighbor who worked at night, listened to the radio broadcast of the Minneapolis Millers baseball game every day even when the games were out of town. The competition between the Millers and the St. Paul Saints was big and it was particularly exciting when there was a Sunday double header with one game in Minneapolis and the other in St. Paul. Joe Hauser of the Millers was the outstanding player and we all wondered when he would hit another home run. He did set the all-time record, unbelievably hitting 69 home runs in one year. This was the minor league – Babe Ruth held the major league record at that time with 60 home runs in a year.
Then there was Joe Louis, the bronze bomber, heavyweight champion of the world. At the time of his fights people would be glued to the radio listening to every blow, portrayed in the unique voice of Clem McCarthy. I can hear his voice now while he conveyed the excitement of a heavyweight fight in Madison Square Garden through the airwaves to listening people who were watching the radio. The next day we would all wait to read the paper to get a full report of the fight.
When World War II started on September 1, 1939, we first heard the news from the radio at 7:00 am and then we waited for the paper in the afternoon for more details.
THE NORTH SIDE PEAT FIRE OF 1936
The times were tough. The summers were dry. The hot dry summers reached a high in 1936 with five consecutive days in July of over 100 degrees. It was so dry. The news was of the droughts, the farm collapse, and the migrations from the dust bowls, the dust storms, and the hard times.
It was so hot, much the same as this year, but worse. People slept outside in the parks. Each day the radio and newspapers brought forth stories of how bad it was and how it might improve, but each day it got hotter and hotter and dryer and dryer and the rains did not come. The farms dried up; the markets dried up; the dust bowl was pictured in the papers; eggs were pictured frying on the pavement in Minneapolis, and no relief came.
Suddenly, south of Cedar lake Road, southeast of Eliot School, a grass fire started. The wind blew, the fire spread, moving northerly across the open fields north of Cedar Lake Road and then spread to the 40 acres of peat swamp that was dry, dry. The fire truck arrived with its small tanks of water, and people came with buckets and gunny sacks which they soaked to slap out the grass fire, but it could not easily be stopped, and so the efforts were to stop the fired from reaching home, saving the homes which were at risk.
The fire swept north, sped by winds from the southwest across the swamp, leaving the dry peat burning and then across Superior Blvd. on to the Lawrence M. Larson farm at Cedar Lake Road and Texas. Then the gun club, and then easterly on the north side of the Blvd., where it was finally stopped by the railroad tracks, leaving behind two huge 40 acre peat fires burning on both sides of Superior Blvd., with no hope of extinguishing it. It burned for hours, days, months, and finally into the next year, burning even through the winter below the snow, finally stopping, leaving behind fine peat ash which filled the homes with dust and leaving a smell which took years to leave.
It was an adventure for a boy to help beat out the flames and to bring water to replenish the water used to beat out the flames as they approached the houses, and to carry water to the workers who were digging ditches, trenches to fill with sand because the pet was burning under the road and under the railroad tracks. We would look out of Grandma’s home at night and see it surrounded by 40 acres of red coals, read red coals of peat burning on all sides except the small island where sat the home.
The young man bicycled on the gravel on Colorado Ave. to the intersection of Superior Blvd. to pick up papers for delivery that had been thrown out on the Golden Valley side from a Minneapolis Journal truck speeding to the west. Cutting the string that bound the papers together with the pocketknife that all boys first acquired with their high Buster Brown (Red Wing?) boots that had a pocket for the knife. Then loading the yellow paper bag with papers, it was on to the bicycle and down the road to Grandma’s tall gray stucco home to drop off the paper and talk a bit about the “old days” when the Dan Patch stopped to pick up passengers before proceeding.
After dropping the papers at Grandma’s house, he peddled down the highway towards the railroad tracks to see if “Carl’s Garage” Carl had received any new items from the Pure Oil Company when something caught his eye. There were motorcycles standing at the garage – the Minnesota State Highway Patrol. Knowing that a few minutes could be sacrificed for such an important investigation, he took a small detour to the southeast corner of the intersection to listen in awe to the patrolmen rev their engines and gossip about an accident that too place on Sunset Hill on Superior Blvd, west of Oak Knoll, little realizing that all would be gone long before fifth years had passed.
At that moment a Mound Greyhound Bus arrived and stopped as required at the railroad tracks and the driver opened the door. The boy could see the driver in his whipt cord britches and high boots – a uniform similar to the highway patrol but in a much duller color. With a brief wave he revved his engine, clashed the gears, and left the young man wondering how long it would be before his mother would again take him downtown to shop in Minneapolis to pick up groceries at Witt’s Grocery Store, to admire the store windows at Dayton’s and Donaldson’s, and hopefully buy a kite at Woolworth’s.
But enough daydreaming – it was time to move kitty corner across the railroad tracks to Christianson’s Store to admire his LaSalle coupe automobile parked on the gravel in front of the store. Inside there was a pair of familiar men drinking beer at the bar where the paper was deposited. They were full of laughter while asking when I was to bring my little brother to tap dance and pass the hat for rewards again. It was a successful venture, but one couldn’t help but wonder if the entertainment was for laughs rather than for skill and so wasn’t attempted again.
But time was wasting and the question remained unanswered. It was time to leave for old John Skermo’s, who had one of two homes on the Boulevard between the tracks and the Minneapolis City Limits and would be waiting for his paper. Then east along the Boulevard to the next beer joint, Freddie’s, and then to the beer joint on the northwest corner of Turners Cross Road and the Boulevard, to “Bill’s Place,” later known as the Boulevard Cafe and where the Colonnade Building is now. Approaching Bill’s Place, wondering if Mr. Lindskoog would be in there, for he owed two months for the paper, and knowing that if he was there he would be at the bar and would pay when asked. He was and he paid.
Then off across the highway to the Evanoff’s Market, happy to see that the market was open, which would save a long peddle up to the farm house and with the hope that Anastasia or Cleora would be there for if they were, then one could get a huge chocolate ice cream cone for a nickel, much larger than if Mr. or Mrs. Evanoff were doing the dipping. Then to inquire if there was any need for weeders in the Evanoff truck garden so that word could be passed and then the weeders could show up.
Then it was off to the Lindskoogs who live at the Gravel Pit on Zarthan Ave. and the Petersons, who had the most wonderfully maintained Ford Model T. A few more and then it was home to listen to the afternoon radio shows: Little Orphan Annie, Buck Rogers in the 21st Century, and Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy. And so finished the day.
ONE MORE STORY
My Grandmother rented 40 acres to Mr. Whithel, and he pastured cattle on the property. One day his bull escaped from the pasture and was lunching on Grandma’s front lawn. At that moment I arrived home from school and saw that the bull was in trouble. My mother, aunt, and Grandma were determined that the bull be elsewhere. Being farm women, they understood bulls and were armed with hayforks. When I arrives the bull was desperately trying to find a way back into the fence to avoid the three women with pitchforks!