Swede Town, aka the Garfield Avenue District

The 507 Diner—once the Vi-Kar—sits idle before it was removed from Rice’s Point after the neighborhood was razed for the construction of the High Bridge. (Twin Ports Rail History)

Another example of neighborhood residents coming to the aid of their own occurred in 1908. On the night of August 22, residents heard the screams of Mrs. Martin Borrison of 1021 Garfield; her husband was brutally assaulting her. The newspaper reported that nearly 300 of her neighbors came to her aid, and “several men entered the house and dragged Borrison away.” Witnesses said that if neighbors had not intervened, Borrison surely would have killed his wife; if police hadn’t arrived when they did, his neighbors may have killed Mr. Borrison: they “jostled the police officer and the prisoner…and hurled angry epithets.”

Much of the early trouble came from restlessness. From 1888 to 1915 a dozen boarding houses stretched along the avenue from the base of the point to its southern end, home to many unmarried men who labored at industries on Rice’s Point. Without much to do socially, they often drank. Garfield Avenue was also home to several saloon, including one operated by John Aubin (and later Joseph Trudell) at 940 Garfield, and Hannah Hendrickson’s saloon at 601 Garfield. Drinking among young single men often led to physical confrontations.

Police reports involve crimes such as assault, theft, and burglary. Once a viaduct was built over the railroad tracks in 1900, the space below it became a popular place to for muggings. There were a few shootings and a Polish wedding reception offering plentiful and free libations led to a street brawl that ended the life of one reveler.

In 1915 a duel between Garfield Avenue residents Abraham Hadded and George Azarry (described as “an Assyrian”) ended in Azarry’s death. An investigation that night by police Captain Anthony Fiskett led to a running gun battle in which Fiskett was shot through the wrist before he arrested Abraham’s brother, Joseph Hadded.

Not all the crime was violent. In 1892 one resident was arrested for “bastardy”—fathering a child outside of wedlock, something we would hardly blink at today. In 1922 a resident was arrested for operating a blind pig—serving liquor during Prohibition—but Duluth residents from Lester Park to Fond du Lac often flaunted the liquor laws.

Despite its rough reputation, Garfield Avenue was primarily a neighborhood of families. By 1915, just three boarding houses remained along Garfield Avenue, indicating that its young single men had married and moved on and that the immigrant waves that necessitated boarding houses had passed. Many became single family homes.

The neighborhood’s children attended Madison School, a wooden building constructed in 1882 to “take the overflow of the old Adams School” that served the West End at 1721 West Superior Street. Madison stood at 802 Garfield Avenue until 1907, when it was destroyed by fire. It was replaced by a brick building on the same site that same year.

Both school buildings served more than just students; they acted as community centers for the neighborhood and the meeting place of the Garfield Avenue Neighborhood Improvement Club, which supported community pride by encouraging homeowners to spruce up their property with landscaping and organized winter skating parties on a rink the club helped build.

The club’s more important efforts were due to the community’s location. Outside of the neighborhood (and, for a time, Duluth’s first professional baseball park), the rest of Rice’s Point was heavily industrialized with coal docks, grain elevators, sawmills, flour mills, and other manufacturing efforts and was the central location of Duluth’s railroad activity. Subsequently the Improvement Club fought battles over the loudness and frequency of factory whistles and the smoke that belched from engines arriving and departing the Northern Pacific roundhouse, west of Garfield Avenue near the base of the Point.

The community’s first and only church was built 1892. Bethany Chapel at 744 Garfield Avenue, which later moved to 830 Garfield, served residents until closing before 1905. When August Signer died in 1905, his funeral was held at the Finnish Church on St. Croix Avenue in Finn Town, where Swede Town citizens attended religious services.

In 1907 Duluth’s Methodist Episcopal Church’s created the Garfield Avenue Mission Church, initially operated by Reverend James A. Roberts, and moved it into the empty Bethany building. The mission provided services and education to residents and sought to convert residents to the Methodist church. Often aided by the Y.W.C.A., St. Michael’s offered sewing and “physical culture” classes; operated a Sunday school with nine instructors, a Boy’s Club, and kindergarten; had a small lending library; and sponsored picnics in Lester Park. Gospel meetings were held at 7 p.m. on Sunday evenings. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, the mission served turkey dinners to the needy, and in 1910, the mission performed three marriages, fifteen baptisms, and six funerals.

Because it was the only road leading to the Interstate Bridge between Duluth and Superior, from 1897 to 1962 Garfield Avenue was one of Duluth’s busiest streets. When a streetcar line was built on Garfield to connect to the bridge, the neighborhood became a problem for streetcar conductors. An 1899 article quotes one motorman as saying he would be surprised if there was not soon a death atop the tracks. Apparently the children of Garfield Avenue played on the tracks and made sport out of challenging the streetcars, where they “invite the motormen to run them down.”

But children were much less of a problem for the streetcars than the point itself. Garfield Avenue was not paved when the tracks were laid, and after storms the sands shifted, often dramatically, forcing clean-up to keep the streetcars operating. The effort to pave Garfield took years. The city didn’t want to take on the project because nearly all the land on the point was owned by the railroad, which also operated with a special property tax agreement. So city officials claimed they had “no power” to pave the road and wanted the railroad to pay for the work. But the railroad had no need for a paved road.

The pressure was strongest after the turn of the century. In 1904 a newspaper article calling Garfield as the “longest level thoroughfare in the city” said that “after a hard rain, the street is nearly half submerged.” By 1908 little had improved. A story in the News Tribune describes Garfield as “a continuous succession of holes and bumps which are liberally covered with sufficient dust in dry weather to make several inches of mud in wet weather.” Another story described the street as being so impassible that “a boat or a scow would be better adapted for use in the mud and slush than a wagon.”

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.