Duluth’s Miscellaneous Manufacturers

Union Match Company. (Image: Duluth Public Library.)

Since four unemployed young men opened a brewery in Portland Township in 1859, Duluth has been the home of a variety of manufacturing concerns. From Aroma Coffee to Zenith Broom, Duluthians tried their hand at just about everything. The Barsness Candy Company was the largest confectioner north of the Twin Cities, and the Ron-Fernandez Cigar Company introduced Cuban tobacco to the Upper Midwest. Puglisi Spaghetti Factory and Duluth Macaroni Company produced pasta while firms such as Elliott’s Meats and Vokoven Sausage Company provided protein. One of Duluth’s oldest manufacturers, Duluth Tent and Awning, is still in operation as Duluth Pack, and the DeWitt-Seitz Furniture Company lives on as the Happy Sleeper Mattress Company. Since cataloging all of Duluth’s lost manufacturers would take a book of its own, we’ve narrowed the pool to those Duluth concerns whose products enjoyed nationwide distribution and employed the most Duluthians and Superiorites.

E. G. Wallinder Sash and Door opened its own doors at Fifty-Ninth Avenue West and Main Street in 1889 as Duluth’s first manufacturer of windows, doors, mouldings, store fixtures, and a variety of metal work. By 1916 they had added buildings for planers, ripsaws, jigsaws, mortising machines, moulders, turning lathes, and polishers — along with storage sheds and a drying kiln — and the plant covered two city blocks. The company remained strong until 1944, when a fire in the paint shop spread to the entire facility. Forty-five-mile-an-hour winds fueled the flames, and the entire complex was lost. Wallinder later resumed operations in Superior. Duluth Steel Fabricators later built a plant on the site.

After the Marinette Iron plant closed in 1900, the newly organized Union Match Company acquired and remodeled the Marinette facility and began to manufacture wooden friction matches in 1903. Each day the factory’s ten match-making machines could take forty thousand feet of lumber and mill it into enough matches to fill two rail cars. In 1922 Union Match merged with Minnesota Match and a year later that firm was purchased by Delaware’s Federal Match Corporation. In 1941 the firm became Universal Match. By 1950 the market for wooden matches had slumped and the match company closed. In 1950 Jeno Paulucci, Duluth’s self-described “incurable entrepreneur,” remodeled the plant to process his Chun King line of Chinese foods. Ten years later Chun King enjoyed an annual sales revenue of $30 million and sold more than half the prepared Chinese food in the United States. The food plant closed in 1973 and was demolished in 1986 for the Interstate 35 expansion and the construction of a paper mill now owned by NewPage.

Frederick A. Patrick learned the wholesale business at several prominent Duluth firms, including a stint as company secretary for Stone-Ordean-Wells, before starting F. A. Patrick & Company in 1900. The wholesale drygoods store sold its wares under the Northland brand. In 1903 Patrick had William Hunt design a seven-story brick building at 302 South Fifth Avenue West. A year later it started manufacturing shirts and overalls. Patrick then acquired the Fosston Woolen Mills of Fosston, Minnesota. Other mills were added over the years, including Mankato Spinning and Knitting Mills in 1913. Later the firm added a mill in Duluth at 2900 West Superior Street. In 1922, the company reorganized as the Patrick Duluth Knitting Mills. Among the company’s assets was Duluth’s Glass Block store, which it purchased in 1911.

Patrick’s became best known for its wool Mackinaw jackets, developed for lumberjacks but which became popular for men of all ages. In the 1920s the storied Duluth Eskimos wore customized Mackinaws on the sidelines. The Mackinaw was said to be “a garment that has done much to spread the name ‘Duluth’ through the world!”

The Mackinaw was so popular that in 1928 Patrick launched a plan to sell directly to consumers. The timing was bad, and after the stock market crash of 1929 — and with stiff competition from mills in New England — Patrick Duluth closed its operations. Patrick himself died in an automobile accident in 1931. After the Patrick company folded, the building functioned as a warehouse for several firms and was called the Kirk Building until it was demolished in 1965 for the Interstate 35 expansion.

