Dinkytown became an established commercial district in the years between 1899-1929, and was a dynamic hotbed of student activism and the counterculture through the 1970s. This tour tells the story of Dinkytown as a place where academia and co-ed life spill into and interact with “real life” that allows new ideas to emerge: The University of Dinkytown.
Below we outline information on 13 different walking tour stops significant to Dinkytown’s History. While there are several more locations and businesses that have contributed to Dinkytown’s rich and diverse history, in the interest of keeping this walking tour to a managable time we had to be selective in the sites we featured. A more complete account of Dinktyown history can be found in Bill Huntzicker’s book “Dinkytown: Four Blocks of History”
When Minneapolis was established in 1856, the future area that we now call Dinkytown was undeveloped land with an ox cart path and a little creek running through it. Two decisions made in the early years of the area’s settlement set the stage for Dinkytown’s destiny:
By the early 1880s, Minneapolis was on its way to becoming the milling capital of the world, the University of Minnesota was graduating students with four-year college degrees, and the Great Northern had begun running hourly local trains between Minneapolis and St. Paul, including a station stop for the U of M at this location.
The Pillsbury Gates at 14th Ave SE and University mark the longstanding front entrance of the U. Long before Stadium Village, Washington Avenue, Coffman Union, even the West Bank existed, students, professors, university staff entered campus here, traveling through Dinkytown from their homes and rooming houses, often via railroad, horse-drawn street car, and by the early 1890s, by electrified street car, on their way to the University. The gates were given to the U in 1902 by John S. Pillsbury’s daughter Sarah Belle “Sadie” Pillsbury Gale after his death.
One of the themes that run throughout the history of Dinkytown and its connection to the University clientele is the large extent to which businesses catered to students, professors, and staff and helped make Dinkytown a special place that served as adjunct space to what was happening on campus.
One example of a business that catered to the growing Greek population was William Harrison “Stiffy” Steadman and his Gopher Inn, an establishment he opened in 1923 at 313-315 14th Avenue (currently the home of Annie’s Parlour). Stiffy quickly became one of the “Dinkytown characters” with his imaginative names for items on his menu: “kloops”, “mugwumps”, “frummies”, just to name a few. He also reportedly attracted students to come in to see the names he gave the rat holes in his run-down place, while at the same time was able to charge high prices for his offerings. Stiffy himself was a huge Gophers football fan and shared the game day spirit with his customers, apparently always wearing his “plus fours”.
Legend has it that he only missed one game: the 1923 Gopher’s Homecoming game against Iowa. It was a significant game not just because it was homecoming, but also because it was the team’s last game on Northrop Field before they moved to the new Memorial Stadium the next year. The game was sold out long before game day, so when Stiffy met a visitor who was looking for a ticket, he handed his over.
It is also interesting to note that Dinkytown in this era was a dry affair. Early in the life of the University, state law prohibited liquor sales within a mile of the University, as defined by the cornerstone of an early University building. This was changed in the early 1970s, thus opening up the opportunity for restaurants and bars in the area to serve alcohol.
Stop #3: Off-campus learning: Professor Gale and “progressive education” (321 14th Ave SE, currently The Refinery)
321 14th Ave SE also reflects an early example of the second theme that runs through Dinkytown and its connection to University interests, and that is how Dinkytown offered off-campus locations for professors and teaching assistants to interact more informally with students. 321 was the home of Professor “Papa” Harlow S Gale, another of Dinkytown’s characters who built 321 in 1910. Gale was a Professor of Psychology at Minnesota on and off (you’ll soon see why) from 1894 – 1903. Born to a well-heeled Minneapolis family, Gale was educated at Yale and Germany before returning to Minneapolis. As Tim Brady writes in “Gopher Gold: Legendary Figures, Brilliant Blunders, and Amazing Feats at the University of Minnesota”:
“In the spring of 1895, first year professor Harlow Gale decided to give a lecture on sexual instincts to his psychology class…. Gale understood that he was stepping on delicate ground with this subject – sexual psychology had never been a part of university instruction before – so he took the time to inform President Cyrus Northrup of his intentions. Either Gale was not explicit about what he was going to do or the content of his upcoming lecture failed to register with the president. Northrup gave his consent with his “characteristic passive acquiescence,” Gale later wrote. Meaning he didn’t pay much attention – at first.”
