It’s more-or-less a fact that, in the brotherhood of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minneapolis is the free-wheelin’ younger brother to St. Paul’s stodgy, uptight big brother. You can practically imagine St. Paul straightening its glasses while telling Minneapolis not to have a party while their parents are away. A Minnesota state guide from the ‘30s said it best when it claimed that “St. Paul has already attained a degree of mellowness and seems to be clinging to its Victorian dignity, while in Minneapolis dignity is less prized than modern spruceness.” Apparently, little has changed in 80 years.
So if you had to guess which city was founded by a mysterious, one-eyed bootlegger named Pig’s Eye, Minneapolis would be the odds-on favorite. That’s why it comes as such a surprise that St. Paul (which unfortunately shed the Pig’s Eye name in 1841) has the decidedly more badass founding story of the two cities.
Pierre Parrant, reportedly a French-Canadian fur trapper, first settled in the St. Paul area sometime in 1832 and, like all good one-eyed guys nicknamed “Pig’s Eye,” immediately set up a still to provide booze to soldiers at Fort Snelling. He was soon kicked out of his shack for illegally distributing whiskey to local Native American populations. Looking to legitimize his operation, Pig’s Eye set up shop in the nearby Fountain Cave, thus establishing the time-honored activity of the Midwestern cave bar (in my dreams.) Pig’s Eye’s tavern was so popular, the growing community surrounding it took the name Pig’s Eye Landing. A steamboat captain described Pig’s Eye’s joint as an “outpost of civilization,” which either praises the place or reveals that steamboat captains have very low standards for living. Business was not booming forever, though.
When residents stopped enjoying the lures of a cave bar in 1839, Pig’s Eye moved downriver to start up a new tavern. He lived out the rest of his life opening up illegal bars and skipping town when the feds eventually got on his case. No one’s sure exactly how he died. I like to think he’s still just gradually making his way down the Mississippi, distilling illicit cave whiskey, founding new towns and spinning his tale to whomever will listen.
Now, in my mind, it’s a damn shame Pig’s Eye hasn’t become a quasi-legendary figure for Minnesotans. A historical character as ripe for mythologizing as Pig’s Eye should have countless stories about him. I suggest we start now. Paul Bunyan’s personal bartender? Sure. Close personal friend of Abe Lincoln? Why not. How’d he lose his eye? In a three-way duel with Lewis and Clark. Some say he was a pirate on Lake Superior for a spell, maybe. He could be our personal Johnny Appleseed, only drunker.
Pig’s Eye was just the first in a surprisingly robust line of notable St. Paul criminals. The Minnesota Historical Society referred prohibition-era St. Paul as a “haven for notorious gangsters,” after all. I’m sure Pig’s Eye wouldn’t have it any other way. I can picture it now: a grizzled old bartender wiping down the counter, telling a lone patron the tale of St. Paul’s founding, ending the story with “some say he’s still out there” before looking right into the camera and winking.
Few vestiges remain of St. Paul’s largely forgotten founder. All that’s left is the lake where his original still was located, a local brewery bears his name and, most crucially, a landfill. Really, St. Paul? This is how we treat our heroes? I call on all of you to write your congressperson, demanding the Xcel Energy Center be immediately renamed Pig’s Eye Stadium.
Alex Brodsky is a writer and cook in Minneapolis.
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