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May 25, 1923: Bohemian Flats women defy eviction notice

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History, Minnesota Parks Updated: May 19, 2010 - 11:55 PM
For more than half a century, the river flats below the Washington Avenue bridge on the Mississippi’s west bank were an entry point for immigrants new to Minneapolis. Housing was cheap, but it was a hard life: Utilities were spartan at best, and spring floods regularly forced people out of the cheapest shanties next to the river.
Bohemian Flats, as it came to be known, began to lose residents in the 1920s when landowners demanded they pay rent or move out. By the early 1930s, only a few houses remained, the others torn down to make way for a barge terminal. The last resident held on, somehow, for another 30 years, living in the shadow of oil tanks and piles of coal. The barge terminal has since been replaced by Bohemian Flats Park.
Here’s a Minneapolis Morning Tribune account of a tense confrontation between the women of the flats – the men were at work – and police bearing a court order for their eviction.

Wives Hold River Flat Homes
When Police Attempt Eviction

Squatters Win Temporarily
With Writ Ordering Stay
of Ejection Move.

Residents Refuse to Pay for
Ground Lease – Ordered
in Court Tuesday.
 
Residents of the Mississippi river flats fought for the squatter sovereignty of their homes under the Washington avenue bridge Thursday, and emerged temporarily victorious.
 
Women of the flats stood guard over their thresholds while police attempted to eject them for failure to pay rent on the grounds on which the dwellings stand. A near-riot was halted when a second court order was served on police, ordering a stay of the ejections.
 
Second Order Revives Hopes.
 
Furniture from the home of Joseph Filek and from that of John Medvec, pioneer of the river colony, was being piled into moving vans when Mrs. Medvec, 57 years old, fainted. Dr. J.L. Everlof, 1501 Washington avenue south, was called and the woman was revived, but she was hysterical until the second court order brought hope that her home might be restored.
 
Under the latest order the contending parties must appear in municipal court at 10 a.m. Tuesday for a determination of the case. Title to the property is held by C.H. Smith, Phoenix building. Acting in his behalf, Clinton A. Rehnke, attorney, appeared on the flats Thursday morning with Police Lieutenant H.M. Burke, and served the ejectment papers on the squatters. They protested.
 
Angry Women Defy Police.
 
Mrs. Medvec barred the door to her home and defied the police lieutenant to open it. The two men tried to force their way in, and an angry group of women gathered to give aid to Mrs. Medvec. Finally the door was opened and workmen began to pile the furniture into the van. Before they had completed their task David Lundeen, attorney representing the flat dwellers, appeared and served the second order. The furniture went back into the house.
 
Spokesmen for the flat dwellers announced that, whether or not they are defeated in court, they will refuse to pay the rent. Rather than this, they announced, the colonists will tear down their shacks and move away.
 
Colony 60 Years Old.
 
For nearly 60 years the squatters have settled on the river shore, have built their homes, and each year, during the spring thaws, have fought against the rising waters of the Mississippi.
 
In 1919 the government high dam project entered as a factor. At that time the land, the rental for which is now in controversy, was owned by a Mary Leland. In an adjustment for the flowage rights which were found necessary because of the construction of the dam, the federal government paid $5,000 to Mary Leland. The squatters looked upon the transaction as a purchase of the land by the government. Mary Leland later transferred her title to Mr. Smith.
 
Squatters Refuse to Pay Rent.
 
Thereafter some of the dwellers refused to pay rent for the ground and on August 8, 1922, Mr. Smith instituted action in municipal court, seeking to collect the rent or to force the residents to move. The case was continued until September 29, 1922, when Mr. Smith won by default. The flat dwellers failed to appear to explain the merits they believe there was in their cause.
 
Then followed two court orders of ejectment, both of which died under the law because they were not executed within 20 days. The third writ was issued Thursday.
 
John Medvec, 70 years old, and one of the spokesmen for the flat dwellers, declared he would fight the case to the end.
 
No Lease Signed, Says Spokesman.
 
“I’ve lived here for 38 years,” he said. “I bought the place from Mike Balog for $208. I never signed a lease on the ground, and I don’t owe anyone any money for rent on the place. It’s all mine, and not any one else’s.”
 
Similar stories of a determination to fight the case were expressed by John Gabrick, 108 Mill street; Mike Sabol, 109 Mill street; Mrs. John Harhay, 113 Mill street; Mrs. Mike Lash, 105 Wood street and Mike Rollins, 79 Wood street.
 
Mr. Smith contends that the flat-dwellers signed leases agreeing to pay rental on the ground. The residents deny the claim. And upon the determination of this issue rests the fate of the river flats.
 
 
Bohemian Flats in about 1890, below the Minneapolis Western Railroad bridge, looking downriver. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
 
Bohemian Flats below the Washington Avenue Bridge, in about 1910. (George E. Luxton photo courtesy mnhs.org)
 
Immanuel Evangelical Slovak Lutheran Church, Lowland Avenue and Cooper Street, in about 1925. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

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