The Homecroft Movement in Duluth

Entrepreneurs of the late 1890s expected the fast-growing city of Duluth to become a commercial metropolis as important as Chicago. The city was already a major transportation center where railroads and ships distributed the region’s natural resources of iron ore and timber throughout the nation. But the cost of living was unacceptably high, mainly due to the expense of bringing in food from far away. Duluth civic leaders set out to eliminate this problem by promoting agricultural development, and by 1911 Duluth became known as “The Homecroft City.”

Throughout the nation, as in Duluth, people were moving into urban areas for jobs. Henry Ford had not yet introduced the affordable mass-produced automobile, so people lived close to their work and depended on streetcars for transportation. It was a time before zoning regulations required that a portion of every city lot be left as open space. Conditions in Duluth were described by the News Tribune: “In all the downtown district the lots are crowded with buildings; dwellings and tenements have been packed in like sardines…there is no room left for a clothes line nor a dog kennel; the children are forced to the streets and the police are forced to ask for laws to drive them back.”

Experiments with Farming

Charles Craig of Jean Duluth Farms. (Image: Mark Ryan)

Few farms had been established because the land of northern Minnesota was seen primarily as a source of iron ore and timber. Food of any sort commanded a premium price. Around 1900 Charles P. Craig and John G. Williams, land developers and partners in the Jean Du Luth Company, recognized this need and established the city’s largest farm on the outskirts of town, in the area known then as Colbyville. The Jean Duluth Stock Farm covered over 4,000 acres of land along the Lester River in Rice Lake and Lakewood townships on the East Duluth and Lester River Road (which soon became the Jean Duluth Farm Road and eventually the Jean Duluth Road).

In January 1903 the Duluth News Tribune reported that the Jean Duluth Stock Farm included forty-one horses (eighteen of which were pure-bred Percherons), twenty-four Shetland ponies, three pure-bred Angora goats, three hundred and fifty pure-bred Shropshire sheep, and many hogs and cattle. Five hundred acres had been cleared and one hundred fifty acres were under cultivation, mainly producing hay to feed the stock. The farm gradually expanded to grow oats, rye, barley, corn, and root crops. A creamery on the farm turned milk from the dairy cows into butter and cream.

Other prominent Duluth entrepreneurs, including G. G. Hartley and future mayor Sam Snively, set up smaller farms in the Woodland/Colbyville area, but the plight of the ordinary citizen did not change significantly. Economic recession and a near-collapse of the financial system in late 1907 drove the cost of living even higher.

At the local level, members of Duluth’s Commercial Club focused their efforts on increasing agricultural production in northern Minnesota. One of their first actions was to hire dairy and farm expert A. B. Hostetter from Illinois to work as their Superintendent of Agriculture.

Based on the experience of local farmers, Hostetter soon realized that in this area large farms were possible only for men of wealth. As Hostetter told the News Tribune, “This is no place for the 160-acre farm. The task of clearing is too great, too slow, and expensive for the poor man; it is the lumberman’s job, not the farmer’s. Here you must have the dairyman and the gardener, the small farm, and enough of the land must be cleared for him to let him make a living cropping the soil from the first year.”

John G. Williams of Jean du Luth Farms and the Duluth Commercial Club’s Open Market Committee. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

To further promote agriculture in the Duluth area, in January 1910 John G. Williams, representing the Commercial Club’s Open Market Committee, recommended that they form two corporations to aid the production and marketing of garden produce in the Duluth area. The first corporation, the Duluth Garden Company, would purchase and improve land, then sell it in small parcels to truck farmers. The second corporation, the Duluth and Northern Traction Company would build, own, lease, equip, and operate electric railways to transport farm produce to market. Williams and Craig had already secured options on 2000 acres of land on behalf of the Duluth Garden Company, and they assured the club members that within a few years the tracts would be occupied by experienced truck farmers, fruit growers, poultry and dairy farmers.

The Commercial Club’s proposed Garden Company was created in June, but with a new name: the Greysolon Farms Company. The first Board of Directors included John G. Williams, Charles P. Craig, William Elder, Arthur Howell, and M.E. Riley. The company purchased two full sections of land in the Woodland District near the intersection of what is now Jean Duluth Road and Martin Road. The company planned to clear the land before selling it so the new farmers could start planting immediately.

