Farewell to Froggy Bottoms, 2001-2010

Originally Published in the November 2010 Entertainment Guide

Photo Image: Dennis McClintock

“Rising Waters Cause Concern” was the headline. “Recent heavy rains have pushed Cannon River levels to a near-critical stage.” Northfielders turned up in droves to view the rushing, turbulent river as waters rose against the retaining walls downtown. A Northfield News picture showed sandbags at the river entrance to Froggy Bottoms River Pub as the walkway began to flood. It was June of 2004, the month I moved to Northfield to join family members here after a long sojourn in New York.

During my college days at St. Olaf in the 1960s, we used to jokingly refer to the “mighty Cannon River” which meandered placidly through Northfield. Well, as you know, this past September (2010) the Cannon roared through town and was mighty, indeed. It crested at 25 feet, three feet over the previous record flood stage. Riverside Park became part of the river itself, Carleton’s athletic fields were swamped, carp found themselves swimming in the river walks as water washed over both river walls and businesses close to the river were flooded, among them Froggy Bottoms River Pub. Carp swam over the railing of the pub’s patio and were trapped there, though they did not belly up to the bar inside. Ground water rose to a depth of more than five feet within the pub, destroying Froggy Bottoms.

Froggy Bottoms had survived the flooding of 2004 and other minor floodings since it had opened at 305 S. Water St. in the summer of 2001. My brother, David Hvistendahl, who (unlike me) had stayed in Northfield after graduating from St. Olaf, had bought the West Side buildings next to his law office building in 1998. He decided to transform the lower level of the Ebel Building into a pub. (William Ebel had a general merchandise store in this location from 1876 to 1941.)

Within my first year here, David had engaged my help as a writer to edit a new menu/newspaper, The Froggy Times, which he had envisioned for the then three-year-old pub and to establish a website, at that time called the FrogBlog. (It has since evolved into froggybottoms.com.) I also became the unofficial photographer, putting photos on the bulletin board and on the blog of all the events that made Froggy Bottoms such a popular gathering spot during its existence.

Now that Froggy Bottoms is a “historic happening,” I am going to recount the history of the pub for this column, some of it adapted from past Froggy Times issues (all of which were designed by By All Means Graphics, publisher of the Entertainment Guide.) I am also going to share some happy, hoppy Froggy memories, aided by Froggy Facebook fans.

The name “Froggy Bottoms” came from a farmhouse on Fox Lake near Northfield where pub owner David Hvistendahl lived in the 1970s after graduating from St. Olaf. The ribbeting chorus of frogs at night inspired the name, which is a takeoff on “Foggy Bottoms,” the appellation of the State Department Wing in Washington, D.C., which was built on swamp lowlands and has had meteorological and metaphorical fogs (of confusion) settling over it from time to time. The farmhouse soon was filled with items of a froggy nature, gifts from friends and family members, many of which found a new home when the pub was opened.

After purchasing the West Bank buildings, David used architectural salvage items from his Faribault warehouse, Peterson Art Furniture, at 28 NE 4th St., to fix up the pub. First the lower floor had to be gutted, a task taken on in December of 1999 by a warehouse salvage crew nicknamed the “Demons of Deconstruction.” David’s son Jake Hvistendahl (St. Olaf Class of 2004), who became general manager and co-owner of the pub, was a member of this crew so has been with Froggy Bottoms since its “tadpole days.”

It took a month to clear all the debris out and remove partitions and five months to do stone work, tuck pointing the limestone interior and exterior, before construction could begin in June of 2000, led by Bill Peterson and Ed Seiler.

Seiler said, “We had to concentrate on small aspects of the total job because if we thought about everything that had to be done it would be overwhelming.” For example, they had to deal with walls of stone that were two-and-a-half-foot thick. Seiler estimated that hundreds of concrete bits were used drilling holes in the stone to accommodate plumbing, heating and electrical works. It was also an “engineering nightmare” to move everything down via the spiral staircase and river door.

After much labor and loving attention to detail, Froggy Bottoms opened to the public on July 3, 2001.

As customers entered, they came through the original eight-foot-high doors and down a steel circular staircase which dated back to 1981, with frog and lion ironwork added. (The doors finally had to be replaced in 2007.) The river walk entrance sported a coat of arms diplomatically combining the Carleton College knight and the St. Olaf lion.

The 30-foot bar at the base of the stairs had its own unique Minnesota history. The mahogany front bar top came from the Monterey Ballroom, a few miles south of Owatonna. The back bar originated in the Persian Palms, a sleazy strip club on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis. The walnut face of the front bar came from the old Northfield National Bank, salvaged by Jack Tripp, who found it lying on Division Street when the bank was torn down in 1963. The divisions for the teller stations could still be seen.

Two pillars at either end of the bar were salvaged from Ytterboe Hall, a much beloved St. Olaf dormitory which was demolished in 1996. The booths of the main room and the stained glass frogs’ eyes under which musicians played were salvaged from a defunct Bridge Square restaurant called Paulina’s, with tables and chairs from the state schools in Faribault. A mirror hung in the pub from the original Tiny’s pool hall of Northfield, donated by Dan Freeman. The fireplace stone and much of the paneling came from Dow Hall of the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind in Faribault (torn down in 1998). The booths of the adjacent private party room came from the old Ideal Café with other tables and the bar and back bar from the Monterey Ballroom.

