The Battle of Dinkytown lives on
It took 100 police about 45 minutes to root them out using riot batons and battering rams.

By John Hoff 

t was the mystery of gingko trees that led me to the story of the Battle of Dinkytown. Imagine if you walked by a familiar place every day and then discovered it was the site of an epic historic conflict. That was exactly how I felt when I found out about the violent struggle in 1970 for the soul of Dinkytown.
But let's start with gingko trees. I'm not a botanist, though it seemed I recognized the distinctive fan-shaped leaves on a number of trees planted in Dinkytown. They are mostly bare now, but sometimes I will see a single brown leaf and I pause. How much they look like gingko leaves! I thought how cool it would be if the trees were, indeed, gingko.

Supposedly the gingko tree was saved from extinction by Buddhist monks, and it is said gingko survived an atomic bomb blast in Japan. What a perfect tree to sit near while reading a thick textbook full of academic knowledge. I thought if I could find some kind of Internet history of Dinkytown, there might be verification about the type of trees. That was when I learned about the Red Barn protests in 1970.

It was a hell of a time to be a college student. Soldiers were returning from Vietnam in body bags. Protests were rocking campuses. In March of that year, a burger chain named Red Barn decided it would move into Dinkytown. A handful of small merchants were forced to leave their buildings, which were set to be demolished.

On April Fools Day, 1970, college students seized the buildings and declared them the "People's Hotel." A reporter from the Minneapolis Star named Molly Ivins spent a night there. Ivins later became a nationally syndicated columnist.

You might think that local businesspeople would have been opposed to these rowdy counter-culture antics, but most supported the students. The leader of the occupation was David Pence, who later became a doctor. He said, "The struggle has to be in the streets, and the people of Dinkytown should have a say in this building."

On May 4, 1970, at Kent State in Ohio, student protesters were gunned down with live ammunition. But two days later the protesters in Dinkytown continued to defiantly occupy the People's Hotel. It took 100 police and sheriff's deputies about 45 minutes to root them out. They used riot batons and battering rams. Some protesters were dragged over broken glass. A crowd that gathered in the street was shoved and clubbed. A couple of journalists were whacked too. Bulldozers immediately moved in and knocked down the buildings.

In reaction, other Red Barn locations were attacked. A car smashed through the front of the Red Barn at 313 Oak St. S.E. where the Lotus restaurant is today next to Oak Street Cinema. (Go there. Support the theater.) While court proceedings disputed the destruction of the buildings, an attempt was made to turn the site of the demolition into a "People's Park" complete with gardens and playground equipment. Red Barn finally gave up the fruitless struggle to do business in Dinkytown.

I call what happened in 1970 the "Battle of Dinkytown," because that's the only name that makes sense to me. I certainly wouldn't call it the "Battle of the Red Barn." Today, where the People's Hotel once stood, you will see Know Name Records, Magus Books and a post office where the money orders cost a lot less than the ones in Coffman Union. After I learned this history on the Internet, I touched the wall of Magus Books, reverently, the very next time I walked past.

Here, I thought, the battle was fought. Here students risked their lives for a utopian vision of Dinkytown, allied with residents and small merchants. Instead of trashing the neighborhood, they hauled playground equipment to a newly created park and planted flowers. Hippies love flowers. Heck, who doesn't like flowers?

The students of 1970 believed in making a better future, and we are the ones who are reaping the benefits. We are the ones who experience a funky and fun Dinkytown because of their courageous efforts. A "statement of purpose" flier issued by the students in 1970 still speaks to problems we have today about what kind of neighborhoods we will inhabit during our time at the University, however brief.

"The real issue," said the students, "is to understand that unless we control what our land is used for, we will have no control over what our lives shall become."

With our rundown housing bursting into flames around us, with a corporate clone threatening to displace a cool business like the Purple Onion, we all could use some of the spirit and courage of 1970 to take control of our neighborhoods and take control of our lives.

Of course, I'm still left wondering if those trees really are gingko.

John Hoff welcomes comments at

"Burger barn beef reheated" by Bob Germaine

email me