Aerial view of St. Thomas campus in 1948.
An aerial view of the St. Thomas campus, ca. 1948.

Tales from the Archives: Tom Town

Located where the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library and O’Shaughnessy Educational Center now stand, there once existed a humble community known as Tom Town. From 1946-59, Tom Town provided needed housing for married faculty and students of St. Thomas.

View of Tom Town.
A view of Tom Town.

The post-World War II housing shortage in the Twin Cities presented a challenge for St. Thomas to accommodate the influx of students and faculty with families. In response, St. Thomas turned to the Federal Housing Administration to buy surplus military buildings. Constructed atop concrete slabs, 20 duplexes were assembled on the former parade grounds along Cleveland Avenue in the fall of 1946.

The first tenants, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Ransom, moved into Tom Town in mid-December 1946. Each unit offered about 540 square feet of living space including a kitchen, living room, bathroom and two bedrooms with a rent of $47.50 a month. Tenants soon learned the units, made of wood and corrugated metal, lacked adequate insulation for the Minnesota climate. Living conditions could be frosty in the winter and the summers quite stifling. Residents quickly discovered how to navigate the electrical quirks of their homes. Many discovered that, by plugging an electric space heater into the wrong outlet, the electrical fuses would blow.

Interior of a Tom Town unit.
A view of the interior of a Tom Town unit, 1948.

Each of the duplexes were painted with pastel shades to make them look less like Army barracks. Tom Town families also took pains to personalize their modest homes. Some added flower boxes to the windows, while others constructed fences in their backyards to corral their small children and pets. Chemistry Professor Henry Nachtsheim went a step further and built a porch at his unit’s entry.

The college’s president, Monsignor Vincent Flynn, was never fond of the name Tom Town for the village. However, when a contest to choose a name overwhelmingly supported it, he accepted the inevitable. Nevertheless, he left his mark on the community in another way: He suggested that each family select a saint, whose name would be displayed on a plaque above their front door.

Father and child outside of St. Stephen Tom Town unit.
A father and child outside of unit 16A – St. Stephen, 1948.

The community was governed by a mayor and four council members elected from its residents. The group helped resolve disputes between neighbors and acted as liaisons between the residents and the college. The council also organized other events like a neighborhood watch of the area during its first Halloween. While residents didn’t meet any hooligans that night, the doughnuts and coffee provided to the guards by Tom Town Mayor Robert Fogerty helped meld the social ties among the families.

Despite the tight living quarters, Tom Town residents forged enduring friendships. Wives formed card clubs that continued long after families moved away from St. Thomas, and occasional dinners at local restaurants like The Lexington brought everyone together. The children of the village turned the university grounds into their playground, including transforming the hill behind the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas into their favorite sledding spot in the winter months.

As the housing crunch in the Twin Cities gradually eased and funds were raised for the construction of the O’Shaughnessy Library and Murray Hall, Tom Town made way for progress. Starting in the summer of 1957, vacant units were sold for $511. Some of the buildings found new lives as summer homes along one of Minnesota’s many lakes while others were repurposed as stores and workshops.

Tom Town may have been temporary, but its legacy lived on in the memories of those who called it home. Today, as you pass through the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library, pause to remember the village that once stood in its place.