More Duluth restaurant memories

Last week’s post on Twin Ports restaurants of the past brought a lot of feedback.

Many of the restaurants mentioned in those comments are not included in the Attic photo files. But a few are, and I’ll try to get to as many of them as I can in upcoming posts.

For now, here are a few more photos and stories of

One longtime downtown Duluth restaurant was Natchio’s Greektown Restaurant, at 109 N. Second Ave. W. Here it is in 1986, in a photo by the News-Tribune’s Charles Curtis:

Natchio’s closed at the end of 1996, and its passing was noted in a column in the Dec. 28, 1996, News-Tribune:


By Dominic P. Papatola, News-Tribune columnist

You won’t find it on the obituary page, but the death of Natchio’s Greektown should rank as among the sadder passings of 1996 in the Northland. After a quarter-century and a final night of business on New Year’s Eve, the mom-and-pop Greek joint on Second Avenue will close its doors to join the ranks of fondly remembered Duluth eateries in restaurant heaven.

Tom Pratchios bought the place on Second Avenue West in 1971 when it was a two-table greasy spoon called the Duluth Dinette. After a decade of switching menus and monikers, he settled on the restaurant’s current name and a spread of Greek recipes gleaned from relatives and nosy visits to restaurants in the Old Country.

Though it was the only restaurant in town that offered a belly dancer on weekend nights, Natchio’s wasn’t a high-profile place. More, it was a pocket of tranquillity and warmth on even the coldest of Duluth evenings.

Repeat customers came from the Twin Cities or Thunder Bay, where they’d be greeted with a hug. Whether you were a first-timer or a regular, it was easy to see that the folks at Natchio’s knew that running a restaurant meant more than pushing the nightly special or keeping the water glasses full.

They knew that dining was an art form — equal parts composition, theater and aesthetics. You were never rushed at Natchio’s, never made to feel that they were pouring you another cup of coffee as they were wishing you out the door so they could turn the table over. The folks at Natchio’s somehow always made it feel like you were eating with friends.

Jan Pratchios, who’s been making spanicopita and dolmathisthis by Tom’s side since the two met in 1976, believes that their retirement mirrors a larger trend: the family-owned restaurant as a vanishing species.

“Go to a restaurant convention sometime and see what’s being made in big (industrial) kitchens and passed off as homemade food,” she said. “Our tastebuds are being sated by this stuff.”

In an era of profit-motivated chains, she says, shortcuts are taken, and restaurant food is losing its sense of individuality. In a fast-food world, those too-salty or too-sweet prefabricated concoctions are becoming so prevalent and so accepted that ever-fewer people are bothering to look for fine nuances of flavor anymore.

Change the words a bit, and Jan could be giving us a metaphor for society at large. But that’s a different day and a different column.

For today, it’s enough to bear in mind that, as the old year fades away, so does an old friend.


There were several comments last week about “smorgasbord” restaurants. In the News Tribune files, I found a photo submitted a decade ago by reader Randy Raymond, showing the Sweden House Smorgasbord in Duluth’s Plaza Shopping Center in 1964:

More restaurant photos and memories to come in future posts….

Share your memories by posting a comment.

A walk down restaurant memory lane

The News Tribune Attic is full of photos of restaurants that have come and gone in Duluth and Superior. Here are a few; if you have  memories of any of these places (especially the Australian food restaurant), post a comment:

Casa de Roma restaurant on Fourth Street in Duluth, February 1998. (Kathy Strauss / News-Tribune)


The Bella Vita restaurant shortly before opening in December 1996 on West First Street in downtown Duluth. It’s one of several restaurants to have come and gone in the building since longtime tenant Chinese Lantern was destroyed by fire. (Bob King / News-Tribune)


The Bellows restaurant on London Road, October 1997. The building now houses Elysium Salon and Spa. (Josh Meltzer / News-Tribune)


Orchard’s Pie Shop and Restaurant at 15th Avenue East and London Road, shortly after it closed in September 1995. The building later housed Louis’ Cafe for a few years. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)


The Library on Tower Avenue in Superior, after closing in June 1998. (Renee Knoeber / News-Tribune)


Alex Zbiljic waits on a table in January 1994  at the newly opened restaurant at 219 West First St. called The Roos Ltd.  It features Australian food. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)


The Big Ray burger was one of the menu items at Ray’s Place on East Superior Street in July 1998. (Renee Knoeber / News-Tribune)


Here are links to a few past Attic posts on now-closed restaurants, including Lundahl’s Coffee Shop, the Buena Vista, the Whistling Bird, the Glass Block coffee shop, Mars Drive-In, Tony’s Koo-Ko’s Nest Cafe, the Streamliner Diner, Mr. Nick’s, Mr. Pete’s, Mr. Frank’s Pizza, Mr. Steak, Guppy’s Drive-In, Henry’s Hamburgers, the Fountain Drive-In (also here), Heffty Steer, the Olde Depot Inn, the Lemon Drop and the Chinese Lantern.