One of the first companies to build in the Village of West Duluth as it developed in the late 1880s was the Minnesota Iron Car Company, which produced freight railroad cars. It built a plant along Central Avenue in 1888, and a year later added six more buildings. The facility  stretched along the 200 and 300 blocks of South Central Avenue. The company made some of the first ore cars used to carry ore from the mines in Minnesota’s Iron Range. Minnesota Car suspended operations in 1891 and became the Duluth Manufacturing Company, which continued to produce railway cars until 1896. The American Lumber Company occupied the site until 1907.

In 1898 an engineering publication announced that “if reports be true acetylene gas will shortly have a rival in carbolite.” Not a rival, but an ally: carbolite, when burned, produced acetylene gas. A calcium, aluminum, and silicon carbide, carbolite was initially produced by mixing blast furnace slag and coke in an electric furnace in a process patented by Chicago chemist and metallurgist Herman Hartenstein. (The recipe later involved less-toxic limestone and coal.) The product, which resembled “crushed rock,” was meant to produce acetylene gas for lighting, cooking, and generators. It was touted as being more “reliable, economical, and safe” than electricity or gasoline. Its most popular use was in welding and cutting torches and miners’ headlamps.

Hartenstein opened American Carbolite in Constantine, Michigan, in 1899 to great success. Soon the Constantine plant was insufficient to fill orders. After considering Niagara Falls as the location for a new plant, he chose Duluth because of “the abundant power facilities available by harnessing the St. Louis River at the falls by the Great Northern Power Company.” In 1908 American Carbolite took over the vacant Minnesota Car Company / Duluth Manufacturing plant. By 1910 it employed over 300 workers. For years it was one of the largest and most successful industries in West Duluth — the facility could produce 200,000 pounds of carbolite a day, enough to create twelve million cubic feet of gas. The plant became “the largest of its kind in the world” and its product was shipped as far way as South Africa and the Philippines. In 1928 American Carbolite was sold to Union Carbide, but in Duluth the company operated under the old name. In 1942 the company name was changed to Electro Metallurgical Company. Despite plant manager 
C. W. Knapp’s assurance that “the change in name will not in any way change the nature or extant of operations at the local plant,” it closed a year later.

During the 1950s Zenith Concrete Products occupied the site, but it was gone by 1964. Today a Coca-Cola Bottling plant and several building and scrap industries stand on the Carbolite site.

When A. W. Hartman became president of Phillips-Bell Shoe — which had evolved from the Duluth Shoe Company — in 1906, he reorganized the company as Northern Shoe and moved from a small facility on Michigan Street to a new factory which manufactured shoes and boots with names such as Gitche-Gamee, Duluth Hockey, Minnesota Hunter, Northern Maid, and Tamarack.

The firm built an eight-story brick building at 225-227 South Lake Avenue in 1907, complete with its own rail line and a dock for loading freighters. In 1910 Northern Shoe’s four hundred workers produced 1,500 pairs of boots and shoes per day and sold over $1 million of footware a year. In 1918 Hartman again renamed the business, this time after himself. The A. J. Hartman Shoe Company closed for business in 1923. After the company closed, new owners changed the building’s name to the Industrial Building. Over the years a variety of businesses used the facility, including food producers and industrial machine dealers. By 1966 the building sat vacant; it came down in 1968 for the expansion of Interstate 35.

