John C. Hunter Family

John C. Hunter. (Image: Zenith City Press)

John C. Hunter, the patriarch of the Hunter clan, was born in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1830 and educated and trained for business in Glasgow. In 1852, he married his wife Catherine, who was from Oban, a scenic western port city in Argyll and Bute, Scotland. The Hunters’ early married life was marked with huge moves about the planet. First they tried Melbourne, Australia, where John started in the wholesale grocery business. Within a few years, they had returned to Scotland with an infant daughter. In 1856, the family emigrated to the United States, and tried farming in Kalamazoo, Michigan. By 1857, they had moved on to Hastings, Minnesota, and were back in the mercantile business—just in time for the Panic of 1857. A move to Waseca County, Minnesota, didn’t help profits. Though the Hunters were considered an important pioneer family there (and John’s brother came and stayed on to become a politician in the region), the ambitious John was ripe for the enthusiastic salesmanship of Dr. Thomas Foster when he happened to meet him in St. Paul sometime after the Civil War.

The Hunters spent the spring and summer of 1869 establishing themselves as VIPs in Duluth. In April, John C. and Catherine Hunter met with other Presbyterians in Luke Marvin’s living room to establish the First Presbyterian Church. (Its first building was completed in 1871, when the population of Duluth was about 2,000.) In June, John C. opened his new mercantile and hardware store on Superior Street, which the Duluth Minnesotian lauded as having a “very fine and varied stock. He only bought $40,000 worth to start on, but expects to replenish weekly by the boats, as the demands for fresh goods require.” In July, the Minnesotian reported that John was traveling with another man to Waseca County to retrieve the rest of his family and bring them back to Duluth for good. “They came through with hired teams—and suffered some on the road through the woods, with mosquitoes and buffalo gnats. Jordan is a hard road to travel, but it’s a good place when you get there!”

In March of 1870, Hunter found himself reluctantly drafted by the local Republicans to run—unsuccessfully—in Duluth’s first mayoral race against Democrat J. B. Culver. That same year in August, he and several other businessmen established Duluth’s first Chamber of Commerce—and served as its first board of directors. He also invested heavily in real estate, including all of Grassy Point, which became known as Hunter’s Grassy Point Addition.

His contributions to the community continued in 1872 with the building of the Hunter Block, which still stands in a significantly altered form at 31 West Superior Street. That year, he also founded the Duluth Savings Bank, which became the only financial institution in Duluth to survive the Panic of 1873. It later became the American Exchange Bank.

By 1875, the Hunters had seven children—two boys and five girls—and had built a capacious house on Bench Street, now 905 East Superior Street. In February 1877, the Duluth News Tribune reported that silver-seekers were sinking a mine shaft “not far from the residence,” and several months later, copper was discovered in lower Chester Creek. “Several large pieces of pure, mass copper, one of which weighs 157 pounds and another 73 pounds [were found]. The latter piece is now on exhibition at the store of Mr. John C. Hunter.” The next year, Hunter joined with W. W. Spalding, James Bardon and H. M. Peyton to incorporate the short-lived Duluth & Winnipeg Railroad.

The Hunter children worked hard and married well, some into families that cemented the Hunters’ business relationships. Eldest daughter Agnes married successful Duluth businessman Douglas Petre. Daughter Catherine married Angus MacFarlane, who’d come to Duluth from Scotland to work in her father’s bank. Second son James married Judge (and former Duluth mayor) Josiah Ensign’s daughter Mary. James began working at the Duluth Savings Bank at 17, beginning as a messenger, then a teller, and eventually as cashier (during that period, a cashier was essentially the bank’s chief financial officer, not the customer service reps we consider cashiers today). Eldest son Ronald worked closely with his father in the real estate business, especially after John sold out the hardware business in 1882, due to ill health.

John C. Hunter was apparently known to enjoy occasional hijinks in the company of his businessmen pals. On April 12, 1885, the Duluth News Tribune published an article titled “Fun on the Board,” in which the Duluth Board of Trade, “an extremely jolly set of men,” had a bit of sport with a few of their members. It was against the rules to smoke on the floor, but an apparently rotund Mr. A. Bailey was in the habit of breaking this rule with impunity.

At the close of the afternoon call, Hunter “rather facetiously” moved that a small man named Andrew Jackson should be appointed to haul Bailey out the door. “Quite a struggle ensued, to the great amusement of the board, and Mr. Jackson at length succeeded in sitting down rather forcibly, at Mr. Bailey’s urgent request, and after he had exhausted his wind.” The next day, another member moved to suspend Andrew Jackson and John C. Hunter for the space of twenty-four hours and one hour respectively (after close of business). The resolution, which was printed in full in the newspaper, began with the following heavily ironic verbiage:

Whereas, heretofore, to wit, during the afternoon session of this honorable board held on the 10th day of April, A.D. 1885, one Andrew Jackson, a man of colossal frame, gigantic stature, massive intellect, and prodigious strength, then and there being, and being then and there armed with unlawful and dangerous weapons, to wit, enormous fists well skilled in the manly art, did unlawfully, willfully, of his malice, aforethought, and with a premeditated design to do frightful injury to one A. Bailey, whose full name is to us unknown, an inoffensive, unmuscular man of diminutive size and much reduced, emaciated and weakened in body and strength through the excessive use of tobacco, then and there, lawfully being; he the said Andrew Jackson, being then and there aided, abetted, instigated and incited thereto by one John C. Hunter, a man of fierce and uncontrollable wit and humor, but of previous chaste character, did then and there with great force and violence and so armed with enormous fists and great muscular strength, assault him, the said A. Bailey with intent then and there, him, the said A. Bailey with intent to beat, bruise, wound, ill treat, crush, paralyze and stop smoking, and did clinch with the said A. Bailey as to disturb the price of cereals, to the great scandal of the board…

The resolution was tabled, amidst much mutton-chop shaking merriment.

In the 1890s, Angus MacFarlane and his brother-in-law Ronald M. Hunter aimed to create a “streetcar suburb” with more rural gentility and greenery than the rather urban East End. The result was Waverly Park, Glen Avon and Hunters Park, all of which bear street names inspired by their beloved Scottish geography, literature and the family itself.

MacFarlane and the two Hunter boys all built beautiful homes for their families, complete with extensive gardens, in these neighborhoods—MacFarlane in Glen Avon, James in Waverly Park, and Ronald in Hunters Park.

The belief that death comes in threes bore truth for the Hunters soon after the second generation had moved to their dream homes. In 1895, the youngest Hunter daughter, Adeline, was married to E. P. Towne and moved to Glen Avon. Within a year, she died in childbirth; Adeline’s mother would raise the child. The next spring, patriarch John C. Hunter died at age 67 after a winter-long attack of “grippe,” a term for common influenza. Two months after that, Ronald M. and Josephine Hunter’s nine-year-old son drowned in Hunters Pond, artificially constructed by damming portions of Tischer Creek. Little Johnny Hunter’s death was a shock to the neighborhood, and the Hunters in their grief drained the pond, restoring the creek to its original banks.

By the end of the decade, much of the first-generation Hunter real estate was tax delinquent, and John’s sons were selling off their own real estate to take risks in mining and other ventures. After a lengthy illness, James’ wife Mary died in 1911. Two years later, he married Josephine Peyton, whose father was a long-time director of the American Exchange Bank. The two Hunter brothers, both married to women named Josephine, died in Duluth in the 1930s.

Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.