While it’s been mentioned a few times, apparently I’ve never done a post on the legendary Joe Huie’s Cafe; I’ll have to get working on that.

And if you can think of any other old restaurants you’d like me to try looking up, post a comment.

Bricks come to Superior Street, 1985

Earlier this week the News Tribune ran an article about how Duluth city officials are starting to discuss how to handle the deteriorating brick-paved streets downtown – install new bricks, or switch to concrete or another surface.

I thought it was a good time to look at some photos of when the bricks were installed. The project originated when plans for the Interstate 35 extension through downtown and east Duluth were scaled back in the 1980s; the money saved went to pave the downtown streets.

Crews tear up asphalt on Superior Street between Second and Third avenues West in preparation to install brick pavers on July 2, 1985. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)


The asphalt on Superior Street in front of the KDLH-TV building, between Fourth and Fifth avenues West, is torn up on June 18, 1985. (Jack Rendulich / News-Tribune)


The workers in the foreground  put a protective coating on the new bricks on Superior Street, while workers farther back sweep cement powder between the pavers, on the block between First and Second avenues West on Oct. 8, 1985. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)


The new bricks on Superior Street shine under the streetlights on Oct. 9, 1985. Businesses visible in this view, between Fourth and Fifth avenues West, include (first floor, from right) Freddie’s Fudge Factory, Bragg’s, Mr. Pete’s and Gunderson’s Food Shoppe. Duluth Business University occupies the second floor. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

Share your memories of Superior Street, the bricks or the businesses seen in these photos by posting a comment.

Gustafson’s Lakeside Bakery closes, 2003

April 26, 2003

Ted Gustafson (center) and sons Bill (left) and Bob are getting out of the bakery business. They have operated Gustafson’s Lakeside Bakery for 48 years. (Derek Neas / News-Tribune)



By Jane Brissett, News-Tribune staff writer

Add this to your list of things to do this morning: Stop at Gustafson’s Lakeside Bakery and stock up.

Today is its last day in business.

If you want to have a last taste of the Gustafson family’s special coffee cakes, fried cinnamon rolls, bismarcks and other goods — all made from scratch — put down that coffee cup and head to Lakeside right now before they sell out.

Within a couple of weeks, Johnson’s Bakery in the Lincoln Park/West End neighborhood expects to expand to a second location at the same 4509 E. Superior St. location occupied by Lakeside Bakery.

“I hope they don’t change the recipes,” said Karl Braafladt as he picked up a couple of items Friday morning.

The bakery, which has been in the same place since 1955, is a local institution and one of the few family-owned bakeries left in the city. It’s the only stand-alone bakery in Lakeside.

For about 50 years a group of men has been meeting for coffee at Gustafson’s Lakeside Bakery. And while the faces have changed, the tradition continues in April 2003 for Bob Klein (clockwise from left), Jerry Archer, William Keller, John Keturi, Cliff Hedman and George Lancour. (Derek Neas / News-Tribune)

It’s not only a place to pick up a loaf of bread or some cupcakes, but it’s a gathering spot. A group of male retirees has met there for coffee every morning since the bakery opened. While membership of the group has changed, the topics they discuss haven’t.

“We talk about politics, world affairs — you name it,” said William Keller, a member of the group. Many are veterans, John Keturi said. “We get quite a few war stories,” he said.

Ted Gustafson, 91, and his sons, Bill, 60, and Bob, 57, are retiring out of necessity. Their son and brother, Tom, who also helped run the business, died last year. They also have four other employees.

“We don’t really want to quit,” Bill Gustafson said. But he has severe arthritis. Both of his hips and knees and an elbow have been replaced. All of the heavy work has been left to him.

