Anoka County History: Life in a 1930-60s boarding house

My grandmother ran a boarding house in the late 30’s until the mid-60’s.

Although it was located in north Minneapolis, it was similar to several in Anoka, and throughout Minnesota.

Her husband had left her the house and a small widow’s pension. Lacking both education and investment capital, the house was all she had to make a living.

Her attic looked like an Army barracks with two rows of narrow beds, each with an equally narrow three drawer dresser.

Although the headboards were arranged under the slanting eaves of the roof, most boarders found it prudent to sleep toes to the wall.

She could accommodate up to 14, but usually held 12 boarders at a time. Two of the beds were doubles, and men of that era were less reluctant to share than men today.

The bathroom was two floors down in the basement, and one hot shower was allowed daily, but laundry privileges were granted only to her favorites.

For his weekly rent each man was entitled to clean sheets every Monday and two meals each day.

Breakfast at most boarding houses was oatmeal and toast, but my grandmother felt that a man needed food in order to be productive.

This conviction resulted in mounds of bacon, fried eggs, and thick course-textured pancakes.

Her counterfeit maple syrup was made from brown sugar and a cheap extract called Mapeline.

Supper was a rotating menu of inexpensive starch laden food: soups, spaghetti, scalloped potatoes with ham, beans and rice, mac-and-cheese, chili, and the occasional meatloaf.
She was Catholic, so Fridays were either fish chowder, codfish cakes, or tuna-noodle hot dish. She baked six loaves of fresh bread every day when all 12 beds were filled.

For additional money she would pack a lunch box and fill a thermos with hot coffee.

Grandmother had a reputation as an excellent cook.

Unfortunately she also had a vile temper.  he ran a tight ship and routinely faced down anyone who opposed her rules.

The door was locked at 10 p.m. and no one was admitted after, nor were they issued keys.  Supper was at 6 p.m. and she was fond of saying that the two menu choices were take it or leave it.

No pets, no women, no refunds for missed meals or weekends spent elsewhere.

No smoking in bed, and absolutely no fighting in the house; although they were free to hold bloody fistfights in the back yard because boys will be boys.

Her boarders were only men, most of whom worked blue collar jobs in factories along the streetcar line.

Often they were from the country and needed to live cheaply and send their paychecks home to their families on the farm.

Many were foreign immigrants trying to find their way and secure a foothold in a strange land.

A few were railroad workers or traveling salesmen on their circuit.

Grandmother probably worked 14 hours a day between laundry, cooking, canning, gardening, and cleaning.

After coal, food, and other expenses she still made less money than the men she housed!

But it was the Great Depression, and she did what she had to do to feed her family.

Today there are thousands of homeless men, many with minimum wage jobs, and no boarding houses.

Editor’s note: Maria King is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.

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