Bohemian Flats

Hard living, high hopes - forging a life on the flats

Bohemian Flats Park sits just below the Washington Avenue Bridge, as it crosses over the west bank of the Mississippi River. This bucolic setting belies contested histories over immigration, property rights and belonging.

At the turn of the 20th Century Bohemian Flats was filled with hundreds of immigrants from Northern and Eastern Europe. Slovaks, Irish, Swedes and Czechs (Bohemians) were the largest groups, but Norwegians, Poles, Germans, Hungarians, Austrians and Danes also made their homes here. The river flats acquired many nicknames-Danish Flats, Connemara Patch, Little Ireland, Little Lithuania-but Bohemian Flats, lumping together Czech and Slovak residents, endured.

By the early 1900s the flats had streets, gardens, two breweries and a church. It was a thriving settlement, but a challenging place to live. Springtime flooding, a lack of proper sewage and limited access to clean water and city services made life difficult. Residents built their homes with logs and driftwood found in the river. Many tried to grow their own food but were limited to crops that survived in the wet soil. Most families raised chickens or goats and one family owned two cows, which they used to sell milk to their neighbors. There were outbreaks of diptheria, scarlet fever and other diseases. In spite of these challenges, immigrants chose to live here because they found cheap housing and strong community ties.

Many residents worked in the barrel-making, flour milling and lumber industries that helped establish Minneapolis. Others worked in the millinery trade, in domestic service, or took in work as seamstresses or laundresses. Some established their own businesses up on the bluffs.

Flats residents considered their houses their own, although some had signed leases or had paid rent for the lots on which they built. In 1921, CC and Mary Leland sold their property to land speculator C.H. Smith. He was the first landlord to try and collect rents. Flats residents fought back, claiming "squatters rights," battling eviction notices in the courts and refusing to leave. Eventually Smith won, but many residents refused to pay and left. Then the City of Minneapolis used eminent domain to claim the area for a barge terminal. Flats residents were given until April, 1931 to vacate their homes. Most left by the end of March, but one resident, Frank Badnarek, refused to leave until the bulldozers came to his door.

In the 1930s, the flats were transformed into a municipal barge terminal and then served as a coal storage site for several decades. In the 1980s the area was cleaned up and designated as a Minneapolis Park. In 2006 it served as the resting site of the pieces of the I-35W bridge after it collapsed. While all traces of Bohemian Flats as a residential area are gone, this is still an important place in the memories of many former residents and their descendants.

Images

Bohemian Flats, 1928

Bohemian Flats, 1928

From the 1870s to the 1930s, the river flats were home to hundreds of European and Scandinavian immigrants. The Flats were considered the last squatter territory in Minneapolis. Many people chose to live here because they could build their own homes and paid little, or no rent. Life on the flats was hard but residents created a thriving settlement and formed strong community bonds which helped them survive the tough conditions. Some residents lived there for decades, while others moved out when they could afford better housing on the bluffs above. Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society | Source: "Washington Avenue Flats," 1928 View File Details Page

Bohemian Flats

Bohemian Flats

The flats extended from the bend of the river north of the Northern Pacific Railroad bridge all the way to 3rd Street South. This view from the University of Minnesota East Bank campus shows the flats on the northern end. In 1900 this area was home to 613 Slovaks, 123 Swedes, 90 Czech (Bohemian), 41 Irish, 27 Norwegians, 10 Poles, 5 Germans, 4 Austrians, 2 Danes, 1 Russian and children from mixed-ethnic families. Rising up in the background is F. D. Noerenberg Brewery and Malt House, which marked the Northern boundary of the flats at Bluff Street and 20th Avenue South. In 1890, this brewery merged with Heinrich's on the southern end of the flats and two others in the city to form the Minneapolis Brewing and Malting Company (Grain Belt). Although the "Bohemian Flats" was the popular nickname, most Slovaks lived north of Washington Avenue Bridge while most Czechs (Bohemians) lived south of it. Image courtesy of Hennepin County Library | Source: "Northern Pacific Railroad Bridge Across Mississippi River Above Bohemian Flats" | Creator: Theo Brausch View File Details Page

The "Wood Gatherers" on Bohemian Flats, ca. 1930

The "Wood Gatherers" on Bohemian Flats, ca. 1930

Bohemian Flats residents built their houses with logs and other debris that floated by on the Mississippi River from the lumber mills upstream. In 1887, a reporter for Northwest Magazine described the perilous nature of this activity where residents walked out on long wooden platforms and used various hooked instruments to grasp "slabs, shingles, strips, blocks, boards, and sometimes entire logs" that floated by in the rapid current. If they missed a piece it would float to the next platform. Young children waited by the shore to bring in the pieces. Older residents who could no longer work in the mills or factories also gathered driftwood to sell. Image courtesy of Hennepin County Library | Source: Joel Benton, "The Wood Gatherers of St. Anthony's Falls," The Northwest Magazine, July 1887 "Women gathering driftwood from the river on the Bohemian Flats," ca 1930 View File Details Page

