September 7, 2015 34.5 Miles
West End, Downtown, Dayton’s Bluff, Battle Creek, Highwood Hills
A long ride to the eastern reaches of Saint Paul, which started with some quick stops, first on the West End. Today’s plan was to reach and explore Boys Totem Town, Ramsey County’s live-in program for boys 14 to 18 who have been found to be delinquent by the Juvenile Court.
Monroe Memorial Park sits on a block and a half rectangle of land bordered by Jefferson Avenue, Clifton and Victoria Streets and Palace Avenue.
In the early years of Saint Paul’s existence there was Lowertown, Downtown and Uppertown. After falling out of favor for decades, the name Uppertown is again being used to for the neighborhood immediately west of Downtown.
Two of the city’s older buildings, with strikingly different exteriors, sat several feet apart along Smith Avenue, in Uppertown. The Charles Palmer House, the narrow clapboard structure on the left, was relocated here to 447 Smith Avenue in 1897, 23 years after it was built.
Next door, 445 Smith, dates to about 1855. The two story limestone building has been known by several names over the years. Most commonly called the Waldman House, the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form also refers to the structure as the Fuchs-Waldman Building.
The Waldman House was quite obviously in the midst of a renovation, the freshly painted trim shining as brightly in the late summer sun as a model’s smile.
A quick Google search and I learned that the Waldman House was in the process of being converted to a “Lager Beer Saloon.” Tom and Ann Schroeder purchased the structure and were prepping to open it as The Stone Saloon. According to the Schroeder’s meticulous research, the Waldman House was a saloon for several of its early years. For more information on 445 Smith, click here.
I went east on Hudson for less than a block, when I came to a pedestrian/bike bridge across I-94. Not until I took the span over the highway did I realize how I-94 completely severs the north section of Dayton’s Bluff from the southern third. First it’s the north sound wall, then six lanes of the west bound interstate, emergency lanes and the concrete dividing wall, followed by five east bound lanes, and finally, the south sound wall. This forms an immense chasm that created two disparate neighborhoods where, for decades, one stood. (Of course, this is the same thing that essentially destroyed Rondo, a few miles to the west.)
The bridge dropped me off on Mound Street (not Mounds Boulevard, which is a couple blocks away), just south of Pacific Street. The 800 block of Mound Street is a beautiful, tree lined residential neighborhood where homes built either around 1905 or the mid-1920s.
This jumble of a building on the wooded hilltop at 908 Mound Street is an assisted living facility called Mounds Park Residence.
The story of this building, which was a single family home for close to 100 years, is as fascinating and involved as its name – the Smith-Davidson-Scheffer House.
Although not built by banker Truman Smith, he and his wife were the first to take up residence, in 1856. In August of the following year, a series of financial calamities caused banks across the U.S., including Smith’s, to fail. Smith was forced from the house, but not until the mid-1860s. Steamboat owner William F. Davidson (known as the Commodore) was the next owner of 908 Mound Street. Davidson put his mark on the home with a major renovation which included adding, among other touches, a glass room on the roof so he could watch boat traffic on the Mississippi. Another banker, Albert Scheffer, bought the home and property and lived there from 1886 to 1899, remodeling the house to his taste.
Scheffer, like banker Truman Smith before him, was wiped out by an economic crash. The Smith-Davidson-Scheffer House was converted to a nursing home in the 1940s, as it is now with the name Mounds Park Residence.
Much of this information is in an article authored by Steve Trimble, “The final Dayton’s Bluff history tour – At least for awhile”, in the Dayton’s Bluff District Forum from December 2008.
I resumed the eastward journey on Burns Avenue, but not for long. I stopped at the corner of Frank and Burns, so far the best named intersection in all of Saint Paul, because of its association with the character on the TV show M*A*S*H.
Staying on Burns, I crossed Highway 61 and scooted southeast on Upper Afton Road, until I came to the ‘Doras’. The U-shaped street that is the Doras is considered three – Dora Lane, bracketed by West and East Dora Court, with 13 homes total.
The uniquely named Miller Crest was the result of a compromise between Agnes and Carl Miller, who platted the street in 1954, and the City. According to Don Empson in “The Street Where You Live”, the Millers preferred the name “Miller Road” and the city engineers wanted to call it “Crest Lane.”