Bob Gustafson, however, has a bad back and will be having surgery soon. He won’t be able to work the job anymore, either. And Ted Gustafson, who has been at work at the bakery at 3:30 a.m. every day for 48 years, can’t do it alone.

“People are really shocked that we’re closing,” Bill Gustafson said.

Much of the bakery’s business comes from people who live and work in the Lakeside neighborhood, such as lifelong resident Dave Borgeson, who picked up a bag of goodies before he went to work at a nearby pharmacy Friday morning. (Derek Neas / News-Tribune)

Ted Gustafson is one of four brothers who each owned a bakery back in the 1950s. One was in Lincoln Park/West End, two were downtown and Ted’s was in Lakeside. His is the last one surviving.

At one time, Lakeside Bakery delivered daily to the Air Force base, City Hall, the courthouse and the Federal Building. For several years, they supplied East High School with glazed doughnuts for the students’ morning break.

But they have cut down in recent years and don’t routinely deliver anymore. The walk-in business keeps them going.

“We try to stick with stuff that sells fast and that people like,” Bill Gustafson said.

In some respects, Johnson’s Bakery is a natural successor to Gustafson’s. Scott Johnson, president and general manager of Johnson’s Bakery, said his late father, who founded his family’s bakery in 1946, knew Ted Gustafson.

There will be no party or speeches marking the closing, but Johnson’s praise makes an appropriate eulogy for Gustafson’s Lakeside Bakery:

“Nowadays, for anyone to be in business that long says they’re certainly doing something right.”


Laurie Edblom picks up pastries and cookies for her co-workers in April 2003 at Gustafson’s Lakeside Bakery. Bob Gustafson bags the order for her. (Derek Neas / News-Tribune)


As noted in the story, Johnson’s Bakery took over the Lakeside Bakery location, and remains there to this day.

Share your memories by posting a comment.

Taking a brief break

I should have mentioned this earlier, but I’m taking the week off from making new Attic posts – taking things a little easier this week in advance of running the half-marathon on Saturday.

I should have new items to post next week. As always, there are plenty of previously posted stories and photos from the past 3+ years to browse.

Superior’s ‘Apple Annie,’ 1980

September 7, 1980

Ruth Weidinger, aka “Apple Annie,” greets customers at a produce stand in South Superior in September 1980. (Joey McLeister / News-Tribune)

‘Apple Annie’

Ruth Weidinger’s stand is a Superior institution

By Richard L. Pomeroy, News-Tribune

The small truck pulls into a parking lot in South Superior shortly after 10 a.m. Saturday.

Several people are waiting for the woman sitting behind the wheel.

She stretches, walks around to the side of the truck and hangs a weathered sign announcing “Apples for sale here – also squash” before going to the back and dropping the tailgate.

Inside are bushel baskets stacked to the top of the truck box. Ears of corn peek from the baskets as if intent on eavesdropping on the start of conversation.

“Apple Annie” is more than four hours into her long working day. She has been up since 6 a.m., worked in her garden and wheeled her truck about 80 miles to Superior. For her, this day is like any other fall Saturday or Sunday.

“Apple Annie” is open for business – selling apples and vegetables as she has for 20 years next to the firehall at 58th Street and Tower Avenue.

Although known to many of her customers only as “Apple Annie,” the vendor is formally and legally Ruth Weidinger. She operates a vegetable farm and apple orchard about 4 1/2 miles north of Bayfield.

Bushel baskets of fresh-picked corn are stacked on the back of Ruth Weidinger’s truck in South Superior in September 1980. On the side of the truck, a sign reads “Apples for sale here – also squash.” (Joey McLeister / News-Tribune)

Weidinger is aware of the “Apple Annie” nickname, but has “not the slightest idea” how it came to be.

“It doesn’t matter – maybe they just don’t know what else to call me,” she said during one of the brief breaks in the sales operation that continues until about 6 p.m.

“As long as I’m selling, and they’re buying, it doesn’t make any difference,” Weidinger added.

“It’s a living and if I wasn’t doing this I don’t know what I would be doing. It’s too late for me to change my ways now – I never did anything else. This is it, this is my life.”

Sales are brisk for more than an hour. There’s no time for small talk.

It takes only a few minutes for Weidinger to get the operation organized.

Several bushels of corn are moved onto the tailgate. That gives her room to stand and begin filling orders.

