The “Old Snow White”

This Month's "Ask the Historian"

This story originally posted in September, 2012.
The Hunter’s Park grocery—better known today as the “Old Snow White”—photographed in 1915. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

Can you tell me why the stone building on the northeast corner of Woodland Avenue and Oxford Street is always referred to as “the Snow White” or “the old Snow White”? There are four business operating in it, and none of them are called Snow White. — Britt, Duluth.

Britt, your question tells me you are either a relative newcomer to the Zenith City or simply unfamiliar with the Hunter’s Park neighborhood, as most folks would quickly tell you the building was home to the Snow White store since World War Two. But it didn’t start out as the Snow White.

The bluestone building was home to a corner grocery store for almost 90 years, and was home to the first business to operate in the Hunter’s Park neighborhood. While a 1990 newspaper report claimed the store was built in 1887, records in the Duluth City Assessor’s office show that it was constructed in 1893.

That’s the year Scotland natives George and Jessie McGhie arrived in Duluth. George’s son James D. McGhie preceded him in the Zenith City and worked for several wholesale grocers before teaming up with Roderick McKenzie to open a downtown grocery in the 1890s.

James McGhie, who lived in Hunter’s Park, built the store at 2301 Woodland Avenue and turned operations over to the elder McGhie, who was then 73 years old. George McGhie apparently retired in 1897, as an advertisement appeared in the News Tribune that July stating that the “Hunter’s Park Grocery is now open” and listing “L. Casmir & Son” as proprietors.

George and  Jessie McGhie moved to West Duluth in about 1899, when they both turned 80 and  celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary. That year Martin J. Hoff took over the grocery. Hoff was either James McGhie’s son-in-law or the husband of his niece, which kept the business in the McGhie family until at least 1916, when Hoff took a job as a clerk at the Hunter’s Park Post Office.

Here at Zenith City we were lucky enough to obtain some records of the store from the Hoff era, found in an attic last summer by local contractors Better World Builders, who were working on a home that once belonged to the Hoff family at 2235 Roslyn Avenue.

The contractors recovered a Day Book marked “Drugs;” inside is an accounting of purchases and sales for 1911 and 1912. It’s cover is adorned with the penciled names of several Hoff family members. Inside, the book, which recorded credit transactions, reads like a who’s who of Hunter’s Park, with names like Denfeld, McFarlane, Hoopes, Culkin,Forbes, Hunter, Washburn, and other prominent Duluthians who lived in the neighborhood.

Loose documents were also recovered, including receipts from the Duluth Candy Company that are telling of both the neighborhood and the era’s lack of what we would today consider “political correctness.” The store stocked tam-o-shanter hats because most of its customers were of Scottish descent. And like most grocers and confectioners in Duluth and across the nation, it sold licorice and caramel candies shaped like tiny people called “nigger babies” and “creole kids.” (“Nigger babies” were also made of chocolate and were marketed until the 1960s).

For the most part, the Hunter’s Park Grocery was a convenient spot to get fresh produce and groceries—and later meat from a butcher who rented space within the store. By 1914 it had installed a soda fountain in a portion of the building leased to a pharmacist and operated as the Hunter’s Park Pharmacy.

The grocery store also served as one of the neighborhood’s key landmarks. Groups planning outings in the Woodland area would advertise to “meet at the Hunter’s Park Grocery,” and homes for sale were promoted by listing their distance from or walking time to the store. In an era when telephones were rare, many classified ads for neighborhood services or rentals included the line “inquire at the Hunter’s Park Grocery.” And for years beginning in 1896, the store served as the neighborhood’s polling place for city elections.

Others operated the store after Hoff, and while its name has always officially been Hunter’s Park Grocery, local residents continued to refer to it as “McGhie’s Grocery” long after the McGhie’s and Hoffs actually ran the place, just as locals today still refer to it as the Snow White.

In 1944 owner Walter Miller changed the building’s identity for a new generation by giving it the fairy-tale inspired name it is still known by. Walter’s son Don would later take over the business and operate it until its demise. The Miller’s became renowned for their customer service. At some point the Miller’s covered the building’s bluestone façade with wooden panels, which have since been removed.

