The way we (almost) were
When you think of our neighborhoods, what comes to mind? If you’re like many Bugle-area residents, the words “quiet, tree-lined and community-oriented” probably emerge quickly, followed perhaps by “family-friendly, progressive and well-educated.”
The area’s reputation speaks for itself; throughout the Twin Cities we are known for our pleasant houses, safe streets and civic-minded residents.
The area’s character, however, was not ordained by nature, and our growth as a community followed no predetermined path of inevitable upward progress. An examination of the historical record shows that it all could have been much, much different.
For starters, we might have been part of Minneapolis.
In January 1900, the Hennepin County auditor claimed that, under the terms of an old legislative act, a big chunk of St. Paul belonged, in fact, to Minneapolis. The issue in question was, of course, property taxes: Which city’s coffers would receive the revenues from St. Anthony Park and the northern section of the Midway district?
One local resident’s response went straight to the point. Park real estate dealer, C.W. Chase, went on record saying, “I prefer to remain in Ramsey County. The taxes are about one-fourth of what they would be [in Minneapolis].”
Local furniture dealer S.E. Brace took an approach so balanced that he could have used a jeweler’s scale. “I … prefer to be in St. Paul. It would have been far better, however, if originally the district had been included in Minneapolis.” The Minneapolis Tribune pontificated in the rich purple prose of the era that bringing our district into the Hennepin County fold “would be a bad thing for both places, as it would rip open the old sore which is fast healing up, and create a fresh and deeper animosity.”
Perhaps the county auditor heeded the newspaper’s advice and allowed those interurban wounds to remain closed, since there don’t seem to have been any other attempts to move the city borders. But that doesn’t mean we were necessarily on the way to our current state.
We might have been an upscale preserve of the very rich.
According to David Lanegran’s book St. Anthony Park: Portrait of a Community, the original design for the area called for boundaries extending well into what is now Falcon Heights and Como Park. The early developers of the area had a vision of a “romantic suburb,” says Lanegran, with “wealthy families ensconced in suburban villas tastefully sited on lots ranging from 5 to 25 acres.”
We have only to look around our relatively densely settled neighborhoods to realize that things didn’t turn out quite according to plan. Nevertheless, parts of the area retained a healthy measure of social pretension for an astonishingly long time.
Well up to the 1930s, the society pages charted the daily life of the residents with the kind of breathless interest that we now reserve for the Kardashians. Readers of the Minneapolis Journal were regularly updated, for example, on the vacation plans of faculty at the University of Minnesota. Star Island in Cass Lake was a favored faculty resort, attracting a long list of professors and their families in the summer of 1936. But even the toniest lake resort was outclassed by the destination of a lucky few that summer, including “Dr. and Mrs. Chester A. Stewart … [who] will sail in August and travel on the continent. …”
Even when they stayed home, area residents sometimes found themselves in the society columns of the day. The Minneapolis Tribune charted the schedule of Mrs. Duvall Fontaine Polk (of the Virginia Polks), who lived on Keston Street in St. Anthony Park in a house that still stands. Mrs. Polk’s life was one long social whirl of teas for her fellow Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) members, followed by cultural soirées such as the one reported in 1894 when the good lady and her husband “gave a reception and musicale at their residence” for about 100 guests.
Alas, the couple’s good fortune does not appear to have survived into their later years. Mr. Polk, who was the manager of the U.S. Life Insurance Co., seems to have met later business reverses. His life insurance company disappears from local business directories by 1920, and by 1930 the City Directory reports that the widowed Daughter of the American Revolution had moved—of all places—to Canada.
But social graces don’t always guarantee a quiet life.
We might have become a lawless den of iniquity.
The mean streets of St. Anthony Park? It sounds unlikely, but at the turn of the 20th century—and co-existing with the genteel musical soirées—there was an extraordinary amount of mayhem in our neighborhoods, if newspaper accounts can be believed. With a population that was only a fraction of our modern head count, the area managed to produce regular lurid headlines and a remarkable assortment of bad guys. Long before legendary gangster Ma Barker took up residence near Langford Park in the 1930s, the Tribune reported a varied crop of miscreants.
In 1893, there was a night of terror at the Brace residence at 923 Bayless Ave., when the family of the same S.E. Brace quoted above awoke to find masked men pointing revolvers at their heads. After ransacking the house and uttering a stream of abuse that the newspaper helpfully rendered as one long dash, the assailants made off with Mr. Brace’s gold watch, an item more “valuable because of its associations than its intrinsic worth.”
