This past September, our feature on Duluth’s first murder mentioned Decker’s brewery as the location of the city’s first makeshift jail. The Decker’s saloon, too, prominently featured in the story, as the flashpoint for the running street battle leading to the stabbing death of George Northrup. This story might have led some to wonder about Decker Road, the north-south thoroughfare that runs between Miller Hill Mall and Piedmont Avenue, traversing both Duluth Heights and Piedmont Heights.
Was Decker Road named for a member of the Decker brewing family? And why up there on the hill?
Sometimes these answers can be murky. But in this case, it’s rather clear: the road is named for Benjamin Decker, who had a market farm and greenhouse on the road in the early part of the 20th century. The road was originally called “the Decker road”—short for “the road to Decker’s farm”—and it was built in 1915 as a connector for rural Duluth market gardeners to get their produce to the city center.
In most of Duluth’s history annals, Benjamin’s father, Nicholas Decker, was a brewer, and that’s that—the man who bought the first brewery at Brewery Creek from Sidney Luce and J. G. Busch in 1866. In those days, the Vermillion Trail was still an old Indian path heading north, angled up the hill from the east side of town, past the Decker’s hotel, the Vermillion House, and the brewery, up into what became Hunters Park, and on to Lake Vermillion and the Vermillion Iron Range. There was little else in the neighborhood, so the Vermillion Road for a short time was called “the Decker’s road.”
[Editor’s Note: In 1869 the path was developed into a road by George Stuntz; at first it was mostly used by prospectors heading north during the “Vermilion Gold Rush” of 1869. The second “L” was later dropped from the spelling of Vermillion Road to coincide with the spelling of Lake Vermilion.]
At the time, Decker’s Vermillion House was one of only a few places for newcomers to stay, and overcrowding was a problem. The May 22, 1869 Duluth Minnesotian offers a straight-faced but hopefully joking article suggests a solution advised by the proprietor:
The landlord has been gravely suggesting to some of his lodgers the advisability of adopting a plan of economizing space and bed clothes, which, he says, prevails in the larger cities of Germany, where he came from! This is, to obtain a couple of two inch ropes and stretch them across the rooms: at suitable spaces apart near the floor, so as to accommodate men of the average size lying across them heads downward and eighteen inches apart, with a rope for their foreheads and another rope across the middle of their bodies, their feet resting tip-toe upon the floor—no bed clothes being necessary, as nobody will undress, and they will keep each other warm as hens do by the animal electricity! Landlord Decker tells it “for a fact,” that such a cheap lodging he has seen in the old country, the charge there being but about half penny per night; and he thinks he could afford it here for about five cents a night, with meals thrown in at 50 cents each!
Nicholas Decker came from Luxembourg and was among the earliest settlers in Superior and Duluth. He arrived in Superior in 1852 and married his wife Mary Unden in 1856. A year later he and his family removed to Oneota and then Fond du Lac, where he served as “Indian Farmer” for a couple years,, essentially working for the federal government to train the Indians to become agriculturalists. During the Dakota Conflict, he and his growing family left for the safety of Michigan, but they returned in 1865. For ten years thereafter, he was not only a brewery owner, but also a town supervisor, county commissioner and alderman. His political career was cut short, however, when he was overtaken by consumption (tuberculosis) and died in 1875, leaving his wife and four children. (He was one of the early Duluthians buried at Chester Creek.)
Nicholas had two sons, Benjamin and Nicholas, Jr. For two years after the elder Nicholas’s death, the brothers managed to keep the brewery going in partnership with brewer Michael Fink, but eventually sold it to him outright. They both tried their hands at various enterprises and worked for the city. Fink meanwhile built a new brewery and hired August Fitger as the brewmaster. The Decker brothers got back into brewing at the old location in 1882. This time, the business did not last longer than about two years, and the building stood empty until they either sold the building or it was abandoned in 1887. It was torn down in 1890 to make way for “a row of handsome tenements to be built by Louis Rouchleau.”
At the turn of the century, Benjamin moved up to Hermantown and went into farming, ostensibly following community leaders’ hopes that rural Duluth would provide all the vegetables required for the growing city. In this, he followed his long-dead father’s lead as well, who wrote a letter to the Minnesotian in 1869 touting his local gardening experience:
I have planted gardens in Duluth generally from the 5th to the 20th of May; occasionally as early as April; and never failed to raise a good crop of vegetables, even of tomatoes. Last spring (1868) I planted garden on the 5th to the 15th of May. I raised ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, snap beans, squashes, pumpkins, cabbages, carrots, beets, potatoes, melons and pot herbs. I can raise any vegetables here I ever saw raised anywhere in the temperate regions—they grow quickly and are sweet and good.
Benjamin Decker (who like his father married a girl named Mary) lived with his large family up on Decker Road running the farm and greenhouse until two tragedies struck in quick succession. The first was the 1916 loss of his 26-year-old youngest son Frank, who was crushed to death in a rail yard accident. The second was the Fire of 1918, which burned the family business to the ground. Soon thereafter, the family moved to Idaho, never to return. When he died in 1943 at the age of 86, his Duluth Herald obituary mentioned the fact that he was “believed to be the second white person born in Fond du Lac.”