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Bohemian Flats, also known as Little Bohemia, is the informal name given a residential area of what is now Minneapolis, Minnesota. The area was the low-lying river terrace on west bank of the Mississippi River, a short distance southeast of St. Anthony Falls. About the time Minneapolis was incorporated (1867), immigrants seeking employment in the city or at the mills at St. Anthony settled there. In 1884, the first Washington Avenue Bridge was constructed over the area, linking central Minneapolis with the campus of the University of Minnesota, on the east bank of the river.
The area known as "Bohemian Flats" was so named because a high percentage of the population came from eastern Europe; the majority of the families occupying the area were Slovaks, Swedes, Czechs (Bohemians), and Germans. The census of 1900 gives a good idea of the demographics of the area.
|Origin||North of Bridge||South of Bridge|
"Obviously there was oceans and whole continents lying between this place and the area above, even though only a bridge separates them"
Because it was a melting pot of nationalities, Bohemian Flats was known by other names as well. In early times, it was known as “The Danish Flats”, due to Danish population. Later it would be called Little Bohemia, Connemara Patch, Little Ireland, Little Lithuania, Cabbage Patch, and in the spring time, it was known as Little Venice. With all of the different nationalities, many "mini" communities were formed.
Employment in the Flats community was very important. Everyone worked or went to school. Young children and the unemployable elderly collected wood which floated down river from the mills. Women worked as seamstresses, domestics, sorting cucumbers, and collecting mushrooms (a favorite of the Flats). Men worked a variety of jobs in lumber yards, copper shops, saw mills, breweries, railroads & streetcars. Wages at some of the large mills worked out to be $1.50 to $2.00 a day. The wives, who stayed home, raised children and cooked, put lots of pride in their food. A variety of foods were popular on the Flats. Mushrooms gathered from the cliffs, Bohemian cheese, goat butter, river fruit, cabbage, sauerkraut, grapes, and over 35 varieties of potatoes could be found.
In a unique tradition, on the first Monday of Easter, the boys would spray the girls with water. Girls supposedly got "luck" from it, and then treated the guys to dinner. The next day, the roles were reversed.
The homes built on the Flats were no more than shanties. They had no foundation and the structures were often faulty . Many people did not care to make a permanent residence because the Mississippi River constantly caused problems. The Mississippi was known to flood in the spring, which was a problem for the dwellings, because the Flats were not much higher than the normal river level. Each spring the water would rise and flood the area, many times taking the poorly constructed houses with the receding waters. The residents of the flooding houses would go to higher ground. Many people would "bunk" their belongings and poultry in hopes of not losing everything to the water. Each year dead animals would litter the streets after flood waters had receded.
Structure and changes
The Flats comprised three major areas: the upper flats, and the north and south lower flats. The houses on the upper flats were popular and in high demand because they were not affected by the flood waters in the spring. The upper and lower flats were separated by a cliff. Houses on the upper flats rented for about $15–20 a year, compared to the lower flats which ranged from $.50-2.00. Reaching the lower flats required a descent of 79 stairs. The lower flats was an area of dense population with homesites very small and condensed. The upper flats had much more room by comparison. The lower flats were divided into southern and northern sections by the Washington Avenue Bridge. The bridge separated people economically and ethnically. Early immigrants and higher-paid residents lived south of the bridge. After World War I, an expansion was made. It was called the "Washington Avenue Addition". It was bounded by the Washington Avenue Bridge, South 2nd Street, and to the north Minneapolis Brewing & Malting Association. It encompassed Wood Street and bits of Mill Street and Cooper Street. The Flats remained the same until the 1930s when the city of Minneapolis wanted to expand its barge terminal facilities. Eminent domain was used by the city to force evacuations of the area. A coal barge terminal and storage yard occupied the lower flats after the residents were removed and houses cleared out. In the 1940s a large brick building was built for housing single men who worked at the mills. This building was soon inhabited by families. The community began to use this building as a community center.
Bohemian Flats currently
On the University of Minnesota West Bank, several Lipa Slovak Dancers gather by the Mississippi River for demonstrations on Bohemian Day (August 20). Their music and dancing fill the air on the grounds of the previous Bohemain Flats below the Washington Avenue Bridge, which once housed immigrants from the Bohemian region of Eastern Europe.
Bohemian Day was organized by artists and Bohemian Gera Pobuda to celebrate the traditions as well as the immigrants who lived in the Bohemian Flats during the first three decades of the 20th century. These immigrants included Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Scandinavians, Irish, and Italians. The Lipa Slovak Dancers dress in traditional costumes all made by a woman from Slovakia. The Lipa Slovak group is named after the national tree of Slovakia, the linden tree in North America. They perform several times per year at events such as Czech festivals and the Festival of Nations.
The organizers want to remember the Bohemian Flats and its residents and also want to talk about the American immigrant experience in general.
- Rolvaag, The Boat of Longing (New Your: Harber Brothers, 1922;St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, Borealis Books, 1985), 108
- Cindy Collins, "Bohemian return to the Flats" The Bridge, September 23, 2005
- Archaeology of the Central Minneapolis Riverfront, Part 1: Historical Overview and Archaeological Potentials, The Minnesota Archaeologist, Vol. 48, No. 1-2, 1989, Scott F. Anfinson, Minnesota Historical Society
- The Bohemian Flats, Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, 1986
- The Hidden Mississippi, Bohemian Flats Park, Kiosk - The University of Minnesota
- Collins, Cindy, Bohemian return to the FlatsThe Bridge, September 23, 2005
- The Bohemian Flats - A website about this neighborhood and its history
- Bohemian Flats at the Minnesota Historical Society.