So by the time he lived at 321 he was no longer a professor, but he liked living near the university where he continued to explore psychology and entertain with students interested in psychology and progressive education. His studies were among the first to explore the effects of advertising on people.
In 1927, Dayton’s Department Store bought 321 from Professor Gale to open up its “University Branch” as an outpost of its downtown Minneapolis flagship store and ran it there for over 20 years. For more information on the history of Dayton’s Department Store, go to: http://www.mnopedia.org/group/dayton-s
For its first 50 years, the University of Minnesota did not house any students on campus. There were no dorms, and students were left to their own devices to find off-campus housing. This is one of the reasons why the Greek Letter houses expanded so rapidly alongside the rapid growth of student enrollment, as they provided a key service to students. This is also one of the reasons why this area was populated – as it is today – with student housing. Back in the day, students would often get room and board (that is meals) for their rent, sometimes it would be in a home with a matron who often acted as a caretaker, and sometimes it would be in a larger commercial building. One example of this was the College Inn, which was built in 1902 with rooms for students, a dining hall, hotel rooms, and retail space on the first floor.
The pressure to shift University policy to begin to provide on-campus housing came from the Dean of Women Students, Ada Louise Comstock. Since its earliest days, the University enrolled women alongside men – something that John S. Pillsbury had required (reportedly because his wife Mahala was well-educated and they had several daughters), but their off-campus housing was seen as riskier for the female students. Especially sororities, of which Comstock said: “Unless carefully regulated they often become such centers of gaiety as to be dangerous to the health and scholarship of those who live in them.” She got her wish, and in 1910, Sanford Hall, named after Maria Sanford (a tireless and early professor at the University, who herself rented out rooms in her own Dinkytown home) opened as the first dormitory on campus just across University Ave at 10th Avenue.
The first dorm for male students was Pioneer Hall, opened 1930 on the other side of campus, as one of the first buildings as part of the U’s shift away from University Ave and towards Washington Ave as its front door.
In truth, these are the first dorm for white students, since African American and American Indian students were not allowed to live in them in the early years. While there was no rule explicitly barring African American students male or female from living in the dorms, they were explicitly encouraged to look elsewhere for housing. Black students who applied to live in the dorms were routinely given a list of off-campus options, many of which also did not accept African American renters, leaving many to find housing in predominately African American neighborhoods usually miles from campus.
After years of denying equal access to student housing for their African American students, the U quietly opened up housing to all in 1942. The College Inn closed in 1973 and was redeveloped as the current Dinkydale, which was designed to be an antidote to the suburban shopping malls.
The Varsity Theater opened as the 400-seat University Theater in 1915 and served as one of the city’s last vaudeville houses. It also hosted a variety of University performances, both for film and for live productions. The 1920s saw a lot of growth on campus, including the construction of Northrop Auditorium in 1929. Once Northrop Auditorium opened, much of the University’s live performances went to that venue and the University Theater struggled to make it as a movie only venue.
Between 1938 and 1939, the theater was remodeled in the Art Deco style by acclaimed Minneapolis theater architects Jack Liebenberg & Seeman Kaplan. Rechristened The Varsity, the theater re-opened in April 1939 with its iconic sign and twice the number of seats, and became a significant gathering place for the neighborhood to collect the most up to date information in the newsreels and also to escape the real life concerns of the Great Depression and World War II through the movies.
It closed as a movie house in 1988, then was used for a time as an underground club then a photography and design studio until 2004, when it reopened it in its current iteration, calling it “a vaudeville house for the 21st century”. In 2013 the Varsity was awarded as having America’s Best Bathroom of 2013 by bathroom product supplier Cintas Corporation.
