September 6, 2021
The map of the September 6, 2021 ride.
The northwest section of the West Side (the Cherokee Park neighborhood) has several streets named after Native American Indian tribes or nations. All of these avenues, no doubt by design, run north and south. Chippewa Avenue (bordering Cherokee Regional Park) is the farthest west of these streets, which were named around 1855.
Moving east one block at a time, Delaware Avenue is next, followed by Cherokee, and Ottawa. The pattern ends a block east of Ottawa, at Smith Avenue, but a Native name, Manomin graces the next road to the east. Not a tribe, Manomin is a slightly altered Ojibwe word for wild rice, according to the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary. Lastly comes Seminole Avenue a block east.
Three other streets named after Indian tribes were listed on the 1855 plat and remained as of 1874 (above). Winnebago Street, originally west of Chippewa, was apparently vacated and the land it occupied incorporated within Cherokee Park. Mohawk became Smith Avenue sometime between 1874 and 1891 and the unusually spelled “Minnominee” was renamed Manomin Avenue.
Perhaps it was irony or maybe arrogance of early city leaders, but bestowing Native names on roads that bisected land so recently “acquired” from the Dakota took temerity. Whatever the reason the streets have Native names, it is probably lost to history.
Two treaties, the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and the Treaty of Mendota, were signed in 1851. The agreements each signed by the U.S. Government and different bands of Dakota, ceded millions of acres of what would become southern and western Minnesota. It included the soon-to-be Cherokee Park neighborhood.
In his 1912 History of St. Paul and Vicinity, Henry A. Castle described the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux as “opening up an immense and fertile region to settlement…” The treaty, continued Castle, “by which that nation (Dakota) gave up its title to all the land west of the Mississippi, excepting a small reservation, a domain exceeding 21,000,000 acres.” While factually correct, Castle’s 1912 description ignored the extent of what the Dakota bands gave up, the deceit involved and the $3,750,000 in payments, virtually none of which had been made (and have not to this day.)
Back to current times, a feature of the West Side is its housing stock; some of the most diverse in Saint Paul. That was quite apparent on my travels on about 25 square blocks of the Cherokee Park neighborhood. I beheld cozy, single level “starter” homes, four story, 3,000 square foot abodes, and plenty in-between.
It’s far more than just size in the medley of homes. Disparities in age and style are a more common, and obviously interrelated, differentiator. This variety is one of the charms of the West Side.
While nice, there was nothing exceptional about the front of the ‘Foursquare” at 703 Ottawa Avenue. When I turned west on Page Street, however, I came to a large, dark green industrial cabinet that had the look of 1960’s government surplus.
On the upper level of the cabinet the words “Little Free Library” were stenciled in yellow capital letters. The two doors at the bottom cabinet, read “Community Pantry” stenciled in same yellow font. Just above, on one of two drawers, “Toiletries” looked to be hand-painted in white or light blue. While examining the cabinet, my attention wavered thanks to movement behind the cyclone fence surrounding the house and yard. I saw chickens, then a couple of dogs, moving toward where I stood, seemingly as curious about me as I was about them and their home. From deeper in the backyard I heard the joyful intonations of several children and a couple adults.
Owners Sara and Lisa saw me at the fence. Sara walked over while Lisa kept playing with the kids. The women and their three children – Angie, Ezra and Thomas – moved to 703 Ottawa in the fall of 2019, because, said Sara, they outgrew their previous house. “We bought this house six, eight months before the pandemic. It was great that we had more space with the pandemic for three children.” The additional space no doubt was appreciated by their menagerie of two dogs, a cat, four chickens and a snake.
Sara and Lisa love the Cherokee Park neighborhood and wanted to stay in the area. That explains their move from 438 Wyoming Street – all of four blocks. “I call it the best kept secret of St. Paul. I’ve lived in many neighborhoods and it’s amazing. It’s quiet. It’s close to the river, Cherokee Park. The High Bridge, Downtown. It’s diverse. We just love the neighborhood.”
Sara spoke repeatedly about wanting to live where the ‘sense of community’ is strong, where neighbors watch out for each other. That’s exactly what Cherokee Park has been for them. As a married couple of the same sex, she and Lisa put extra importance on it. “It is something that you think about. And sadly we have to. Are we moving in where there are folks that are clearly more right-leaning and not interested in being around gay people?”
“We can all have our own opinions in terms of our values or what we feel is important, what we stand for. But we have to respect everyone.”
According to Sara, the tightly-knit neighborhood was critical during the COVID pandemic. “There’s so much trauma, depression, anxiety, addiction, and loneliness and grief and loss. Everyone’s had those issues. I think the way we can get through all of this is being with our neighbors, being with a community, and supporting each other.” She added, “Knowing our neighbors and having a good connection is so important.”
So, about the Little Free Library which got me to stop there in the first place. Lisa and Sara got the metal cabinet from a neighbor and concluded, “‘That’s kind of big for a little free library. So, I thought, ‘I’ll just put the (food) pantry on the bottom.’”
“Every time I go in there to clean it up, people have left food and taken food. I’ve had people leave change and the change was gone.” Sara would like to increase awareness of their food pantry with the help friends who live on the well-traveled corner of Smith and Page. “I’ve thought about talking with them about putting a sign in front of the yard with an arrow pointing to the community pantry and saying donations accepted.”
Lisa and Sara’s backyard is an awesome hangout, with a fireplace, trampoline, a magnificent oak with a fort and swings. Their most recent addition was a hot tub given to them by neighbors. “We’re just totally setting this house up to be our little Oasis.” (They invited me into the yard shortly after we met but one of the dogs took a strong dislike to me. We agreed that talking outside the fence was a better plan.)
Sara continued, “We have a revolving door; friends and family always coming over and this is the place to come, so we love it.”
In addition to the dogs, the four chickens have free run around the yard. “The two brown girls are Caramel Macchiato and “Chikcon,” because, Sara said, her youngest couldn’t pronounce the word ‘chicken’ when they got the hen a year ago. “And then we have Doris. She’s one of the black chickens, and the other one is Gertrude McFuzz, which is a character in a book.”
Lisa joined us at the very end of the interview and the three of us exchanged another few minutes of small talk. Then I climbed aboard my bike and rode east on Page Street, and ultimately, home.
However, on Page, just before the intersection with Smith was a back yard surrounded by a cyclone fence. A sign attached to the fence gate warned of an attack penguin. Immediately inside the fence stood a white pergola.
My last photo stop for the ride, 805 Smith Avenue (at Page Street). While I didn’t know it at the time, I’d be back to the West Side very soon.