The Saga of Swede Hollow

Swede Hollow. Even though it has been gone for half a century, there are people who still remember it fondly. A number of articles have been written about its history, often in a nostalgic manner. Some say it was a slum, while others think it was a nurturing community that welcomed waves of immigrants to their first home in a new land. It was not large--around eighteen acres-- bisected by a creek and tucked into a valley with sixty to eighty foot high cliffs that hid its homes from the outside world.

An 1886 newspaper headline declared it “A Foreign Settlement in the Midst of St. Paul.” The article said that the area had a “quaint appearance” in the midst of a “still more quaint and picturesque surrounding.” One winter day a reporter had taken a look at “the little hamlet of shanties” that was “filled with a “flaxen-haired population.” According to The St. Paul Globe, the area was almost exclusively residential. “There are no stores, a single saloon being the only public place within the valley.” It was in “the front room of a little shanty and is kept by a woman.”

Swedish immigrants began settling there in the 1860s. According to the 1886 visitor, there were around 110 families in the hollow and the total population was estimated at around 600. Nels Hokanson, a Swedish man who grew up there, wrote about some of his families activities: “In the evenings friends often came to share the warmth, drink coffee, take snuff or smoke their curved Swedish pipes,” Nels wrote. “Mother spun wool or knitted and listened to the talk from her place in a corner under a picture of King Oscar II of Sweden.” While there were a variety of immigrants who settled there, those of Scandinavian predominated in the early years and the area became known as “Svenska Dalen” or Swede Hollow.

As the Swedish moved "up onto the street," others took over their spots starting in the early 1900’s. One of former residents was Gentille Yarusso, who later wrote about the community. "Our people chose this place because they were with their own countrymen, with familiar faces, family noises, gestures, facial expressions,” he remembered. “This enchanted landscape...resembled the place they had left behind. They loved the hills, the trees, the stream, the security of friends and relatives."

During the WWII era a stream of Mexicans began joining the Swede Hollow colony, adding their own customs and, as those before them, finding jobs. They eventually started a small chapel that met in a former railroad boxcar. Alberta Silva Rodriquez was among the last people to live there. She remembered times of sharing, when the Mexican women would trade onions, garlic and peppers for Italian bread cooked in outdoor ovens. Her mother and an Italian neighbor were able to communicate. “I don’t know how,” Alberta said, “but they did.”

In December 1956, the city Health Department decided that since Swede Hollow had no sewer or city water service it was a health hazard. The last fourteen families were moved out and the remaining homes burned down by the Fire Department. Thanks to the efforts of Friends of Swede Hollow and the city of St. Paul the hollow has been revitalized and is once again a center of the community.

In 1973 Swede Hollow was designated a Saint Paul Park. The restoration of Swede Hollow as a park was the Saint Paul Garden Club's Bicentennial project, for which they received a major award. A section of Phalen Creek, which had been diverted into a large storm sewer, was “daylighted” so it flowed through pools that attracted wildlife. Visitors could walk or bike through the park on new trails. There are a few reminders of the old days seen in sporadic remains of stone foundations and flowers that were planted in immigrant yards.