It would seem to be difficult for a town with a 44-foot-tall stucco snowman to fly under the radar. But somehow, North St. Paul does it. With few exits off Hwy. 36, it’s often referred to as “the town the freeway forgot.” More accurately, it’s the town that time forgot — an erstwhile planned community with an old-style main street, the state’s oldest continuously operated bar and more historical museums (two) than stoplights (one). History matters here. Every new commercial façade has to be deemed historically suitable by a city commission. The result, according to shop owner Del Howard: “We get a lot of customers who say, ‘What a cute little town!’ ” And certainly one worth visiting.
Day starter — and brightener
Technically, Shar-el’s (6030 50th St. N., 651-773-8636) sits in Oakdale, a few feet from North St. Paul’s eastern border, but this is where locals go for breakfast and lunch. Open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, it’s a real-deal diner, complete with a sign on the wall reading: “Let me drop EVERYTHING and work on your problem.” You half-expect to see Aunt Bee in the kitchen, pulling the homemade caramel cinnamon and pecan rolls out of the oven. “We get people from North St. Paul who come in two times a day,” said Savannah Weiden as she and her cousin, Myles Buersken, delivered stacks of steaming pancakes and topped off coffee cups. “We see a lot of familiar faces every day.”
Let it snow, man
Who needs a dumb ol’ spoon and cherry bridge when you can have a ginormous snowman statue? Rising 44 feet on a plot of land next to Hwy. 36, the 20-ton, stucco-and-chicken wire structure is the town’s official logo and unofficial mascot. Back story? Seems that a lack of snow once kept the good citizens of North St. Paul from building a “real” snowman for their annual Sno-Daze festival. So a permanent one was built in the early 1970s. Believed to be the world’s largest snowman statue, it certainly has the widest smile: 16 feet. Despite its dimensions, townspeople are ambivalent about the kitschy-but-cool landmark. “It’s an icon, good and bad,” said merchant Howard. “Let’s put it this way: When people come here, that’s where they get their picture taken.”
Lakeside play dates
The city was incorporated in 1887 as a “planned community” around Silver Lake. Founder Henry A. Castle even named the streets (Margaret, Charles, Henry, Helen) after his children. While his lakeside summer villa is gone, and the planning never quite took hold, the Charles McKenney house (2569 18th Av.) evokes the Victorian splendor of the town’s halcyon days. Beaches and playgrounds dot the lake today — from the northern side’s Dorothy Park (which boasts a slide that debuted when baby boomers were babies) to shiny new jungle gyms on the east-side beach. This Sunday, the annual Silver Lake Splash festival features live music, vendors and kids’ activities around the lake.
One of the more modern buildings along North St. Paul’s “main street” — 7th Avenue — houses a semi-hidden gem: the North Star Museum of Boy Scouting and Girl Scouting (2640 7th Av. E., 651-748-2880, www.nssm.org). Even with 150,000 objects and some stellar displays (a 1915 uniform, a medallion honoring a St. Paul troop for its fundraising during World War I, several Norman Rockwell paintings depicting scouting), the museum is a work in progress, said executive director Claudia Nicholson. “We’re moving from a collectors’ place to a history museum. We want to tell and show visitors things that will transport them back in time.” So far so good.
Bookends from the past
The wood floors creak in the town’s post office (2523 7th Av. E., 651-770-8388; 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. on Saturdays), and the mid-century-modern P.O. boxes add to the retro feel. But it’s the giant mural on the east wall, above the manager’s office and bulletin boards, that seals the New Deal look. Donald Humphrey’s tempera “Production,” painted in 1941, depicts dairy farmers at work. At the other end of the town’s main street, check out the World War I-era howitzer outside and sundry treasures inside the Historical Society (2666 7th Av. E., 651-747-2432; 10 a.m.-1 p.m. on Saturdays).
Neumann’s, a tavern as old as the town itself, has been serving Hamm’s beer ever since it opened in the late 1800s — not from the same barrel, thankfully. Although the bar (2531 7th Av. E., 651-770-6020, neumannsbar.com) has been gussied up a bit, it still has its original tin roof. Legend has it that during Prohibition, the proprietors served “near beer” on the main floor, had a speakeasy upstairs and sold homemade hooch out of the basement. There’s good tavern fare, including a weekend special on gyros. Up front near the windows, there’s a terrarium with two well-fed frogs of indeterminate age. “They were here when I bought the place seven years ago,” said owner Mike Brown, “so I’ll go with them being here since Jim Neumann opened the joint in 1887.”
Our kind of Garage sale
You can find a little bit of everything at La’ Garage and Gallery (2550 7th Av. E., 651 770-8405, lagarageandgallery.com): clothes, furniture, cards (playing and holiday), toys, garden décor (including birdhouses made from license plates), books, electronics and all manner of home furnishings. It’s basically a general store without the groceries. Del and Carolyn Howard’s store has done so well that they were able to buy the current building they’re in and put up a facade of Old Chicago brick. “They’re building this town to be like a town, not a suburb,” Del said. “All these businesses are mom-and-pop operations.”
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643