Nehemiah Hulett

A sketch of an unidentified brownstone quarry in Fond du Lac, ca. 1870. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Nehemiah Hulett was one of Duluth’s earliest fortune-seeking pioneers, arriving here in 1857, when he was 34 years old and a bachelor. Originally a New Yorker, he spent a brief time in other up-and-coming Minnesota towns and ended up taking a claim near Spirit Lake where a stub of a street bearing his name still exists. Though it was originally intended to be the southern boundary of Ironton, extending all the way from Grand Avenue to the lakefront, it now essentially serves as the driveway to a single household in the wooded area between Smithville and Morgan Park.

For a few years he divided his time between his homestead in New York and his properties at the Head of the Lakes until returning for good in the mid-1860s, when he boarded at the Merritt household in Oneota, with whom he also had business dealings. In 1867 he was elected treasurer of St. Louis County, holding the position for eight years. He also worked in banking and investing, eventually operating the Duluth Real Estate and Loan Company out of an office in the Hayes building. In his later years, he owned a farm at Stony Point.

Old Nehemiah Hulett dropped dead at age 70 on a hot July day in 1892, while he was running to catch a train. Still supposedly a bachelor, his fortune at the time consisted mostly of property in and around Duluth amounting to $530,000 in wealth.

And this is when one Lucy Pomeroy Hulett makes her appearance. Lucy was Old Hulett’s housekeeper up at the farm at Stony Point. She had originally worked for him with her husband, who subsequently went mad and died in the insane asylum at St. Peter. After her husband’s death, she and Nehemiah apparently lived as husband and wife, though no marriage ceremony was ever performed.

She showed up at the bank one day after his death and attempted to cash a check made out to “Lucy Hulett,” which caused some eyebrows to be raised. Soon enough, further indignation amongst well-heeled Duluthians arose when she made a bid for a portion of the old man’s estate, claiming a common law marriage was as good as any other, and deserved a third of the inheritance. (The rest of which was to be divided amongst his sisters and their offspring.) The courts mostly agreed with her, leading Duluth pioneer Jerome Cooley to remark, “Until this case was tried, most people believed that a woman could not be a man’s widow without first having been his wife.”

It is apparent that Nehemiah Hulett’s impact on the Merritt household was more significant than merely financial: Lewis J. and Eunice Merritt named their son, born in 1872, Hulett Clinton Merritt. Hulett C. Merritt was considered the richest man in California; find his biography here.

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