Myrtle Marshall

Unfortunately this grainy photograph of Myrtle Marshall, c. 1963, is the only image of her we could find to share with readers. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

If you lived in Duluth from the 1930s through the 1990s, you probably knew the name Myrtle Marshall. The Lakeside resident—who with her husband Lyman established Lakeside’s Marshall Hardware—was a tireless community organizer and booster of not just her beloved neighborhood but of all of Duluth. But her involvement with the 1973 effort to repeal the 1891 state law prohibiting the sale and manufacture of liquor in Lakeside/Lester Park has grown to mythic proportions.

Marshall was born in Spirit Lake, Iowa, in 1904; her family later moved to Windom, Minnesota, where she graduated from Windom High School. In 1924 she married Lyman Marshall and they moved to Duluth, eventually settling in Lakeside. In 1939 they opened Marshall Hardware. A tireless community organizer, particularly on issues that benefitted children, her accomplishments were many, including, but not limited to:

  • Establishing Duluth’s first Brownie Troop in 1932 and serving as a Girl Scout Leader for many years
  • Organizing Duluth Central High School’s first all-class reunion
  • Spearheading the effort to place Duluth’s original Central High School on the National Register of Historic Places, which helped to save it from demolition
  • Organizing a committee that led to the creation of East High School
  • Serving on the Parent-Teachers Association board at Lakeside Elementary
  • Serving as PTA president of both Central and East High Schools
  • Teaching Sunday School at Lakeside Presbyterian Church for over 40 years.
  • Serving on the board of directors of the Duluth Playhouse, the Duluth Y.W.C.A., and Duluth’s Salvation Army
  • Serving as president of the Duluth Woman’s Club, both the Lakeview and Duluth Garden Clubs, Duluth’s 20th Century Club, and the Duluth Council of Church Women
  • Serving on the committee that helped bring WDSE-TV to Duluth
  • Serving as chairman of the Women’s delegation during Duluth’s 1956 Centennial Celebration
  • Serving as finance chair of the Duluth Ballet and secretary of the Lakeside and Lester Park Business Association
  • Participating in several mayoral advisory groups, including the Freeway Study Commission that oversaw the expansion of I-35
  • Leading an effort to keep a U.S. Post Office in Lakeside

All this and, according to her obituary, she still worked at the hardware store from between one and 14 hours a day for most of her life and found time to act in 17 plays at the Duluth Playhouse and give countless readings of poems, plays, and stories to a variety of groups. Further, she racked up an impressive list of honors:

  • Named Duluth’s Woman of the Year in 1963
  • Inducted into the Duluth Hall of Fame in 1979
  • Presented with the World of Poetry’s 1984 Golden Poet Award for a poem about her beloved city (scroll down to read the poem)
  • Recognized for her preservation work in 1992
  • Awarded a lifetime membership on the Presbyterian Board of Missionaries
  • Bestowed with honorary life-memberships in the Lakeside Elementary, East High School, and Central High School PTAs.

Marshall, as evidenced above, was a remarkable Duluthian who constantly strived to improve her community and retain elements of its heritage, all with reserved modesty. When accepting Duluth’s Woman of the Year award, she said, “Whatever I have done, I have done with the encouragement of my family and friends. No one can take credit as an individual.”

Yet today Marshall often receives credit for things she did not do. For one, many people believe that Marshall helped establish the law prohibiting liquor sales in Lakeside/Lester Park, which was put into place 13 years before she was born and 33 years before she moved to Duluth. Even her longtime friend (and former Duluth Mayor) Ben Boo—who referred to Marshall as “the grande dame of Lakeside and Lester Park”—suggested that Marshall was present when the 1891 law was put in place: “When Lakeside became part of the city of Duluth, Myrtle never failed to remind City Hall that Lakeside had special consideration outside and above the provisions of the city charter. [She] believed Lakeside was separate and sometimes above the rest of us—in a nice way.”

Many Duluthians also confuse Myrtle Marshall with Duluth’s philanthropic Marshall Sisters, which is easy to do. Julia and Caroline Marshall also lived in Lakeside and came from a hardware family—their father, Albert Morely Marshall, created Marshall-Wells Hardware, once the largest hardware distributor in the world. The Marshall sisters, like Myrtle Marshall, were also huge supporters of Duluth. Along with their friend Dorothy Congdon—daughter-in-law of Chester and Clara Congdon—the philanthropic Marshall sisters used their inheritance and influence to support civic projects throughout Duluth, including WDSE-TV (which Myrtle Marshall helped to create), Bayfront Park, the Great Lakes Aquarium, and countless other projects. Like Myrtle Marshall, both were once named Duluth’s Woman of the Year and both have been inducted into the Duluth Hall of Fame. They were also instrumental in shaping Duluth’s Gateway Urban Renewal project, and their efforts resulted in the 5th Avenue West Mall that leads to the Civic Center. That project also eliminated Duluth’s Bowery, home to a population of transient alcoholics, which may further confuse Myrtle with Caroline and Julia.

