Saturday, October 20, 2018

Political memoirs of a ‘distinguished’ ex-journalist...

By Jim Heffernan
I covered a lot of political campaigns in my days as a distinguished journalist. Umm, distinguished? Well, distinguished from, say, garbage man or woman, or doctor or nurse.

Now we again find ourselves in the midst of a hotly contested political campaign in Duluth, the Eighth Congressional District, the State of Minnesota (also Wisconsin, if you’re inclined that way). Everything but the “president.” (Quotation marks intended.)

My journalism career covering political campaigns started way, way back in 1964, briefly covering the campaign of Congressman William E. Miller for vice president of the United States of America. (What other United States would I be referring to? More on that later.)

Some readers — oh, I’d say just over 99.9 percent — do not remember William Miller, but I do. He
William E. Miller
was the running mate of Barry Goldwater in Goldwater’s bid for the presidency in 1964. Some readers — oh I’d say about 42.3 percent — do not remember Barry Goldwater either, but I do. The Republican Goldwater-Miller team was facing the Lyndon B. Johnson-Hubert H. Humphrey team fielded by the Democrats. All ancient history…like me.

Miller visited Duluth late in the campaign, drumming up votes for Republicans in perhaps the most concentrated Democratic region of the country. Some might recall Johnson-Humphrey won. I was assigned to follow Miller, mainly around UMD, where he held an impromptu press conference on the lawn outside Kirby Student Center, where as a recent student I had spent a lot of time smoking cigarettes and not hitting the books.

There have been many, many campaigns between then and now during which I had contact with incumbents and hopefuls in my journalism role. After a while you begin to notice certain similarities among people who run for public office, especially the big-timers seeking the higher offices.

All of which brings up the current campaign, which I am viewing from the sidelines, having retired
from active journalism some time ago. Certain themes never change, and today I thought I’d share a few that I’ve noticed over the past half century, give or take a decade or two.

This is a nonpartisan report. Candidates for the Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Independents, Reformists, Martians, any other, all often say the same things, lacing their pronouncements with the same declarations. Here are some I’ve noticed:
·      Let’s begin by picking up on “United States of America.” They hardly ever just say “United States” when they refer to our beloved country. Is there anyone within hearing distance who needs to be told they are talking about the United States of America? Yet they seem incapable of just saying United States without the “of America.” Maybe there are other “United States” somewhere on the planet but I can’t think of any.
·      All candidates roll up their sleeves a lot. Standing before rapt (or unwrapped) audiences day after day, they call for “bold reforms” of just about anything and vow that when elected they are going to roll up their sleeves and tackle the problem or maybe all problems. Some make these pronouncements jacket-less and wearing short sleeves. Ah, metaphor.
·      All Americans are “hard working,” when referred to by candidates. Are they? I am not a hard working American. I’m retired. Others still in the workforce might slough off a lot. There are some acknowledged exceptions cited by candidates of a certain stripe: Americans collecting welfare are not hard working, nor do they roll up their sleeves.
·      Military personnel are all “heroes” in the words of many politicians. This includes active or reserve personnel plus anyone who has ever served in the military, known as veterans. All are heroes on the campaign trail. Well, I served in the military and never achieved hero status. In fact, while serving in the military I never met anyone I consider to be an actual hero. There are some, of course. But very few.
·      When things get tough (and the tough get going), politicians never fail to “pick themselves up, dust themselves off” and tackle the problem. What problem? Any problem. Our society has a lot more problems during the political campaign season.
·      Woe betide the candidate who doesn’t pick him or herself up, dust off and pin a teensy-weensy American flag on their lapels, provided they are wearing jackets. Sometimes they must doff their jackets to roll up their sleeves to come to the aid of hard-working Americans or heroes who serve or have served in the military.

To conclude: In my own years as a distinguished journalist (distinguished from, say, accountant or bartender) I must say I always sought to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword. Hmmm, that has a ring to it.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Cloquet Fire: It Was a Day to Remember…

By Jim Heffernan
* Note: Today marks the 100th anniversary of the 1918 fires. 
What follows is my column that was originally printed in the 
Duluth News Tribune and re-printed in my book, Cooler, Near the Lake.
Today marks the 70thanniversary* of the great Cloquet fire that burned much of Northeastern Minnesota and killed hundreds of people. The ranks of those who remember it first-hand are getting thin, although there are still plenty of people in their late 70s and older around to tell about it.

