Anoka's roads to the past

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 27, 2011 - 2:32 PM

From Whiskey Flats to Swede Town to Firemen's Grove, the story of Anoka's older neighborhoods is often as colorful as their names.

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Ticknor Hill, built in 1867, was home to the remarried widow of Aaron Greenwald, who evidence suggests was the first Minnesotan to volunteer for the Union Army during the Civil War. He was killed at Gettysburg in 1863. The house is now a bed and breakfast.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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When Laurie Elvig moved from Cold Spring, Minn., to Anoka's Swede Town neighborhood in September, she knew little about the city and absolutely nothing about the historical area she was about to embrace.

"The first thing we realized," Elvig began, "was how friendly the neighbors were. They brought us homemade chocolates.

"And we noticed that three of the houses on our block have chickens."

Then she began seeing the sandwich-board signs on neighbors' lawns, telling when the homes were believed to have been built. One house on Harrison Street was erected in 1856. One on Van Buren Street was built in 1863. Another sign on Van Buren says 1859, although owner Linda Voska says it was built in 1856. And all the signs say Swede Town.

"Before that, I lived in another area of Anoka, the Whiskey Flats neighborhood," Voska said. "I don't know much about these neighborhoods, but I love all the old houses."

Anoka is a city of neighborhoods, much like Minneapolis and St. Paul, on a smaller scale, but no less grand. The city's quaint Main Street district is what attracts tourists. But travel a few blocks away -- in any direction -- and you step into history.

A Civil War first

For decades, a stretch of Third Avenue, just south of Main Street, was the northern metro area's answer to St. Paul's Summit Avenue. This is the Christian Hill neighborhood, named for the many church steeples that once stood stoically not far east of the Mississippi River. Today, many of the post-Civil War homes remain as a monument to a once-lavish and still highly desirable neighborhood.

It is also the neighborhood which housed the family of the man believed to be the first volunteer for the Union Army during the Civil War.

St. Paul historians will argue that Josiah King was the first to volunteer for the Union Army. There's a statue of his likeness in St. Paul's Summit Park that says so. But folks at the Anoka County Historical Society are all but certain that the first volunteer was Anoka's Aaron Greenwald.

According to Vickie Wendel, the history center's program director, Gov. Alexander Ramsey was in Washington, D.C., when the shooting started at Fort Sumter in South Carolina's Charleston harbor. After offering to provide the first troops to the Union, Ramsey sent a telegram back to Minnesota by horseback -- a missive delivered to attorney Willis Gorman, who was trying a case in Anoka's Fourth District Court.

During a recess, Gorman read aloud in the courtroom the request for volunteers. Greenwald happened to be there and was the first to respond, Wendel said.

"That night, in St. Paul, there were militia meetings and Josiah King was the first to put his name down," Wendel said. "We figure Aaron beat him by four or five hours."

In Anoka's Christian Hill neighborhood, there's a magnificent house -- Ticknor Hill -- that's now a bed and breakfast.

"But Aaron Greenwald never lived here," said Debbie Wallace, who has owned the home for 13 years. Greenwald's widow and two sons did, however: She remarried after he was killed at Gettysburg in 1863 and it was her second husband, Heman Ticknor, who built the expansive house in 1867 for his family.

In addition to the boys, Anna and Heman had a daughter, Zale. After Heman died, it was Zale who persuaded Anna to basically flip-flop the front and back of Ticknor Hill. The house originally had a Second Avenue address, Wendel said. But the redesign had the front facing prestigious Third Avenue.

Ludefisk heaven

Christian Hill is one of two Anoka neighborhoods that have been designated by ordinance.

The other is Swede Town easy to spot by looking for the sandwich boards -- which started appearing in 1998 -- that spill over into that neighborhood, too. The signs are impossible to miss, particularly on Van Buren Avenue between Second and Fifth Streets.

"The town, years ago, kind of got chopped into different sectors," said Bart Ward of the city's Heritage Preservation Commission. "Swede Town was a natural."

An area with a lot of Swedish immigrants who were craftsmen and artists, the neighborhood was settled in the 1880s and 1890s, said Bob Kirchner, Anoka's community development director.

For years, Swedish was the neighborhood's primary language, he said.

"It may have been the only neighborhood in which your neighbor didn't mind if you were cooking lutefisk," Wendel said.

Whiskey Flats in Prohibition

The Whiskey Flats neighborhood also has been desirable -- for a variety of reasons during a number of eras.

As its name suggests, this neighborhood west of Ferry Street and south of Main Street was once a haven for rum runners during Prohibition. Booze flowed down the Mississippi River in those days, Wendel said.

Historians also suggest that the neighborhood earned its name from its strong Irish population and the stills that worked overtime in the locals' back yards.

"For medicinal purposes only," Wendel says.

The neighborhood also is home to what is believed to be the oldest home in Anoka. Built in 1852, the house on Fremont Avenue is listed on the National Registry of Historical Places and is owned by attorney Kurt Glaser. Glaser's hobby is to work on old homes. "It keeps me sane from being a lawyer," he said.

His home was on the Minnesota Historical Society's list of the 10 most endangered historical homes. It was in foreclosure when Glaser jumped at the chance to buy it.

"My living room was the first local store in Anoka," he said.

The first owner was Henry Shaw, one of Anoka's first settlers and one of the first traders in the area. He was first of several lumber barons to live there.

Getting to The Point

Frog Town, the neighborhood in the northwest corner of town, once was heavily populated with French settlers. Slab Town, also in the northwest area of town, was a neighborhood in which residents claimed lumber companies' unused scraps, or slabs, Ward said. McCauley's Pond is a neighborhood, not a pond, west of Fifth Avenue.

The extreme confluence of where the Mississippi and Rum Rivers meet is a neighborhood called The Point. Directly north is Firemen's Grove, once a wooded area used for community gatherings. The Cutterville and Northtown neighborhoods straddle Hwy. 10. The Rum River neighborhood includes the junction of Main Street and Ferry Street -- arguably the two most-traveled city streets.

For newcomers like Laurie Elvig, the history of her neighborhood is simply an added bonus.

"When we decided to move, we narrowed our choices to Buffalo and Anoka," she said. "I'm sure Buffalo is a great place to raise a family.

"But I really like my neighborhood."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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