The Loft, one of the nation’s largest literary centers was founded here in 1974, above one of the many bookstores that operated in Dinkytown because of its proximity to the U. The Loft, and the literary arts community in Dinkytown that spawned it, helps make Minneapolis the literary center that it is, second only to New York in the number of small press publishers per capita.
For more information, visit Preserve Historic Dinkytown’s page on Literary Roots of Dinkytown: http://www.preservehistoricdinkytown.org/dinkytown-history/literary-roots/:
Gopher football grew up alongside Dinkytown, and vice versa. And the connection between the two remains to this day.
The first recorded Gopher “football” game took place in October of 1878 on a “field” at the corner of University and Pleasant (15th Ave SE). Freshman versus the Sophomores. But it wasn’t until 1882 that the U of MN’s first intercollegiate game was played – against St. Paul’s Hamline, and not until 1890 that the first season of modern (“scientific”) football was played. By the time the Big Ten was organized in 1896, the U’s football program was a meaningful distraction for many people who traveled through Dinkytown.
From 1899 to 1923 they played at Northrop Field, located just next to the Armory at 17th and University. The growing popularity of the game lead to the expansion of the field’s seating in 1903 from 3,000 seats to 20,000 seats.
Starting in the 1921 the campaign to build a new stadium, one that would carry the memory of the U boys that lost their lives in the great war, was on, and in 1924, Memorial Stadium opened and would host Gopher football games until the early 1980s.
One of the biggest rivalries of University football was with the University of Michigan, but beginning in 1903, their rivalry took on intensity of massive proportions. That year was one of both teams’ best seasons, so when they met, it was the meeting of two Goliaths. As the story goes, as protection against “doped” water, Michigan purchased their own water jug from a nearby variety store. After the hard fought game which resulted in a tie (which felt like a victory for the underdog Gophers), Michigan left the water jug behind, where it was discovered by a University janitor and brought it, as a victory present, to the U’s Athletic Director. In 1909, the next time the two teams faced each other, the U’s athletic director playfully challenged Michigan’s coach to come back and try to “win it back”. Thus begun the first rival trophy game in college football, over the Little Brown Jug.
OK, so what does this have to do with Dinkytown? Fast forward to the 1930s: the glory days of University of Minnesota football under the coaching of Bernie Bierman. Bierman himself was a captain of the conference-winning football team of 1915. He returned to the U to coach in 1932 and stayed on til 1941. Over those nine years, the Gophers had 5 unbeaten seasons, 6 Big Ten titles, 5 national championships, and perhaps most satisfying, the Gophers held on to the Little Brown Jug from 1934 through 1942, including the 1934 game which saw the first sold out game in Memorial Stadium history with 59,000 attendees.
During those years, there was a restaurant at this corner (1303 4th St SE) called the Brown Jug that was reportedly one of Bierman’s and his players’ hang outs. Now his name adorns several of the Gopher training facilities next to Dinkytown on 15th.
Two more interesting facts:
Dinkytown was always a political place inhabited by politicians. The U’s early savior, John S Pillsbury, lived right down 5th Street and surely walked these streets when he was State Senator and as Governor. The hardware store owner, William Simms ran for City Alderman at some point, writer Frederick Manfred wrote about the local Farmer-Labor Party meeting at a vacant store front in Dinkytown. Even Hubert H Humphrey lived in and around Dinkytown for years, including living his first year of college at the U at Mrs. Zimmerman’s rooming house at 524 14th Ave SE in Dinkytown.
So no surprise that Dinkytown, like other communities near college campuses in the 60s and 70s, became a hotbed of student activism, sometimes targeted to national politics, like the Vietnam War, but also in resistance to physical changes in the neighborhood driven by outsiders coming in. This site, just across the street from the Varsity Theater, was the site of the infamous Red Barn protests, which were the subject of Al Milgrom’s recent film, Dinkytown Uprising.
Here’s what happened:
In the Spring of 1970, a developer had proposed to demolish several long-standing commercial properties that housed small retail businesses in order to build a new Red Barn – a fast food chain restaurant. In early April of that year, a group of students occupied four storefront buildings where the Red Barn chain had planned to build a fast food restaurant and held it for several weeks.