Mention of the Cloquet fire brings vivid memories to me. While I missed it by more than two decades, my mother, Ruth Carlson, was age 19 and not yet married on that Oct. 12, 1918, and talked of it often when I was growing up.

Everybody who was in this area then had a story to tell about that terrible day. Many have passed the stories down through their families. This is my mother’s Cloquet fire, as she told the story often, once, a couple of years before she died in 1983, into a tape recorder.

They say that to a foot soldier huddled in a foxhole in combat the war is only as big as that foxhole. So it is with witnesses of cataclysmic events. We only see a small part and only after they are over do we learn of their scope.

My mother’s Cloquet fire story started in downtown Duluth and ended in her home on Piedmont Avenue between Third and Fourth streets in the West End. Here, in her words, is the way it was–for her.

“It was a very lovely sunshiny day. It was a Saturday and I had baked several loaves of bread. My friend and I went downtown in the afternoon to look for a birthday gift for another friend. We left about 2:30 and went to Wahl’s store, which was George A. Gray Co. then.

“(After shopping) when we came out on Superior Street a terrific wind was blowing and it was very dark. We boarded a streetcar and coming up Piedmont Avenue we met trucks with people on them screaming. Balls of fire were rolling down the avenue, paper and other debris burning. We were frightened and hurried to our homes. (At that point) we hadn’t heard what had happened.

“The wind was so strong you could hardly breathe. I got home and my family was very excited. My mother had died in April so it was my father and five (younger) sisters wondering where to go. People were driving down Piedmont Avenue in trucks and cars, screaming. They had been picked up in Hermantown where everything was on fire.

“Soon a friend of ours called and told us to pack clothes and a little food and be ready to flee down to the bay because Duluth was surrounded by fire and (he said) the bridge crossing to Superior was burning. The Woodland area was also burning. A neighbor came over crying and wringing her hands because her three children were visiting in Lakewood with their grandmother. She didn’t know if they were alive.

“Then we heard they had ordered the people from Twelfth to Tenth streets and the area all around there to vacate. There was so much smoke we could hardly breathe. The rooms were filled with smoke. They called my dad and asked if he would take the grocery truck from where he worked to Hermantown to pick up people. He couldn’t leave us alone.

“(Later in the evening) my younger sisters were sleeping and my dad and I were up watching. About 2 o’clock in the morning the wind died down. We were saved–how thankful we were. My friend and I walked up to Hermantown the next day. What a sight we saw–people weeping standing in front of ash piles that had been their homes…so much sickness,too…the people were dying from the flu. (The fire occurred during the great Spanish flu epidemic.) It was not a pretty sight to see beautiful trees and vegetation all black, but the people were brave and went back to their small farms and started to build again.

“It was a day to remember.”

I have one other family account of that fire. My father (who had not yet met my mother) was in the Army (World War I was winding down), stationed in San Francisco. He knew nothing of the fire in his hometown until newspapers reported it with front page headlines proclaiming such things as “Duluth Leveled By Fire.”

It was some time before he could determine his own parents and siblings back in Duluth had survived, and most of Duluth itself had not burned.
Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Wednesday, October 12, 1988 
and reprinted in the book by Jim Heffernan, Cooler Near the Lake (2008).

*  To learn more about the 1918 fire... click HEREHERE and HERE.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Smart news: not all smart ...or news

By Jim Heffernan
I recently acquired a new “smart” phone, and I’ve got to admit it’s pretty smart. Until now I’ve been strictly a landlinelubber (hey, I just made up a new big word) but landlines don’t work away from home base, as everyone knows.

So I finally joined the multitudes of smart phone users. I’m always a decade or two behind the times, so no surprise there. The thing about my new smart phone that surprised me is that it isn’t just for calling or hearing from people you don’t necessarily want to talk to or hear from in the first place. It includes a feature they label “smart news.”

How smart? Well, we’ll see as we read on. For a neophyte like me, it’s quite surprising to see the screen filled with actual smart news and advertisements all mixed together, making it difficult to differentiate between them.