A kitchen scale is used to fill the first order – for tomatoes.

Weidinger shows her marketing knack by quoting the price at “three pounds for $1.50,” thus filling few orders for less than that amount.

The corn? It was fresh-picked this morning “like it always is.” It sells for $1.25 per dozen.

Why no white corn? “Because I don’t plant any – that’s why.”

Apples? “Yes, but they’re not good keepers. Everything’s pretty early, but the best apples won’t be had for at least a couple of weeks. These are Melbas – soft, but good for pie if you use them right away. The best ones – Wealthies, Cortlands and McIntoshes – come later this month.

Ruth Weidinger keeps up a steady exchange of conversation with her customers as she peddles fresh produce from her farm near Bayfield in September 1980. (Joey McLeister / News-Tribune)

The sun beats down. Weidinger slips out of the woolen shirt she wears over a blouse.

The sales continue, Weidinger filling one order while answering another shopper’s questions about prices.

She totals purchases with precision, accepts payment and makes change from a cardboard box well inside the truck.

Twenty years ago, she sold produce at the Superior fairgrounds, and before that worked with her father at a farmers’ market at 14th Street and Ogden Avenue. After the farmers’ market was discontinued, she teamed with her father in door-to-door selling in Superior.

“But that was too much walking and carrying,” she recalled.

Ruth Weidinger waits for customers as she sells produce in South Superior on Nov. 26, 1989. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)

Her products vary with the fall season but always include the traditional vegetables of the area.

Weidinger operates the orchard and truck farm on the old family homestead of about 360 acres. She has about 50 acres, “including the apple trees,” under cultivation.

Her brother, Edmund, whose family lives in another house on the homestead, is a partner and helper.

He and his two sons help with the harvest and help load the truck.

By 6 p.m., it’s time to close shop and head back to Bayfield.

The schedule is the same the next day: up before 6 a.m. to pick more corn and tomatoes, then more wheeling and dealing – wheeling 80 miles to Superior and dealing with both friends and strangers.


Ruth Weidinger, aka “Apple Annie,” made trips to sell produce in Superior until 1994. She died in Washburn on April 1, 2002, at the age of 91.

In News-Tribune story reporting Weidinger’s death, her niece told the paper that Weidinger preferred selling her produce to people, not to stores, because she liked the variety of folks she would meet.

“She always wanted to smile,” Donna Line told the News Tribune. “She was very, very genuine and friendly, and she liked to talk and visit.”

Omnimax Theatre opens, 1996

April 18, 1996

Omnimax Director Dennis Medjo stands in the new theater at the DECC on April 17, 1996. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)



By Dominic P. Papatola, News-Tribune staff writer

After 13 months and about $9 million, the Duluth Omnimax Theatre lifts off tonight with an appearance by astronaut George “Pinky” Nelson and “The Dream is Alive,” a cinematic ode to America’s space shuttle program.

The theater — the 24th of its kind in the country — is the latest addition to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, one that DECC operators hope will draw around a quarter-million visitors a year.

If the Omnimax meets those projections, the theater will become one of Duluth’s best-attended attractions, surpassing Glensheen, the Depot and the Lake Superior Zoo in terms of popularity.

DECC officials have hosted a few advance screenings of “The Dream is Alive” including a Tuesday night shindig for employees of the convention center and their families. These dress rehearsals indicate that the Omnimax is a functional and comfortable addition to Duluth’s stable of venues.

The lobby — with blue carpeting, bright-white walls, ash woodwork and oreboat red railings and exposed duct work — strikes the semi-formal chord of an upscale “legitimate” theater or a spartan academic auditorium. Yet, there are plenty of movie-house and tourist-friendly touches.

The exterior of the Duluth Omnimax Theatre, as seen in March 1997. (Kathy Strauss / News-Tribune)

For the run of “The Dream is Alive,” for instance, the gift shop stocks a variety of “Mommy-can-I-have” items such as inflatable space shuttles, NASA totebags and freeze-dried “action snacks.”
Back in the lobby, there’s a well-appointed snack bar, offering standard movie-theater fare at the standard — which is to say, grossly inflated — movie-theater prices: $2.99 for nachos, $1.69 for a small soda.

Since you’ll pay a premium for these snacks, Omnimax officials decided to let patrons bring those goodies into the theater itself — and even equipped the seat-arms with cup holders.

