Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the author’s blog, “Saint Paul by Bike — Every Block of Every Street.”
October 18, 2021
Como, North End
The map of the October 18, 2021 ride
Sylvan means relating to, or inhabiting, the woods. Although the ride didn’t start that way, the arboreous nature revealed itself as I went along.
A pair of pillars topped with lights is all that is left of Schroeder’s Bar and Grill, the long-time neighborhood saloon at 605 Front Ave. The establishment suffered heavy fire damage in November 2014, resulting in demolition of the building.
A few turns of the pedals along Front Avenue and I came to Crossroads Montessori School. Built in 1998, it is one of the city’s newer public schools.
Crossroads has some interesting ties to early St. Paul. First, the school’s name comes from when this part of Como and the North End was a crossroads of both streetcar and railroad lines in the early 1900s.
The 1916 G. M. Hopkins map (above) clearly shows how the neighborhood was rife with rails. Streetcar lines ran along Como Avenue, Dale Street and Front Avenue west of Dale. A mere five blocks due south of Front Avenue, several Great Northern Railway through-lines passed by, and the railroad’s Dale Street Shops were just south of that.
Then there is the history of the factories that preceded Crossroads Elementary on the 500 block of Front Avenue. According to the Winter 2006 Ramsey County Historical Society magazine, National Grass Twine Company, headquartered in New York, purchased a St. Paul farm implement manufacturer in 1898. After the purchase, the company expanded the Front Avenue factory and began production of twine from wild marsh-grown wire-sedge (carex lasiocarpa.)
Just five years later, in 1903, the renamed American Grass Twine (AGT) ditched production of twine in favor of wicker and rugs. Although wire sedge-based twine was of substandard quality, it made excellent rugs and wicker for furniture, and sales of “Crex Carpets” took off. AGT employed nearly 900 employees, at least half of them women and girls, at the Front Avenue factory and another on the East Side.
Five years later came another name change, to Crex Carpet Company, a play on carex stricta. Business thrived for Crex until the early 1920s, when Japanese and Chinese manufacturers brought significantly less expensive grass rugs to the U.S. market. Profits quickly eroded and turned to losses. Crex shuttered its St. Paul factories in 1934 and filed for bankruptcy a year later. There’s a great deal more to the story of Crex Carpet Company, including how the 10,000 acres of marshland AGT owned in Minnesota were harvested. Click here and here to learn more of the story.
The Crex factory laid idle for some time, until the John Wood Company’s Superior Metalware Division moved in. The plant was retooled for production of wire crates, metal milk and ice cream cans, and metal pails. Although the plant operated in the late 1950s, it is unclear how long Superior Metalware operated before closing the Front Avenue plant.
Crossroads Montessori is on a full two blocks of land surrounded by Kent and Mackubin and Front and Lawson. Another much newer St. Paul school, RiverEast, is just a block north of that, on the site of a former packaging factory.
A school wasn’t the first choice for this spot, previously 1050 Kent St. and now 1055 Mackubin St. The St. Paul Planning Commission in 2006 recommended owner-occupied, single-family townhomes or condominiums for the 5.5-acre Jefferson Smurfit land. Instead, RiverEast Elementary and Secondary replaced the long-vacant plant. The food box, bag and pet food bag manufacturer and printer closed about 2006 and the building and property sat unused for about 10 years. I visited this site in 2016 when the abandoned plant stood in decay.
RiverEast Elementary and Secondary is a construction amalgam. One section of the old Jefferson Smurfit factory was incorporated into the new school building; most of it was demolished and replaced by new construction. The RiverEast website says the school is designed for up to 80 students in kindergarten through eighth grade with mental health needs. Break-out rooms provide space for therapy, and individual learning and small-group rooms are a few of the special design elements that architects included in the school.
The stopover at RiverEast complete, I rode another block north along Kent, which ended at its intersection with Jessamine Avenue. East a block is the unusual intersection of Jessamine and Jessamine — Avenue and Court. The homes along Jessamine Court have, in the vernacular of the U.S. Postal Service, curbside mailboxes, a rarity for St. Paul.
A path along Jessamine Street, below, takes walkers and bikers into the 24-acre Marydale Park.
Loeb Lake is home to fish, turtles and birds, including a raft or paddling of ducks, and a waddling, badelyng or badling of ducks.
Heading east on the path leads into some woods and to a small, unnamed pond that held a surprising amount of wildlife.
After the passing foray into Marydale Park I emerged from where I entered, at the Jessamine-Jessamine intersection. From there I rode half a block east to Mackubin and turned south to the main entrance of RiverEast School.
From there, I rode south on Mackubin another block to Lawson Street and my next stop, 331 and 329 Lawson Ave. W. What struck me about these two is the distance — or, more accurately, the lack of distance — between them.
Not far away, the homemade sidewalk, or obstacle course, along Lawson Avenue actually belongs to 1020 Farrington St. By the look of it, lacking a dedicated walking area, a do-it-yourselfer added moderate-size rocks and covered them with concrete to create a place that only the surest of foot would be safe walking.
Eight more blocks east on Lawson and it ends at Sylvan Street and Oakland Cemetery, continuing the theme of the ride.
Sylvan Street is a north-south roadway that runs nearly the entirety of the North End. A portion of Sylvan Street and the surrounding area were truly “relating to the woods” on this warm mid-October day.
Eleven blocks of Sylvan Street border the western edge of Oakland Cemetery, which opened in 1853.
Oakland Cemetery is stunning –– peaceful, bursting with history, natural beauty and with abundant places to walk or ride.
On my ride through Oakland Cemetery I met one of the caretakers, who told me a couple of engaging stories about working there. We hope to meet again during the 2022 biking season for a formal interview. No doubt that will include some of the lengthy history of the Midwest’s oldest cemetery.
Happening upon the unanticipated is one of the joys of roaming the streets of St. Paul. In this case, it was the delightful little Lyton Park. If cemeteries aren’t your thing, this unique spot might be.
Lyton Park is equidistant — just two blocks — from Sylvan Street and Oakland Cemetery to the east and hectic Rice Street to the west.
Three quaint statues of children and with animals are the signatures of Lyton Park.
One hundred twenty years ago, this North End neighborhood was new, bustling with immigrants from Great Britain and other parts of Europe. Some of those houses remain on Park Street across from Lyton Park. Others were replaced in the 1990s with structures that drew on the originals.
The North End isn’t one of St. Paul’s fancier neighborhoods. It doesn’t boast the opulence and elegance of Summit Avenue mansions or the architectural cachet of University Grove in Saint Anthony Park. But there is much to love here, including the extraordinary Oakland Cemetery and the joyful Lyton Park, as I discovered on this ride.