Get it? Well, for example, it’ll show a headline like:
Trump avers he’s
greatest bad
weather president

And then the next headline after it is something like:
Dr. Scholl gets
esteemed prize
in podiatry

See? That second item is actually an ad for shoe liners that make your feet feel good going upstairs, disguised as news. So, if you’re quickly scanning the smart news for news that you deem to be important, like:
Italians decry
naming storm
after Florence

You might click to the next one, clearly an ad:
More Quakers eat
Wheaties than
their own oats

Of course you can readily figure it out but it can be somewhat startling to think you’re reading actual fake news and then realize it’s simply an ad for something. Imagine this scenario. Real news first:
Kim Jong Un
changes last
name to Novak

Very serious news indeed. Then it’s followed by:
Research shows
Spearmint won’t
lose flavor on
bedpost overnight

Totally commercial headline disguised as breaking news.

Here are a few more examples of this growing phenomenon:
Duchy of Fenwick
declares war
on United States

Whew. Very bad development, indeed. Next?
Dentists wonder
where yellow went
after Pepsodent use

Hmmm. Here’s more. First actual news:
President Trump
lies in bed,
also elsewhere

And then:
Tasters declare
Pepsi Cola
hits the spot

Followed by startling news:
Jesus returns
for second
coming event

And then:
New discovery

I’ve never had a dandruff problem, but I am aware of its heartbreak. No, hold it, it’s the heartbreak of psoriasis, the embarrassment of dandruff.

I suppose on the day of reckoning, though, nobody will care much about the second coming if sufferers can get their hands on an effective dandruff cure.

We Americans really are exceptional. And smart. Ask us.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

A day in the life of a registered senior citizen...

A registered senior citizen on the phone...
By Jim Heffernan
Well, the Internal Revenue Service called again and, boy, am I ever in deep doo-doo. They said I owe all kinds of more taxes and I’d better pay up by sundown or the fuzz will come and pick me up and throw me in the hoosegow. 

So I guess this will have to be sort of a goodbye, because I can’t come up with that kind of moolah by the end of the day. Now I’m waiting for the house to be surrounded by IRS or FBI agents wielding rifles and a bullhorn ordering me to surrender. Can tear gas be far behind?

I do wonder what the neighbors will think, although most of them won’t be surprised. But I can’t think about that now because the phone just rang again.

“Hello, Grandpa?” Holy smokes, I’m thinking it must be one of my grandchildren calling. “Is this Jason?” I asked, alarmed.

 “Yeah, it’s Jason,” the lad responded quickly. “I’m in jail and I haven’t got any money. I need you to bail me out, grandpa.”

Well, I told him I was waiting for the Internal Revenue Service to surround our house but I’d try to help him out in the meantime. I didn’t think he’d need as much as the IRS. “How much do you need, and where are you in jail?”

He said he’d need as much as I could muster because he was behind bars in Istanbul, Turkey, where we all know they don’t treat prisoners with kid gloves. I told him I’d see what I could do and that he should call back in half an hour.

Then, bing goes the phone again. It was a very nice lady with a distinct foreign accent kindly calling to inform me that I must immediately go to my computer and do certain stuff or the computer will be rendered useless forever. Of course they’ll need my Social Security number to verify my identity. Can’t blame them there.

But before I could say Jack Robinson, the phone indicated another call was coming in. I took it. It was Jason calling back about the bail money.

I had to tell him I just remembered I don’t have any grandson named Jason, which resulted in the phone suddenly going dead on the other end of the line. No click or anything. Just dead. Must be the Turkish phone system.

When the IRS agents didn’t show up by sundown, I figured they were busy at the house of some other geezer who owes them even more. As far as the computer is concerned, it didn’t go kaput at all like the lady with the accent said it would. I just typed all this on it, for crying out loud.

Jeepers, it makes you wonder if all these people could be trying to steal money from me.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A West End Story, Part 2: Daughters of a star-crossed couple persevere after being orphaned

By Jim Heffernan
This is the rest of the West End Story about the lives of my Swedish immigrant grandparents in Duluth 100 years ago, their six daughters and the couple’s early deaths, leaving their children to fend for themselves.

To reiterate a bit, it told the story of Charles and Anna Carlson, both of whom had emigrated from Sweden at a relatively young age and how they met and married in Duluth and started their family. Their first child was my mother, Ruth, born in 1899. Only 18 years later and with five more daughters added to the family, Anna died at age 38 in 1917. When they lost their mother, the Carlson girls ranged in age from 19 (Ruth, the eldest) to the youngest, Dagmar, just five years old. Only two years later, their father died at age 47. 

