By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
In the mid-'60s the community finally completed construction of its own water tower, which allowed it to tap into the Minneapolis water supply and put an end to one of its running battles with Columbia Heights. From its inception until 1967 Hilltop's population more than doubled, rising from 461 to 1039. Remarkably, the city seemed to be thriving--in characteristically modest fashion--despite the efforts to do it in, and with each small triumph it was cementing a reputation for independence that bordered on orneriness.
By 1967, when Hilltop broke ground for Leon's, a new supper club, the Record was trumpeting its survival. "Where others have failed, this lusty little village has succeeded," an article on the new restaurant proclaimed. "Soon it will have the only licensed, glamorous, high type night club and restaurant in the Northeast suburban area." The first breakthrough in the stormy relations between Hilltop and Columbia Heights came in 1968--21 years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall--through what a headline in the Record called a "History Making Conference," during which "Hilltop mayor Vivian Caesar faced Columbia Heights mayor Bruce Nawrocki across the table," and council members from the two cities sat down to talk about mutual problems.
A hundred years ago hilltop was a dairy farm and, later, the location of the old Oak Grove Riding Academy and Stables. The first trailer park on the land opened in the 1940s, and an early brochure proclaimed Les Johnson's Trailer City "The Queen of Trailer Parks," promising a "well-stocked grocery store, super service station, modern baths, and laundry rooms." Trailer City, the brochure attested, was "exclusively designed for modern living" and "more than meets all sanitary requirements of the state board of health." The community allegedly took its name from a drive-in theater that was located across the highway from the park. Highway 65 (the modern-day Central Avenue) was at the time a two-lane gravel road, and virtually all the land to the west was open country and farms.
By the early 1950s, when Erv and Eva Shear came to town, there were two trailer parks on the land that is now Hilltop. The Shears have been married for 55 years, 48 of them spent living in trailers in Hilltop. In 1954, shortly after moving into Les Johnson's Trailer City, the Shears bought the neighboring Sunnyside trailer park, and they have been there ever since.
The Shears currently live in a relatively roomy 44-foot doublewide in the park they own and manage. Their trailer is decorated with family photos and assorted Lutheran bric-a-brac. Erv was involved in the original drive to incorporate Hilltop and has been a member of the city council. The couple raised their three children in the park, and one son, Jim, still lives there and has served terms as both the mayor and a city council member. Eva is the unofficial town historian, faithfully clipping and saving every newspaper article that has mentioned the city. Those fat scrapbooks of clippings at the city office belong to her.
"When we first moved here we were looking to settle down," Erv remembers. "I was working for a natural gas company, and my job took me all over the country. We were always moving in those days, and trailers were easy and convenient. Wherever you went there was always a trailer park handy."
As far as the Shears are concerned, the incorporation of Hilltop was born out of simple necessity, complicated as it may have been. "Columbia Heights didn't want us," Erv says. "Fridley didn't want us. And once we made the move we discovered that we liked our independence and could get along just fine."
"Hilltop's always been just the same as any other little town," Eva says. "In the early days I could go into any one of the trailers up and down the road and have a cup of coffee. These days people would probably wonder what I was doing nosing around. It was a good, safe place to raise a family. We had a skating rink, and sledding hills all around us, and a drive-in theater across the road that was run by good operators."
"Now we've got these inspectors that come around all the time," Erv chimes in. "It's not like it used to be."
"Oh," Eva says, "It's not so bad. What we're seeing now is that a lot of the old timers are starting to move out into the retirement homes. The park's getting younger. For the most part it's still not too exciting around here, though. We haven't had any tornadoes, thank the good Lord, and now Channel 4's got the computers to pinpoint the storms before they even get here, and we have the basement shelter up at the office."
Despite living just up the road from downtown Minneapolis, the Shears have never spent much time exploring the big city. "We used to go into the city to get our loans or to see the windows at Dayton's," Eva remembers. "But we didn't go into town more than a few times a year. We were always pretty contented to do our shopping around Hilltop. We had everything we needed right here. We had Apache Plaza nearby. When I go down to the drugstore, they still know my name."