Former Duluth mayor Herb Bergson certainly had Myrtle confused with Julia and Caroline. Bergson recently told Zenith City Online, “When the Marshall sisters willed the East End of Duluth to the city, they demanded that there would be no liquor sold on the land they gifted…. Darlene Marshall (the wife of the grandson of one of the sisters) is a friend, so my opinion is tainted.”

Bergson statement indicates he believed that the property that became the City of Lakeside in 1891 was given to the city of Duluth by Julia and Caroline Marshall, which of course is not true; Julia and Caroline Marshall were not born until after Duluth annexed Lakeside, and neither married nor had children. Further, Darlene Marshall’s husband Scott is a grandson of Myrtle Marshall, who was not related the Marshall sisters. Bergson’s confusion had real consequences, as he explained to Zenith City, “That was the deal and that was why I vetoed the council action when the city council voted in favor of [repealing the law in 2007].”

But the biggest myth concerning Myrtle Marshall circulating today is that many Duluthians believe her 1973 efforts actually stopped Duluth from repealing the 1891 law governing sale of liquor in Lakeside. When the Duluth City Council faced the issue of repealing the law in 1973, Marshall led an effort by some Lakeside residents to keep the law in place.

The council never had (and still does not have) the power to overturn the law. All it can do is resolve to ask Duluth’s legislative delegation to introduce a bill repealing the law. If the bill passes, then the city council would be allowed to vote on whether to allow liquor sales in the community.

Marshall and an estimated 60 Lakesiders (representing less than one percent of the community’s entire population) attended a Duluth City Council meeting seeking public input on the matter. Marshall was one of nine Lakesiders who spoke to the council. She referred to the 1891 law as a “sacred trust which should not be violated.” She also suggested that each and every one of Lakeside’s 16,000 residents supported the 1891 agreement by virtue of the fact that they have been “paying taxes to the city of Duluth, serving as good community services, and participating in the development of the city.”

Her efforts and those of her fellow Lakesiders were enough to convince the city council to resolve to request the 1891 law’s repeal only if a majority of Lakeside and Lester Park voted for the repeal in a referendum election.

Instead, Marshall’s friend Mayor Ben Boo vetoed the city council’s resolution, citing a 1967 vote that overwhelmingly indicated “precinct voting on liquor issues is ‘contrary to the wishes of the majority’ of city residents.”

Lakesiders lost their opportunity to vote on the issue, but those opposed to liquor sales ultimately won, as the Duluth Herald reported, “The council never pursued the issue after Boo’s veto.”

So while Myrtle Marshall fought valiantly to retain the 1891 law she believed in, her efforts and those of other Lakesiders did not actually prevent the city council from moving forward with a resolution to repeal the law; Boo’s veto did.

In fact, despite the lack of a referendum vote and a city council resolution, all but one member of the 1974 Duluth legislative delegation attempted to repeal the 1891 law. Senator Sam Solon attached a rider to a bill in the 1974 legislative session, but the entire bill came up six votes short thanks to the lobbying efforts of Ralph Doty, who represented the Lakeside/Lester Park area in the state legislature. So the retention of the 1891 law came not through the efforts of Marshall and other Lakeside/Lester Park residents in the Duluth city council chambers, but through the work of Ralph Doty at the state capitol.

No matter on which side your opinion falls on the matter of whether liquor should be sold in Lakeside, every Duluthian today has many reasons to be proud and grateful for Myrtle Marshall, whose civic efforts are reflected throughout our community to this day. No matter what eventually becomes of the 1891 law, Marshall’s legacy will live on for generations to come. Her friend and former mayor Ben Boo would likely agree that Marshall was a grande dame not just of Lakeside and Lester Park, but of all Duluth.

___________

Duluth is My Town

By Myrtle Marshall

You can take the Rocky Mountains and heap them in a pile,

I’ll take the hills of my Duluth—they’ll last a long, long while.

You can take the Sphinx of Egypt; I like Leif Erikson’s boat.

Talk about the English Channel, but over our Canal I’ll gloat!

When the moon shines over Park Point and the “diamond necklace”* gleams,

When sails are skimming around the bend and the ore boat whistle screams,

When Enger Tower is glowing and I circle the Skyline Drive,

Where half a hundred church spires light the spirit that keeps faith alive,

When the Playhouse rivals Broadway; when school bands march down the street,

When there’s a welcoming smile on every face and a greeting from each one I meet,

When the golden sun touches our skyline, and the whitecaps line the bay,

And the cool winds beacon along North Shore—that’s the end of my perfect day.

I’ll take Duluth with its grandeur, Duluth with its brotherly love.

They can find their heaven on some far shore—my heaven’s the town that I love.

*The “Diamond Necklace” was a local nickname for the lights on the ore docks at the foot of 33rd Avenue West. Myrtle Marshall wrote this poem as part of her 1963 acceptance speech as Duluth’s woman of the year. In 1984 her brother submitted it to the World of Poetry’s annual Golden Poet competition. The poem was named the contest winner several months following her brother’s death. Marshall had no idea he had submitted the poem.

Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.