Bethany Lutheran Church, 2308 W. 3rd St.
The church of my youth and the church
that kept my mother's siblings together after their parents' death
Most of what I know about their early lives was told to me by my mother. I only witnessed the adult lives of the six daughters. In 1919, at the time of Charles’ death, Ruth was serving as organist at Bethany Swedish Lutheran Church in the West End, having been appointed to the position when the regular organist was killed on a battlefield in France during World War I. Innately talented, she also had studied piano and organ.

With the parents gone, Ruth became the head of the family along with her next sister, Lillette, who at 17 shared family responsibilities of caring for the younger children. Then came Elsa, just 12 when their mother died, followed by Mildred, who was at 7, Marion, 6, and Dagmar, almost two years younger. 

The Carlson girls stayed in the small frame home their parents had established at 1925 Piedmont Avenue, an address that no longer exists but is located near Piedmont and Fourth Street.

These orphaned youngsters were taken under the wing of the Bethany church congregation, with members and leaders offering charitable help and support as the older girls struggled to rear their younger sisters. Offers came to adopt two of the younger girls–Mildred and Dagmar–but Ruth said she could not bring herself to let them leave the family. Dagmar, the youngest of the brood, was taken in for a time by what was described as a “rich” family in East End seeking to adopt her, but her oldest sisters couldn’t let her go, and she returned to the Piedmont Avenue home. Rather than break up the family, Mildred and Dagmar for a time stayed during the week at Bethany Home, the orphanage on north 40th Avenue West, and came home on weekends.
Bethany Children's Home, 1922

That left the problem of Marion, and a problem it was. She was born developmentally disabled, severely retarded in the parlance of the day, as well as epileptic. Her condition couldn’t be dealt with at home without parents, Ruth told me, and the decision was made to send her to a state institution at Faribault, Minnesota, as was commonly done in that era. (She remained institutionalized for the rest of her life, with many visits to Duluth for “vacation” and regular visits to the institution by her sisters. She died in her mid-50s.)

Before too long in the 1920s, the second and third daughters reached an age where they were able to work. Lillette got a job at Freimuth’s Department Store in downtown Duluth, located for many years on the southwest corner of Lake Avenue and Superior Street. After a period of time staying at home tending the younger children while Ruth and Lillette worked, Elsa also went to work at Freimuth’s.

In addition to her paid position as Bethany organist and choir director, Ruth was self-employed as a piano instructor in West End homes. At first she went to students’ homes to give lessons, making daily rounds by city streetcar and walking when possible. Later she brought students into her home.

Thus their lives progressed in the 1920s, making ends meet, never wanting for nourishment or shelter, young women and girls growing into womanhood with each passing year. Soon Mildred too went to work, at a laundry. None of them were able to finish high school; all were confirmed at Bethany with formal portraits commemorating the occasion.

By the late 1920s, both Lillette and Elsa had married, each having a child in 1929. Ruth stayed in the family home with the remaining sisters, who eventually expanded their own horizons by following Elsa and her husband and young daughter in a move to Chicago in the early 1930s. Finally, when the others’ lives were settled, Ruth married my father, George, in 1932, starting a new life that brought into the world two sons, my older brother and me. Throughout, she remained minister of music at Bethany Lutheran, accompanying the transition from Swedish language worship to English. 
Ruth Carlson Heffernan, circa 1920's

All of her sisters preceded her in death in the 1960s and ‘70s and were laid to rest at Bethany Cemetery in Hermantown, three of them in the same plot where Charles and Anna were buried decades before, and two elsewhere in the same cemetery.

That left two empty gravesites in the original family plot, one of which welcomed my father in 1971. Ruth lived on, alone in our family home on 23rd Avenue West a few blocks up the hill from Bethany church, and continued her music duties at Bethany until 1976 when she retired.

Age was beginning to show, even as her younger sisters passed away, one by one. She lived until 1983, dying at the age of 84. The last six months of her life were difficult for her and she ended up at Lakeshore Lutheran Home, a place where over the years she had often been asked to provide music for Christmas programs and other events.

Unable to express herself well due to aphasia brought on by her medical condition, she seemed to resign herself to her inevitable fate. Several of us gathered with her in a recreation room at Lakeshore on Independence Day in her last year. By then she was in a wheelchair, but with a piano in the room she indicated she’d like to play. She was wheeled to the keyboard, and placing her age-gnarled fingers on the keys, she formed the familiar chords of the patriotic anthem, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” playing it beautifully, with the expression she had always demonstrated at the piano. It was the last time she played a piano, an instrument that, along with the pipe organ, had sustained her her entire life.