The Snow White remained a touchstone of the Woodland neighborhood through the 1980s, but was not immune to national trends. The last quarter of the 20th century saw the national demise of neighborhood grocery stores, squeezed between supermarkets and convenience stores; most of Duluth’s neighborhood grocers closed by the end of the century, including Snow White.

By the 1980s, according to owner Don Miller, had become “a full-service, full-sized convenience store,” still selling fresh produce, but also offering video rentals and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, as the pharmacy was long gone.

In July of 1990, a Duluth News Tribune article reported that the Miller’s were seeking a loan to reinvent Snow White by converting the grocery into a deli with fresh produce, meats and gourmet items. The Millers did not receive the financing they required, and the Snow White closed later that year.

Since then the building has held a variety of small businesses. Today it is home to the Casket Shop, Saffron & Grey Couture Floral Design, the Hair Company salon, and Charles Chairs Insurance. But no matter what businesses operate there now or in the future, there will remain those who will always refer to the building as “the Old Snow White.”


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This Month's "Ask the Historian"

20 Responses to The “Old Snow White”

  1. This isn’t about the Snow White or Hunter’s Park but is about the McGhie’s. I think that James D. McGhie is the “Jimmie McGhie” that I knew in the 1940s who had a grocery store on the corner of 19th and East Superior St. He was then a widower and lived a block away at 20th and East Superior St. He had a son, James, living in Minneapolis and a daughter, Jessie, who lived with him on Superior St. Jessie never married. To my knowledge, Jessie was his only daughter. Jimmie McGhie dated my grandmother in the late 1880’s before my grandfather, Dr. James G. Harris, DVM, arrived from Ottawa in 1889. When they each married others, the two families remained close for life. In fact, since both my wife’s parents and mine had passed away when our son, Jamie, was born, Jessie was like a surrogate grandmother to him.

    Thank you so much for publishing this. I really appreciate reading about the history of the area and of these good family friends.

  2. My Great-grandfather, Pasquale Memmola,
    for six years he was employed as coachman
    by R. M. Hunter, one of Duluth’s most prominent citizens.

    I live in Woodland, and I see the
    R.M. Hunter House, 2317 Woodland. Avenue,
    practically next door to The Old Snow White.
    There was a Coachman’s House behind the main home. That is gone now, but I love just knowing that every time I pass by that home, I
    share the same place where my Great-grandfather would have been seen in a different dimension in time.
    I wonder if the Hunter Family has any photographs…
    I see horse and carriages in this photo.
    Automobiles had apparently arrived on the scene when this particular photo was taken.

  3. I grew up right across Oxford St from Snow White and we were in the store almost every day. Loved the staff, loved the cozy layout of the store, and products were adequate in the 50s and 60s

  4. Reading about the history of Oxford st and the neighborhood is great! There is a mixture of older 1890’s era homes and 1940’s homes. Does anyone now if there was an older home at the corner of oxford and livingston and possibly torn down in the 1940’s? –the top of “oatmeal” hill. Thank you for sharing your stories!

  5. Hi Kathy
    I read this one second. I remember you and Jim and your dad. I believe he also iced the rink at Morley heights. He also coached the ball team there. Do you remember the party my parents had at our house. There must have been over one hundred people there. We have movies but they are very old. I always wanted to transfer them but I think I waited too long. When I was married we lived just up the street from your old house.

  6. Hi Kathy
    We did live across from Mr Sneidy and I had 4 sisters Connie born in 42 and the twins Pat and Kathy born in 46 and Pam born in 50. I was born in 52. Where did you hale from?

  7. John Anderson do you have sister Patty and Kathy? Go to Washburn and live across from Mr. Schniede? Yes I remember the 4th picnics and skating at the rink the dads flooded. I also remember 4-H meetings at the club house. Did you ever slide in Park Hill Cemetery?

  8. John Anderson, I surely do remember Johnson’s grocery store. My dad, Roy Rose, would send us kids up there for a pack of cigarettes. I too remember Albert Woolson’s funeral. We walked up Park St and stood by Sjoberg’s house on the corner of Livingston and Park. Remember the Community club house on the corner of Livingston and Rose?

