Swedish immigrants dubbed their quirky shantytown ravine “Svenska Dalen,” meaning “the Swedish valley,” back in the late 1850s. That morphed into what folks commonly called “Swede Hollow” — an outhouse-dotted creekside village of about 1,000 people with neither running water nor electricity. Razed in 1956 and now a public park, Swede Hollow became home to a revolving cast of poor immigrants on St. Paul’s lower East Side.
“One of the weirdest neighborhoods ever nestled in a city … for Swede Hollow, life has been a series of cycles of nationalities — beginning with the Swedes who settled there first … then came the Irish and later the Italians and finally the Mexicans,” longtime St. Paul newspaper columnist Gareth Hiebert wrote under his pen name, Oliver Towne, in 1956. That’s when the city deemed the place a health hazard and burned it down.
Three decades earlier, Swede Hollow had transformed into an entrenched Italian enclave during Gentille Yarusso’s seven-year stint delivering newspapers in the ravine in the 1920s.
“Everyone spoke Italian, even the small children playing near the streams,” Yarusso recalled. There was Damiani’s grocery store and little Mike Pizzella who played his accordion at every wedding and baptism.
Like the Swedes a generation before, Italian immigrants would often arrive by train at St. Paul’s Union Depot with notes pinned to their lapels.
“On each tag was written Joseph Yarusso, No. 2 Swede Hollow,” Gentille recalled. His grandfather would often walk down to “greet these friends and relatives, who had just come from the Old Country.”
Joseph Yarusso and his wife, Nicolina, emigrated from Italy to St. Paul in the early 1890s when Gentille’s father, John, was a young boy. Joseph worked as a railroad laborer and stabilized his family’s footing in Minnesota — a lesson he shared with newcomers whom he’d escort along the railroad tracks to their new home in the Hollow.
“By pinching and scrimping, in a year or two, when they had saved enough money, they, too, would move to better living quarters — Up on the Street,” Gentille Yarusso wrote in an 1968 essay.
Gentille Yarusso’s family still operates its Italian namesake restaurant on nearby Payne Avenue. He died 40 years ago at 67, but his vivid memories live on in a new book called “The Life of Swede Hollow, a Pictorial History.” It’s lovingly stitched together by the mother-daughter team of Karin and Angela DuPaul, who’ve lived in the area since the 1970s. Their book is published by the Friends of Swede Hollow — a neighborhood group formed in 1994 to protect the Hollow’s ecology and history.
The book is laced with snapshots, sketches, photos, Hiebert’s farewell-to-the-Hollow column and memories from Swedish-American history buff Nels Hokanson — whose family lived in Swede Hollow around 1890.
For me, the book’s best stuff emerges from Gentille Yarusso’s flashbacks to growing up in the Hollow — especially during wintertime.
“Snow covered the little houses, the fences and familiar paths and walkways,” he wrote. “No one cared to stir. One would see the smoke slowly curling up and around the little rustic chimneys. In the evening little rays of light would glow from the small windows.”
On his paper route, Gentille would often be invited in to warm up from the predawn chill.
“The children’s winter stockings would be hanging in front of the open ovens to dry out. Behind the stove were the woolen mittens, made from old woolen socks, drying for use the next day. On the floor in front of the oven would be shoes, the fronts curled up just a little because the wet shoes had been in front of the oven too long.”
Families would offer him coffee and toast — “browned by placing the piece of bread directly on the stove lids that were usually red hot,” he wrote.
In warmer times, Yarusso recalled, each home had a small garden and shed equipped with an outdoor oven to bake bread. Clean drinking water bubbled from fresh ravine springs, while “bifees on stilts” hung over Phalen Creek that snaked through the ravine.
Many times a week, a peddler with fruits and vegetables would steer his wagon through a tunnel below some railroad tracks to enter Swede Hollow.
“It was here that the boys would raid the peddler’s wagon of their favorite fruits,” Yarusso wrote. “The driver … swore, shouted and hollered. By the time he had gone through the tunnel, the boys were scampering up the Hollow’s hills, leaving peelings of oranges and bananas behind.”
Yarusso was in his mid-50s when he looked back and recorded his memories in 1968. He died 12 years later. Somewhere along the way, he learned the answer to a question that nagged him as a boy.
“We children often wondered why our people chose this enchanted little settlement in which to make their homes,” Gentille Yarusso said. “Why did they come here, why not somewhere else?
“As we got older we knew: They chose this place because here they were with their own countrymen, with familiar faces, family noises, gestures, and facial expressions.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.