Three months later, she was lowered into the last grave in the family plot at Bethany Cemetery, alongside my father and down from star-crossed Charles and Anna, now with all of their daughters nearby. The original family had finally come together again. 

Thus ends this West End story, only one of so many involving the struggles of early settlers of that neighborhood and throughout Duluth around the turn of the last century, but the one I know best.  

This story of my mother's life growing up in Duluth's West End (now called Lincoln Park) first published in Zenith City Online in July, 2014

Thursday, August 2, 2018

A West End Story I: Saga beginning in Sweden ends tragically for one family

A note... Last month, I wrote about our family piano and its 88 year history (88 years for 88 keys). It was my mother's piano, purchased 88 years ago. It eventually landed in my homes and recently moved from my current home to yet another home in our family. This story of my mother's life growing up in Duluth's West End (now called Lincoln Park) first published in Zenith City Online in July, 2014 and now seems appropriate to re-print as a follow-up to Ruth's piano's history. The conclusion of her story (West End Story II ) will publish in my next post. Enjoy... Jim
Anna and Charles Carlson circa 1910–11
with the first four of their six daughters,
including Ruth, standing behind her mother.
(Image: Jim Heffernan)
By Jim Heffernan
This West End story begins in Sweden, the homeland of one set of my grandparents, and a sad story it is. 
I visited Sweden in June and found myself recalling what I’d been told of the fate of these two young Swedes who sought a better life in America —and in Duluth—more than a century ago 
While Charles Carlson and Anna Joranson both were born in Sweden, they didn’t meet there. Each emigrated to Duluth in the 1890s, when so many Scandinavians arrived here. Duluth’s West End had already drawn relatives of both, so that was the destination. Anna was about 16 when she arrived, I was told, and Charles about nine years older. 
They were my mother’s parents, but I never met them. Both had died two decades before I was born. All that I know about this young immigrant couple was told to me by my mother. 
Anna went to work as a domestic in Duluth’s East
End before meeting Charles. The couple met
through Bethany Swedish Lutheran Church in the
West End, the neighborhood and church where so many Swedish immigrants congregated. 
That church as an institution still exists at 23rd Avenue West and Third Street, long since shedding its early Swedish associations, but my grandparents met and were married in an earlier edifice of the congregation at 20th Avenue West and Third, a building since replaced by a multi-family dwelling. Anna was in her late teens when the couple wed, and their first daughter, my mother, Ruth, was born in 1899 when Anna was 20 years old. 
I’ve never been clear about Charles’ work history. At times he was a grocery clerk, and he had worked on the Duluth street railway system. For about three years when my mother was a young child, they moved to Ellsworth, Wisconsin, to operate a rented farm, but returned to the West End. Another daughter had been born in Ellsworth, and Anna wanted her daughters to be city dwellers, not farm dwellers, according to what I was told. 
Back in the West End, they settled in the neighborhood just east of Piedmont Avenue known as Goat Hill, where the terrain is exceptionally steep. Soon the family grew even larger, with another daughter, and another, and eventually two more daughters—bringing the total to six girls and no boys—all born between 1899 and 1913.
But far too soon after the birth of her youngest daughter, Anna became ill, probably with cancer. She died at home in 1917 at the age of 38, leaving her grieving husband and six young daughters. My mother had just turned 18 years old, her next sister about 15 and so on down the line. 
I was told that when she died, Anna’s casket was placed in their home for the period of mourning and reviewal leading up to a funeral at Bethany church, by then located in the building it occupies today. Following the service came the long uphill trek to Bethany Cemetery in Hermantown behind a horse-drawn hearse.
These events occurred during the dark years of World War I, a difficult time nationally but strangely beneficial in one way to the Carlsons. My mother was an accomplished pianist and organist (innately talented, she had managed to study with professionals in Duluth), and when the regular organist at Bethany Lutheran was called up for military service, she, just in her late teens, took over as the congregation’s organist, a paid position. When the regular organist died on a battlefield in France, Ruth became the regular organist and director of choirs. She stayed in that position for 57 years. 
I have written before about the Carlson family’s experience in the great 1918 fire that struck just a few months after Anna’s death. The devastating October fire, extending from Moose Lake and Cloquet through the rural areas surrounding Duluth and into Duluth’s eastern neighborhoods, also threatened the West End including the Carlson home just off Piedmont Avenue at about Fourth Street. While her younger sisters slept, Ruth and her father kept a vigil all night as they watched flaming refuse from the fire sweep past their home, driven by the strong winds fueling the conflagration atop the hill that eventually claimed nearly 500 lives and left thousands homeless. 
An early morning shift in the wind saved the West End and the Carlson home. Plans had been made for the family to be taken the short distance down to the bay if the fire had directly threatened the family. Charles, working for a grocery store at the time, had been asked to take the business’ truck to help evacuate people in the path of the fire, but he couldn’t leave his six young daughters. 
But he soon did leave them. Within a year, Charles was dead. He was just 47 years old, his daughters, all under 20, left to fend for themselves. The cause of death also was believed to be cancer, and not the rampant Spanish flu pandemic threatening lives in Duluth and throughout much of the world in those hard times. 
A noteworthy transformation in conducting funerals had occurred in the two years since Anna’s death: The funeral procession for Charles was led by a motor-driven hearse, horses having only recently been abandoned for that purpose. 
He too was taken to Bethany Cemetery just inside Hermantown—in the heart of where the fire had swept a short time earlier —to be buried alongside his wife. 
That’s what I know about the lives of these grandparents, who left Sweden at young ages to play out their relatively short lives in a distant land in a small frame home on a steep hillside in Duluth’s West End. 
Last month, visiting Sweden, I couldn’t help but reflect that I had come to the land where it all had started. Charles and Anna never saw their homeland again, nor did any of their daughters ever visit Sweden, although the older girls understood and spoke the Swedish language, having been reared by Swedish-speaking parents. Even their church services were conducted in Swedish in those days. 
There’s a lot more to this West End story—how the lives of the six orphaned Carlson daughters played out without parents to nurture and guide them. Inevitably, as the decades passed, they all eventually joined their parents at Bethany Cemetery, one by one, with Ruth, the first born but last to die, laid to rest there in the 1980s. 
Maybe I’ll tell the rest of that West End story—how they struggled to keep the family together—another time. 
Finally, it must be noted that there are many such stories from those difficult days in Duluth, as a largely immigrant population struggled to gain a foothold in their new land. This is just the one I know best. 