Young life on the Bohemian Flats, ca. 1900

Young life on the Bohemian Flats, ca. 1900

Young residents of the flats were first and second generation immigrants who helped their families by working in nearby industries, and also attended school. They often served as intermediaries between their families and city officials, teachers, social workers, missionaries and even librarians. In 1897, a Minneapolis Tribune article asked a young Bohemian resident how she viewed her home. "I don't see why the up town people call these the Bohemian Flats...for almost all the people are Slavs. There are all kinds down here; and we are not so very poor, either, though some of them are. O, yes, we have awfully much fun, a dance or a concert every two weeks." "We have more fun in the summer, when it is warmer; we go boat riding and walk about the streets down here, and the boys who don't work nights come out too. It's hard work to keep warm down here in the winter, though, with just the drift wood to burn so we take turns sitting up all night to keep the fires, except us that work in the daytime." Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society | Source: "Sophie Shefel with a group of Polish and Bohemian children in front of building on Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis," ca 1900; "One View of Life," Minneapolis Tribune, March 21, 1897 View File Details Page

Flooding on the Flats

Flooding on the Flats

Residents were frequently the victims of harsh weather conditions and were annually flooded out by the Mississippi. A group of young boys row past the Immanuel Evangelical Slovak Lutheran Church, a prominent landmark of the Flats. One young female resident, when asked by a Minneapolis Tribune reporter if she was afraid of the floods, said, "O no, the city try to frighten us, but it is never very bad. What do we do when it overflowsz Why, we take our best things and have them carried up to the Sunday school room or some place, and then stay with our friends until we come back." Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society | Source: "Boys rowing down street in Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis," 1898 View File Details Page

A "Home" or "Hell's Kitchenz"

A "Home" or "Hell's Kitchenz"

Since its beginning there have been differing perspectives of the Flats from those who lived there and those who didn't. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Flats had a reputation as a dangerous place and most often made the news because of problems with violence, poverty and poor sanitation. It was even considered a public health threat. The cultural traditions of many Bohemian residents (such as the boisterous wedding celebrations that involved days of drinking, dancing and sometimes a knife fight) challenged the values of many Anglo-Saxon Protestants in Minneapolis. One missionary referred to the Flats as "Hell's Kitchen." But for many residents this became a new "home," and a starting point from which to establish new lives in America. Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society | Source: "Grandma and Grandpa Zelenka with Daisy and Henry, Bohemian Flats," ca. 1926-1931 View File Details Page

Flattening the Flats

Flattening the Flats

In the 1920s and 1930s Flats residents struggled to retain ownership of their homes. They fought a new landlord, eviction notices and bulldozers. By 1931, landlord C.H. Smith had succeeded in evicting residents for not paying rent and the City of Minneapolis condemned and bulldozed houses to make way for a municipal barge terminal. One resident, Frank Mulyard, stands next to the remains of a house on the Flats. Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society | Source: "Frank Mulyard, Bohemian Flats," April 5, 1931 View File Details Page

Holy Emmanuel Slovak Lutheran Church, ca. 1900

Holy Emmanuel Slovak Lutheran Church, ca. 1900

Most Flats residents were connected to other parts of the city through their religious affiliations as there were not many religious structures on the flats. But the large Slovak community established its church here. When Slovaks first arrived many of them worshipped at a German Lutheran church up on the bluffs. After a few years they were able to establish their own church in a building once used by a Swedish congregation. Some Slovaks on the Flats attended Baptist and Catholic churches across the river and in Northeast Minneapolis. Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society | Source: "Immanuel Evangelical Slovak Lutheran Church, Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis," ca. 1900 View File Details Page

A new use for the Flats

A new use for the Flats

In the 1930s, after a long struggle to keep their homes, many Flats residents were forced to move and their houses were torn down to make way for a municipal barge terminal. Eventually the site was used to store coal. Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society | Source: "Municipal barge terminal and coal docks, Minneapolis," 1949 View File Details Page

Bohemian Flats, 1939

Bohemian Flats, 1939

WPA artist Hazel Stoeckeler's painting of the Flats evokes the way the Flats were often depicted as a quaint, colorful "Old World" community. In 1941, a WPA history of the Bohemian Flats projected a romanticized view of life that has left its mark on public consciousness ever since. The guide commemorates this once thriving community, but it obscures some of the harsh realities that many residents faced as they struggled to support themselves and their families. Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society | Source: "Bohemian Flats," 1939 | Creator: Hazel Thorson Stoick Stoeckeler View File Details Page

Street Address:

Washington Avenue Bridge, County Rd 122, Minneapolis, MN 55455
[map]

Cite this Page:

Anduin (Andy) Wilhide, “Bohemian Flats,” Augsburg Digi-Tours, accessed November 19, 2017, http://digitours.augsburg.edu/items/show/5.

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