Meridel LeSueur Recalls Swede Hollow Before Prohibition

Keg delivery wagon, Hamm’s Brewery (Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)

Patrick Coleman writes:

LeSueur was perhaps Minnesota’s most famous proletarian writer, so it is not surprising that she wrote about the humble people of Saint Paul’s Swede Hollow. The following selection was written during Prohibition, ushered in by passage of the Volstead Act in 1919.

Meridel LeSueur, “Beer Town,” Life in the United States: A Collection of Narratives of Contemporary American Life from First-Hand Experience or Observation (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1933); pages 31–33, 40.

I should have had a bad life. Any reformer would say so. I was bred, born and raised in the shadow of the old-time, pre-Volstead brewery. Below it, in the shadow, lived the Germans, the Irish, the Swedes, and it rose upon the hill like a castle and from it night and day came the yeasty odor of beer…

The resemblance to a feudal castle was increased when later Mr. Hamm’s sons took unto themselves wives, and his daughters were wedded and he built beside his own Rhine mansion other preposterous edifices looking down over the town and the Mississippi.

Below across the tracks on the other side lay what was called the Hollow. Here lived the man-power that manned the brewery. They lived in homemade houses that looked as if they were built from scraps like a family quilt, but they had an intimate aspect, for each man had put his house together like a piece of embroidery, with the color of an old sign and a flash of tin, but they were tight and neat with smoke curling cosily [sic] from the slanting chimneys in winter. A stream ran through the Hollow, and over this lovely thread of water sat the outhouses, each delicate and crazy shamble propped over the stream on planks. They tipped over easily in a wind or when pushed. In the back of each house there was a small patch of garden set out crookedly, and usually a rickety fence marked the boundaries of a tiny square of “lawn” in front. The streets were unpaved and in spring full of water…

In the morning we were awakened by the rumbling of the beer-wagons going out loaded to the town. The streets leading to the brewery were of cobblestones because the huge beer wagons were death on ordinary pavement. The clatter of horses and the rumble of the heavily burdened wagons made a fierce rumble and clanging, and half in our dreams we started up seeing the splendid horses treading sparks and hearing that strange sound of hoofs beating out and away in the morning. We ran to the windows and looked up the hill and saw the brewery rising all safe and stable with the cattle in the barns, the men climbing up to work, the animals waking and lowing, the drivers driving out their wagons of beer, cracking their whips, crying out to each other, swearing full-mouthed oaths, the horses snorting and backing and galloping off, rumbling the great wagons into town. We saw the complete, the substantial, feudal city flashing up in the morning air…

The Hollow and its wreckage still lie below the track, the outhouses still over the stream. Hamm’s Brewery is still there, its Rabelaisian power greatly reduced by what is called the Eighteenth Amendment.


Patrick Coleman is the Minnesota Historical Society acquisitions librarian. He was honored with the prestigious Kay Sexton Award at the twenty-first annual Minnesota Book Awards gala, serves on the board of Coffee House Press, and is a longtime member of the Ampersand Club and the Manuscript Society. He writes the 150 Best Minnesota Books Blog, highlighting books that are important to the intellectual life and identity of the state. Due to his work, the MHS library is one of the preeminent research libraries in the nation.

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