Blacksmith Otto Swanstrom invented a practical drive calk to be used with horseshoes, which smiths could easily remove and replace when damaged instead of reshoeing the horse.  Successful sales of Swanstrom’s invention led to the 1907 incorporation of the Diamond Calk Horseshoe Company, originally operating on South Lake Avenue. In 1912 the firm moved to West Duluth and built a factory, office building, warehouse, and storeroom at 4702 Grand Avenue. For the next seventy-three years the company operated under the direction of the Swanstrom Family. It distributed its horseshoes and calks to all parts of the United States and was so successful that the plant required three additions before 1919. Eventually, as the popularity of the automobile grew and the need for horseshoes dwindled, Diamond Calk expanded into making hand tools and became known as  Diamond Tool. In 1982 the company was purchased by Connecticut firm Triangle Corp., which in turn was bought out by Cooper Tools in 1993. Cooper closed the Duluth plant in October 1994 and moved its operations to facilities in North and South Carolina. The buildings on Grand Avenue were razed in 1996 and replaced by a retail complex in 1998.

Duluth Boat Club financier Julius Barnes organized the Western Rug Company in 1909 (originally the Western Linen Company) to manufacture linen yarns from flax straw, which until then farmers considered waste product. In fact, the straw was burned in the fields before Western Rug found a way to use it. Afterward, farmers — mostly in Meadowlands, Minnesota, and Port Wing, Wisconsin — sold it to Western Rug. Barne’s company developed the process and designed the machinery to spin straw into linen. In 1914 Western Rug installed that equipment in its brand new two-story steel-and-brick building at 6320 Grand Avenue and began producing rugs and carpets. Business boomed, and two years after the Grand Avenue facility opened, two more floors were added, followed by another two in 1918. The rugs, marketed under the Klearflax name, were successful in the United States and throughout the world. In 1924 its officers included Barnes’ business partner, William Ames, and James Ten Eyck, the legendary coach of the Duluth Boat Club’s national championship rowing squad. In 1939 Klearflax, as the entire company had come to be known, employed three hundred people. But postwar America found Klearflax struggling to compete with larger rug companies. The business sold to a competitor in 1953 and the facility closed. The structure served as a warehouse until 1987, when it was imploded. The procedure took twelve seconds. The lot remains vacant.

In 1888 Canadian transplant Henry Bridgeman began a dairy in Duluth, selling his wares out of a horse-drawn wagon.  When Newell F. Russell joined him as partner in 1892, the firm became the Bridgeman-Russell Creamery. The company expanded to produce dairy products in a building on East Superior Street and later on West First Street. By 1917 Bridgeman-Russell required a cold storage warehouse, so commissioned a design by John DeWaard and built it above the railroad tracks at 110-112 West Michigan Street. The brick building, trimmed in Bedford stone, stood seven stories tall; four stories rose above Michigan Street, but the building dropped three more stories to the railroad tracks behind it. Area farmers delivered fresh milk and cream to the creamery every day, where it was tested, pasteurized, and sealed in bottles marked with the Purity brand label. Henry Bridgeman acted as president until his death in 1924 and then Newell Russell ran the company until he died in 1935. By 1946 the ice cream–making process had moved to the Duluth Terminal building and the creamery was sold first to Land O’ Lakes — who kept the Bridgeman-Russell brand — and later to Foremost Dairies. By 1960 the building sat empty. It was demolished in 1965; the site is vacant.

The New Duluth Coolerator plant. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

In 1902 Swedish-born Peter M. Carlson opened the Duluth Showcase Company to manufacture showcases and store fixtures for retail dealers, opening a sales floor and factory at 25 East First Street. Their cases were sold to druggists, jewelers, banks, and cigar stores. The firm also built iceboxes; the 1902 model was described in a 1955 Duluth News-Tribune article as “patterned after an Indian practice of wrapping meat as a means of preservation.” It was lined with birchbark.

In 1921 the firm expanded, moving operations to a new building at Fiftieth Avenue West and Wadena Street. Seven years later Duluth Showcase turned its complete focus to iceboxes, changing its name to Duluth Refrigerator. In 1932 the name changed again, this time to the Coolerator Company. Coolerator expanded again in 1935, acquiring the former Atlas Iron and Brass Works in New Duluth where Commonwealth Avenue meets the St. Louis River. (Western Steel Products, which specialized in the manufacture of tanks, culverts, fire escapes, and other metal products, occupied the site until 1935.) The collection of industrial buildings included the 1890 four-story Mansard-roofed office building, an unusual style for an industrial complex.