  9. I was not finished but my cat hit the return button. Oh well. So at the funeral they fired off the cannon I think. I know there was one there. Another memory. Morley Heights Community Clubhouse. We use to have 4h there. In the winter my dad and others flooded the field.We lived one house down so we could go there if we had to but how did anybody else go? Did you hold it? It was a great place to grow up though.

  10. Does anybody remember the grocery store at the corner of Livingston and Glenwood? The first owner I remember was ol man Knack. Then there was a Mr. Johnson. We moved to Rose Street in 1956. We were walking home from the store and to the left at Park Hill Cemetery there was a funeral going on.I was all of 3 or 4 but I remember a cannon and everybody had a uniform on. Iteas Albert Woolsons funeral. Man if that don’t age ya. Beingat the funeral of the last Civil War veteran

  11. I remember when the Loose Moose was a library and before that a post office. Also was told that the bus driver of the Morley Heights loop would pick up groceries at the Snow White and drop them off at the appropriate corner for some families. Also the building that housed the post office was also known to contain the Oxford Exchange for the Northwestern Bell Telephone – still working on that one though.

  12. I also work at the Snow White for old Walt Miller, what a great guy. Don and Dick Miller where the Miller boys. Bagged potatoes in to 10 # bags for sale and carried out groceries. “What a great way to start life” !!

  13. My first job was at Snow White in the late 50’s. I worked there until my dad was transferred to Minneapolis in 1964. I’m laughing as I write this because Don Miller paid me the incredible sum of $0.38 per hour. Off of that I could get my own clothes and have my haircut by a barber instead of my mother. Both of my older brothers worked there as well. It was a great place. Your story didn’t mention the bakery that rented space there in the 50’s and 60’s. They had great bakegoods.

  14. Hey Mike! Yes, a stretch of Oxford was known as “Oatmeal Hill.” I forget the complete story, but a young man who stayed with a Hunter’s Park family remembered the steaming bowls of oatmeal his hosts would serve at breakfast, and when he was older he gave that part of the street the nickname, and–like bad oatmeal on the roof of your mouth–it stuck! Many people thought of it as a nickname for the portion of Hunter’s Park that became Morely Heights, but it was for just that portion of Oxford.

  15. We also did the “meet at Snow White” thing in the sixties – a bicycle rendezvous. It was clerked by Bea Schultz in the later sixties. She previously owned the small grocery at “The End” (top of Woodland Ave). (No relation to me). Speaking of Scots, the top of Oxford street was/is called Oatmeal Hill.

  16. Thanks, Marci! You’ll want to read this month’s feature story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen—a Hunter’s Park resident—as well as her regular “What’s in a Name” column for September, as they are all about the neighborhood. And next week’s “Lost Landmark” is about Hardy Hall, a women’s college preparatory school which one stood at 2000 Woodland Avenue. And tell your daughter to search our archives for more information about Duluth’s highly influential Scots.

    By the way, Marci, I had an uncle in St. Paul named Owen “Salty” Hoff, who said he would come up to Duluth to visit relatives when he was young, which must have been in the 1940s and 50s. If you have any Owne Hoffs on your family tree, please let me know. — Tony D.

  17. Very informative article. Martin Hoff was an uncle to my father-in-law, Charles W. Hoff. My brothers Rick and Rob Santa both worked at Snow White in high school (late 60’s and early 70’s) and delivered groceries in the area. My daughter is living in Glasgow, Scotland, and received a Master’s Degree in Scottish Studies. She was very interested in the Scottish history of the Hunter’s Park neighborhood where we have lived since 1991.

  18. There must have been some irony in the mind of the guy who called it
    “Snow White” since the stone ia almost perfectly black.

  19. I have many fond memories from my childhood of biking to Snow White when my family lived in Morley Heights in the 1970s. Getting there was fun and easy, but that ride home up Oxford was a bear! And yes, that building will always be the Snow White to me! Thanks for providing some more history on the place.

    Paul LaTour
    Aurora, IL

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