Swede Town, aka the Garfield Avenue District


The sign on the side of Goldfine’s Department store in 1961. (Image: Jeff Lemke, Twin Ports Time Machine.)

By January 1909 property owners had had enough. Property values had stagnated as the road remained unpaved, and it hurt business operating along the avenue. While they rejected a proposal to sign a document making them liable for the cost of paving the road, the business owners did say they were willing to raise several thousand dollars to help pay for the paving. Other citizens balked: few of them would gain financially from paving the street. An article later that month called the road “disgraceful.”

Costs for building such a road were estimated at $100,000, about $2.4 million in today’s dollars. In March of that year a bond issue passed to raise $50,000 for the construction. The West End Republican Club stepped up in July, 1909, offering to pay for one-fourth of the costs. The organization also stressed its belief that Rice’s Point businesses as well as Duluth’s wholesalers should also contribute to the construction funds as they used the road more than any other entities.

Despite this in August the project was still underfunded by $25,000. The News Tribune once again called on the city’s wholesalers and jobbing houses to come up with the remaining amount, arguing they use the road more often than any other businesses bringing goods to and from Superior. Those businesses met shortly after the editorial and agreed to pay for the final one-fourth of the cost.

The construction firm of P. McDonnel won the bid to pave the avenue. To tame the shifting sand of Rice’s Point, McDonnel and his crew paved over limestone block that sat on a six-inch concrete base. The work was complete in October 1909.

Paving may have improved the flow of traffic, but it did little for the residential neighborhood. Housing was always considered “substandard,” and there was no room for expansion, as industrial concerns continued to increase their real estate. The population declined throughout the 1920s and 30s.

By 1940 the population of children had dropped low enough to justify the closing of Madison School, and the homes east of Garfield no longer appeared on maps. A decade later, the neighborhood was far from thriving. One native Duluthian recalls that children from the area were known as “Garfield Avenue Kids,” a moniker that implied poverty.

Businesses serving the neighborhood at the time included Hellman Grocery, Kayo’s Hotel and Apartments, The Tip-Top Tavern (also called Fritz’s at one time), and the Vi-Kar Diner, a classic eatery housed in an old trolley car. And the point still had its industrial concerns, including Garfield Welding and Machine Works, Mesabi Iron Works, and the Paper-Calmenson Scrapyard. And, of course, the Grain Elevators.

Garfield Avenue was also the home of Goldfine’s Department Store.

Goldfine’s had begun in 1922, when Abe and Fannie Goldfine began selling livestock and feed from their home at 517-19 N. 3rd Ave. East with the horses and livestock kept on a rented farm on Martin Road. In 1922 they moved to a rented stable on Commerce Street about where the DECC parking ramp is now located. In 1935 they bought a building at 700 Garfield Avenue. In 1928 the business moved to 700 Garfield Avenue and was renamed Goldfine’s Trading Post. It sold everything from lumber to groceries, including furniture, children’s and infant clothing, farm machinery, groceries and meats, coal, and hardware. In the 1940s, the name was changed to Goldfine’s Bargain World.

When construction of Duluth’s High Bridge (later renamed the Blatnik Bridge) was approved in the late 1950s, the neighborhood was doomed. Prior to its construction nearly all of Rice’s Point was rezoned to prohibit residential housing. Every home and many commercial buildings were then razed. The scrapyard was shut down and cleaned up, and the superstructure of the Duluth Water & Light gasometer tank was dismantled.

By the time the High Bridge opened December 8, 1961, the neighborhood was gone. The Interstate Bridge ceased operation that year. In 1971 the bridge was dismantled; its northern span, off Rice’s Point, was retained as a public fishing dock.

Few buildings from the Garfield Avenue Neighborhood remain besides Madison School, now known as the Seaway Building. Goldfine’s replaced its old store with a new 120,000-square foot building in 1962, after the leveling of the neighborhood’s homes created space to expand the store and add a 330-car parking lot. The store became “Goldfine’s-By-The-Bridge.”

According to Andy Goldfine, the store also featured the first escalator north of the Twin Cities. “People literally came to the building specifically to ride the escalator,” Goldfine remembers, “and hundreds of children had to be removed from trying to outrun it down from the second floor to the first floor” like it was a reverse treadmill. According to the Duluth News Tribune’s Andrew Krueger, the Goldfine family sold their interest in the store in 1971, but brothers Manly and Erwin “stayed on in leadership roles until 1977.” By then Goldfine’s was a chain, with at least five other stores in Minnesota and Iowa. Goldfine’s closed in 1979, when most of Duluth’s larger retailers relocated to the Miller Hill Mall area. Today it is home to Goodwill Industries.

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