Walter Van Brunt

Walter Van Brunt, Duluth pioneer, founder of the Duluth Telephone Company, and editor of a three-volume history of Duluth and St. Louis County published in 1922. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Walter Van Brunt, of Duluth, supervising editor of this historical work, secretary of the Old Settlers’ Association of the Head of Lake Superior, and one of the most interested and faithful of the old settlers of St. Louis County, Minnesota, in searching for and preserving the historical annals of that part of Minnesota, has lived in Duluth since 1869, and during the half-century from that year to the present has had good and useful part in much that has been of consequence to the city of Duluth. He was the first city clerk of Duluth, was one of the incorporators of the Duluth Board of Trade, was the founder of the telephone system in Duluth; was one of the pioneer business men of the city, and through the whole period of close association with the affairs of the city he has shown a loyalty and an unselfish enthusiasm such as demonstrates clearly his implicit faith in the general belief that Duluth will become, if it is not now, the premier city of the northwest.

The writer has not known Mr. Van Brunt for long, but for long enough to know that he is a man of frank, unostentatious, honest character, a man of that unusual type which, while asking no favors of his fellows, is ever ready to shoulder the more burdensome, onerous and arduous tasks o fpublic life rather than the more prominent and nom- 1241inal posts of public honor and service. His life seems to have been one of painstaking thoroughness; that was evident when, just after he had been appointed clerk of the infant city, in 1869, he insisted upon being supplied with a set of books such as he felt were necessary for a proper accounting of public moneys, but such as the “city fathers” deemed to be many times more expensive than he “ought to get along with.” Fortunately for the city of Duluth Clerk Van Brunt was not of the average type of pioneer recorder. He could not “make-shift” with a limp-covered twenty-five-cent copy-book and a pencil. For the affairs of the city during its most important period-its formative years-he was responsible, i. e., for the recording, and with a frankness that was in keeping with his earnestness in the public service he demanded a fifty-dollar set of books. He got them. And he used them. And Duluth for all time has its earliest municipal history clear and complete instead of it being only hazily suppositious, as are the early records of so many now important centers in this wonderfully successful but somewhat careless group of states known as the United States of North America. A biographer some years ago wrote of this phase of Mr. Van Brunt’s public service as follows: “After considerable argument he (Mr. Van Brunt) prevailed upon the council to authorize the purchase of a suitable equipment of record books so that he could open the accounts of the city in a systematic manner, and all the municipal records are therefore accessible. The wisdom of this course has again and again been demonstrated, during the intervening years, and Mr. Van Brunt is entitled to no small amount of credit for his forethought and perseverance in this particular. He proved a competent official.” Mr. Van Brunt’s characteristic thoroughness has never been more strikingly demonstrated than in his compilation of the historical volumes of the Old Settlers Association of the Head of Lake Superior.. The writer has for many years been engaged in compiling historical works and has had access to the files and records of many pioneer and historical societies, but he has never been fortunate enough to find a set of pioneer records so comprehensive and well-kept as that which Mr. Van Brunt, during years of patient labor, has built up for the Old Settlers’ Association of the Head of Lake Superior. It has truly been a labor of love, love of his fellow-pioneers and of the place in which he has lived for more than fifty years. He has failed in only one duty to the Association. Although he has written into their records many autobiographies and biographies, those of worthy pioneers of Duluth, Superior and the Ranges, he has failed to supply his own for their files.

He did set down his life story a few years ago, and eventually, probably, it will have place in the records of the Head of the Lakes. That autobiography is now before the writer, and he hopes to give it place in this sketch. for in no other words could he better indicate some of the outstanding traits one sees in the character of Mr. Van Brunt-a frankness of narration in which is no semblance of self-glorification or selfassertiveness.

Those who know Mr. Van Brunt know him to be a man of the genuine type, democratic in thought and action, unostentatious and frank in expression-one who speaks as he thinks, without desire to offend or to excuse, and with a kindly interest in his fellows, poor as well as rich.

