Saturday, June 12, 2021

Crime and punishment in Duluth’s long past...

Jim Heffernan's 40 Ford received a ticket for mufflers
Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on June 12, 2021

These are difficult times to be a police officer, we all know — especially the cops themselves. They’ve come under fire throughout the country due to the horrible killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. We all know that, too.

The ongoing controversy has caused me to reflect on how policing here in Duluth and around the country has changed over the years.

 

For one thing, there were no cops in Duluth schools back when I was a student. The faculty and administration could handle problems on their own, thank you very much. Sure, there were problems, but nothing to warrant police stationed in the high school buildings. Occasional fights had to be broken up, but the faculty handled it. Guns in school? Preposterous.

 

Police here used to be involved in more issues that really weren’t serious crimes. The first time a cop scared the daylights out of me, he jumped out of a squad car and confiscated the slingshot of a nearby friend, about 10 years old. He grabbed it out of my friend’s hand and broke it apart, got back into the squad and disappeared down the block.

 

Jim Heffernan's School Patrol certificate
from Duluth police
Whew. We were relieved not to be arrested. We thought you could get sent to Red Wing for owning a slingshot. Red Wing was a famous reform school in Southern Minnesota where some kids we’d heard of actually were sentenced, further preparing them for a life of crime once they got out.

 

A lot of police activity in those days seemed to involve traffic issues. For one thing, they’d set up radar on main drags and ticket drivers for going over 30. And the newspaper published the names of those offenders, along with how fast they were going, their ages and addresses. Oh, the humiliation.

 

Cops also pulled over cars with loud mufflers and handed out tickets. That happened to me once as a teenager in my coupe with a sweet sounding, rumbling set of dual exhausts. I’d say my pipes were about half as loud as today’s motorcycles. 

 

I was just sick when I was issued a ticket and ordered to report to police headquarters in a few days to demonstrate that I’d had the mufflers replaced. I took a chance and stuffed the tailpipes with steel wool, which muffled the sound, and passed my review at headquarters, after which I blew the steel wool out and was back to disturbing the peace with the sound of my car. I felt like an outlaw.

 

And woe betide any driver whose vehicle didn’t have a bumper either in front or back or both. Siren, lights, ticket. Now most cars don’t even come with bumpers.

 

The cops were also quite active in the city’s lovers’ lanes at night — places were boy teenagers of driving age would park with their girlfriends for harmless necking or whatever. The cops would sneak up on the parked cars on foot and shine flashlights in to make sure nothing illegal was going on. Nobody knew what was legal or not. Move on, the cops would demand, having invaded the privacy of young people in the early stages of fulfilling their biological destiny. 

 

These were some of the crimes that tried cops’ souls in that long-past era, although, of course, there were offenses of the more serious variety, even murder, robbery, burglary and so forth. There just didn’t seem to be as much as we hear about today. Now, in our time, many of the difficulties nationally have been initiated by police themselves, such as in the Floyd case.  

 

Later, when I became a reporter for this newspaper covering the police beat, I came to know quite a few cops, and liked most of them. Some, I felt, didn’t like me, or what I did to interfere with their jobs by writing stories about them. That’s always a problem between law enforcement and news media, even back then.

 

By then things were changing on the street. The drug culture hit, and policing got a lot more challenging.

 

In some cities — Minneapolis, for one — police are under scrutiny for perceived or actual racism. Those stories are compelling and give rise to proper criticism of law enforcement.

 

So far, police racial relations in Duluth seem to be pretty positive. Maybe that reflects a tradition in the Duluth Police Department. I hope so.

 

For most of my life I have been acquainted with a former Duluth police chief — through family, church as youngsters and cordial relations through our adult years whenever we have crossed paths.

 

Back when he was chief in the ‘90s (he retired in 2002), on one sunny summer Sunday, I was in my yard mowing my lawn when he pulled over in his vehicle to say hello. Our homes were in the same neighborhood. We had a nice chat during which I asked him where he’d been all alone on this beautiful Sunday afternoon. He said he was returning from a meeting of the Duluth Chapter of the NAACP.

 

That Duluth police chief was Scott Lyons.

 

I’m not aware of any change in that general attitude toward race relations by Duluth police leadership in the intervening years. Let’s hope not.

 

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Flying saucers: Serious business?

  Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, May 29, 2021


Flying saucers were very big news when I was growing up in the years following World War II. 