Then there was George Howard, an urban cattle rustler of 1900. At a time when even city households often kept a cow for milk, Howard stole his bovine prey from neighboring homes and brought them, one cow at a time, to the “slaughterhouse in St. Anthony Park.” Howard attracted the suspicions of the slaughterhouse management by his willingness to settle for below-market value for his swag-on-the-hoof. Police were notified and a sting operation was set up. Before long, Howard was behind bars and the latest Bossie had been restored to its owner. Police had an explanation. Howard, they noted, was “from Duluth and … had been driving a sprinkling wagon in the Kenwood District.”
Another headline-grabbing affair involved a distraught lawman from Wisconsin who was arrested after brandishing a revolver in St. Anthony Park in spring 1908. Under the headline “Demented Sheriff is in Jail in St. Paul,” the Tribune explained that Sheriff Joseph Bartelne of Lincoln, Wis., was actually a victim of workplace stress. Before boarding a train to St. Paul, the officer had spent three days in the Wisconsin woods unsuccessfully tracking an escaped murderer. So how did Bartelne end up in Minnesota? Did the sheriff think the prisoner had fled to the Twin Cities? Was the escaped man ever recaptured? The news report is maddeningly silent on the details.
In terms of sheer criminal hoopla, perhaps nothing surpassed the Calderone affair of 1903. One Salvatore Battalia had been murdered on Franklin Avenue and the police traced a trail of blood, or so the Tribune reported in breathless tones, that led directly back to Tony Candiota’s shoe repair shop in St. Anthony Park. Given the Italian names of all involved, it was perhaps inevitable that the paper also muttered darkly about a Mafia link. Later reports discredited the Mafia angle and exonerated Candiota, but even the eventual account of bloody revenge and betrayal seems entirely too operatic for the modern-day neighborhood.
But the most disturbing episode of all might have been the evening that Charles M. Banks was almost lynched. Newspapers of earlier times didn’t get bogged down in niceties like concealing the names of uncharged suspects or their victims. Thus it was in early January 1905 that the Tribune described the final minutes of the crime spree of the 18-year-old Banks.
Originally from Humboldt, Iowa, Banks had reduced our area to “a state of terror since Christmas as a result of the numerous assaults and holdups on men and women, some of which have taken place in daylight.” In the early evening of Jan. 4, he made the fatal error of attacking a Miss Hanson who was “knocked insensible … and brutally assaulted” but not before her screams roused the attention of “several men … at the Interurban Amusement Park” (possibly located in modern-day Como Park).
The men quickly constituted themselves a posse and, armed with muskets, set off into the woods to track down their quarry. They were not long in finding him, and then the action really got going. A crowd gathered, bearing rope and yelling, “String him up.” Only the timely arrival of the Como Avenue streetcar allowed the “wiser heads” to extract their prisoner from the clutches of the mob and haul him off to the police station on Prior Avenue.
Lynch mobs in Como Park are unsettling, but let’s jump ahead a couple of decades to consider the strangest alternate future of all for our area.
We might have had nightlife district. We might even have become noisy.
If there’s one adjective overwhelmingly associated with our neighborhoods, it’s “quiet.” Try finding a late-night restaurant or even houselights that stay lit past midnight. Then consider how different the scene might be if Oscar Tatkin had managed to realize his dream, as reported by the St. Paul Dispatch in 1922.
Claiming to represent “Eastern capital,” Tatkin applied to the St. Paul City Council for a permit to construct a “$65,000 motion picture theater on Como between Carter and Doswell avenues.” Tatkin claimed that he had already received permission to build a similar theater on Grand Avenue.
Supposing Tatkin had gotten his permit? In some parallel universe, could Como Avenue have become a second Grand Avenue—the biggest and most upscale shopping street in the city? We’ll never know, in part because of the full-throated outrage expressed that day by St. Anthony Park dignitaries. Among those making “strenuous objections” to Tatkin’s plan were a local bank president, the registrar of the Lutheran Theological Seminary and prominent businessman Gilbert Gutterson.
Declaring the neighborhood “a home community,” the men cautioned that it would be “contaminated by a theater.” Dean W.C. Coffey of the Minnesota College of Agriculture (as the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus was then known) warned that the picture show would prove a vile distraction to the 700 students under his supervision. The students were “entertained with an educational film each Saturday night at the school,” he intoned. “Once a week is often enough.”
And there it stands. Dean Coffey thundering from the podium, and Tatkin recoiling in dismay, his plans rebuffed. Perhaps it was at that moment that the future of our area was truly determined. But, as we have seen, it could all have been quite different.
Judy Woodward is a Ramsey County librarian and a frequent contributor to the Park Bugle.