How would you feel if someone came to your door and said, “Did you know this house used to be a barn?”
When that happened to Como Park resident Sharon Shinomiya, it wasn’t a total surprise because she’d heard rumors about her home’s history before. She just hadn’t believed them.
But here on a winter day in early 2001 was Richard Brace of Bessemer, Michigan, stopping at 1382 N. Albert St. to ask if he could take a photo of what was once a barn that belonged to his grandfather.
“I started to think it must be true,” said Shinomiya, who with her husband, Hiro, bought the house in 1995. “And when Mr. Brace later sent a photo of Thomas Frankson’s buffalo barn, there no longer was any doubt.”
Frankson was a prosperous real estate dealer and state legislator from Spring Valley, Minnesota, who moved to St. Paul in 1913 and began selling lots in a 120-acre development he’d recently acquired.
Frankson’s Como Park Addition was bounded by Snelling and Hamline avenues on the west and east and by Nebraska Avenue and Midway Parkway on the north and south.
In Spring Valley, Thomas and Hannah Frankson and children had lived in a farmhouse that was a showpiece, every bit as impressive as the new green-and-white tile mansion they would occupy in 1915 at 1349 Midway Parkway. (This latter home, with the lion statuary in front, has been a familiar landmark for generations of Como Park visitors.) It was at the farm that Frankson started collecting animals: buffalo, deer, Shetland ponies and other assorted creatures, including a two-headed colt.
In the new St. Paul development, Frankson held aside five acres on the north side of Midway Parkway and named the half-circle forming it Bison Avenue. He brought at least a portion of his herd north by rail and penned the animals there. The barn was in place by August 1913, and a real estate atlas of the era suggests it was located behind today’s 1431 Midway Parkway.
In October 1913, newspaper ads urged prospective customers to “join the procession and take a Como-Harriet car from either city to Snelling Avenue, three blocks north to Addition. You can make this trip for pleasure as well as profit. Frankson’s private buffalo and deer park is now ready where you can see domesticated deer and buffalo, the only thoroughbred American buffalo (bison) in captivity in the state of Minnesota.”
The novelty must have gradually worn off because in June 1915, Frankson, soon to begin a successful campaign for lieutenant governor, offered his remaining animals and the five-acre plot to the city. It had been an unusually wet summer, and one newspaper noted that “the land is low and partly under water.” When Fred Nussbaumer, superintendent of parks, expressed reservations, Frankson responded that the property could be improved by establishing an artificial lake.
The deal never came off, but Nussbaumer did agree to take two buffalo, male and female, for the fledgling Como Zoo. The male died during a botched transfer, though the zoo subsequently must have accepted Frankson’s other bison because there was a newspaper photograph of a “buffalo family” at the park in May 1916.
The buffalo barn was moved to its present location in the spring of 1920. Frankson assigned the same carpenter who helped build his palatial Spring Valley home to add a wing to the structure and turn it into a residence. Shinomiya said there are some nice touches that suggest the work of a master craftsman, including a beautifully constructed built-in closet in one of the bedrooms.
“We’ve always loved the house, and now that we know its history, it’s even more special,” she said. “I’m not aware of anything like it in the Twin Cities.”
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