VIRGINIA – Fifth Avenue was THE place to live in Virginia back in the 1950s. The Baileys, who owned the sawmill, lived on a large fenced lot near 8th Street. The Stavers, who owned the foundry, lived in a large house a block or two south of them. Prominent merchants populated the thoroughfare which was one of the most beautiful stretches of roadway I’d ever seen.
Elm trees lined the avenue with giant branches stretching across the width of the street, forming a luxurious canopy for the people lucky enough to travel the road beneath. The city appropriately chose to erect street lights that sported five, count ‘em, five white globes to proclaim the specialness of the street. No other street in town had anything like it.
I lived on 5th Avenue. My home was the largest structure on the entire street other than the St. Louis County Courthouse, Roosevelt High School and Horace Mann Elementary School. Our address was 705- 1/2 5th Avenue South. That “half” in our address was a clue that our home was different.
There were six families living in the ugly two-story, black-brown structure on the corner of 5th Avenue and 6th Street. That “half” meant we lived upstairs and also meant that we had to use the toilet located off the downstairs hallway. We shared that toilet with the family that lived below us. My mother scraped together $6 every month to pay the rent that allowed us to live on this wonderful boulevard.
Six dollars didn’t buy you much. We had four small rooms: two bedrooms, a living room that doubled as my sister’s bedroom, and a kitchen. The kitchen had an oil burning stove that provided a modicum of heat to the uninsulated rooms where frost formed thick on the windows on those brutally cold northern Minnesota nights. Those windows provided a sort of etch-asketch for a kid who had both fingernails long enough and a tolerance for the cold of the frost that came off on one’s fingertips.
We did have running water, but it was only cold water. A galvanized tub for taking baths hung outside on the back porch. Mom would heat up pot after pot of hot water on bath night. Sister Jean always went first into the tub set up on a rag rug on the floor of the boys’ bedroom. She was followed by the boys in order of birth. Pat went first followed by Mike followed by me. It was like going to the beach given the amount of sand and grit that had been deposited on the bottom of that tub by my turn.
Fifth Avenue was never more beautiful than on a winter morning following an overnight snowstorm. The snow coated the branches of those elegant elms and created a scene that “winter wonderland” inadequately describes. The city would plow that snow onto the grass boulevard between the street and the sidewalk. Over the course of the winter those snowbanks would grow to epic size, creating a mountaintop pathway that every kid walked, single file, to and from school every day. The icy pathway stopped at every corner and that was understandable. However, the Baileys and the Stavers always shoveled their sidewalk clear to the street. We always felt this was an unnecessary intrusion into our winter adventure-land.
My best friend, Michael Frisch, live across the alley from me. We had a special place to play. There was a gap about 10 feet wide between my building and the one next door. The front and back of this gap was hidden by large lilac bushes and gave Mike and me a private playground where we could play with our plastic soldiers or toy trucks or even try smoking some cigarettes he’d pinched from his dad’s grocery store.
From my base on 5th Avenue I could explore the entire city of Virginia on my bike. I could dig worms in the backyard and head down to Silver Lake to catch perch, bullheads and sunfish. I could sling my glove over my handle bar and carry my bat locked under my thumbs while riding my bike to the baseball diamond behind Ewens Field. There were always kids ready to play a game of 500 or, if there were enough kids, we could play a game and run bases like the big leaguers.
When schoolmates found out where I lived there was always an uncomfortable “oh” as though they had just uncovered an awkward secret. I felt a true sense of pride when they would trudge up the stairs, enter the apartment and exclaim, “Oh, this is really nice.” Give my mom credit for boosting my self-respect, even though the exterior of my house was an embarrassment.
I found out recently that 705-1/2 5th Avenue South had burned and had been declared a complete loss. My reaction was more nostalgic than sad. When I described my feelings to big brother Pat as being like losing an old friend I hadn’t seen for years, he didn’t share my nostalgia referring to the place as a “dump.” I attribute that to the fact that he was older and undoubtedly more realistic than I was at the time.
Since I had a very happy childhood it follows that the place where I spent that childhood would be remembered fondly. It’s been 60 years since I lived there and the memories that remain range from pleasant to downright magical. The loss of the structure does nothing to diminish the happy memories I retain.
Tom Lanin grew up in Virginia, MN, but moved away 55 years ago. He has been back numerous times since, usually in conjunction with his annual trek to the BWCA for a canoe trip. “I loved Virginia as a child and still feel an attachment to the place,” he said. “When I heard recently that my childhood home in Virginia had burned to the ground I felt compelled to sit down and record my feelings.” Tom currently lives in Scottsdale. AZ.