This part of Battle Creek, with its curved roads, cul-de-sacs, and late ‘60s and early ‘70s ramblers and split level homes, is much newer and suburban-like than most of Saint Paul.
Battle Creek Road runs primarily north to south, between Upper and Lower Afton Roads. Most of the thickly forested land along Battle Creek Road belongs to the regional park of the same name, with the exception of a smattering of homes.
The north approach to Boys Totem Town, tucked away on a private drive just off Totem Road, looks could be a park entrance. The stone wall, the sign painted cocoa brown carved with yellow letters, all mimic the ubiquitous park signs we see across the country. The one hint that is not a park is the small line of print saying “Ramsey County Community Corrections.”
Boys Totem Town, the more than 100 year old juvenile treatment center, has been on this 70-acre piece of property in Highwood Hills on Saint Paul’s southeast side since 1936. It seems contradictory to have placed Ramsey County’s juvenile offenders in this rustic place punctuated by woods and two ponds. At one time, the prevailing philosophy for dealing with ‘troubled’ boys (then called “juvenile delinquents’) was to get them away from the city and its bad influences and give them physical labor to work the trouble out of them.
Pete Parilla was a College of St. Thomas Seminary student in 1971 when he landed a summer internship at Boys Totem Town. He still remembers his first trip to Ramsey County’s facility for juveniles. “I had no idea what to expect. It does look like a summer camp. You’ve got these totem poles. There’s this building up on a hill, there’s a baseball field, and there’s a lot of land in the back where the kids can play.”
That three month internship was his first step toward more than three decades as a criminology and sociology professor at the University of St. Thomas.
By late ’71, Pete decided the Seminary wasn’t for him. He had enjoyed the internship at Boys Totem Town so much that he applied for a different job – this one full-time – back there. “It was a paid 40 hour a week position. Only college students could get it. But you had to live there, so you got free room and board, and a small stipend. You worked 3:30 to 11:30 p.m. It was basically working with the boys in their evening program. So they went to school during the day and in the afternoon and evening they had to do cleaning up the place, they had dinner, recreation, make sure they went to bed without misbehaving.”
Working more closely with the juvenile residents and the Totem Town staff appealed even more than the internship, according to Pete. “Everybody was committed to doing a good job to help these kids. The fact of the matter is there wasn’t anything I would call a real program. Looking at it after teaching about this for years, there was some group counseling but none of the staff had been trained to do it.”
Pete told me about perks of the job. “It was a really nice job for a college student. The hours, the free room and board, you were working with people who were all similar to you. It was probably the best work group I ever had. It was a bunch of 20 year olds. Get off at 11:30 and, especially in the summer, then you’d go out to Ember’s or out for a beer.”
Pete shared a story he was told about a hike another counselor took with some residents around the grounds. “There were just acres and acres and it was really hilly. What they found was wild growing marijuana back there, so they had to pull that out. It wasn’t really good stuff but I know they burned it. People were joking about people being high just being down wind of the incinerator.”
During his time there, the population of Totem Town would climb in the fall, peak in the winter, and nearly empty with a mass release of juveniles come summer. At the peak there would be 100 to 120 kids so the staff did a lot of crowd control.
Meeting families made Pete ponder what’s behind crime. “Some kids wouldn’t get visitors, which was too bad. But others, the family would come in and the parents had four kids. Three were on the straight and narrow and then you got another kid who’s just off. That made me wonder what can you know about why people commit crime?”
Boys Totem Town was what’s called an ‘open institution’. The kids weren’t locked in and the biggest problem was runaways, which, said Pete, caused trouble with the neighbors. Retrieving the runaways was one of Pete’s favorite duties. “If we found out they just took off, a couple people would get in cars and try to chase them down. One time we went over to some place on the East Side and we just parked in front of the kid’s house. And sure enough, he comes walking…he must have hitchhiked, so we just took him back.”
“The real eye-opener when you work in corrections is that people who break the law aren’t as different from law-abiding people as we would like to think.”
Pete recalled another incident that occurred in the wee hours one the night. “About two in the morning a car came through that loop and was making noise. There was always the potential that somebody was going to come break somebody out. The guy who was working downstairs, who was a guy I liked a lot; he had been a drill instructor in the army. This car came through again and he was out there with a crowbar and he smashed the windshield,” said Pete, chuckling.