He was born in Beloit, Wisconsin, in 1846, but comes of a family of Dutch antecedents, and later of New Jersey settlement. He is in the third generation of American residence, his grandfather, Joseph Van Brunt, having spent the greater part of his life in this country.

Joseph Van Brunt was born in Holland, and took to the sea when he became of adult age. He was evidently still a young man when he settled in the state of New Jersey. He later seems to have lived in New York state, for at Geneva, New York, his son Samuel T., father of Walter and Henry Van Brunt, was born. The family moved to Beloit, Wisconsin, in the forties, and there Joseph Van Brunt lived for several years and then moved to Wabansia, Ohio, to live with his daughter, Mrs. J. A. Santa, where he died at the age of eighty years. His wife, however, had died in the east before the migration of the family.

Samuel T. Van Brunt, son of Joseph and father of Walter, was born at Geneva, New York, in 1822. He grew to manhood in his native state and became skilled in carpentry. As a carpenter he worked for two years in New York’ city, for the greater part of the time on the old Trinity Church on Broadway. He married in 1845, and he and his wife soon afterward left New York. They settled in Beloit, Wisconsin, where their son Walter was born a year later. Mr. Walter Van Brunt’s autobiography begins: “My father was Samuel TenBrook Van Brunt, a carpenter by trade, of Geneva, New York. My mother was Adaline Mathilda Nash, of Penn Yan, New York.” (Mrs. Adaline M. (Nash) Van Brunt was born in Penn Yan, New York, in 1826, and died in Duluth in 1886, aged sixty years. She was the daughter of Hiram and Sarah Nash, the former dying in Penn Yan, New York, aged fifty-six years, and the latter in St. Anthony, Minnesota, in’ old age. A brother of Mrs. Adaline M. (Nash) Van Brunt was Edgar Nash, a hardware merchant in Duluth from 1869 to 1875).

“My parents were married on May 22, 1845, coming west to Beloit, Wisconsin, where I was born on May 21, 1846, and where my brother Henry also was born six years later, on May 16, 1852. No more children were born to my parents, and our home was in a two-story stone house which my father built on Broad street, Beloit. I attended the common school of that place until I was nine years old, or until the summer of 1855, when we moved to Faribault, Minnesota, the journey being made in a two-horse covered wagon, in which was packed the whole of our household furniture. The route was overland to Prairie .du Chien on the Mississippi River, thence by the side-wheel steamer ‘Northern Light’ to Saint Paul, which point we reached after a trip of five or six days. From there we went with our team to Saint Anthony (now East Minneapolis), my mother wishing to see her brothers, Edgar A., Zebulon E. B., and George Alonzo, who were in business at place. George A. Nash was a druggist, while his brothers Edgar A. and Zebulon E. B. (or Zeb, as we called him), were engaged in the hardware and transportation business in partnership, running a line of steamboats from St. Anthony Falls to St. Cloud, on the upper Mississippi River, above the Falls of St. Anthony. We stayed in St. Anthony for some months, until early in December, 1855, when my parents decided to continue the journey on to Faribault, Rice County, Minnesota, sixty miles distant. We started overland with our horses and wagon, going by way of Fort Snelling. Although the weather had turned very cold we were able to ferry across the Mississippi River at Fort Snelling without difficulty, but found that the ferry across the Minnesota River to Mendota could not run, ice having formed on the river. We were forced to stay there, opposite Mendota, for a day, the ice being too thin to hold our horses and wagon and it being necessary therefore to cut a channel through the ice so that the ferry could cross. We eventually arrived at Faribault after three days of very cold traveling. There my 1243father went into business partnership with a man named Andrew S.

Misner, the partners taking the trading name of Van Brunt and Misner.

They bought a lot on the northeast corner of Third and Main streets, in the center of town, and proceeded to get busy. They planned to build a one-story frame building, to serve as a store on the lot, the building to have, on the east side, a lean-to which was to serve as our home, Mr. Misner having already built a house on Second street, a block west.

