The organized play encouraged at Duluth’s playgrounds eventually led to organized sports, especially baseball and hockey. Dozens of neighborhood parks have baseball diamonds, football and soccer fields, basketball and tennis courts, and hockey rinks. Over the years the park department has responded to changes in the popularity of various sports. Duluth’s first youth soccer tournament was held in 1977 on the playing field at Chester Park; in 2016 the city had over twenty soccer fields—nine at the Arlington and Lake Park athletic complexes alone. While a complete history of youth and amateur sports in Duluth would fill an entire book, several facilities stand out for their contribution to or reflection of Duluth’s history.
Duluth’s first municipal sports facility was Recreation Park, a baseball diamond located along Twenty-eighth Avenue West below Superior Street. Athletic Park replaced Recreation Park in 1903. Built for a professional baseball team, the facility hosted all sorts of sporting events, both professional and amateur, from school leagues to industry-related leagues made up of teams of employees.
Another city-owned sports complex was created on the property that Henry Wheeler’s estate allowed the city to use for baseball diamonds in 1919. Known for decades as Oneota Park, the area eventually became the Wheeler Athletic Complex. Wheeler, a pioneer of Oneota, famously walked from St. Paul to the Head of the Lakes in 1856 to establish a sawmill, the first in what is now Duluth. He built a home for his family at 3407 Grand Avenue; the large field behind the Wheeler house was the site of the fifth St. Louis County Fair in 1876 and became the event’s home for the next thirty-five years. The facility had just a few buildings and a gravel track for horse racing.
In 1896 new buildings and a race track were constructed for the fair, and the facility became known as the Wheeler Racetrack. After the St. Louis County Fair moved to Hibbing in 1911, Wheeler’s property continued to be used as a racetrack and whenever a large space was needed for events such as circuses and carnivals. In 1924 the city began proceedings to condemn Wheeler Racetrack and convert it to a playground. Duluth officially purchased the land in 1926, named it Henry W. Wheeler Field, and over the years developed it into a multiuse sports facility
In 1971 Wheeler Field became the home of one of Duluth’s two new indoor hockey facilities; it was used by high schools as well as neighborhood park teams that belonged to the independent Duluth Area Hockey Association (DAHA). Prior to that, practices and games had all taken place at outdoor rinks within neighborhood parks. Indoor games were held at the Duluth Curling Club, a privately owned facility at London Road and Twelfth Avenue East that closed in the 1960s.
The arena at the Wheeler complex was named Peterson Arena for Ray Peterson, who had been the director of activities at Wheeler Field since 1941. In the early 1930s, Peterson created and coached some of Duluth’s earliest youth hockey teams. Peterson Arena was destroyed by a fire in December 2004 when a propane tank on the facility’s Zamboni exploded during a broomball game. The Wheeler Fieldhouse Skate Park now occupies the arena site. In 2016 the athletic complex contained five softball fields, four tennis courts, a bocce ball court, and a historic fieldhouse built in 1919. Wheeler Athletic Complex qualified for the Grand Avenue Parks Fund, part of the St. Louis River Corridor Initiative, and will undergo improvements in 2017.
In 2008 the Duluth Heritage Sports Center was constructed along Michigan Street at Thirtieth Avenue West as a replacement to Peterson Arena. The facility is owned and operated by the Duluth Heritage Sports Center Foundation, a community endowed and managed trust fund, and hosts Duluth high school and youth hockey games; one of its two rinks can be converted for indoor soccer.
Duluth’s other city-owned 1972 indoor hockey facility, Fryberger Arena in Woodland Park, was also named in honor of a major contributor to youth hockey in the Zenith City. According to local historian Heidi Bakk-Hansen, Bob Fryberger grew up in Duluth’s Hunters Park neighborhood, skating on a rink his family maintained on their property. The Frybergers generously opened the ice for the entire neighborhood to use. Growing up on skates, Bob Fryberger started as a hockey player for Duluth Central High School, then played for Dartmouth while in college. He went on to establish the mining company of Rhude & Fryberger, which operated several open-pit mines on the Mesabi Iron Range, but he never lost his love for ice sports. He spearheaded Duluth’s emerging youth hockey program in the 1940s and raised the national prominence of the Duluth Curling Club.
Most famously, Fryberger coached youth hockey for the Glen Avon club, which he established in 1947 at Como Park in Hunters Park. Fryberger’s Glen Avon peewees captured the 1951 National Championship of the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States. The championship game was played in New York City, and when they returned to Duluth the players, all either thirteen or fourteen years old, were greeted by thousands of fans and mayor George W. Johnson gave them the key to the city. Fryberger tragically died in a car accident six years later at the age of forty-nine. Fryberger’s son Dayton played for the United States on the 1964 Olympic hockey team.
Besides the playgrounds, athletic fields, and other play and sports facilities owned and operated by the city, dozens of similar facilities can be found on the grounds of its schools and colleges. With new amenities such as disc golf, climbing walls, and interconnected trail systems, Duluthians young and old will have plenty of places in which to play and compete long into the foreseeable future.