In the end, and after over a month, about 100 Minneapolis police officers and Hennepin County Sheriff’s deputies armed with rifles and shot guns, took up their positions in the middle of the night as helicopters circled overhead. After a brief scuffle, the demonstrators were cleared away and the bulldozers moved in to demolish the buildings. By six o’clock the next morning, the buildings were a pile of rubble.
But the protesters had the last word. By mid-afternoon, the site had been converted into a “People’s Park” by a group of 75 young people, who planted flowers, set up swings, benches, all to the sound of rock music. Red Barn eventually abandoned its plans to open a Dinkytown location, and two buildings were eventually constructed in 1971 on the site (one-story commercial buildings at 1307-1309.5 and 1311 4th St SE).
Frank T. Vescio, second oldest son of Theresa and Charles Vescio first generation Italian immigrants, founded Vescio’s Restaurant at this location on 14th Ave SE in 1956. Frank started as a grocer, then started selling homemade pizzas and pasta with recipes he worked with his mother. The family opened additional locations, but Dinkytown remains its flagship store. For more information about Vescio’s history visit their website.
Vescio’s circa 1962
In 1950, Al Bergstrom purchased this “building” in Dinkytown for $600 for his new restaurant, Al’s Cafe. The building dates to 1937, when the neighboring hardware store erected a shed in the alleyway to hold sheet metal and plumbing parts. The tiny diner became “Al’s Breakfast,” after Al’s doctor told him to take it easy and stop working so hard. He reportedly asked customers which meal of his they liked better, breakfast or lunch, and voila.
At just 10-feet wide, with only 13 counter seats, Al’s is reportedly the narrowest restaurant in Minneapolis. Al’s nephew Philip, who bought the restaurant from his uncle in the early 70s, reported stories of the Gopher Rose Bowl teams of 1960 and 1961 being regular customers because the team’s coaches paid Al in advance so the players could come and eat whenever they wanted. These days, loyal patrons wait patiently for a stack of the legendary “wally blues” (blueberry-walnut pancakes), bacon waffles, corned beef hash and more.
Al himself passed away in 2003, and his namesake has won numerous awards, including a prestigious James Beard Award for Classic American Restaurant.
Henry Oscar Hanson, son of Norwegian immigrants, bought the property at the southwest corner of 14th Ave SE and 5th Street SE in 1932, with the intention of living there and running the business until all of his children graduated from the University of Minnesota. In addition to the four retail spaces along 14th (one that had some past use as a barn), the property also included several houses along 5th Street SE, including the family home just adjacent to the retail spaces.
Hanson began operating The House of Hanson cafe on October 2, 1932, “back when thirty-five cents was a good day’s profit and a quart of ice cream sold for twenty-five cents,” said Hanson’s granddaughter Laurel Bauer. They slowly added groceries to their offerings and expanded into the adjacent retail spaces. By the mid-1960s, The House of Hanson was exclusively a grocery store. After “Grandpa Hanson” died, his wife Rose ran the business, and became known as “Ma” to many of the student and neighborhood regulars. Later, a son, Robert Hanson, purchased the store.
Over the years changes were made to structures on the property. In the 1970s, a family member had a proposal to build condos to replace the three houses along 5th Street. The site was cleared – including moving one of the homes across town to a lot along the East River Road. But finances fell through, so the property was used as a surface parking for several decades. A new House of Hanson building was built in 1973. At one point, Bauer reports, all of the businesses were “Houses” of some sort: The House of Hanson, House of T-Shirts, House of Waterbeds, India House, and then The Book House.
In 2013, after 81 years of Hanson family ownership, the property was sold for redevelopment. In the end, 17 of Henry Oscar Hanson’s descendants graduated from the U, and Dinkytown transitioned to its next phase.