I see that UFOs (unidentified flying objects) are back in the news. U.S. Navy pilots filmed them in 2019 but the Navy kept the encounters under wraps until recently, according to The New York Times. Now, the Pentagon is going to release a full report next month.

 

Well, if you saw it in The Times it must be true.

 

I have a long history with unidentified flying objects, more commonly known in my ever-lengthening lifetime as flying saucers. They were very big news when I was growing up in the years following World War II. Flying saucers were being spotted zooming through the heavens all over the place, including here in the Northland. This paper even ran a photo of a couple of them hovering over Moose Lake, which turned out to be faked, much to editors’ embarrassment.

 

One clear summer night about then, when my family was vacationing at a lake cabin in northern Wisconsin, my father, older brother and I were standing in the yard just after sunset when suddenly either my father or brother exclaimed something like, “Lookit that,” pointing skyward. Something flashed across the firmament right over the lake. They both saw it.

 

The object disappeared so quickly I missed it. But there’s no question they saw something. My father was not given to embracing fantastic notions of the supernatural or extraterrestrial, but the incident resulted in increased interest in flying saucers in my family. Interest, but not really belief.

 

The only flying saucer I ever saw was in a movie, “The Thing from Another World,” which usually was billed simply as “The Thing.” It was so frightening to me I regressed in my psychological/emotional development at that stage in my life. I was about 10 and had been used to staying home alone in the evening when others in the family were out.

 

No staying home alone after “The Thing” lumbered into my life aboard a flying saucer imbedded in the Arctic ice, dynamited out by U.S. Air Force personnel at a remote, snow-swept base, where it proceeded to attack all living things, killing and drinking the blood of sled dogs and going after humans. Yikes. Plus, it was impervious to things like gunfire because it was vegetable, not animal. Oh the horror.

 

I got so scared I started to go to church with my mother, organist and music director of our church, in the evenings to gatherings like the weekly Prayer Meeting in the church parlors. She played an upright piano (of course the piano was upright — it was in church) for hymn singing between extemporaneous praying by the audience, and lengthy readings from the Good Book.

 

It was attended mainly by about a dozen elderly men and a few wives whose idea of a roaring good time might be sitting around re-reading Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. One time a guy read lengthily from the begats, which describe who’s related to whom in the good Old Testament. I think the preacher might even have holy rolled his eyes at that.

 

I was the lone child there but I didn’t care. It beat staying home alone worrying about The Thing coming to my house and drinking my blood.

 

Of course I grew out of it, but news of flying saucers always gets my attention and reminds me of “The Thing from Another World” and how it scared the living daylights out of me as a kid. (There’s a better word than “daylights” but this is a family newspaper.)

 

Segue now to the 1960s when I was working at this newspaper as a general assignment reporter. The nice thing about general assignment was that you would get involved in different things every shift. I worked nights and could end up covering everything from boring government meetings like those of the city Charter Commission (at least nobody read the begats) to dashing off to a house fire to get the scoop first hand for the morning’s readers.

 

So one evening the city editor assigned me to cover a speech on flying saucers (we covered a lot of speeches) by an astronomer who had been invited to visit Duluth by Frank Halstead, the who was in charge off the old Darling Observatory at 910 W. Third Street, west of downtown. Halstead was a respected astronomer.

 

Well, the guest astronomer appeared before a respectable crowd in a downtown hall and started out with what sounded like a serious speech on  unidentified flying objects, but soon he changed his demeanor to more resemble a gospel preacher, invoking the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel and his vision of wheels rolling in the heavens.

 

Many people might remember the song, “Ezekiel Saw a Wheel A-Rollin’ Way in the Middle of the Air.” The so-called astronomer was talking about THAT Ezekiel and claiming the wheels Ezekiel saw were actually our flying saucers. And God was sending them back today as a warning to sinners and prophesying the coming End Times starring The Beast. Whew. Well, at least it wasn’t The Thing.

 

I was flummoxed about what to do. It sounded crazy but I didn’t want to return to the paper without a story. Nevertheless, I felt I couldn’t put that nonsense in the paper. I’d noticed that Halstead was inexplicably absent from the speech, so I telephoned him. He’d had dinner with the speaker and realized he was a religious zealot and not a serious astronomer at all.

 

I didn’t write a story.

 

Finally, years later, recalling my family’s encounter with the UFOs over the northern Wisconsin lake, for Christmas I gave my brother a book titled “Flying Saucers: Serious Business.” He immediately said he wanted to return it unread.

