Bethany Lutheran Children’s Home (1892)

4000 West 9th Street | Architect: Unknown | Built: 1892 | Lost: 1920

Oneota pioneer Alfred Merritt and his wife Jane built their West Duluth home (as well as a barn) on a six-acre lot just above the railroad tracks (right, date unknown). Alfred Merritt was a member of the Merritt family who settled Oneota Township in the 1850s and later helped develop the Mesabi Iron Range. Oneota became part of West Duluth when it incorporated in 1888. Just two years after this house was built, West Duluth joined Duluth, and the Merritt family lost their iron mining holdings to John D. Rockefeller. In 1916 the Merritts sold their home to the Swedish Lutheran Church of West Duluth, who adapted it for an orphanage. The Merritt house served as the Bethany Lutheran Children’s Home until fire struck on October 10, 1920. The building was a total loss.
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This postcard labeled “Bethany Children’s Home” was used in the first printing of Lost Duluth as the 1892 Alfred and Jane Merritt House and first Bethany Children’s Home. It is a Merritt Home, and it was home to the Bethany for two years—but it wasn’t the right house! (Image: X-Comm)

Zenith City publisher Tony Dierckins and I wrote about the history of Bethany Children’s Home at 4000 West 9th Street—the predecessor of today’s Northwoods Children’s Home—in our book Lost Duluth. The piece was accompanied by the image of a postcard which carried the title “Bethany Children’s Home, Duluth. Minn.” We assumed it was the former Alfred and Jane Merritt home, which was built in 1892 and served as the Bethany home from 1916 to 1920, when it was destroyed by fire.

But then we received an email from Ruby Ostrom Thomas, who worked at the Bethany home during her high school and college years. She recognized the house on the postcard as one still standing on the corner of 40th Avenue West and Sixth Street—something one or two others had mentioned to us as well. We guessed that perhaps two very similar homes were built in the same neighborhood, which led to everyone’s confusion. If the house in the postcard wasn’t the house that became the first Bethany, why was it labelled as such? And if it wasn’t, we needed to find a picture of that first Bethany, the 1892 Merritt home. We discovered that there were three Bethany Children’s homes between 1916 and 1974.

But first, some background:

Bethany Lutheran Children’s Home was established in 1916 by the Swedish Lutheran churches of Duluth and Superior. Funds were solicited by the churches for an orphanage to serve homeless children of northern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin. The 1916 Duluth newspapers carried several articles describing a fundraising campaign for $12,000 to purchase a home that would be adapted for the orphanage.

The house in question belonged to Alfred and Jane Merritt house, built in 1892 and located at 4000 West 9th Street and considered one of the most distinctive homes in the western part of Duluth. The house, which had a clear view of the Duluth harbor, stood fairly isolated on four acres; the grounds included a large barn and other out-buildings. It was estimated the sixteen-room house could accommodate up to eighty homeless children. It opened as Bethany Children’s home in May, 1916.

On October 10, 1920—just four years after it was converted to an orphanage—the Bethany caught fire and burned to the ground. Although the building was a total loss, newspapers reported the fifty-three children and staff were evacuated safely.

The 1922 Bethany Children’s Home, designed by Frederick German & Leif Jennsen. (Image: Ruby Ostrom Thomas)

A new orphanage designed by Frederick German and Leif Jennsen was built on the same site. The large three-and-a-half story brick building featured stone trim, open porches, roof dormers and a round cupola on the roof line. Again, the Swedish Lutheran churches conducted a fund raising campaign for a “modern, fireproof building with a capacity for 150 children.” Final cost for the new Bethany Home was estimated at $60,000. It looked nothing like the original Merritt House, and nothing at all like the house depicted in the postcard

City directories in the Duluth Public Library and files in Duluth’s Building Safety Office revealed that the house on the post card, 3931 West Sixth Street, had been built by Andrus and Elizabeth Merritt at about the same time as the Alfred Merritt house. Alfred and Andrus Merritt were sons of Lewis and Hephzibah Merritt, early Duluth pioneers who established Oneota Township. In the 1890s the Merritt family opened the Mesabi Iron Range but then lost all their holdings to John D. Rockefeller. Both brothers were instrumental in development of the Mesabi and were often referred to as two of the “Seven Iron Men,” the title of the book relating their exploits in iron mining in northern Minnesota.

After the fire, the Swedish Lutheran churches leased the Andrus Merritt house on West Sixth Street for use as a temporary orphanage until the new brick Bethany Home opened the spring of 1923. The postcard with the identification of the Merritt house as Bethany Home must have been published sometime between the fire in October, 1920, and spring of 1923 when the new brick home opened. Bethany Children’s Home eventually evolved into Northwoods Children’s Home. The 1922 brick building was demolished in 1974 to make room for a more modern facility.

So as we prepared early last month to send Lost Duluth to the printer for a second printing, we realized we needed a photo of the original 1892 Alfred and Jane Merritt House. We checked with several sources, and no one had a photo they could positively identify as the house built in 1892 at 4000 West 9th Street.

So we went as close as we could to the original source: Grant Merritt, grandson of Alfred and Jane and a regular reader of Zenith City Online. He had a photo of the house in his home, which his grandson kindly scanned and sent to us. Scroll down and take a look.
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Special thanks to Grant Merritt for the photo of his grandparent’s home and to Ruby Ostrom Thomas—and others—who recognized the house in the postcard as the still-standing Andrus Merritt house, which prompted us to do more research so we’d have the history of the Bethany and both Merritt houses correct.Ruby also provided us with an image of the 1922 building.

The 1892 Alfred & Jane Merritt Home

The 1892 Alfred and Jane Merritt House at 4000 West 9th Street. (Image: Grant Merritt)