The Commercial Club expected Greysolon Farms to become a garden market for the city. The Duluth News Tribune described it in optimistic terms: “…it will be a market place to which everyone can go as often as they will and fill their baskets with the fruits of the soil, the hennery and dairy. It will be as convenient as a so-called ‘central’ market to nearly half the population.” The newspaper also emphasized the importance of buying locally, “The product will be sold in Duluth, and the money used in Duluth.”

At the same time, farmers throughout the region began to organize as a way to develop better outlets for selling their produce. The Producers Cooperative Market Association of Duluth and the Jackson Farmer’s Club, representing farmers in Hermantown, Rice Lake, Canosia, and Grand Lake, appealed to the city of Duluth for a market building. As reported by the News Tribune, these farmers were “tired of peddling their produce” on the streets because “when they attempted to feed their teams in alleys or on vacant lots they were driven off by the police and if they stopped on one side of the street too long were told to move on.” They requested that the city furnish an “open market space to be fitted very inexpensively with open stalls and shed roof into which teams can be backed, unhitched and fed, and where the farmer can eat his lunch.” Their efforts resulted in the creation of Duluth’s first farmers’ market.

To help educate the new farmers, the Commercial Club successfully lobbied the state legislature to establish a demonstration farm in the Duluth area. In March 1911 the legislature appropriated $65,000 for the University of Minnesota to acquire a site of at least 200 acres with good soil that would be accessible to farmers throughout northeastern Minnesota. Landowners offered eleven potential sites, located in Knife River, Grand Lake, Hermantown, Duluth Heights and Greysolon Farms. In July 1911 the sites were reviewed by a group of officials including Minnesota Governor Adolph Eberhart, University President George Vincent, members of the University Board of Regents, and several professors. Although the group was favorably impressed with the agricultural promise of the entire area, it delayed making a decision until the following year, in part because none of the sites were accessible by streetcar.

In March 1912 the regents finally settled on the Greysolon Farms site, believing that the commercial club and other interested parties would soon be successful in obtaining an extension to the streetcar line. Built in 1913, the University’s Northeast Demonstration Farm and Experimental Station quickly became an important center for agricultural education and experimentation.

Homecrofting comes to the Zenith City

George Maxwell, the man behind the nationwide Homecrofting movement of the 20th century’s second decade. (Image: Arizona State Library)

At the national level, one response to the 1907 recession was a back-to-the-land movement. The National Homecrofting Association encouraged industrial workers throughout the country to acquire an acre of land and save money by growing their own food. George H. Maxwell of Chicago was the chief promoter of homecrofting and served as Executive Director of the national association. Maxwell coined the word “homecroft” from the Scottish word “croft,” which referred to small farms that support a single family with a mixture of cash crops and subsistence farming.

Homecrofters were not expected to earn their livelihood from the farm. Rather, homecrofting, as described in a Duluth News Tribune editorial, was “the employment of whatever ground surface may be available in connection with the home, whether it be the back yard of the adjoining vacant lot, or a five-acre farm in the outskirts, in the raising of garden produce and poultry, utilizing the production of the soil for supplementing the family income, and making a knowledge of agriculture a means of useful education to the children of the family.”

As the national homecrofting movement gained strength, the Commercial Club’s vision shifted somewhat toward the development of small parcels for the homecrofter. Along with the News Tribune and other civic organizations, they began promoting the idea of self-sufficiency by encouraging backyard gardens and the creation of “garden suburbs” where middle class families could live and garden on a one- or two-acre parcel of land. The goal was to combat the high cost of living and make a family’s money go further by raising vegetables and poultry.

A 1910 advertisement from the Duluth News Tribune for lots in Duluth’s Homecroft Park. (Image: X-comm)

Homecroft Park on Calvary Road was one of Duluth’s first garden suburbs. Located seven to twelve blocks from the end of the Woodland streetcar line, these one-acre lots were offered for sale by W. M Prindle & Co. beginning in 1909. Advertisements boasted “the soil consists of from three to six feet of rich black loam, unsurpassed for garden purposes; no stones and well drained.” The prices ranged from $200 to $275; terms were $1.00 down and $1.50 to $2.00 per week until paid for; no interest; no payments when sick. By early 1910 enough families had moved into Homecroft Park to justify the construction of the Homecroft School.