 

“I thought you liked flying saucers,” I remonstrated.

 

“I don’t like them THAT much,” he said.

 

Amen.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org. 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Hard to get around in Duluth these days...

Minnesota Department of Transportation image
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on May 15, 2015

It's a traffic tale of twists and turns that also isn't true. But, you know, it could be.

Here’s all the latest fake news that’s unfit to print...


A Duluth man missing for an extended period on a trip through the heart of the city was found yesterday unconscious in his pickup truck right in the center of town.

 

Fred A. Tappet, a western Duluth fishing and lottery enthusiast, became hopelessly lost navigating detours en route to the North Shore for an afternoon of angling.

 

Cam C. Clutch, chief of the Duluth Bureau of Missing Persons, Animals and Autos (DBMPAA), said Tappet had regained consciousness and was doing well in the hospital after going without food for most of his aborted fishing expedition.

 

“He just couldn’t find his way through town due to all the detours,” Clutch reported. “Many people are finding it impossible to get from one end of town to the other because of the many closed roadways due to construction. Even the ambulance carrying Mr. Tappet to the hospital got briefly lost.”

 

Hospital officials report that attendance is down in various wards due to the difficulty of patients attempting to get to their buildings. Several prospective patients simply gave up and went back home. These h non-emergency cases, said a nurse who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak for the institution. Midwives assisting in home births are doing “a land office business,” he said.

 

The lost man, Tappet, 57, an almost retired mechanic and Vietnam-era U.S. Army veteran who was recipient of the Good Conduct Medal, was the subject of a massive search led by DPMPAA personnel and members of his family. He and his wife, Fern, have nine children, most of whom are fully-grown and who branched out through the city in search of Tappet’s pickup. DPMPAA leader Clutch said four of them became temporarily lost themselves in the downtown maze.

 

“Things are really tough if you want to go anywhere in Duluth this spring.” Clutch said. He noted there are major repairs on I-35 related to the demolition and rebuilding of the famous “Can of Worms.” (Appellation is metaphor and only tangentially related to fishing.) Then there’s the replacement of a three-block stretch of downtown Superior Street, the city’s main drag, as well as the Essentia Health building project just east of downtown.

 

There are other detours too, related to roadway construction. Piedmont Avenue, the main local artery to the Piedmont Heights area is closed near its intersection with Superior Street and Garfield Avenue. And lower Michigan Street in the Lincoln Park area of the city has a large section closed off.

 

The search for the lost Tappet reached monumental proportions, involving air, land and water. State highway department helicopters were deployed along with Coast Guard rescue craft that searched shorelines of the St. Louis River estuary, near where Tappet lives, and the shores of Lake Superior near Lester River where the angler was headed.

 

Turns out he never got beyond downtown Duluth.

 

Consenting to a hospital interview via Zoom, Tappet said he first was going to take I-35 not far from where he lives in a modest frame house but was thwarted near 27th Avenue West where a bridge to the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District headquarters is located. That governmental unit said due to the construction it is running short of old paint and poisonous substances usually brought there by local citizens now unable to figure out how to access it.

 

Many people have also used the 27th Avenue West freeway access to visit the central U.S. Post Office nearby. Officials there said mail is way down, only half-filling trucks where it is taken to St. Paul to be postmarked, with local mail trucked back to Duluth. “Never seen anything like this,” said a postal carrier in a crisp gray uniform with a blue stripe on each leg. She declined to be identified for fear of repercussions and reprisals.

 

For his part, Tappet said he had left I-35 in frustration and decided to just plow on through the city center. That was where the serious trouble started. “I’m going up one avenue and down the other following detour signs,” he said. He said he became confused and attempted to make it through alleys, but to no avail.

 

Finally he kept going around one block after another, confused that downtown First Street has been switched to two-way after decades as a one-way thoroughfare. “When’d they do that?” Tappet asked from his hospital bed.

 

The search for Tappet ended when his black pickup truck with a rusty tailgate was spotted on Canal Park Drive near the Club Saratoga, the city’s lone strip joint. “I didn’t go in, though,” Tappet emphasized to his wife, who was worriedly standing by his hospital bed wearing a stars and stripes mask. He added: “How’d we do on Powerball?”

 

Tappet was expected to be released to his wife’s reconnaissance when his strength returns.

 

“Hope we can find our way home,” he sighed.

