Come to America, work hard, improve on the life left behind. It’s a story some of us have lived, some of us have inherited and all of us know. The Melin family lived this story; the inconspicuous monuments to their industry are found all over South Minneapolis. They built duplexes.
They were Swedish immigrants. Sarah came over first, then Andrew. They met here in America and married in Illinois, and then established a farm in Iowa. They had six sons and, finally, a daughter. Something went wrong for this family as the boys grew up. Andrew abandoned them. He took up with another Swede named Josephine and started another family. Sarah moved her seven children north to Minneapolis.
The boys came first — getting work as painters, delivering newspapers, clerking in hotels. They lived together and saved for their future. The two youngest sons were able to attend college; both ultimately became lawyers.
Sarah Melin and her children followed their path toward prosperity by getting a piece of land and building a duplex at 26th & 3rd in Whittier. It was 1904. Theirs was a small place, and the whole family crowded into it.
They got another lot at 38th & 2nd, built another duplex and then another. They kept ownership, rented their properties and used those assets to create more assets. The sons acquired the skills in carpentry and plumbing to do the work for themselves. The homes they built had enough good woodwork and fancy features to be charming and desirable, but were not so deluxe that they wouldn’t rent at a reasonable price. What the Melin brothers built were places to call home.
As the city grew south in the early 20th century, the Melin brothers built “in-fill” homes. They were not the first to build on the 2500 block of Grand Avenue. They acquired a large parcel on that block and put up three duplexes in a row. The homes at 2529, 2931 and 2535 Grand were all built in 1908 by the Melins. The family kept ownership for at least a few years. They advertised renting units that were “new, and strictly first class, with sliding doors, pedestal openings, beautiful fixtures, tasteful decorations, concrete deadened floors, suspended ceilings, separate entrances, screened porches.” In other words, the very definition of the south Minneapolis duplex. In 1909, one unit rented for $37.50 a month — a little over $1,050 in today’s dollars.
The Melins built their family home, too. Theirs was of course a duplex, to which they quickly added a basement apartment and another two units in the attic. All of the Melins lived at this home, 2609 3rd Ave., at one point or another. In the early years, they all lived together, but various sons died young, or married and moved, or left the family business and worked for himself.
It was the fifth son, Eben Luther Melin, who ultimately ran the Melin Brothers Construction Company. By 1913, their most productive days were behind them, with the older brothers all gone to their own companies and building projects. E. Luther, as he called himself, kept working on projects and kept his mother and sister financially secure.
We don’t know anything about whatever intolerable condition caused Andrew Melin to abandon his family. Looking for clues is nonetheless a fascinating pastime. During the decades the Melins lived at 2609 3rd Ave., why did they keep having house fires? The building record lists three house fires while they lived there. Perhaps the renters were incautious cooks. Perhaps Oscar Melin, who had only six-and-a-half fingers, smoked in bed.
The youngest son was David, a lawyer like his brother Luther. David was murdered in 1939. What happened was a carpenter named Wilbur Farrington refused to pay for the stucco work on a house he built. David Melin represented the contractor who Farrington stiffed and won a $75 judgment against him. With court costs and fees, the debt became $300, a sum Farrington could not pay. The judge ordered Farrington’s own home to be sold. In desperate rage, Farrington drove to David’s house, stood in the flowerbed under the bedroom window and shot him in the back three times. Then he went to the home of David’s contractor client, firing two shots and hitting the man’s wife in the ankle. Police detectives arrested Farrington that evening. He confessed and was sentenced to life in prison.
The full story here is long lost, but the Melin family had other tragedies, large and small. E. Luther Melin always strove for more professional success and more recognition. But neither success nor recognition came to him. He ran for office no fewer than 11 times. He tried for the state Supreme Court five or six times and also ran for District Court judge. His position was that the judiciary should interpret the law in the light of the changing conditions in society and would therefore make itself into a means of facilitating progress. This familiar argument plays better today than it did in the 1920s. Melin was usually near the bottom in vote totals. He was never elected to anything.
E. Luther did the legal work for his firm, cared for his mother and spinster sister and never had a family of his own. His legacy is not in the judicial opinions he longed to write but in the dozens of houses, apartment buildings and duplexes that he and his brothers built. At the time of his death, he lived with his sister in a duplex that for some reason he had not built.
If your house is included in the Hennepin History Museum photo collection, you can ask Karen E. Cooper for a house history by emailing her at [email protected]. Look for your Southwest Minneapolis house at tinyurl.com/hhm-houses.