The riverside view of Froggy Bottoms is one of the most photographed sites in town. Credit goes to John “Frenchy” Jacob for the colorful flags and flower arrangements on the river decks. Frenchy lives on the top floor amid the Froggy Bottoms River Suites, which will still be available to the public, as is Salon Synergy at Froggy’s 305 S. Water St. entrance.

Many of us in town have special memories of Froggy Bottoms. I think back on all the celebrations people had there – birthdays, anniversaries, class reunions and costume parties such as Halloween. And St. Patrick’s Day, when the O’Hvistendahls joined with the O’Connells and others to crown the parade marshal while lunching on corned beef and cabbage.

In September 2005, the great-grandson of Jesse James made Froggy Bottoms his watering hole during his visit during Defeat Days. James Ross was pleased to find his favorite scotch at the bar and, after fortifying himself with it, he sang karaoke for the first time (“It Had to Be You,” “Singing in the Rain” and “Swanee”) with me and Mary Casey. Ross had been a judge of the Orange County Superior Court in California from 1983 until his retirement in 1995. A self-described “cowboy wannabe,” Ross donned cowboy boots and hat and rode a horse with the James-Younger Gang in the concluding parade.

The spring of 2006 brought a return visit of a Froggy feathered friend to a nest in the patio garden. She wrote about the experience that she and her 15 ducklings had in the Froggy Times: “The staff catered to my every desire, bringing me lettuce, bread, corn, even a delicacy known as popcorn. I will be back next season. But maybe I will cut back on the number of ducklings.”

Those ducklings delighted children, of course. Froggy Bottoms was always a favorite place of frog-loving children, which made it a family dining destination. In May of 2006, a seven-year-old boy won a Count the Frogs contest, guessing there were 394 frogs in the main dining room. He was only off by two: There were 396. Jake joked that this contest was “such an annoying deal” for a server, with kids wandering all around the pub counting “142, 143, 144...”

Jake noted that the main customers at Froggy Bottoms were “townies and visitors, of all age groups,” enjoying the extensive menu offerings of the restaurant. But late Thursday nights turned into what was called College Night. In 2006 a group of Ole theater majors started coming down to Froggy Bottoms to participate in karaoke sessions (with cowbells and tambourines for accompaniment) and soon were taking advantage of $5 pitcher specials. Word spread of the good times to be had at the Frog and, by the last semester of 2007, College Night became “ridiculously popular,” said Jake, who was then bartending. Before the flood put a stop to these collegial gatherings, the pub would have three or four security guys on Thursday nights checking IDs and, after the capacity of 215 was reached, there would still be lines of 100 students or more, hoping to go inside as others exited.

Recently Froggy staff and customers shared memories of Froggy Bottoms on the Facebook fan page, which had 891 fans as of Oct. 27. A member of the Froggy crew recalled the annual staff boat trip on the Mississippi, “dance-off parties among the kitchen crew, Kari’s Thriller, Shannon/DJ Matt getting the party started, great customers/regulars.” A visitor spent “our annual girls weekend” at Froggy’s: “Everyone loved everything they ordered and the hospitality and environment was awesome!” Another commented, “We had the best wedding rehearsal dinner ever” with favorite Froggy food, “the best people in the world to share it with – staff/friends and spiders on the river (exactly one year before the flood).” The staff always catered to the “picky lawyers next door,” said another, who is missing happy hours and “each and every one of the staff.”

Among the food items mentioned: “Soooo missing my sweet potato fries and grilled cheese with onions,” buffalo chicken wings, Cobb salad and the “biggest plate of nachos I have ever seen. I was almost in shock but they were so tasty.”

And more staff compliments: “I was there with my granddaughter at the beginning of September. We stayed overnight upstairs. I had a wonderful time and loved the staff.” A man said whenever he was at Froggy’s, he was treated “like gold.” He was older than most of the guests but “age never kept the kids from being super friendly. I’m new to town so it meant a lot to fit in.”

There were two events from 2010 which I will long remember. First, the “Northfield Hysterical Society” sponsored “Ole & Lena Uncensored Joke Night” at Froggy Bottoms on April 15, with my mother Marion Hvistendahl as Lena and Brad Ness as Ole. DVDs are available at the Northfield Historical Society, as I would have to censor any retelling of the jokes here. Then, in preparation for my column for the June music issue of the Northfield Entertainment Guide, I arranged for three of five members of a favorite Carleton band of the ’60s (also beloved of Oles and townies) called the Night Crawlers to play a very successful reunion gig at Froggy Bottoms on May 1.

Froggy Bottoms co-owners David and Jake would like to thank the people of Northfield who have been very sympathetic, many of whom volunteered to help with cleanup chores. Any possible hope for a reincarnation of Froggy Bottoms is dependent on the city committing to build higher flood walls, according to David.

Jake commended the Froggy staff, who have been “incredibly helpful with all this.” Diana Meyer, who handles the Facebook fan page for the pub, said, “This is what made Froggy’s so great, the fact that everyone on the staff loved to be there. So they would work and then they would stay and hang out.”

Staff and customers alike miss Froggy Bottoms and each other. As one woman on Facebook said, “Froggy’s was a place where strangers turned into friends and friends turned into family.”

A Viking funeral was held for Froggy Bottoms on the Cannon River.

Farewell, Froggy Bottoms, 2001-2010.

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