Charles F. & Ethel Colman

The street sign for Colman Avenue, named for Charles F. & Ethel Colman. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Almost all streets in Duluth that aren’t numbers, places or trees are named for dead white men. It’s regrettable, surely. But as anyone who’s looked at a deed or plat map knows, men were the developers, the real estate buyers, and the ones who decided what the street names would be called. A great number of them decided to name the streets they developed after themselves, though if the property was large enough, you’ll find relatives’ first names as well.

Though it is true that street names are often for men by default, when property is transferred, wives’ signatures are right there on the next line under their husbands’. They owned that land just as much as their husbands did, after all. It is not always easy to find their stories beyond that signature, but sometimes they manage to break through and make waves big enough to hit the local papers.

In Woodland, there are two streets named for real estate men, but if you scratch the surface you’ll find that it’s only fair to think of them as named for early power couples—couples where the wife participated in the family business equally with their husbands.

Charles Francis and Ethel Colman helped shape the Woodland neighborhood and took civic responsibility to a new level. Francis (he went by his middle name) was born in 1872 in Greenbush, Wisconsin. The Colmans arrived in Duluth in 1909 after Francis had made his money in lumbering. In 1911 he formed the successful C. Francis Colman Company, a Duluth real estate and insurance agency first housed in the Manhattan Building. The company was a primary mover in early twentieth-century Woodland, buying up much of the land that now makes up the neighborhood, clearing it of trees, and platting streets. As early resident Harvey Grew explained to oral history interviewer Diane Oesterreich,

“They started cutting on Anoka Street and went on down one street right after another. It looked like a river as you looked down on the tops of the cut trees, especially on Winona Street. Mr. Colman lived on Winona Street himself, along with his family. […] They built houses and called it Colman’s First Addition. And built more houses, and called it Colman’s Second Addition. In a few more years, they built more and called it Colman’s Third Addition. G.G. Hartley owned all the land originally before Colman. Francis Colman was the real estate man who built Woodland. He bought all this land from Hartley, a millionaire.”

The Colmans had other property, including a later home in Hunters Park and a resort on Cruiser Lake in today’s Voyageur’s National Park that was destroyed in the 1936 Peninsula Fire. Francis also became somewhat involved in civic affairs, serving as a treasurer of the Duluth School District for a time circa 1920. But his life was cut short, and he died in 1924.

At this point, Ethel stepped in and took control of the C. Francis Colman Company. Today we wouldn’t perhaps think of this as a big deal. But this was 1924, and she was the now-single mother of seven—yes, seven—young children.

Having a job and being a single parent wasn’t enough for Ethel—she was a strong believer in civic obligation and service, especially for women. When her youngest children were five months old, she helped organize the Woodland Community Club and became its first president. After that point, her civic activities only increased. She served as secretary of the first Woman’s Council and was a chief instigator in the organization of the Duluth Woman’s Club, working on its welfare committee. She was the first woman member of the budget committee of Duluth’s Community Fund. She also was active in the Isaack Walton League as well as all the relevant local real estate organizations of the time. If that wasn’t enough, she devoted a great deal of time making sure occupational therapy became a staple service in Duluth’s hospitals.

A full life to be sure—the latest mention found of her is in a 1943 Duluth News-Tribune article. There is scant evidence about her later life—she may have moved to be near her children, or she may have remarried.

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