The frequent runaways led Ramsey County to install bars on the third floor windows and stairwells in the main building. While rare, said Pete, there were serious incidents. “I was working one Sunday morning and I was the only one upstairs, and I got jumped by four kids. We were really short staffed. So these kids went after me and their weapon of choice was a ping pong paddle and eventually I got away from them.”
Pete sounded the alarm – basically a button that rang a door bell in the first floor office area. The only person working there at the time was one of the residents who was answering the phone.
One of Pete’s attackers went to a third floor window and with one kick, dislodged the bars from the window, and jumped out. That is what finally alerted people to the escape.
“Eventually me and this kid go to the hospital together. I had stitches for my head and he was there for a broken leg, which he got jumping out the window.”
Pete’s injury wasn’t serious and to this day believes it was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He also thinks the incident got management to rethink security.
After the attack, staff did a shakedown of the living quarters. “They went into the dorm area and what they found under the pillow of one of the kids was a 10 pound weight.” Pete said he was very glad the residents who went after him chose a ping pong paddle instead of the weight.
Pete worked at Boys Totem Town for about two years, until he started graduate school at the University of Minnesota in 1973. He could have continued working and living at Totem Town, but it made more sense to do work study on campus rather than commuting to and from the far East Side.
That didn’t end Pete’s association with Totem Town. “When I came back as a faculty member from St. Thomas, I had students interning there. I’d read (Totem Town’s) materials and they had a kind of a contract program. Each kid, when they came there, would set up a contract and then could earn their way to more privileges. It was a behavioral reinforcement system.
“I would take (St. Thomas criminology) classes out there sometimes and the student reaction was, ‘This is too nice,’ because there’s a nice school setting, they have a shop, a lot of athletic stuff.” That sentiment gave Pete the chance to ask his students, “What is the purpose of this? Is it to punish them by being in a really stark setting or is the punishment that they lose their freedom?”
“When I would teach about it and I’d think , ‘How would you like to be in a situation where you don’t have any control over your life?’ And yet, for good reason.”
As the years went on, Totem Town’s clientele changed. “When I would have students there interning in the ‘90s, almost everybody out there would have been a felon. But the really serious individuals didn’t go to Totem Town. They would go to Red Wing.
“Most delinquents don’t become adult criminals, but a lot of adult criminals were delinquents. We’ll never know which kids you actually helped. Maybe you didn’t help the kid enough so he didn’t come back, but it was cumulative. It’s one of those jobs – you never know for sure.”
At its peak, more than 100 boys stayed at Boys Totem Town. Now the population is hovers around 20. Programming for residents involves many organizations from around the area. The future of Boys Totem Town is very much in doubt, however, as Ramsey County, the city, and neighbors debate relocating the facility and what will become of the grounds.
Like most of Saint Paul’s neighborhoods, Highwood Hills has homes of vastly different styles from different eras. Homes around Totem Town date from every decade since the turn of the last century. For example, 479/481 Burlington Road, with a 1971 construction date, is across the street from Totem Town property.
Among the oldest in the neighborhood is a large white clapboard home with narrow windows, which are punctuated on both sides by black shutters. The house is nestled among mature trees and thick brush at the end of Mystic Street, an apt name for this short, tucked away road. Built in 1889, 489 Mystic was built a mere two years after the area was annexed by Saint Paul. A century ago this neighborhood was known as Burlington Heights.
The two acre lot on which 561 Burlington Road sits is the largest I’ve seen away from Summit Avenue. The property had a vibe that I still lack the words to describe.
The last stop of note on this ride was at nearby Taylor Park.
Taylor Park is bordered by Fir and Oakridge Streets, Howard Avenue, and Highwood Preserve to the south. I didn’t have the time, OK, the energy, to explore Highwood Preserve, so I’ll be back to scrutinize it on a future ride.
I found this section of Highwood Hills absolutely fascinating to tour. The twisty, meandering roads, the tree-laden, larger-than-average lots, and many obscured houses gave me the feeling I’d escaped the city and happened upon a little-known place.
Click here to see the map of this ride.
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