Friday, July 13, 2018

88 years for 88 keys: A Duluth piano odyssey

By Jim Heffernan
One of my earliest memories as a toddler is crawling on the floor beneath the grand piano in our home. I recall lying on my back peering up at the piano’s undercarriage with its unvarnished hardwood and brass fittings. A mystery to me then, it served as a good early childhood hideout.

Growing up in those years — the 1940s — I innocently thought every home had a grand piano, as much a part of the household as a stove or refrigerator. Of course that wasn’t the case. Many people had uprights, but I knew of no other grands in the neighborhood.

We had one because my mother was an accomplished pianist, and, aside from practicing her music and rehearsing with various wedding singers, she gave lessons to up-and-coming hoped-for future pianists in western Duluth.

I have had that piano in my own homes for the past 35 years — since the death of my mother. I can’t play it beyond the ditties anyone growing up with a piano learns in childhood, such as “Chopsticks.” My own piano lessons didn’t take. But I couldn’t bring myself to part with it.

Now it is moving on.

In light of that I thought I’d track the history of that “baby” grand since it became a part of our family, long before even I was a baby myself. My mother bought it from the former Boston Piano Co. in Duluth on Feb 27, 1930, for $685. Amazingly, the contract for it survived in the family archives. It is a Schroeder & Son piano. That manufacturer went out of business during the Great Depression, Google informs us. 

Its first stop was in lower Piedmont Avenue, where my mother, still single, resided. After she married in 1932, it was moved to a duplex apartment on West Sixth Street in Duluth’s West End where she and my father lived and started their family. There it remained until shortly before I was born in 1939, when my parents, and my older brother, moved to a home they purchased a short distance away on north 23rd Avenue West. The piano came with them, of course.

A home with ample space, the piano was placed in a sizable entrance room off the living room. It was there that I discovered it as a toddler and where it remained throughout my childhood, youth and young adulthood until her death 44 years later.

Time to move it to a fourth location.

By then I had married and had a family of my own (and an upright piano of our own for our two kids to learn on) living in the Lakeside neighborhood. Somehow, the movers (never move a piano without professional movers) managed to wedge it down our basement stairway into a rec room, making us a two piano family.

About seven years later, we moved, and the professionals had to take it apart — separating the harp and the case — to get it back up the stairs. We told them to take it to their shop, on Superior Street in Downtown Duluth, and recondition it before moving it to our new residence. That shop would be the fifth location in Duluth for that piano, even if it was temporary. And we sold our upright.

