In the late 1890s, the booming city of Duluth was a major transportation center where railroads and ships loaded the region’s natural resources of iron ore and timber for distribution across the country. But few farms existed in the area, and food of any sort commanded a premium price. Without automobiles, city dwellers lived close to their work and depended on streetcars for transportation. Houses were built close together with little open space, leaving families without a place to grow their own food. The availability of jobs drew many middle class families to Duluth, but the cost of living was unacceptably high, mainly due to the expense of bringing in food.
Duluth entrepreneur Guilford Hartley operated one of the few successful farms in the city. Located on Woodland Avenue, his 780-acre Allandale Farm produced celery and lettuce that he shipped throughout the country. Around 1900, land developers Charles Craig and John Williams, partners in the Jean Du Luth Company, established the area’s largest agricultural operation. Their Jean Duluth Stock Farm covered over 4,000 acres along the Lester River on the East Duluth and Lester River Road (which became the Jean Duluth Farm Road and eventually the Jean Duluth Road).
Other prominent Duluth businessmen, including future mayor Sam Snively, set up smaller farms in the Woodland/Colbyville area. Millionaires Chester Congdon and John Sebenius included vegetable gardens, orchards, and dairy cows on their grand estates along the Lake Superior shore. But the plight of the ordinary citizen did not change significantly. Economic recession and a near collapse of the financial system in late 1907 drove the cost of living even higher.
To help solve this problem, members of Duluth’s Commercial Club focused their efforts on increasing agricultural production in northern Minnesota. They hired expert A. B. Hostetter to work as superintendent of agriculture. Hostetter soon realized that in this area large farms were possible only for men of wealth. As he told the Duluth News Tribune,
This is no place for the 160-acre farm. The task of clearing is too great, too slow, and expensive for the poor man; it is the lumberman’s job, not the farmer’s. Here you must have the dairyman and the gardener, the small farm, and enough of the land must be cleared for him to let him make a living cropping the soil from the first year.
In response to Hostetter’s advice, the Commercial Club formed the Greysolon Farms Company and purchased two full sections of land near the intersection of Jean Duluth and Martin Roads. They planned to clear the land before selling it, making it possible for the new owners to start planting immediately.
To promote agricultural education, they lobbied state legislators to establish a demonstration farm in the Duluth area. In March 1911 the legislature appropriated $65,000 for the University of Minnesota to acquire a site of at least 200 acres with good soil that would be accessible to farmers throughout northeastern Minnesota. University regents considered eleven sites, including one within the Greysolon Farms development. They chose the Greysolon Farms land, believing that the Commercial Club would soon succeed in obtaining an extension to the streetcar line that would make the site accessible to city dwellers. The Northeast Demonstration Farm and Experimental Station, built in 1913, quickly became an important center for agricultural education and experimentation.
At the national level, the 1907 recession stimulated a back-to-the-land movement. The National Homecrofting Association encouraged industrial workers to acquire an acre of land and save money by growing their own food. Executive Director George H. Maxwell of Chicago coined the word homecroft from the Scottish word croft, which referred to a small homestead that supported a single family with a mixture of cash crops and subsistence farming.
Homecrofters were not expected to earn their livelihood from the land. Rather, homecrofting meant supplementing the family income by raising vegetables and poultry using whatever ground was available, whether it was a nearby vacant lot or a five-acre farm in the outskirts. As the national homecrofting movement gained strength, the Duluth Commercial Club began promoting this idea of self-sufficiency by encouraging backyard gardens and the creation of “garden suburbs” where middle class families could live and garden on a one- or two-acre parcel.
Homecroft Park on Calvary Road was one of Duluth’s first garden suburbs. Located about three-quarters of a mile from the end of the Woodland streetcar line, one-acre lots were offered for sale by W. M Prindle & Co. beginning in 1909. (Company president William Prindle was the husband of Mina Prindle, the benefactor of Janette Pollay Park.)
The prices ranged from $200 to $275; terms were $1.00 down and $1.50 to $2.00 per week until paid for, no interest, and no payments when sick—as shown in the advertisement above from the May 5, 1910, Duluth News Tribune. By early 1910 enough families had moved into Homecroft Park to justify construction of the Homecroft School.
The Alliance Real Estate Corporation created Exeter Farms, one of the largest suburbs of one-acre tracts, located just north of Lester Park along Maxwell Road. Until automobiles became widely available, the residents of Exeter Farms hiked up the hill to their homes from the end of the streetcar line on Superior Street.
George Maxwell visited Duluth in early 1911. He was so impressed that he christened Duluth “the Homecroft City” and moved the headquarters of the National Homecrofting Association here. Maxwell devoted the entire September issue of his magazine The Talisman to the homecroft movement in Duluth. He made famous “the Duluth Idea.” Maxwell suggested homecrofters “keep house by the year”; essentially, garden for the year around: go to the garden in summer, go to the larder in winter, let sunshine and soil supply fruits, berries, and vegetables for all home needs from the home gardens, and educate the children in the public schools to live this way.
Life changed in 1914 when World War I erupted. Food production dropped dramatically in Europe, as agricultural workers entered military service and the conflict devastated farmland. To help the war effort, Americans were encouraged to conserve food so more could be shipped abroad to the Allies. In 1917 the government urged citizens to use all available lands for growing food, and homecroft gardens were transformed into war gardens.
Then, in October 1918, the massive forest fire that wiped out the city of Cloquet swept through the outskirts of Duluth, burning through Janette Pollay Park, Sam Snively’s farm, and many of the garden suburbs. Numerous homes at Exeter Farms and Homecroft Park were destroyed, along with the Homecroft School.
The war, the fire, and the growing availability of automobiles, refrigeration, and the corner grocery store all contributed to the demise of the homecrofting movement. By 1919 George Maxwell shifted most of his energy to his other favorite topic—irrigation. He moved on to Arizona where he spent the remainder of his career working for the National Irrigation Association.
Although few Duluthians remember the name of George Maxwell or the meaning of the term “homecroft,” ghosts of this back-to-the-land movement of the early 1900s can still be seen in and around the city. And everyone who maintains a backyard garden, raises a flock of urban chickens, or sells produce at the Farmers’ Market is carrying on the rich agricultural legacy of Duluth’s homecroft movement.