If you’ve never walked into one of these dome-style venues, you may experience a touch of vertigo. You enter at the bottom of the theater; soft lighting and synthesizer-heavy background music increase the feeling that you’ve entered another world.

The purple-and-blue seats are set in a permanent diagonal Barcalounger position, focusing your gaze upward at the white, dome-shaped screen that stretches 72 feet in diameter. This angle, ideal for viewing the IMAX movies, makes it difficult to use the theater for other sorts of meetings or presentations, as DECC officials have said they’d consider doing.

People prepare to leave the Omnimax Theatre in Duluth after a showing of “Walking on the Moon” on Dec. 8, 2006. The six people pictured were the audience for the 6 p.m. show. (Clint Austin / News Tribune)

The seats are 20 or 21 inches wide, depending on where you’re sitting, but those handy cup holders make them feel a bit narrow.

For best viewing, try for the seats higher up and toward the middle of the rows.

The “rake” — or angle of the rows — is very steep, so you’ll want to be careful when, say, crossing or uncrossing your legs so that you don’t give the person in front of you a kick in the head.

No matter where you sit, though, the movie completely fills your field of vision. Combined with a 10,000-watt speaker system that seems to rumble at you from all directions, your stomach may be convinced that you’re in motion, even though your head knows you’re sitting still.

“The Dream is Alive,” a valentine to NASA’s space shuttle program made before the 1986 explosion of the Challenger, was filmed in part by astronauts on the shuttle Discovery. The film, an oldie by IMAX standards, is scheduled to run about 10 weeks. It will be replaced by “Special Effects,” a first-run feature that will premiere in Duluth and at a half-dozen other IMAX theaters.


The Duluth Omnimax Theatre was joined at the DECC by the Duluth 10 – a “normal” movie theater next door – in December 2004. After years of low attendance, the Duluth Omnimax closed in March of this year; the future of the theatre building remains undecided; the DECC board is weighing options.

Here are a few more photos from when the Omnimax Theatre was built:

An explosive charge broke ground at the future site of the Omnimax Theatre, in what was then a DECC parking lot, on March 16, 1995. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)


Construction of the Omnimax Theatre is on schedule in this view from Aug. 30, 1995.  Ironworkers placed an evergreen tree on top of the building when the highest beam was put in place. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)


DECC Executive Director Dan Russell explains the features of the Omnimax Theatre being constructed next to the DECC on Aug. 29, 1995. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)


Share your memories by posting a comment. And if you haven’t done so already, become a fan of the News Tribune Attic on Facebook.

Photo mystery solved… and other odds and ends

Here is a copy of a News Tribune Attic “print edition” column that appears in today’s paper. It provides the answer to the crime scene mystery photo from a few weeks back, as well as catching up on a few other odds and ends from past print columns….

News Tribune Attic readers helped identify the men in this photo… read on to learn more. (News Tribune file photo)

Over the past few months I’ve tossed out a few questions about old photos and stories from the News Tribune archives. Now, I’ll share what I’ve heard back from readers.

We’ll start with the most recent question, which resulted in the most definitive answer. On May 15 I ran a photo showing a crime scene, with what appeared to be law enforcement officers examining a bullet.

Readers Sandra Sterling and Tess Thorstad both e-mailed that the man on the right looked like Alfred Senarighi, who had worked for the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office (he’s Thorstad’s father).

Senarighi’s name jogged my memory — I vaguely remembered seeing it months earlier, in the captions for a folder of old crime scene photos. And sure enough, the lone “mystery photo” was part of that larger file; it had been separated years, possibly even decades ago.

So what does the photo show? It’s the aftermath of a triple-murder at a farmhouse near Floodwood in November 1953. At the scene in the early morning hours are, from left, St. Louis County Sheriff Sam Owens; William Dinkel of the sheriff’s criminal investigation staff; and Senarighi, then a deputy sheriff.

Owens served as sheriff from 1931 until 1967. An interesting side note — Owens was appointed St. Louis County sheriff after a judge ruled that the winner of the 1930 election, Emil Erickson, was not an American citizen, and was disqualified from holding office. He had been born in Norway and never was naturalized.

As I was pulling that information together, a note arrived from reader Glen Kartin, naming all the men in the photo, and correctly identifying the date and place. Thanks to all who helped put that mystery to rest.