George Maxwell visited Duluth in early 1911 to share his ideas and to see what was already happening here. Maxwell was so impressed that in May 1912 he chose Duluth as the new headquarters of the National Homecrofting Association. Charles P. Craig was elected president, and Duluth became “The Homecroft City.” In September Maxwell devoted the entire issue of his magazine The Talisman to the homecroft movement in Duluth. He made famous “The Duluth Idea”: Keep house by the year—garden for the year around—go to the garden in summer, go to the larder in winter, let sunshine and soil supply fruits, berries, and vegetables for all home needs from the home gardens, and educate the children in the public schools to live this way.

Educating the children was a central principle of Maxwell’s vision. One of his favorite slogans was “every child in a garden.” He believed that gardening would keep children off the streets, make them healthy, and teach them the skills they would need to work their own homecroft some day. Schools throughout Duluth created garden plots for their students to care for, and garden contests were held regularly, with detailed results published in the newspapers.

Developers created new garden suburbs all around Duluth: the Duluth Heights Garden Tracts, Woodland Avenue Gardens, Lakeside Gardens, Norton’s Garden Tracts, Lincoln Park Gardens. The Alliance Real Estate Corporation created one of the largest suburbs of one-acre tracts, Exeter Farms, located just north of Lester Park along Maxwell Road. Until automobiles became widely available, the residents of Exeter Farms hiked up the hill from the end of the streetcar line on Superior Street to their homes. By 1915 a private bus company had been established to provide transport for homeowners and their visitors between Lester Park and the Exeter Farms.)

A War, a Fire, and Modernization

Life changed irrevocably in 1914 when the First World War erupted. Food production dropped dramatically in Europe, where agricultural workers were recruited into military service and farms were devastated by the conflict. Even before officially joining the war, the United States helped by providing food to the Allies and their armies. Americans were encouraged to conserve food and eliminate waste so more food could be shipped abroad. In 1917 the government began a “war garden” campaign, urging citizens to utilize all available private and public lands for growing food. It became a patriotic duty to plant a war garden, and homecroft gardens were transformed into war gardens. As the News Tribune later explained, “…the war garden is but the homecroft garden’s successor. Few realize that this city’s remarkable record in war gardening was but a sequence of homecrofting…”

Then in October of 1918, just as the war was drawing to a close, the massive forest fire that wiped out the city of Cloquet swept through the outskirts of Duluth, destroying many homes and killing numerous people in the garden suburbs. The News Tribune reported “It is estimated that 100 families were rendered homeless by Saturday’s fire in the territory known as the Woodland District, comprising Woodland proper, Colman’s Additions, Calvary Road, Ingleside Park, Arnold and Arnold Road, and Howard’s Mill Road. In addition to these casualties, there were a number of fatalities and more or less damage to outbuildings and other property. In most cases, families which lost their homes also lost most or all of their furniture and personal belongings, the limited time and transportation facilities affording little opportunity for saving anything but human life.”

Nearly every house on Calvary Road and in Homecroft Park was burned, along with the Homecroft School and Cobb School. Numerous homes at Exeter Farms were also destroyed. The newspaper reported many tragic stories, including that of Elmer Stenberg of Exeter Farms who “returned to his home yesterday to locate his wife and four-year-old son, Eino, and found their charred bodies in the ruins of the home. Another baby had been born just before the death of the mother. The bodies were charred almost beyond recognition.” Following this tragedy, many families moved on, choosing not to return to the blackened land.

The war, the fire, and the growing availability of automobiles, refrigeration, and the corner grocery store all contributed to the demise of the homecrofting movement. George Maxwell continued to promote homecrofting, but by 1919 he shifted most of his energy to his other favorite topic—irrigation. He moved on to Arizona where he spent the rest of his career working for the National Irrigation Association.

Although we no longer remember George Maxwell or the meaning of the term “homecroft,” ghosts of this back-to-the-land movement of the early 1900s can still be seen in and around Duluth. And everyone who works a community garden plot or backyard garden, raises a flock of urban chickens, or sells produce at the Farmers’ Market is carrying on the rich agricultural legacy of Duluth’s homecroft movement.

Story by Nancy Nelson; originally appeared on Zenith City Online April, 2013.

[Editor’s note: Portions of this story were previously published in the Duluth Community Garden Program Newsletter, “The Gardener’s Companion,” summer 2010. Reprinted with permission from the Duluth Community Garden Program. Zenith City would like to thank Pat Maus of the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center for her assistance with this story.]


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