Something about the boarded-up old house on St. Paul’s East Side intrigued carpenter Cliff Carey. A 36-year resident of the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood north of downtown, he couldn’t help but wonder about the second and smaller structure on the city-owned lot at 656 Bush Av.
“There was something about it that was unusual,” said Carey, 64.
He knew Phalen Creek once gurgled nearby. Maybe it was a mill. Or a carriage house. Carey’s curiosity prompted him to call City Hall and dust off some old photos of Swede Hollow — the ravine-lining shantytown where St. Paul immigrants from Sweden, Poland, Mexico and Italy often started out, without heat or plumbing, between the 1850s and 1950s.
St. Paul city planners twice let Carey inside the little building on the property.
“It turned out to be none of the things that I had thought it might be,” he said. “It was a small house, a miniature if you will. Tidy, plastered and trimmed. No bathroom. Never had one. One pull chain light in each room.”
Scouring his old Swede Hollow photos, Carey experienced a “Eureka” moment when he studied the background of a well-known shot from around 1910.
Behind a larger wooden house in the photo, along the creek, Carey thinks he found the smaller house now behind 656 Bush in its original spot.
“I have been looking at old houses in St. Paul for a long time and I have never seen another one like it,” he said. “If this house is not the house in the Swede Hollow photo then it’s an exact duplicate.”
If it is indeed the same house, “it would certainly be unique,” said Joe Musolf, a senior project manager with St. Paul’s Department of Planning and Economic Development. “I don’t know of any other surviving structures from Swede Hollow. Looks like the same roof line and window configuration. But at this point I think that photo is the only evidence we’ve got.”
Michael Pennig, an expert on the history of what’s known as Railroad Island, says the larger structure at 656 Bush is called the Francis M. Williams House after its original owner.
Williams was born in Olmsted County in 1858, the same year as Minnesota statehood, and worked as a hay-hauling teamster. He purchased five adjoining lots in 1880 and built his home four years later, overlooking Swede Hollow from Fauquier Street. That street was later renamed Bush Avenue to honor a 3M honcho.
Pennig said police reports show a murder happened on the property in 2008. He described the back house as a four-square two-story with a hip roof and center chimney of “primitive construction.” That primitive modifier, coupled with the lack of a bathroom, supports Carey’s theory that it might have been moved up the ravine from Swede Hollow.
Neither of the two Bush Avenue structures are historically protected. Both might qualify, but because they’ve been significantly altered and chopped into many smaller rooms, their eligibility for preservation is iffy.
In the meantime, city planners are talking with a developer who originally considered using the two houses as a community center in a cooperative housing tract he’s hoping to build on three nearby acres.
Loren Schirber’s proposed East Yard Cooperative Tiny Home Village would include 47 “tiny homes,” ranging from 280-square-foot efficiencies to family units at a cozy 530 square feet. At theeastyard.com, Schirber explains that too many new houses are built so large that they’re out of reach for first-time home buyers.
The project’s website includes plans to save the Francis M. William House as a community center. But after a recent visit to the site, Schirber backed off those plans.
“Honestly I am not sure if saving the two historic structures is feasible, cost effective or possible,” he said. “I was disappointed with the condition they are in. Major rebuilding would be needed for both homes.”
He would need to move one structure at a time to new foundations and possibly remove a giant tree from the site while performing pollution cleanup.
“Long story short: I am not sure how the historic preservation side of things is going to work,” said Schirber, putting in limbo what might be the last relic from Swede Hollow.
The former bare-bones, creek-side neighborhood dates to 1839 when settlers, trappers and lumberjacks built shacks in the ravine. The landscape kept things cool in summer and protected in winter. Swedes called their new home Svenska Dalen (Swedish Dale), and it soon became known as Swede Hollow.
“Immigrants walked along the railroad tracks from the Union Depot to Swede Hollow upon their arrival in St. Paul,” according to the MNopedia website. “Notes pinned to their shirts helped residents direct them toward family members.”
The sanitation was sketchy at best, with outhouses built on stilts above Phalen Creek, prompting complaints about bad odors. After World War II, St. Paul city leaders wanted to remove the blight to improve living standards. Sixteen remaining families were forced out 61 years ago and the last 13 houses were burned to the ground on Dec. 11, 1956. The city turned the area into a nature preserve in the 1970s.
Now, Carey can only hope the tiny house at 656 Bush Av. — possibly Swede Hollow’s last intact structure — doesn’t go from limbo to demo.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him suggestions at email@example.com.