Sidney Luce

Sidney Luce. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Duluth pioneer Sidney Luce (pronounced “loose”) was born in Kingsville, Ohio, on September 19, 1819. Kingsville is a short distant from Ashtabula, from which many of Duluth’s early settlers hailed. He spent most of his early life in Kingsville before taking a job with the county auditor’s office in Jefferson, Ohio. There he met and married Harriet A. Wood, a native of Troy, New York. They had one daughter, Katie.

In 1857 (some reports say 1856), along with his brother Orlando, Luce moved his family to Superior and soon after to what would become the town of Portland, where he served as the registrar of the United States Land Office, then located up the shore at Buchanan near Stoney Point. When the Land Office was removed to the town of Duluth, Luce built a warehouse at the foot of Third Avenue East along the lake shore, where Duluth and Portland met. It was Duluth’s first commercial building. Luce’s warehouse stood three-stories tall, with half its foundation carved into rock on one side and the other perched atop cribbing submerged in the lake on the other. The Luce family lived on the top floor.

In the aftermath of the Panic of 1857, Luce’s warehouse was one of only a few buildings in what would become Duluth and the only occupied structure in Duluth until the late 1860s. Until 1871, according to the Minnesotian, the building served as “the artery through which the pulsations of the coming city beat; all the business was done or talked over there; in it and around it.”

Luce helped establish Duluth’s first brewery. As the financial panic gripped the nation in 1857, H. S. Burke, Gilbert Falconer, Harry Fargo, and J. Gottlieb Busch found themselves unemployed in Duluth. Gottlieb had brewing skills, so he and his companions set up shop on land lent to them by Sidney Luce at First Street and Washington Avenue in what was then Portland. They named an adjacent creek, from which they drew water for brewing, “Brewery Creek.”

Although it produced a wide range of beers (including a cream ale, a stock ale, and a wheat ale) the Luce/Busch Brewery itself barely survived Duluth’s tough economy of the 1860s. In 1865, Luce sold the brewery to Nicholas Decker. Decker died in 1875, and two years later his family leased the brewery to Michael Fink. In 1882 Fink hired August Fitger to run his brewery; less than half a year later Fitger and his partner Percy Anneke bought the Brewery from Fink and changed the name of the Decker Brewery to A. Fitger & Co. Lake Superior Brewery.

During this period Luce continued to work for the Land Office and also served the local municipal government as both a counselor and president (several times). He also passed the time building what the Minnesotian deemed “excellent” rowboats.

In 1868 Luce attended a meeting with Duluth’s great financier, Jay Cooke, on the only trip the Philadelphia banker ever made to the city he helped build. Luce and several fellow Duluth pioneers, including J. D. Ray, Luke Marvin, W. R. Nettleton, C. Markell, J. R. Carey, and J. B. Culver, met Cooke at the residence of Commodore Saxton before moving the business meeting to the United States land office, which had been relocated from Luce’s warehouse.

When Cooke’s Lake Superior & Mississippi arrived in Duluth in 1870, Luce’s warehouse became railroad property and he and his family moved to Minnesota Point in what is today’s Canal Park Business District (the railroad abandoned the building in 1871, after which newspapers report it was occupied by “half-breed Indians” before it was demolished in 1875). That same year Duluth became a city, and Luce continued to aid in its development. He and J. D. Ray helped finance Branch’s Hall, the first brick building in Duluth.

In 1872 Luce became Duluth’s third mayor, and according to historians, his administration was marked by “great progress in city affairs” and that he was “faithful, fearless, honest, and ever-ambitious for the city.” Despite his passion for Duluth, Luce resigned in February 1873 while still in office and returned to his hometown in Ohio. (Local newspapers reported that he would certainly be replaced by J. D. Ray, who was serving as an alderman at the time, but Vespasian Smith became Duluth’s fourth mayor in April 1873.)

Luce wasn’t gone for long. He returned to take the reins of Duluth’s First National Bank, which was struggling along with the rest of the nation in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873. When the bank failed in 1876, he returned to Kingsville, where he took up residence on the farm he was born on and remained there the rest of his life, reportedly only visiting Duluth once more.

Early Duluthians never forgot Sidney Luce. In 1896 the Duluth News Tribune ran an article about the Luce’s fiftieth wedding anniversary party in Kingsville on April 30, 1896. In 1908 Dr. S. C. McCormick, an old friend of Luce’s from his Duluth days, paid a visit to the old pioneer and found him working in his garden, still spry at 89. The visit was recounted in the newspapers of the day. Upon his death in 1912, his dear friend and fellow Duluth pioneer J. D. Ensign told Duluth newspapers that “[Luce] was a truly admirable man and citizen, ever ready to assist his neighbors and to further every undertaking to promote the community’s welfare. In the days when Duluth was young, energetic kindly spirits like his were needed to meet the problems which beset the place.”