During World War II, Coolerator made military products, including storage units, ammunition containers, and mess tables for the United States Army. The biggest plum in the pie was a $405,800 contract for large refrigeration units. After the war, Coolerator manufactured electric refrigerators and freezers and later expanded to include electric ranges and air conditioners. At its postwar peak, Coolerator employed 1,700 workers at the two plants and had eighty distributors across the country.

Coolerator was sold several times in the 1940s and ’50s, first to Michigan’s Gibson Refrigerator. While Coolerator shipped refrigerators as far away as Sweden, Gibson sold the Duluth plants to International Telephone & Telegraph in 1951 and held on four more years before closing in 1955. McGraw Electric purchased the plants’ equipment and machinery.

In 1961 the West Duluth complex was remodeled and opened as Shoppers City. It later became a K-Mart, Red Owl, and Country Store grocery before being converted to a Menards; the entire complex was destroyed in 2003 to build a new Menards superstore was constructed in 2003, but portions of the 1921 building are still standing.

The burned out ruins of the New Duluth Coolerator plant. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

In 1958 Jeno Paulucci’s Chun King foods moved into the New Duluth facility, staying until 1973. C. S. Lukovsky, owner of Gary Builders Supply, purchased the complex and used it as a storage facility. In September 1976 a fire was reported at the plant just after midnight. Eight fire companies fought the blaze until five in the morning as several hundred spectators watched. Besides heavy machinery, old furniture, sewing machines, and “as much as $150,000 in antiques” stored in the buildings were also lost in the fire, which was punctuated by exploding fuel oil tanks. The complex was a total loss; the site remains empty.

Founded in 1896 by George D. Lucore, the Duluth Candy Company was a wholesale candy manufacturer specializing in milk chocolate. The company initially leased space at 102 West Michigan Street. In 1900 Lucore built a three-story brick building at 20 East First Street.

Besides a wide variety of candies, Duluth Candy also supplied retailers with cigars, film for Kodak Brownie cameras, toys, and other non-candy products. Thanks to the Duluth Candy Company, Hunter’s Park Grocery (better known to today’s Duluthians as the old Snow White store) even stocked tam o’ shanter hats for the neighborhood’s predominately Scottish residents.

In 1916 Lucore sold his business to Milwaukee’s Zeiglar Candy, after which it was operated under the management of E. J. Hutchinson. The firm was later bought out by the Stratig Candy Company. Owner Charles Stratig, a 1902 immigrant to Duluth from Greece, moved his company to the First Street building from his confectionery at 307 West Superior Street. Stratig Candy stayed in the building until the late 1950s, after which the building was used by a variety of tenants until its demolition in 2005. The building’s site is now used as a courtyard and parking spaces.

In 1905 A. S. McDonald, R. B. Whiteside, and D. D. Murray organized the Zenith Dredge Company, a general dredging and harbor construction concern. The business was positioned at the foot of Thirteenth Avenue West along the waterfont, with docks for its various tugs. The tugs and crews of Zenith Dredge kept the harbor open for shipping traffic by removing the silt deposited by the St. Louis River and also built and repaired docks.

During World War II Zenith retooled and began building ships. The firm employed 1,500 workers who built thirty-two ships for the war effort, including tankers, cutters, and buoy tenders. After the war, dredges from Zenith helped create the St. Lawrence Seaway, which opened in 1959. In the 1950s the company began to diversify with subsidiaries including Superwood Corp., Zenith Concrete Products, and Superior Wood Systems, Inc. In 1994 Zenith Dredge was dissolved and sold to Marine Tech LLC which continues maintenance of Duluth and Superior’s harbor channels and recycling of dredged materials. The former Zenith Dredge site is now owned by the Georgia Pacific Corporation.