So the partners went onto the hill west of town and there quarried limestone for the foundation walls, after which one set to work digging the cellar and building the foundation, while the other took the team and drove forty miles to Hastings, on the Mississippi River, returning with the lumber for the building. The journey took six days for the round trip and during that time the cellar was dug and the foundation walls built, so that soon the building was up and opened as a general country store My father and Mr. Misner continued in partnership until the panic of 1857, when Mr. Misner retired from the firm, my father thereafter continuing the business independently, until his death, which occurred on February 7,. 1868.

“As to myself. Soon after we had arrived in Faribault in 1855 I attended school in a one-story log building, in which the desks were fastened to the wall around the room. We sat at the desks on common benches and our backs were therefore to the teacher, a Miss Emily Tuttle.

Afterwards I attended a church school, the Seabury Mission, corner of Fourth and Elm streets. Bishop Henry B. Whipple was the head, Rev. John C. Brock, the principal, and Rev. J. H. Manning, the rector.

To that school I went until the fall of 1861, I being then fifteen years old. After leaving school I was in my father’s store for a while, afterward entering the employ of Brown and Draper, dry goods, Faribault.

In the fall of 1865 I went to St. Paul so that I might attend Bryant and Stratton’s Commercial College. For two years I worked in St. Paul, going into the store of Curtis and Nash (the latter my uncle), hardware merchants, corner of Cedar and Third streets, St. Paul, and in the fall of that year went with Hogan and Nichols, dry goods, also on Third street, a few doors below Cedar street. In the spring of 1867 I became bookkeeper for Breidert and Keifer, wholesale hardware dealers on Upper Third street, above St. Peter street, and about opposite Hill street. I remained with them for a year until the spring of 1868, when. my father having died, I had to return to Faribault to take charge of my father’s business.

“In the spring of 1869 my uncle, Edgar Nash, of Minneapolis. wrote me stating that he was going to Duluth, at the head of Lake Superior, with the intention of locating there. He asked me to go with him. So I sold our store building and lot at Faribault, and, accompanied by my mother and my brother Henry, started for Duluth, going by way of St. Paul, railroad, stage, and the old Military road, which by the way from Wyoming north was mostly water. We arrived at Superior, Wisconsin, on May 6th, 1869, after a strenuous trip of three days. I had shipped our stock and our household goods to Milwaukee by rail. From there they were brought to Duluth on the steamer ‘City of Madison’ of the Leopold and Austrian line. I sold the stock of goods to Benjamin Gillett. who had a store on what is now Lake Avenue, south, near Morse street, Duluth. Then I took charge of the hardware business of my uncle, Edgar Nash, who had located on the northwest corner of West Superior street and Lake avenue. My uncle went back to Minneapolis in 1873, but from 1869 to that time I had attended to his Duluth business, and in addition had been city clerk (the first one, 1869-73), and was 1244agent for two steamship lines, Leopold and Austrian’s line from Chicago, and Beatty’s Canadian line from Sarnia, Ontario. I served as city clerk until April, 1873, when I was succeeded by John F. McLaren; “After my uncle had departed for Minneapolis I went into the insurance business on my own account, renting an office from Luther Mendenhall, in a one-story frame building he then occupied (as agent for the Western Land Association of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which company at that time owned a large part of Duluth). The office building was at what is now 121 West Superior street, just west of the old Clark House, which stood where now is the store of George A. Gray & Company at 113-19 West Superior street. In 1875 I went with Charles H.

Graves and Company, salt, lime, cement and grain merchants, also insurance agents. Their office was at 108 West Superior street, now part of the site of the New Jersey Building, and they had a dock, then known as the Outside Dock, situated at the foot of Fourth avenue, East, adjoining Elevator A (which burned in December, 1886). I was admitted to the firm in 1877, and three years later, in 1880, we bought the property on the west side of Lake avenue, South, between Sutphin and Morse streets, Nos. 301 to 353 Lake avenue, South, which now is the site of the Marshall Wells Hardware Company buildings and warehouses.

