These Bricks Did More than Build Houses, They Built a Community

NORTHLAND UNCOVERED: The story behind the quaint 84 Jackson Project brick houses in Hermantown.

HERMANTOWN, Minn. – America in the 1930’s is remembered for its high unemployment and struggle for working families to find affordable housing.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt started a number of projects to help the nation’s families escape these problems and find a better life, including a Northland colony of depression–era housing projects, one of the nation’s only homestead colonies still standing.

In 1934 the United States government bought a 400 acre plot of land just outside the city of Duluth.

Within 4 years, the lot filled with 84 new houses. Those houses filled with 84 new families whose lives were changed after moving in.

“As we’re looking at the overall history of Hermantown, there are two major events that altered our history. The first being the fires of 1918. Twenty years later is was the Jackson Project phenomenon,” Bob Swanstrom, chairman of the Hermantown Historical Society, said.

The purpose of the Jackson Project was simple–to build modern but inexpensive houses to get people out of the city.

“My dad said that he was going to try and get a job up here building these 84 houses,” Bob Levander said.

Levander moved into his Jackson Project home when he was two years old.

His dad was an electrician, struggling to make ends meet.

“For the first few years, from the government you were renting the house, you didn’t own it,” Levander said.

Moving into a Jackson Project home saved his family from destitution.

They went from having nothing, to having electricity, heat and plumbing, rarities in middle class homes during the depression era.

“Once you got established in the house, your focus was get that garden going because it had to supply, you might say, subsistence for the Winter,” Levander said.

Each house in the colony had its own garden.

Each family would grow their own food- that was one of the government caveats, the tenants would feed themselves.

“Coming out of the depression and going into the war years, that was pretty special, as far as having community,” Carol Bjorlin said.

From birth, Carol Bjorlin lived in her 2 bedroom Jackson Project home with her 3 siblings, mother and father.

“We three girls shared our bedroom and my brother had to sleep in our mom and dad’s bedroom. And that worked out fine,” Bjorlin said.

Bjorlin says that kind of closeness was shared by the whole Jackson Project community.

“Everybody knew everybody. You could walk along or ride your bikes along the roads and name every one of the people that lived in those Jackson Project homes,” she said.

Levander says those 84 houses were the core of Hermantown.

Levander and Bjorlin watched Hermantown grow from the families that lived in the Jackson Project colony.

“Actually there are quite a few of the Jackson Project people that still live in this area and didn’t want to move away because it was such a wonderful time growing up here,” Bjorlin said.

Levander’s Jackson Project home stayed in his family until 2015.

Bjorlin still lives within a mile of the house she grew up in.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way…I can’t think of living any place else,” Bjorlin said.

Levander agreed.

“I can’t say that it was a real advantage, but the Hermantown that I grew up in was really a fun place to be,” he said.

Of the 84 Jackson Project homes, 82 of them are still being lived in.

Many of the homes have been renovated but maintain their original structure.

Levander and Bjorlin say they’re happy to see anything happen to the houses that will keep the memory of the Jackson Project community alive.

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