Companies A and C made big plans for the building’s dedication on October 29, 1896. They scheduled marches and drilling demonstrations and invited every national guard company in the state. Governor David Clough was invited so that Mayor Truelson could “hand over” the building to the state for use by its guard.
While the event was a big hit, only a handful of other guard companies attended, and the governor was a no show. Still, the parades went on, as well as the drilling exhibitions. And, of course, speeches were made. One of the more interesting statements was made by former mayor Ray T. Lewis:
I will say that the people of Duluth are a kind-hearted people and they will take good care that the wants of their friends that are with us are supplied. And I say that Duluth people are a jealous and a proud people: jealous in guarding their rights and the reputation of their city; and they are proud to call Duluth their home.
When the Spanish-American War broke out, Captain Hubert Eva was in charge of Company A. Minnesota’s Third Regiment National Guard became the 14th regiment of the Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. While many men from St. Louis Country served in the conflict none of Duluth’s companies were sent as a whole. And it was a good thing, too, as Company A was needed right here in Minnesota. The same year the war began, Eva led Company A in their efforts to quell the Leech Lake Indian uprising. Led by Ojibwe Chief Bu-A-May-Geh-Shig, Leech Lake was the last violent conflict with natives in Minnesota—two Ojibwe were wounded; seven soldiers died and nine were wounded. In 1900 Eva and his men put an end to an uprising of 500 to 600 Dakota and Ojibwe at Cass Lake. Eva convinced Indian leaders to end the conflict without a shot being fired.
The Spanish-American War created the Minnesota Naval Militia, and in 1903 Duluth became home to its First and Second Divisions. In the summer the naval Militias trained on the U.S.S. Gopher, an 840-ton steamship armed with three six-pound and two one-pound Hotchkiss rapid fire guns. In the winter, they drilled in the Armory.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t strictly military activity at the Armory. By 1899 the city market operated out of the building during summers, and the building hosted plenty of musical events and other entertainment, including indoor baseball games. The guardsmen also participated in the entertainment. In fact, it had its own band, Duluth’s Third Regiment band, led by Jens Flaaten.
In 1901 Company A began performing a series of exhibitions called “Drills of All Nations,” during which Duluth guardsmen would dress and drill as members of a military unit from another country. The act became so popular they had to reject 13 offers to perform on other stages in the U.S. and Europe—the soldiers had no desire to become traveling performers.
In 1902 Company A created an “Indoor Amateur World’s Fair Exposition,” and even convinced the governor to preside over its opening ceremonies. According to one historian, “sightseers thronged the armory for fourteen days.” Again, Company A received “flattering offers to reproduce these affairs in the leading cities of the United States and abroad.”
In 1908 Company E formed, and space began getting tight at the 1896 Armory. It was originally built to hold Companies A & C, but now also held company E and both Naval militias as well. Soon the national guard and civic leader were calling for a new Armory and city market that could handle the drilling, firing range, and storage space for the military, a market for Duluth farmers, and a performing space that could help Duluth become a convention center.
In 1906 Duluth civic leaders began calling on the community to build a large auditorium so that Duluth would become more attractive as a convention center. One idea was to put permanent seating on the Armory’s first floor and galleries. By 1909, that had turned into a call for a brand new armory that, like its predecessor, would also be home of the public market and performing space. An editorial in the Duluth News Tribune called the 1896 armory, “An overgrown barn in which no one but a human calliope can be heard. It is neither seated, heated, nor finished, and no public meetings are held there except under compulsion.”
After the usual delays that often hinder the progress of public buildings—including a fight to keep the armory out of Lake Shore Park (today’s Lief Erikson Park)—a new armory was built at 14th Avenue East and London Road. [Note: The 1915 Duluth National Guard Armory will be our Grand Old Building in October.] On October 17, 1915, the naval militia hosted the final event at the 1896 Armory, an informal dance, and reception.
In 1916 the 1896 armory building was purchased by the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, better known as the Shriners, and the building became the Shrine Auditorium. Over the years the Shriners both used the building and rented it to others. In 1930 it was the also home to the Duluth Automobile Club and several car and truck dealers; later it would house Zenith City Buick.
Over the years the building has been dramatically remodeled, particularly the first floor of the First Street façade. The corner entryway was removed, as well as the four large glass storefronts. The Shriners sold the building and have since moved into a new hall is at 5125 Miller Trunk Highway in a former airplane hanger. As of 2017 The 1896 building was for sale by its owner, Youth for Christ, who used the building for its Encounter Youth Center beginning in 2002.