Miscellaneous Manufacturers

A postcard showing Duluth’s Bridgman-Russel Dairy ca. 1920. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Duluth Boat Club financier Julius Barnes organized the Western Rug Company in 1909 (originally the Western Linen Company) to manufacture linen yarns from flax straw, which until then farmers considered waste product. In fact, the straw was burned in the fields before Western Rug found a way to use it. Afterward, farmers — mostly in Meadowlands, Minnesota, and Port Wing, Wisconsin — sold it to Western Rug. Barne’s company developed the process and designed the machinery to spin straw into linen. In 1914 Western Rug installed that equipment in its brand new two-story steel-and-brick building at 6320 Grand Avenue and began producing rugs and carpets. Business boomed, and two years after the Grand Avenue facility opened, two more floors were added, followed by another two in 1918. The rugs, marketed under the Klearflax name, were successful in the United States and throughout the world. In 1924 its officers included Barnes’ business partner, William Ames, and James Ten Eyck, the legendary coach of the Duluth Boat Club’s national championship rowing squad. In 1939 Klearflax, as the entire company had come to be known, employed three hundred people. But postwar America found Klearflax struggling to compete with larger rug companies. The business sold to a competitor in 1953 and the facility closed. The structure served as a warehouse until 1987, when it was imploded. The procedure took twelve seconds. The lot remains vacant.

In 1888 Canadian transplant Henry Bridgeman began a dairy in Duluth, selling his wares out of a horse-drawn wagon.  When Newell F. Russell joined him as partner in 1892, the firm became the Bridgeman-Russell Creamery. The company expanded to produce dairy products in a building on East Superior Street and later on West First Street. By 1917 Bridgeman-Russell required a cold storage warehouse, so commissioned a design by John DeWaard and built it above the railroad tracks at 110-112 West Michigan Street. The brick building, trimmed in Bedford stone, stood seven stories tall; four stories rose above Michigan Street, but the building dropped three more stories to the railroad tracks behind it. Area farmers delivered fresh milk and cream to the creamery every day, where it was tested, pasteurized, and sealed in bottles marked with the Purity brand label. Henry Bridgeman acted as president until his death in 1924 and then Newell Russell ran the company until he died in 1935. By 1946 the ice cream–making process had moved to the Duluth Terminal building and the creamery was sold first to Land O’ Lakes — who kept the Bridgeman-Russell brand — and later to Foremost Dairies. By 1960 the building sat empty. It was demolished in 1965; the site is vacant.

In 1902 Swedish-born Peter M. Carlson opened the Duluth Showcase Company to manufacture showcases and store fixtures for retail dealers, opening a sales floor and factory at 25 East First Street. Their cases were sold to druggists, jewelers, banks, and cigar stores. The firm also built iceboxes; the 1902 model was described in a 1955 Duluth News-Tribune article as “patterned after an Indian practice of wrapping meat as a means of preservation.” It was lined with birchbark.

In 1921 the firm expanded, moving operations to a new building at Fiftieth Avenue West and Wadena Street. Seven years later Duluth Showcase turned its complete focus to iceboxes, changing its name to Duluth Refrigerator. In 1932 the name changed again, this time to the Coolerator Company. Coolerator expanded again in 1935, acquiring the former Atlas Iron and Brass Works in New Duluth where Commonwealth Avenue meets the St. Louis River. (Western Steel Products, which specialized in the manufacture of tanks, culverts, fire escapes, and other metal products, occupied the site until 1935.) The collection of industrial buildings included the 1890 four-story Mansard-roofed office building, an unusual style for an industrial complex.

During World War II, Coolerator made military products, including storage units, ammunition containers, and mess tables for the United States Army. The biggest plum in the pie was a $405,800 contract for large refrigeration units. After the war, Coolerator manufactured electric refrigerators and freezers and later expanded to include electric ranges and air conditioners. At its postwar peak, Coolerator employed 1,700 workers at the two plants and had eighty distributors across the country.

Coolerator was sold several times in the 1940s and ’50s, first to Michigan’s Gibson Refrigerator. While Coolerator shipped refrigerators as far away as Sweden, Gibson sold the Duluth plants to International Telephone & Telegraph in 1951 and held on four more years before closing in 1955. McGraw Electric purchased the plants’ equipment and machinery.

In 1961 the West Duluth complex was remodeled and opened as Shoppers City. It later became a K-Mart, Red Owl, and Country Store grocery before being converted to a Menards; the entire complex was destroyed in 2003 to build a new Menards superstore was constructed in 2003, but portions of the 1921 building are still standing.

In 1958 Jeno Paulucci’s Chun King foods moved into the New Duluth facility, staying until 1973. C. S. Lukovsky, owner of Gary Builders Supply, purchased the complex and used it as a storage facility. In September 1976 a fire was reported at the plant just after midnight. Eight fire companies fought the blaze until five in the morning as several hundred spectators watched. Besides heavy machinery, old furniture, sewing machines, and “as much as $150,000 in antiques” stored in the buildings were also lost in the fire, which was punctuated by exploding fuel oil tanks. The complex was a total loss; the site remains empty.

Founded in 1896 by George D. Lucore, the Duluth Candy Company was a wholesale candy manufacturer specializing in milk chocolate. The company initially leased space at 102 West Michigan Street. In 1900 Lucore built a three-story brick building at 20 East First Street.

Besides a wide variety of candies, Duluth Candy also supplied retailers with cigars, film for Kodak Brownie cameras, toys, and other non-candy products. Thanks to the Duluth Candy Company, Hunter’s Park Grocery (better known to today’s Duluthians as the old Snow White store) even stocked tam o’ shanter hats for the neighborhood’s predominately Scottish residents.

In 1916 Lucore sold his business to Milwaukee’s Zeiglar Candy, after which it was operated under the management of E. J. Hutchinson. The firm was later bought out by the Stratig Candy Company. Owner Charles Stratig, a 1902 immigrant to Duluth from Greece, moved his company to the First Street building from his confectionery at 307 West Superior Street. Stratig Candy stayed in the building until the late 1950s, after which the building was used by a variety of tenants until its demolition in 2005. The building’s site is now used as a courtyard and parking spaces.

In 1905 A. S. McDonald, R. B. Whiteside, and D. D. Murray organized the Zenith Dredge Company, a general dredging and harbor construction concern. The business was positioned at the foot of Thirteenth Avenue West along the waterfont, with docks for its various tugs. The tugs and crews of Zenith Dredge kept the harbor open for shipping traffic by removing the silt deposited by the St. Louis River and also built and repaired docks.

During World War II Zenith retooled and began building ships. The firm employed 1,500 workers who built thirty-two ships for the war effort, including tankers, cutters, and buoy tenders. After the war, dredges from Zenith helped create the St. Lawrence Seaway, which opened in 1959. In the 1950s the company began to diversify with subsidiaries including Superwood Corp., Zenith Concrete Products, and Superior Wood Systems, Inc. In 1994 Zenith Dredge was dissolved and sold to Marine Tech LLC which continues maintenance of Duluth and Superior’s harbor channels and recycling of dredged materials. The former Zenith Dredge site is now owned by the Georgia Pacific Corporation.

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