Unlike the first mystery photo, the exact date and location of this picture remains a mystery. (News Tribune file photo)

Abandoned houses photo

There were quite a few responses to the mystery photo of a man looking at abandoned houses that ran with this column on March 6.

Unfortunately, no one could offer a definitive identification of where the photo was taken.

There remain two main camps of opinion on the location of the photo, both based on the idea that it’s a picture of homes being razed for the construction of Interstate 35 through the western and central parts of Duluth.

A slight majority of responses placed the photo near the corner of 51st Avenue West and Bristol Street in West Duluth. Several other readers said they believed it’s from the vicinity of 27th Avenue West and Helm Street.

Reader Denise Johnson of Superior said she thought the photo was from the Bristol Street area. She sent some nice recollections of her childhood in that neighborhood — memories that may resonate with some of you, too:

“I grew up on 63rd Avenue West, above Bristol Street. My siblings and I, along with the neighborhood kids, often watched the workers leveling homes and building I-35. I remember feeling such sadness, as they tore down homes and changed the landscape of our beloved neighborhood. The area where I-35 crosses 63rd Ave. West, traveling back to where the train tracks used to be along Green Street, was a children’s dreamland playground. There were fields of wild flowers and every type of fruit tree and bush, you could imagine. …

“I remember vividly the timeframe during which they tore the houses below Bristol Street down. A huge barn owl decided to make a temporary home in our backyard. As a child, I was in awe of its size. My mother allowed the owl to live in our yard, until it moved on. She told us that it probably had been living in one of the abandoned homes below Bristol Street. It chose our yard as a pit stop on its journey to find a new
home. …

“When the workers began hauling in truckloads of fill to build the massive hill off of 63rd Avenue West and Bristol Street, our playfield was lost to us. Being resilient kids, we found one benefit in that large mass of fill. That hill made a great slope for our sleds and toboggans. …

“Along 63rd, below the freeway overpass, a new sidewalk was laid after the completion of I-35. I walked down to watch the workers, asking them if I could please put my name, and siblings’ names, in the sidewalk. I was given permission to put our initials, not our full names, in the corner of one square of concrete. The workers smiled as I took a stick and etched, with pride, our initials into the fresh concrete. Years later, as an adult, I traveled back to the old neighborhood. I walked the same section of sidewalk, finding our initials buried under 30+ years of dirt.

“I don’t know who the gentleman is in the photo. I see a sadness in his posture. Perhaps, he is reminiscing about his pre-I-35 childhood, as I am now.”

Ely Bottling Works

After an archive story and photo about the Ely Bottling Works ran March 13, several readers shared their memories about the soda factory and its owner, Charlie Lampi. Some readers also sent photos of Ely Bottling Works bottles and memorabilia, including these:

Shirley Shusta of Ely sent this photo of a Jacob Lampi (Jacob was Charlie’s dad) bottle with an attached pumping apparatus. It’s standing atop a Kist Beverages box; Kist was the company from which Charlie Lampi bought his soda flavor extracts.

Mary Jackman Sanders sent photos of a similar bottle – only it was etched with the name John Jackman, her great-grandfather and the man who started the Ely Bottling Works. Jackman sold the business to the Lampi family.


Kurt Soderberg sent a photo of a different style of Ely Bottling Works bottle that he has:


And Dan Anderson of Cloquet, who grew up in Ely, sent these photos of a vintage bottle opener:

Anderson shared some childhood memories of the Ely Bottling Works:

“I passed the ‘Works every day on my walk to school and I always thought it was a cool building. There was always activity and I remember the rattle of the pop cases being loaded onto the truck on the rollers.

“They had the best pop (cream soda, orange, and lemon-lime) around.  It was a real treat to have pop back in the ’60s before it became ubiquitous and bad for us.”


Share your memories by posting a comment.

Duluth’s first television station, WFTV

After posting a 1950s-era photo of Superior Street a few weeks ago that showed a sign for WFTV, Duluth’s first television station, I was curious to learn more about that operation. I did some digging in the News Tribune files and came up with this, which ran in today’s paper:

WFTV newscaster Gordon Paymar (right) goes through a test show on June 4, 1953, three days before the station – Duluth’s first – started broadcasting. Running the cameras are Lee Butkiewicz (left) and Fred Badecker. (News Tribune file photo)


By Andrew Krueger, News Tribune, June 2, 2011

It arrived with great fanfare, ushering in a technological and entertainment revolution in the Twin Ports.