 

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

How are things in Burkina Faso? ...

Burkina Faso Flag (Wikipedia)
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on May 1, 2021

Burkina Faso will test my geography...

Here’s some recent news from Burkina Faso, as reported in a Minnesota newspaper: “A Burkina Faso military tribunal has charged the country’s former president with complicity in the murder of his predecessor…” blah, blah, blah, and so on and so forth.

 

Burkina Faso? I take some amount of pride in being fairly good at geography after a rough start in college, but, I’m sorry, Burkina Faso has escaped me. When I first saw it mentioned I mistakenly read it as Burkina Fatso and I thought it might be the name of a sumo wrestler.

 

Glancing around the world, I know Sri Lanka used to be Ceylon. I know Myanmar was Burma and that one of its major cities is Mandalay, where the flying fishes play, and the sun comes up like thunder out of China ‘cross the bay. (Thank you Rudyard Kipling.) I know that Bangladesh used to be East Pakistan. I know that Mumbai, India, used to be Bombay.

 

 And how confusing is it that St. Petersburg became Leningrad before becoming St. Petersburg again and moving to Florida? Well, not quite.

 

I’m not so hot at keeping up with changes in the names of countries on the African continent because it seems like they change quite often. Whatever happened to the Gold Coast? It’s Ghana with the wind.

 

Geography can be difficult. It’s a big planet. I was a kid when the Korean War broke out and I had never even heard of Korea at that time. Certainly heard a lot about it later.

 

Which brings us back to Burkina Faso. I Googled it and, lo and behold, no wonder I didn’t recognize it. It used to be called Upper Volta, not that I knew anything much about Upper Volta, but at least I’d heard of it. Isn’t that where they’re going to produce electric cars? If not, it should be.

 

Turns out Burkina Faso is located in interior Africa, landlocked, but its neighbor is the Ivory Coast. Well that’s more like it. Maybe you remember when the Ivory Coast was known as the Kong Empire (thank you Google), although to do so you’d have to be like 150 years old. Funny how “Kong” keeps coming up in our lives — Hong, King, Donkey.

 

No wonder I got such a slow start in geography. Actually, what happened was I thought I knew quite a bit about geography when I signed up for a course called Geography 1 (same as anything 101) in college. Already being a geography expert, based on 18 years of life experience, being told where Korea was at age 10 and osmosis, I figured I wouldn’t have to study and I would “ace” the course. “Ace” is the college term for receiving an “A” grade. It is also a good name for a man you once knew, run into again, but can’t think of his real name. Endears you.

 

Meanwhile, back in college Geography 1, I get back the result of the first test: “F” is a grade everyone knows means abject failure. Whew. I was shocked. Turns out the professor didn’t like it when I used my own descriptions of places and other stuff instead of those in the book, which I hadn’t read and probably didn’t even buy for $18 a pop.

 

I did so poorly that I was called out for incorrectly defining “latitude” and “longitude.” Who knew they were part of geography? Of course I sort of knew what latitude and longitude were. Everybody does.

 

I once rode through Greenwich, England, where longitude starts, at a high rate of speed and didn’t see a single longitude. But that was long after I did so poorly in Geography 1 in college. I should have stopped to eat in Greenwich and ordered a prime meridian steak.

 

All of this is a long way from Burkina Faso, I know, but it shows how important geography is in the modern world.

 

Lest the good people of Burkina Faso take umbrage at this light-hearted commentary, let me point out that we have some strange names too. I’ll give only glancing mention of the neighboring western Minnesota towns of Climax and Fertile, which are fraught with innuendo. I will point out that historical — or even hysterical — research shows that Climax is named after a chewing tobacco, like Copenhagen.

 

Then there’s Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, which was named Hot Springs before adopting the name of a popular radio program, research (guess where?) shows. Talk about fraught with innuendo.

 

So as the sun sets gaily in the west, we say goodbye to beautiful landlocked Burkina Faso, a small country with a strange name whose signal accomplishment is that it is not fraught with innuendo…as far as we know.

 

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Memories of Mondale include Piedmont Heights 'attack' ...

Walter Mondale,1977 (Wikipedia)
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on April 20, 2021

"I was, in a sense, present at the creation of Mondale as a nationally significant political leader."  

Like every other high-level Minnesota politician, Walter Mondale visited Duluth quite often during his active years, almost always calling on the state’s third-largest newspaper here in Duluth.

