This story originally posted in September, 2012.
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.”
Do you have a question for Maryanne Norton’s “Ask the Historian” column? If so, email us and we’ll see what we can dig up.