But little more than a year later, it was left in the dust by more powerful upstarts, and relegated to being a largely forgotten footnote in local history.

Fifty-eight years ago next Tuesday, at 2 in the afternoon, WFTV Channel 38 started broadcasting as Duluth’s first television station.

“The opening program will mark the start of a new form of mass communication in the Head of the Lakes area,” the News Tribune reported on June 5, 1953, two days before the first broadcast. “It will make available to this area a type of broadcasting which up to now has been received on a catch-as-catch-can basis from the Twin Cities.”

From the beginning, WFTV faced an uphill battle as an ultra-high frequency (UHF, i.e. high channel number) station in an era when few existed.

Up to that time, anyone in Duluth with a TV set would have tried to snag occasional signals from distant VHF (i.e. lower channel number) stations in the Twin Cities. In the days leading up to WFTV’s first broadcast, local stores placed many ads in the News Tribune touting TV sets and antennas that could pick up the new UHF signal.

WFTV, owned by Great Plains Television Properties, took out its own full-page ad on June 5, introducing the station and its staff. “This is it,” the station proclaimed. “The big event is here. … The hard work and months of planning are now completed. … The excitement is now at its highest.”

The first show was something called “WFTV Opening Salute,” the specifics of which were not described in news accounts of the time. Next up was Billy Graham, followed later in the afternoon by footage of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, held the week before.

Early network shows on the station included “I Love Lucy,” “Flash Gordon,” “The Web,” “Dragnet” and “Philco TV Playhouse.”

WFTV program director Robert Potter (standing) and assistant chief engineer Douglas Cole monitor a test show production on June 4, 1953 at the station’s studio’s in downtown Duluth. (News Tribune file photo)

WFTV produced local news, sports and weather programs, initially hosted by Robert Potter, Gordon Paymar, Bill Kirby and Ernest Orchard. According to contemporary news stories, WFTV also had local women’s programs produced by Elizabeth “Libby” Smith; commentary from Wallace W. Hankins; entertainment from Famous, a country-western singer; and a “kiddie program” conducted by Earl Henton — who later went on to a long career at KDAL / KDLH.

WFTV’s first studios were in space shared with WEBC radio at the corner of Superior Street and Fourth Avenue West — a building that today houses Beacon Bank and other offices. In March 1954, WFTV moved to studios at Superior Street and Third Avenue East.

WFTV enjoyed a monopoly in the market for the better part of a year, but by early 1954 two new stations — KDAL, channel 3, and WDSM, channel 6 — signed on. Not only did they snag some of the top network programming from WFTV, but as VHF stations, they were more powerful and easier to receive. We know those two stations today as KDLH and KBJR.

WFTV lingered on for several more months, but on Friday, July 9, 1954, the Duluth newspapers carried word that the city’s pioneering television station would cease broadcasting that Sunday at 10 p.m.

“We find the market unprofitable,” general manager C.G. Alexander told the Duluth Herald, “and rather than spend more money, the best thing is to call it quits.”

And so on July 11, 1954, WFTV’s days in Duluth came to an end. The station that brought the Twin Ports into the age of television faded to black.

WFTV public service director Ernest Orchard (left) and program director Robert Potter, as seen in a station ad in the News-Tribune on June 5, 1953.

First day of programming

The schedule for the first day of broadcasting on Duluth’s WFTV Channel 38 on June 7, 1953, as printed in that day’s News Tribune:

9 a.m. — test pattern

2 p.m. WFTV Opening Salute

3 p.m. — Billy Graham

3:15 p.m. — TV Matinee

4 p.m. — Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

5:30 p.m. — First Presbyterian Church

6:30 p.m. — Front Page Detective and Between Acts

7 p.m. — Toast of the Town

8 p.m. —TV Playhouse

9 p.m. —Boston Blackie

9:30 p.m. — Hollywood Half Hour

10 p.m. —News in View

10:15 p.m. — WFTV Weather Man

10:20 p.m. — Sports Spindle

10:30 p.m. — WFTV Theater

Call letters live on

While WFTV went off the air in Duluth in 1954, its call letters found new life in the 1960s when they were picked up by an Orlando, Fla., television station — where they remain to this day.