 

In my various newsroom roles at the News Tribune (and Duluth Herald before it was discontinued), I met him many times, causing me to reflect on those times this week when the former vice president, past Minnesota U.S. senator, ex-Minnesota attorney general and affable human being died at age 93.

 

I was, in a sense, present at the creation of Mondale as a nationally significant political leader when he was appointed in 1964 to the U.S. Senate.

 

Hubert Humphrey had resigned from the Senate when he accepted President Lyndon Johnson’s offer to be his running mate in the 1964 election. It was up to then Minnesota Gov. Karl Rolvaag to appoint a successor to Humphrey and he chose Mondale, Minnesota’s attorney general.

 

Humphrey, Rolvaag, Mondale and several others, such as Eugene McCarthy and Orville Freeman, were the stalwarts of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party at the time.

 

Upon being appointed, Mondale, as was often the case for politicians, made a quick flying trip around the state, visiting Duluth and other major cities. Rolvaag accompanied him. If memory serves, it occurred on a Saturday and I was working weekends as a reporter early in my career.

 

Mondale’s retinue set up a media conference in a room off the ballroom in Hotel Duluth (now Greysolon Plaza) and we were all there — the television reporters and photographers, maybe a radio journalist or two and me. It was the first time I’d met Mondale.

 

The future senator was seated behind a desk, waiting as the TV crews set up their lights and got their bulky equipment situated. It was a complicated process in those pre-digital days. Finally they were ready, the bright lights went on and suddenly Mondale called a halt and waved to an aide to dash over and put makeup on his face, in those days needed for appearing healthy on TV. It’s my most vivid memory from that encounter.

 

All I carried was a pen and reporter’s notebook, and after talking briefly to Mondale I stood back to let the broadcasters do their thing. Glancing around the room I noted Gov. Rolvaag standing alone in a corner taking it all in, being ignored. Press all around, he the state’s governor in their midst, and no one was paying attention to him, Mondale being the star of the day.

 

I recall feeling kind of sorry for Rolvaag, so I went over to him, notebook in hand, and interviewed him. I don’t recall if Rolvaag made my story.

 

But as we all are reminded this week, Mondale went on to become a distinguished senator, vice president in the Jimmy Carter administration, unsuccessful candidate for president in1984, ambassador to Japan in the 1990s and revered pundit in recent years.

 

Mondale visited Duluth quite often as vice president, and this anecdote involving him was told me. I did not witness it. Mondale was a close friend of the late Duluth attorney Harry Munger, a long-time DFL activist and younger brother of the legendary Willard Munger, “Mr. Environment” in the Minnesota Legislature for decades. Mondale and Harry Munger were fishing partners.

 

Harry Munger told me this story: Mondale was visiting Munger’s Piedmont Heights home one bitterly cold winter night during his vice presidency. Several other guests were invited, all arriving by car. Of course, as vice president, Mondale had Secret Service protection.

 

As the guests and Mondale gathered inside, Secret Service agents were outside on alert when they were startled by the sudden starting of vehicles and rumbling of engines in cars parked near them. They were unaware of those once-popular devices that would automatically warm up an unoccupied car in cold weather. The agents thought something was amiss, until it was explained that the cars started automatically and that they were not under attack.

 

Welcome to northern Minnesota in winter, Secret Service.

 

Finally, I had a gratifying remote contact with Mondale at the time of my retirement from active employment at the News Tribune in 2005. A colleague quietly contacted Mondale and asked him to record a message of good wishes upon my retirement. I didn’t know the former vice president THAT well, but Mondale took the time to do it, and the recording was played at a retirement gathering.

 

I doubt that Mondale recalled that I was the young Duluth journalist who reported on his appointment to the Senate 41 years earlier, but I’ll never forget that he was kind enough to wish me well as I moved on with my life.

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer who still writes a column. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.


Saturday, April 17, 2021

Naughty- naughty on the Danube...

Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, April 17, 2021

When my kids were kids and misbehaved in some small way, I would sometimes employ the age-old hand signal for “naughty-naughty” (shame on you hand gesture).

 

You probably know it: You make fists with both hands with the index fingers extended, as in pointing, and then repeatedly rub one index finger along the other. Somehow, through the ages, this hand signal has survived as the sign for minor misbehavior that I, and probably others, call naughty-naughty.