Once settled in our new home in Hunters Park, the baby grand was delivered to us, splendidly reconditioned, even with new gleaming white keys. It originally had ivory keys that had become chipped and worn. Modern piano keys are no longer ivory, but they look the same. It was the sixth location for the now 60-year-old instrument.

It fit nicely into our large living room in that home for the next 15 years, after which it came with us to our current dwelling, a townhome in Hermantown, serving as its seventh location, or eighth if you count the several months in storage while our current home was being built. Here it fills a living room corner, designed to accommodate it, where our grandchildren have amused themselves plunking on its keys, and even, as they have grown older and endured lessons, playing it.

Now, we are preparing to move it one more time as it passes to still another generation of our family.

It will repose next in Duluth’s Congdon neighborhood at the home of our son — grandson of the original owner — and his family in a household including some of her great-grandchildren. It will be the ninth move for the piano within a radius of no more than about five miles over a period of almost 90 years and a lot of Duluth history. Well, 88 years to be precise, the same number as there are keys on a standard piano.

We’re happy to pass it on and to keep it in the family, with future generations perhaps finding a place for it in their homes. I’m looking forward to playing “Chopsticks” again when we visit.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Things to do while Trump’s in town...

By Jim Heffernan
Many Duluthians and other area residents who do not support President Donald Trump are not pleased that he is holding a political rally in Duluth on Wednesday, June 20. I am among them.

I initially decided to simply ignore the event, but that will be hard to do due to the intense media coverage of the rally. So simply ignoring it will be impossible.

I have come up with the following list of more pleasant things to do during the rally for those who simply can’t stomach the visit.

  • Haul a load of garbage to the area landfill.
  • Buckle down and begin working on next year’s taxes by listing itemized deductions so far this year.
  • Set about cleaning the oven in the kitchen stove by hand scrubbing, positioning yourself on your knees.
  • Search your lawn for weed growth, removing any incipient infestations with a metal-pronged tool and depositing the residue in a compost heap you can start in the next recommended item.
  • Put aside long-standing delays by starting that fun compost heap that you’ve been intending to establish for potato peelings, eggshells and other items, such as lawn weeds.
  • Paint something — anything in the house like a kitchen or bathroom using oil-based paint for difficult, messy cleanup.
  • Visit a dentist and have him or her yank those crooked teeth to make way for an improved smile.
  • View a video of an opera. Any opera. (Actual opera lovers are exempt from this recommendation.) Warning: Do not include “Nixon in China” by John Adams (not THAT John Adams).
  • Discover Duluth’s out-of-the-way attractions and historic sites such as the site of the former sludge pond near a one-time slaughterhouse on Oneota Street, or the dump in Gary-New Duluth where construction debris is deposited.
  • Eschew former inhibitions and go ahead and build a birdhouse in the garage.
  • Brush up on your Shakespeare.
  • Visit a proctologist to discuss upping the rate of your colonoscopies.
These are just a few suggestions for ways to stay happy and contented during the Trump visit. Be creative and come up with ideas of your own, such as crawling into bed and assuming the fetal position with your thumb in your mouth. Close eyes.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Remembering Bessie, Duluth’s Elephant...

By Jim Heffernan
Note from Jim:  The 2018 MN legislature appropriated money for refurbishing Duluth's Lake Superior Zoo. Alas, plans are not to include an elephant. I thought it would be respectful to old Bessie, the Zoo's long-gone elephant, to re-print this Zenith City Online post remembering her. 
Lake Superior Zoo: 1962
To begin with, there was an elephant. Just one. It had its own house at the Duluth Zoo, and an elephant is hard to ignore when it’s in a room. I saw it many times as a child and youth visiting the zoo starting in the 1940s.

Bessie was the elephant’s name—I was reminded when I read Nancy Nelson’s monograph of our zoo here on Zenith City. What I have to add are mainly personal impressions and recollections of the city’s approximately 90-year-old zoo, which has greatly evolved through the years of my consciousness and patronage of it.

For one thing, it is now called the Lake Superior Zoo. For another, it has no elephant. Hasn’t had one for a long time. I suppose there are records somewhere showing when this pachyderm arrived in such an unlikely place—northern North America—or where she came from.*

There are references to Bessie in newspaper articles from the late 1930s, and she was around for many, many years after that. I always felt a little sorry for this lone elephant when I stood in her presence. She was billed as the dancing elephant” for reasons I can understand.

