Woodland

Interior of the Woodland Wait Station that stood where what is today a parking lot for Super One Foods, photographed some time in the 1950s, at least 15 years since the last streetcar ran on Woodland Avenue. (Image: private collection of Diane Oesterreich.)

Frog Town, Dagoville, Oatmeal Hill, and the KKK

As was common at the turn of the nineteenth century, ethnic communities stuck together and formed enclaves that became identified by  ethnicity. The part of Woodland where Minneapolis Avenue runs steeply down the hill was known as French Town (or more colloquially, Frog Town), for the many French-Canadians who lived there.

Grew’s Grocery (the proprietor of which was also French-Canadian) was located at the corner of Austin and Woodland directly across from the streetcar Waiting Station, and was a center of community activity. Boxing matches were held in the back, and it was a favorite gathering place of neighborhood children after school.

Many Hunters Park residents were of Scottish descent, which is primarily reflected in that neighborhood’s street names. One stretch of Waverly Avenue was nicknamed “Oatmeal Hill”for the Scottish staple often served there and the Hunter’s Park Grocery (better known to today’s Duluthians as the old Snow White store) even stocked tam o’ shanter hats. A portion of the neighborhood’s Carlisle Avenue was home to the Italian gardeners and domestics who tended to the lawns and homes of the elite and was known pejoratively as “Dagoville.”

In the early 1900s, the Ku Klux Klan was a growing national threat, and Duluth was not exempt from its local chapter’s terrorist exercises. Perhaps because Woodland had a strong Catholic presence and Duluth’s only Jewish Cemetery, there were reports of white-sheeted night-rides down Winona Avenue and cross-burning gatherings held on the Rock Knob outcropping within Allendale Farm.

Oesterreich recounts a story about the Dryke boys, members of a very large family of Dutch descent, who snuck up on a night-time Klan gathering on Rock Knob. “They got a bunch of kids together—all 13 to 14 years old—and they got sticks and tied kerosene soaked rags to them, and belly crawled up around the rock in the dark. One of the guys gave the order, and they lit a ring of fire all around the bald rock, the flames moving quickly upward toward the top. They said you never saw such a scattering of white—and the Klan never met up there again.”

The Fire of 1918

The 1918 Fire had a huge impact on Woodland, perhaps more than any other Duluth neighborhood. There had been a terrible drought that summer, and by the time this flaming hurricane was done with the region, 1,500 square miles—from Moose Lake to Cloquet and up around the edges of Duluth to Lester Park—was devastated. Out of 453 people confirmed dead by the fire’s end, 85 were from the Duluth area. (It should be noted that the death count was likely higher, as many bodies were never found.)

Throughout that horrible October day, refugees from north and west of town streamed into Duluth and made their way to the Armory on London Road. They crammed the streetcars on Woodland Avenue, and as the flames got closer and closer, Woodlanders themselves realized—sometimes too late—that it was time to run for their lives. Survivors reported that the 100 mph winds were so fierce the cinders would skip from rooftop to rooftop, hitting and burning houses at random. Some brave souls stayed behind in effort to save their homes, tying themselves to rooftops and spraying property with garden hoses connected to house spigots.

Few people owned cars then, but many of those Duluthians who possessed one volunteered for the evacuation, repeatedly putt-putting up and down Woodland Avenue to help those fleeing and then careening down the hill nearly blind with the smoke, passengers precariously perched on the running boards. Witnesses reported seeing several expensive cloth-topped cars climbing the hill only to return later that night as battered-looking convertibles.

According to one Oesterreich interview, a woman was so frightened she put one single shoe from three different pairs into a pillowcase in her panic before catching the streetcar. People threw themselves into swamps and ponds trying to save their lives, sometimes in vain, while the flames swept overhead. Many left trails of possessions behind them, paring down the important things to whatever they could carry. While there was some looting during the chaos, a spinster daughter of the Magney family forced to abandon her hope chest on a Woodland Avenue sidewalk found it untouched when she returned. When the flames subsided, people found a blackened nightmare, littered with abandoned cars in ditches and both Homecroft and Cobb Schools burned. Most nearby farms were wiped from the map, many never to return.

Bootleggers and the Fireworks Factory

During Prohibition, an area of Farley Lane called Gobbler’s Knob became known as a place where one could procure illegal alcohol. Several families who lived there were bootleggers, selling bottles out of hidden stashes in their barns and in the woods. Moonshiners plied their trade in a house at Minneapolis Avenue and Anoka Street. A Woodland milkman was caught delivering moonshine amongst the milk when the police noticed that not all of the bottles popped their tops when the temperature dropped below freezing. And according to resident Phil Myzel, when the Waiting Station was torn down in the 1960s, workers found bottles stashed inside the walls.

An illegal fireworks factory operated at the top of Allendale Avenue in the 1920s. Owner Everett Campbell, according to childhood friends, had a fascination with blowing stuff up from the time he was old enough to light a match. He worked as a motorcycle-riding itinerant preacher during the day, but when he came home his avocation turned to manufacturing and selling bootleg fireworks from a stand at the junction of Howard-Gnesen and Calvary Roads.

On May 11, 1928, tragedy struck when a young, inexperienced assistant named John Erickson accidentally blew the place—and himself—to kingdom come. This was no minor explosion. The mushroom cloud could be seen in downtown Duluth, and those from the neighborhood knew immediately what had happened. The explosion blew several buildings off their foundations, cracked chimneys, broke dishes in nearby kitchens and blew out every window on one side of Cobb School, which was in session at the time. The accompanying fire lasted some hours.

Everett, badly burned, managed to crawl to a nearby swamp, but succumbed to his injuries five days later. His widow, Lilybelle, was pregnant at the time and was soon after rendered financially destitute after several neighbors sued her for damages.

So It Was

The streetcar system that helped shape Woodland was dismantled by Labor Day, 1939, but the waiting station at Woodland remained for decades afterward—and as mentioned, the station at Woodland and Lewis Street still stands as a residence. Many residents of Woodland mark the neighborhood’s transformation to modern times as the day the Waiting Station was torn down in the 1960s to make way for the Piggly Wiggly grocery store parking lot. The station had been the heart of the community, the place where people could hire a jitney cab out to Homecroft or grab a soda at the fountain. It was where the kids could buy penny candies and mom could pick up a dime novel. But by the time it was demolished, the station’s original purpose had been sidetracked in the name of personal vehicles and buses. The small grocery stores at the same intersection—where neighborly credit and bartering ruled the day—had long since gone out of business.

Woodland is still marked by its history as a place at the end of the streetcar line, and today it feels more like a post-war suburb of Duluth rather than a neighborhood more than 100 years old. It may be hard to imagine Hartley Field as a celery and lettuce farm, but if you live in an old Woodland house you might find a couple of 1918 burn marks on basements structural timbers, and if you remodel your kitchen, keep your eye peeled for a dusty old bottle hidden in a wall.

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.