College students weren’t the only students that were hanging around Dinkytown. For nearly 75 years, there was at least one high school bringing students to Dinkytown, even TWO for many years – at opposite ends of Dinkytown. In 1908 the U of M Regents established University High on the campus. The student body was made up largely of professors’ children and there was a cost associated with attending. In 1924, the Minneapolis Public Schools built a new High School at 1313 5th St SE to serve the burgeoning neighborhood population, named Marshall High School after noted early Supreme Court Justice John Marshall. Over the years, students were an integral part of the life of Dinkytown, and many went on to become Gophers as well. In fact there were a pair from Marshall’s conference-winning 1932 football team, known as the Touchdown Twins, who went on to both be on Bernie Bierman’s famous 1934 Gophers team. In 1967 the two merged to become Marshall University High School. “Marshall U” closed in 1982 due to budget constraints and dropping enrollment. The closing of Marshall U caused much anxiety in the neighborhood for families concerned that the area was becoming less family-friendly, and from the business district about the loss of customers.
After closing, the former high school was reborn, as much of Dinkytown does year after year. The building was turned into the University Technology Enterprise Center (UTEC). UTEC was an incubator that catered to the unique needs of start-ups – both businesses and nonprofits – many of which were started by U students. UTEC offered flexible, one year leases, and back in the days before personal computers and other technological advances, it offered shared office equipment such as copying and fax machines to often cash-strapped young entrepreneurs.
When its owner announced in late 2012 that he was selling the building to a developer that was going to tear it down for a mixed use housing retail project, he estimated that over 2,000 jobs were created in UTEC over the 26 years it was open.
In 2013, Marshall U/UTECH was torn down for redevelopment into The Marshall: 317 unit apartment building with retail on the first floor. There was a lot of sadness in the community about the loss – not only of the building that housed Marshall High, but also the UTEC building and the businesses and employees that worked there. But it many ways it was just another example of how the one constant in Dinkytown is change.
On the site of a parking lot, the non-extant and infamous 10 O’Clock Scholar coffee house was established in 1958. Contemporary Bill Savran reported that “The folks that gathered at The Scholar were philosophers, alcoholics, grad students, writers, poets, wannabe writers and poets, hangers-on, musicians of all kinds: strummers, singers, tambourine shakers, bongo thumpers, mouth harpists and so on.” It was considered the Beatnik Coffee Shop, and was a favorite place for students to hang out and listen to live music. (And coffee, as there was no serving alcohol in that close of proximity to the U until the 70s.) Some of the crowd favorites at the time were “Spider” John Koerner, Tony Glover, and David Ray.
In the fall of 1959, a young Robert Zimmerman arrived in Dinkytown from Hibbing, Minnesota looking for a Jack Keourac “On The Road”-inspired experience. One of Dylan’s biographers wrote that “his parents still thought, as they drove him to Minneapolis, that college would wash away his music compulsion.” (Ha) He registered for some classes at the U, but music was his thing. Despite reportedly earning a D- in his music appreciation class, he’d discovered folk music here, writing: “I had no other cares or interests beside folk music. I scheduled my life around it. I had little in common with anyone not like-minded.” As his biographer put it: “Although Dylan enrolled at the Liberal Arts college in September 1959, within a few months he was really at the University of Dinkytown, majoring in music with advanced seminars in coffeehouses.” He found the 10 O’Clock Scholar and along with it, his like-minded mates. He traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic in Dinkytown and did shows there for $3/night.
The future Bob Dylan lived in a couple of locations during his time in Dinkytown, including above Gray’s Drug (now the Loring Pasta Bar). As he described it: “Above Gray’s, the crash pad was no more than an empty storage room with a sink and window looking into an alley. No closet or anything. Toilet down the hall. I put a mattress on the floor, bought a used dresser, plugged in a hotplate on top of that – used the outside window ledge as a refrigerator when it got cold.” In January 1961, after living in Dinkytown for 15 months, Dylan headed straight to Greenwich Village, and the rest they say, is history.
The Scholar was not here for very long. The owner moved it to the West Bank around 1965, after a fire in the grocery store that was next to the Scholar. This current building was built in 1967 and has housed numerous businesses since then.
For more information on Bob Dylan and the other musical talents taking place in Dinkytown in this era, go to: http://www.preservehistoricdinkytown.org/dinkytown-history/the-music/
Getting to Dinkytown