We built two large warehouses, 120 and 300 feet, fronting on Lake avenue, and the slip in the rear, with a railroad track in the center. In 1882 or 1883 we sold the merchandise part of the business to Cutler and Gilbert, now Cutler Magner and Company, and opened an office in the Clark Block, just built, at 19-21 West Superior street. We occupied the western half of No. 21 and E. W. Clark and Company opened a bank in the eastern half of the building, the part now occupied by the dry-goods store of Stack Brothers. In that building I organized the Duluth Telephone Company, with.thirteen subscribers.” (The Northwest Telephone Exchange Company, which company now controls the Duluth telephone service, a couple of years ago printed a facsimile of the first telephone directory of Duluth, that issued by Mr. Van Brunt, in the name of the “Duluth Telephone Exchange Co.” in 1882. It listed thirty subscribers and on the reverse side of the facsimile a brief history of the telephone company was given, the review stating that “in 1875 Mr. Walter Van Brunt … read of the invention of the telephone and in 1876 (during the Philadelphia Exposition of that year) sent for two such instruments which he connected on a private line between C. H. Graves & Co. office, with which he was associated, and elevator ‘A.’ Later on Mr. Van Brunt connected five other places of business on this line, and out of this grew the first telephone exchange, which was installed in the fall of 1881. … The Duluth Exchange of 1882, consisting of thirty subscribers, has grown from one exchange to six central offices and now furnishes service to more than 20,000 telephones.”) Continuing Mr. Van Brunt’s autobiography, the narrative reads: “While in this (the Clark Block) building I helped to organize the Board of Trade, and we (presumably the Board of Trade as well as C. H. Graves and Company) occupied a room in the two-story frame building where the Kresge 10-cent store now is, at 20 West Superior street, moving from there to the Metropolitan Block, now occupied by George A. Gray Co., and from there to a building of its (the Board of Trade’s) own on the southwest corner of Third avenue, West, and Superior street. which burned on Sunday, February 11, 1894.” (The Duluth Board of Trade was organized in 1881, with eleven members. Its incorporators were George Spencer, Clinton Markell, A. J. Sawyer, Owen Fargusson, W. T. Hooker, W. W. Davis, R. S. Munger, Walter Van Brunt, and Mr. Van Brunt’s partner, C. H. Graves, who later became U. S. minister to the Court of Sweden. On February 11, 1894, the Board of Trade Building, which stood where now is the Lonsdale Building, was totally destroyed by fire, a property loss in excess of $100,000. It was a building of four stories, Fond du Lac brown stone and pressed brick, built in 1885 at a cost of $80,000. Many firms had offices in the building. Some went to the Torrey Building, some to the old Chamber of Commerce Building. now called the Manhattan Building. C. H. Graves and Company took quarters in the Burrows Building, pending the erection of the new Board of Trade Building, plans for which had already been passed. The new building, which is the one still used. was erected on the northwest corner of Third avenue, West, and First street in 1894-95, at a cost of $475,000, for building and site. It was opened on March 30, 1895.) Mr. Van Brunt’s narrative continues: “After the burning of the Board of Trade Building in February, 1894, we rented an office in the Burrows Building, and from there went to the Palladio Building, northwest corner of Fourth avenue, West, and Superior street, renting the room now occupied by Charles E. Lewis and Company. In 1895 I sold my interest in the business to my partner, Charles H. Graves, and opened an office in Room No. 4, American Exchange Building, southwest corner of Third avenue, West, and Superior street; then to Room No. 14, Phoenix Block, with George R. Laybourn.

There I conducted a real estate and insurance business until 1914, when I removed to 108 Province Building, in … moving over to my present quarters in the Palladio Building, room No. 505.

“On November 25, 1870, I helped to organize the Duluth Volunteer Fire Department (Duluth Hose Company No. 1, see first volume), and in the summer of 1871 the city purchased a Silsby Steamer fire engine.

It arrived here on the steamer ‘Philadelphia’ from Buffalo on November 30, 1871, and we built a small shack for it at the foot of First avenue, East, at the base of Minnesota Point. The next year, I think it was, the building caught fire and burned both it and the engine. The city then bought another engine and built a brick fire hall at 22 East Second street, opposite the High School Building, the fire hall now being occupied by Burrell and Company, sheet iron workers. Hose Company No. 1, as it was called, then raised, by subscription, money enough to buy a fire bell, which was mounted on a tower at the rear of the building, the bell being still in use (at No. 3 Fire Hall. northeast corner First avenue, East, and Third street.) On May 7, 1873, I was elected foreman of Hose Co. No. 1 and on June 3, 1885, was granted an Exempt Fireman’s Certificate.