 

It’s handy, and most everyone comes to understand it as the light-hearted signal for minor family infractions. If a child commits major infractions, like burning down the house, this is not the signal to use. But if the child spills his or her milk by being obstreperous at the breakfast table, well, one extended index finger sawing the other works just fine, along with a dishrag to clean up the mess.

 

The nice thing about it is that, for fun, it can extend into teen years and even young adulthood, just as a joke. Nothing need be said, the gesticulation says it all.

 

There have been many naughty-naughties in my own life, like the time in 10th grade world history class when the teacher asked me to name Alexander the Great’s horse and I answered, “Silver,” causing uproarious laughter in the classroom. We were wild teens back then. It was a regular blackboard jungle.

 

I believe my grandchildren are now aware of the naughty-naughty hand signal too, even if they don’t flash it yet. It’s sort of a family tradition, I suppose. Maybe it’s one of yours too.

 

But I hadn’t displayed the naughty-naughty much in recent years. Kids grown and on with their own lives, flashing the sign to their own children and so on down through the generations.

 

Still, I believe it’s an American tradition worthy of propagation and mention, even if only in a midwestern newspaper.

 

You wonder though (at least I do), is it only an American tradition? Maybe it’s understood beyond the land of the free and the home of the braver than me. Here’s some evidence.

 

A couple of years ago we signed up for a European river cruise that took us up the Danube from Budapest to Vienna and on through various quaint towns in Germany and ending in Amsterdam, Holland. For the record, they switch rivers at the north end of the voyage, even plying the fabled Rhine.

 

I have cruised on big boats and river cruise boats, and like the latter the best. A couple hundred people vs. a couple thousand-plus. You get to know some fellow travelers pretty well on the river boats and become acquainted with some members of the crew too — friendly young people who serve the mostly American guests with a smile while spouting various degrees of knowledge of the English language.

 

You’d never need to flash the naughty-naughty to them, even if they might know what it means. If I thought about it I’d assume they wouldn’t. American tradition, possibly just Midwestern. Maybe just me. Who knows?

 

Segue to the shipboard cocktail hour one pleasant afternoon on the Blue Danube, which actually looks kind of brown up close. I was standing at the bar in the vessel’s cocktail lounge waiting for friends to show up so we could take a table and have a libation before dining.

 

The bartender was a cheerful young woman, maybe in her mid-20s, of unknown national origin to me, who was handling the horseshoe-shaped bar alone. I was alone at the bar too. She spoke English quite well but, of course, in what used to be called broken. I couldn’t tell exactly what that accent represented but, being in Germany, I naturally assumed she was German.

 

As I chatted with her briefly, she was filling drink orders for waiters serving other travelers seated at tables throughout the spacious cocktail lounge. Suddenly, in engaging with one of the tray-bearing waiters, she became very agitated over a drink mistake or something. She angrily rebuked the waiter in a language I didn’t understand but assumed was German. The waiter, thoroughly chagrined, turned on his heel and resumed serving travelers.

 

She then turned to me again, smiling. Kerfuffle over. But to kid her a little I clenched my fists, index fingers extended, and rubbed one index with the other. I didn’t know if she’d understand what it meant, but took a chance. She grinned and seemed to recognize it right away.

 

“Do you know what that means in German?” I ventured.

 

Her response was quick. “I know what it means in Polish.”

 

Oh, my…travel can be so broadening.

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org. 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

A brief history of smelt in Duluth...

Crowd of smelters at mouth of Lester River on April 25, 1986.
 Photo by Steve Sterns for the Duluth News Tribune
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, April 3, 2021.

"The nice thing about smelt is all you have to do is decapitate them, gut them and throw them in the hot grease."

About once every decade or so, give or take, I like to recall the halcyon days of smelt “fishing” each April in Duluth. The ranks of those of us who experienced the anarchy and chaos of smelt season here are thinning, even if our midsections are not.

 

Plus, a few generations of native Duluthians and those who have moved here in the past 40-some odd (I’ll say) years did not experience this unique aspect of our history. It needs to be recorded somewhere. So here goes.

 

It all started shortly after World War II, in the mid-1940s. One can only imagine the scene in the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of the United States. Smelt were still saltwater fish but getting restless.

 

Smelt leadership began getting concerned when their multitudinous schools of tiny, silvery subjects began complaining that things just weren’t the same anymore in the ocean. No more German submarines darting through their waters just off the coast; flotillas of U.S. surface naval ships headed for Europe came to a halt. It was getting boring for smelt.