WFTV assistant program director Gordon Paymar (left) and women’s director Elizabeth M. Smith, as seen in a station ad in the News-Tribune on June 5, 1953.

WFTV staff

The staff of Duluth’s WFTV at the time the station went on the air, according to a station ad in the News Tribune:

James C. Cole, manager

Robert Potter, program director

Gordon Paymar, assistant program director

Ernest Orchard, public service director

Elizabeth M. Smith, women’s director

Norman Gill, chief engineer

Douglas Cole, assistant chief engineer

Theodore Steinberger, engineer

Roger Elm, engineer

Lee Butkiewicz, engineer

Fred Badecker, engineer

Elgie Mae Carter, traffic director

Harvey Wick, film procurement director

Tony Marta, account representative

Thomas Fiege, account representative

Mildred Reed, secretary


WFTV Channel 38, Duluth’s first TV station, shared studio space with WEBC Radio in a building at the corner of Superior Street and Fourth Avenue West. The building today houses Beacon Bank and other offices. This view is from the mid-1950s and is a cropped version of the original photo; to see the full version, click here. (News Tribune file photo)

Here is an online extra – the full text of an article about WFTV that ran in the News Tribune on June 5, 1953, two days before it started broadcasting:

TV in Duluth starts Sunday


Television broadcasting will get under way in Duluth at 2 p.m. Sunday when WFTV goes on the air over Channel 38.

The opening program will mark the start of a new form of mass communication in the Head of the Lakes area. It will make available to this area a type of broadcasting which up to now has been received on a catch-as-catch-can basis from the Twin Cities.

Actually, WFTV has been on the air for a number of days already, but with a test pattern only. The test pattern has been on the air to give TV owners a chance to adjust their sets to receive UHF, the ultra-high frequency wave length on which WFTV will broadcast. That test pattern will continue on a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule until the opening broadcast.

No shadow areas

Before the test pattern went on the air, there was wide difference of opinion on whether there would be “shadow” areas at the Head of the Lakes into which the TV picture would not reach. WFTV officials said last night that so far, extensive testing has established no complete shadow areas in Duluth. They said they now have TV sets receiving the test pattern in all parts of the Duluth-Superior area.

The pattern also has been received all along the South Shore as far as Ironwood, Mich., and along the North Shore as far as Grand Marais.

The test pattern was run primarily to enable conversion of VHF sets to the UHF band. Most of the sets in Duluth prior to the coming of WFTV were adjusted only for the VHF type of broadcasting emanating from the Twin Cities.

Although it has been established that the TV picture will be received in most parts of the area, there is considerable experimenting going on yet with antennas. In some places the bow-tie antenna, or some version of it, is working best. Some owners are receiving the UHF signal clearly on their old antennas, and in a few cases the signal has come in with only an inside antenna Some isolated areas have had difficulty adjusting sets.

Schedule posted

WFTV’s regular broadcast schedule will include programs daily from 2 to 11 p.m. Sunday’s program, however, will run until midnight.

Among features planned Sunday are opening ceremonies at 2 p.m. The coronation will be shown from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

The station will carry a number of network as well as local shows, according to James C. Cole, station manager. Network shows will be carried on film, as there is no direct wire or microwave link between WFTV and the TV networks.

However, Cole said, the Duluth audience will see many of the network shows at the same time as other parts of the nation. He said most of that type of shows are prepared in advance on films and released simultaneously all over the country.

Among the shows the station will carry will be such drama features as Dragnet, The Web, I Love Lucy; drama featuring Robert Montgomery; and such kiddie serials as Flash Gordon and Rocket to the Moon. Other features will include Arthur Godfrey, Groucho Marx, the Hit Parade, Toast of the Town, the Dennis Day show and Philco TV Playhouse.

Also on film will be the “Telenews,” the daily highlights of newsreel films. “Live” shows will be produced locally and will include news, interviews, music and the demonstration type of programs.

WFTV will share two hours of its broadcast schedule with Arrowhead Television Network, an affiliate of WEBC radio. WFTV studio and tower facilities were leased from WEBC in exchange for the two hours of air time. The ATN organization will be on the air daily from 3 to 4 p.m. and from 5:30 to 6 and 6:30 to 7 p.m. The two organizations will operate independently.


And one more online extra – here is a copy of the complete TV schedule for WFTV, along with Twin Cities stations KSTP and WCCO, from June 8, 1953:

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