“On February 20, 1870, I was married to Mary A. Saxton, daughter of Horace and Eunice Saxton, who came from Toledo, Ohio, to Superior, in 1855. We were blessed with two children, a daughter, Addie M., born December 17, 1872; and Horace, born March 29, 1874. Horace died of typhoid fever January 6, 1882, aged seven years and ten months.

Addie M. is still living. She married Carroll M. Mauseau on October 4, 1893, and to them was born a son, Walter M., now twenty-five years old.” Mr. Van Brunt has been identified with Masonic bodies, in Duluth and elsewhere, for more than fifty years. He took his first degrees in Ancient Landmark Lodge No. 5, St. Paul, Minnesota; the Entered Apprentice Degree on January 23, 1868; the Fellow Craft degree on February 27, 1868; and the Master Mason degree on March 26, 1868. Soon 1246after he came to Duluth, in 1869, he joined other Duluth residents in organizing Palestine Lodge No. 79, of Duluth, Minnesota. (Its first quarters were in a two-story frame building which stood on the northeast corner of Second avenue, East, and Superior street, until torn down to make way for the Temple Building and Orpheum Theatre now upon its site.) Mr. Van Brunt took Chapter degrees in Keystone Chapter No. 20, Duluth, as follows: Mark Master degree on February 28, 1872; Past Master degree, same date; Most Excellent Master, on March 6, 1872; Royal Arch degree, on March 13, 1872; and he was made a life member on February 28, 1892. Of Minneapolis Council No. 2 Mr. Van Brunt became Royal Master on January 24, 1880, Select Master on January 24, 1880, and Super Excellent on . He was a charter member of Duluth Council No. 6, Duluth, Minnesota, of which body he was elected Principal Conductor on March 26, 1880, being the first in that office, and in 1882 became Captain of the Guard. He joined Duluth Commandery No. 18, Knights Templar, taking the Red Cross degree on December 8, 1885; Knight Templar degree on January 4, 1886; and Knight of Malta degree on the same date. His Scottish Rite degrees were taken at Excelsior Lodge of Perfection No. 2, Minneapolis, Minnesota, March 28, 1888. St. Vincent de Paul Chapter Rose Croix No. 2, Minneapolis, Minnesota, March 29, 1888; Alfred Elisha Ames Council, Knights Kadosh No. 2, Minneapolis, Minnesota, March 30, 1888, and Master of the Royal Secret, 32nd degree, on March 31, 1888. Mr. Van Brunt joined Osman Temple, A. A. O. N. M. S. (Shrine) on February 1, 1888. He was also a charter member of three other Masonic organizations: Aad Temple, A. A. O. N. M. S., Duluth; Duluth Consistory No. 3, and Zenith Chapter No. 25, Order of Eastern Star.

He has had helpful part in much other work, fraternal, civic and industrial. Among the Duluth enterprises with which he was identified, as original stockholder, were: The Duluth Dry Goods Company; the Duluth Drug Company, the Duluth Crockery Company, the Duluth Blast Furnace Company, and the Spalding Hotel Company.

He has busied himself with the development of Duluth for more than fifty years, and has been especially interested in preserving all records of historical import to Duluth and the Head of the Lakes. Much of what is compiled in these three volumes has been taken from the records Mr. Van Brunt himself has patiently and painstakingly compiled during the last two decades. In being the means whereby important events in the history of Duluth and St. Louis County have been brought into permanent print and thus perpetuated Mr. Van Brunt has rendered good service to the Head of the Lakes, a section so rich in historical romance and so great in prospective importance. Each year of development and advancement will add value to the history of the pioneer days of Duluth. With a destiny so bright as is that of Duluth, it is well that its early records have been so well preserved.


  • Van Brunt, Walter, ed. Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.
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