 

So their leadership decided something had to be done. “I’ve got it, let’s go to Duluth,” the king smelt said.

 

“How can we do that? We’re saltwater fish and the Great Lakes are fresh water,” said the queen.

 

“We’ll adapt,” said the king Fish.

 

And adapt they did, swimming their way up the St. Lawrence Seaway, which didn’t formally exist at the time but the water was there. The change in smelt biology shocked ichthyologists in Duluth, although there weren’t too many to be shocked because the University of Minnesota Duluth (which was only getting started) was not yet used to big words like ichthyology, which is even harder to spell than it is to pronounce. Those fish scientists agreed, though, that to have their study of fish taken seriously in the academic world they had to have a name nobody could spell or pronounce.

 

But enough ichthyology. It’s too hard to type.

 

So those intrepid Atlantic smelt finally arrived in Duluth en masse by the mid-to-latter years of the 1940s but few people here knew what to make of it at first. The few who did realized they could get huge net seines, wade in pairs a few yards into Lake Superior off Park Point two or three times and come back with enough smelt to feed the 5,000, to respectfully employ a Biblical allusion.

 

Word got around fast. Word about free food always gets around fast. Soon it became common knowledge that the North Shore streams also were full of them and all you had to do to get a pail of smelt was to don hip boots, use a hand-held dip net a couple of times against the stream’s flow, and, voila, several potential meals, deep fried.

 

That is if the smelt were “running” up the streams to spawn. It was sporadic, but if they were running the take of fish was incredible. We are talking tons. Smelt were running along the North Shore long before people took it up.

 

Duluthians went nuts as those early years rolled by, ending the ‘40s and into the ‘50s and well beyond. Word spread beyond the city and soon caravans of smelt seekers from distant venues — the Dakotas, Iowa and especially the Twin Cities — descended — and I mean descended — on the Zenith City of the unsalted seas, so recently hosting the adapting smelt in their journey west. Even the staid Chamber of Commerce embraced it.

 

Many of the natives (that was us) and outsiders also found that dipping or seining for unlimited smelt went well with consumption of various intoxicating beverages, and smelting parties were organized around huge bonfires, many of which were fueled with old tires. This was before the environmental movement got started. Tires really burn well but create a lot of greenhouse gasses, many later observed.

 

It reached a point where you could stand on London Road at night and gaze across the wolf nose of Lake Superior to Park Point and see, literally, scores of bonfires lighting the darkness on the sandy beach, some even fueled with driftwood. And along the mouths of North Shore streams — the Lester, the Knife, the French, the Sucker (there’s some irony in that name) — thousands of intrepid smelters from the Upper U.S. converged en masse for free food.

 

The state of Minnesota was caught flat-footed. Incredibly, state officials and political bigwigs didn’t realize at first that this could be a good source of revenue for the state. It took them several years to mandate that smelt fishermen and fisherwomen (of course there were both) actually have fishing licenses. That made the food less free, but didn’t diminish the multitudes.

 

And the nice thing about smelt was all you had to do was decapitate them, gut them and throw them in the hot grease, tails and all if so inclined. I am not much of a fish eater — you can have your walleye or kamloops or trout or whatever — but I love smelt. I did get caught up in actual smelt fishing as a child early on and then as a smelt partier later, but I recovered.

 

There was a down side. Eager, sometimes inebriated, smelt seekers plying the shore streams and on the Point often lacked respect for private property near the smelting sites. Many felt, for example, that if they needed firewood somebody’s nearby picket fence would burn nicely. This was very frustrating to residents and challenging for law enforcement officials overwhelmed by, well, overwhelmed by everything. Chaos and anarchy reigned, along with King Smelt.

 

Most of the activities occurred after dark. Nighttime traffic on London Road in Duluth was — oh, how should I put it? — bumper to bumper (there’s no other way to put it) from near downtown to Lester River and beyond. (This was back in the days when cars actually had bumpers.)

 

And, yes, there were casualties. Sadly, in many years, there were one or two drownings.

 

The smelt themselves largely brought it to a close after a strong 40 years or so of offering themselves up for food and frolic in Duluth. Suddenly it tapered off. Now only professional fisher persons net them way off shore and sell them commercially.

 

It’s enough to make an ichthyologist cry.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org. 


NOTE: Today's column in the Duluth News Tribune was printed for the last time in Duluth. As a 43 year employee of the DNT, I find it noteworthy that my column appears today. Read that story HERE.