Most of the elephants I’d seen were in movies or circuses. When Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey set up its big top in the Wade Stadium parking lot in about 1950, they brought 35 elaborately costumed elephants in to lead their opening parade around the three rings. Then there were the elephants in Tarzan movies, always coming to the rescue at Tarzan’s beck and (very distinctive) call.

And then there was Bessie, standing in her custom-built house (high ceilings) at the Duluth Zoo, shackled in her wing, rocking constantly back and forth as though she were nervous about something. She probably was: She had no companions of her species. She had to be lonesome, if I may apply a human emotion to a pachyderm.

Also, she seemed to grow long hair on her back, which surprised me. Other elephants didn’t have any hair. Bessie wasn’t covered with it by any means but there it was. I assumed, probably incorrectly, that she grew it in reaction to our cold climate, whereas African and Asian elephants in their native habitat didn’t need it. Bessie was Asian, by the way. You could tell by her ears.

But enough for now about the zoo’s only elephant, whose demise and disposition I will get into later.

First, some general impressions of the old zoo, and a little history. Unlike today (I visited the zoo again last fall with a few of my grandchildren), back when I visited the zoo as a youth, the main building stank to high heaven. I’m sure they did their best to clean up after the lions, tigers (but no bears there) and monkeys, but it was not welcoming. That has been eliminated today.

Unlike so many people, I have never cared for monkeys or primates in general. Maybe it’s because they remind me of me. It seemed to me that the lions were always sleeping when I viewed them. The tigers paced their cages, just as they always do when in a confined area. There are much better accommodations for them today.

Bears were kept in their impressive open-air dens with numerous caves where they could hide from people trying to view them, especially me. Nearby frantic wolves in room-size cages eyed a small herd of whitetail deer not far away, kept behind a tall fence in a wooded area. As a newspaper reporter much later, I can recall doing a story about an intrepid deer hunter, apparently frustrated in the woods, assaulting one of the zoo deer with a knife and spiriting the remains away. You want venison, you want venison.

Oh, there are so many zoo stories (not to be confused with Edward Albee’s absurdist play, <The Zoo Story>, which has little to do with zoos). For many years, well into the 1960s, a black bear with a large white V on its chest was a popular attraction—perhaps to some the V signified America’s victory in World War II. A zoo director with whom I had become acquainted accidentally caused the V bear’s death, and lost his job because of it. That was one beloved bear. The director, who always wore snake-proof boots, not so much.

Let’s not forget the Richard Griggs menagerie of stuffed African beasts he had shot on his many safaris. Griggs, a Duluth tycoon and philanthropist (Griggs Field and Griggs Hall at UMD are named for him, as he donated much of the land on which the college is built), had many of his kills stuffed as trophies—and built a wing on the zoo’s main building to house them. There was some disgruntlement at the time by those who believed zoos were for displaying live animals and not dead ones, but money talks and the addition, now the Griggs education center with just a few of his stuffed animals, was built.

Finally, let’s get back to Bessie, the lonely elephant. She eventually died right there at the zoo circa the 1970s. Google says Asian elephants in captivity live an average of 80 years, and Bessie had to be pushing it.

What do you do with a dead elephant in Duluth—or anywhere for that matter? I don’t know about other places, but in Duluth she was loaded onto a large truck and laid to rest in the Rice Lake landfill with the wretched refuse of decades of the city’s garbage. An ignominious ending for a lonely elephant a long, long way from her nativity—who knows where or when.

Her disposal does give rise to wondering. What if, sometime in the next millennium or two, archeologists sifting through the northern tundra to determine what life was like way back in the 20th century came across the Rice Lake landfill? Discovering the remains of an elephant this far north might forever change theories about the distribution of animals on this planet.

That’d be Bessie.
This post below was previously written for Zenith City Online and posted on October 4, 2016.

*Editor’s Note: We found he following information about Bessie on the Lake Superior Zoo’s website: Bessie, the elephant, was an all time favorite animal. She came to the zoo in 1937 when the elephant house opened. She was 12 years old at the time. The local community knew her well. Before perimeter fencing was installed around the zoo, Bessie would often wander off the zoo grounds and go ‘visiting.’ Bessie lived at the zoo until she passed away in 1974 at the age of 49.” Catch up with all of Jim’s recollections of growing up in Duluth here.